Princeton Theological Seminary panel discusses how polarization threatens American democracy

The first installment of ‘The Future of American Democracy’ elicits an illuminating and respectful discussion from panelists with divergent perspectives.

The U.S. Capitol (Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Witness)

(PNS) — Kicking off last week the first in what will be a series of discussions on the future of American democracy, the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary and professor of pastoral ministry, said surveys show half of young Americans believe democracy is in trouble or has already failed. One-third feel there could be another civil war in their lifetime. Among seminary students, there’s plenty of diversity of thought, Barnes said.

“About the only thing we have in common on this campus is a shared Christian faith,” Barnes said. “Jesus Christ is the one true center here, and it has long been my deep conviction that the center will hold.”

Barnes then turned those gathered in person and online for “The Future of American Democracy: The Challenge of Polarization,” featuring a panel moderated by the Rev. Dr. Heath W. Carter, Princeton Seminary’s associate professor of American Christianity. Panel members were:

Watch their 90-minute conversation here. Barnes gets things started at 14:55.

“The very idea of Christianity in the public square has come to mean something arrogant and exclusionary,” Carter said near the outset. “There are a lot of folks out there hungry for a different way.”

Carter said he hopes each installment of the series, underwritten by the seminary’s Board of Trustees, “will be broad and fair, illuminating and oriented toward truth.”

Jane Coaston

Carter turned to Coaston for the first questions: “Is there value in debating and bringing people together? How does faith draw you in?”

Raised as a Catholic, “with faith comes debate, inherently,” Coaston replied. If 12 Catholics are in a room together, she joked, “Eleven will be arguing and one will be trying to get to the parish committee meeting.”

“I have faith as a bedrock, but everything else can be questioned,” Coaston said. It was Christ himself who asked, “Why can’t this cup be taken from me?” she pointed out. “I want ‘The Argument’ to be a place where people can ask questions in good faith … I want to debate questions, not people,” but “when everything is debatable, you lose your moral spine. Culture wants to ask a lot of questions but doesn’t want to listen to answers.”

A member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, Meijer said sometimes members ask staff to leave the room for a while. After they do, “it becomes a gripe-fest. We find out we’re not so different,” Meijer said. “We’re all complainers.”

“Mutual whining is bonding,” Coaston said.

Carter wondered if political identity is becoming so strong that it’s overwhelming other identities, from soccer fan to church member. Carter asked Meijer how difficult it was for him to be the first member of any political party to vote to impeach a president of the same party.

“It was a hard decision. I knew I’d be disappointing a lot of people,” Meijer said. But “when I looked at myself in the mirror one day and said, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ a calm washed over me.”

Behind closed doors at the U.S. Capitol, “there are a lot closet normal [representatives],” Meijer said. But in front of the public, “Each party looks at the other and watches them not dealing with their weakness. They can say, ‘Thank goodness we don’t need to fix this.’”

Sanders-Townsend praised Meijer’s principled stance, calling him “a real conservative in America. We disagree on 95% of policies, but when it mattered he stood up for a vote everyone was telling him not to take.”

“What Jane said about debating issues, not people, is key,” Sanders-Townsend said. “People make assumptions about me based on what they see, not that I grew up in Nebraska going to Catholic schools.”

Coaston started her career as a sportswriter. A friend started hosting a podcast some years back and told her, “I think most people are like me and would agree with me.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer

“I said, ‘That’s the most deranged statement I’ve ever heard,’” Coaston said. “There is no such thing as the median American.”

The conversation turned to the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Sanders-Townsend was less than two blocks from the Capitol with Vice President Kamala Harris, her boss at the time, when the Secret Service rushed them to safety.

“I was there. It was bad, but it could have been a lot worse,” Meijer said. “I remember feeling something sacred was being trampled on.”

“The older I get,” Coaston said, “the less I would like to be president.”

Noting that Princeton Seminary and many others “are training seminarians to be leaders in church and society,” Carter asked what role faith communities and seminaries can play in providing avenues for constructive dialogue.

“I think people are looking in politics for the same things people used to find in faith communities: the community part, not the faith part,” Coaston said. “People drive you crazy, but [in faith communities] you see them every Sunday for the rest of your life. Many people have no real community. They have politics friends or sports friends, but no wraparound community.” Seminarians and others interested in helping build faith communities might do well to focus on places “where people can go bowling or watch a sporting event. I think that would do so much for people,” she said.

Meijer said he “could not agree more with that.” During the pandemic, “we shut down churches and sporting events and other places where people go to find meaning and entertainment. But politics was still going on, and it was a boom industry during the pandemic.” While it’s fairly commonplace for people of bad faith to spout their views to one another, “it’s harder to do that with somebody who sits next to you in the pew.”

“Let people be people,” is how Coaston put it. “Give them a community and see what happens.”

Symone D. Sanders-Townsend

“A great thing about conviction and belief is that you are open to other points of view,” she said. “You aren’t just a boat in a storm. You’re the lighthouse … I’ve gone through crises of faith, but that’s a me problem, not a God problem.”

Meijer said a person came to him a while back concerned that concentration camps were being constructed in Wyoming for Republicans. Fortunately, Meijer knew someone in Wyoming he could talk to who could dispel this person’s fears. Meijer did too, telling the person who was concerned, “No matter who’s building the camps, I’m probably going to end up in them. So, I’m very vested in making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Near the end of their time together, Sanders-Townsend said what had been great about the panel was “the authenticity that folks brought to the conversation.”

“People of faith should understand the importance of speaking up, which can absolutely make a difference,” Sanders-Townsend said. “Making a decision to organize and strategize or act could save a life, or frankly a democracy.”

“What I heard from all of you is this sense of opportunity to create communities, communities where people get to know one another as human beings with common fears and common loves,” Carter said. “That resonated across all your comments. I can’t thank you enough for bringing all of yourselves to the launch of this series.”

by Mike Ferguson, Presbyterian News Service