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(Watch, Listen, or Read) Nurturing Democracy with Religious Diversity

A Conversation with Chris Walsh and Bill McKenzie
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Richard Helppie  

Hello, welcome to The Common Bridge, I'm your host Rich Helppie. We've got a couple of very interesting guests today, Bill McKenzie and Chris Walsh. Since we've gotten into lots of political topics and policy topics, why not just take on religion a little bit, the things that people tell you not to talk about; we're going to talk about them here. We're going to talk about them in a fiercely nonpartisan way and we're going to talk about building bridges. Again, for the listeners, readers and viewers of The Common Bridge, you know we're trying to find common ground wherever we can. This very human thing, the faith, the belief in something beyond this earthly life, the kinds of practices that give people guidance and moral clarity has led to much love much acceptance as well as wars fought over it, we've seen extremist terrorist attacks - most recently, Hamas in Israel. Our guests today have co-written an essay called "Making Space for Different Faiths is Important in a Strong Democracy." That's what we're going to talk about today. So gentlemen, welcome to The Common Bridge. I'm happy that you're here.

Chris Walsh 

Great to be here.

Bill McKenzie 

Thank you.

Rich Helppie

Our audience likes to know a little bit about our guests. I don't know who would like to go first - Chris, or Bill - but tell us a little bit, what were your early days like, what was the arc of your experience, education and work that led you here today?

Chris Walsh   

Bill has a more interesting story than me, he should go first.

Bill McKenzie  

Only because I have more years. I grew up here in Texas in Fort Worth, went to University of Texas. I kind of stumbled coming out of college but ended up working in Washington DC for 12 years. One year I spent working for John Anderson's 1980 presidential campaign, and then spent ten years editing an opinion journal with a rip on society, a moderate Republican group. Came back home, like all Texans, and joined the Dallas Morning News editorial page and was there for 22 years. Got to know a rising politico named George W. Bush, who was at that point president of the Texas Rangers and so watched his career closely during those days. Then joined the Bush Institute in 2014 as senior editorial advisor now, helped launch our magazine, "The Catalyst," and work here with Chris on the series we're calling the "Pluralism Challenge."

Richard Helppie  

Great, well, welcome to The Common Bridge. Chris, that is a hard act to follow there but tell us a little bit about yourself.

Chris Walsh  

I'm glad you think so too. I grew up pretty far away from Texas - where the Bush Institute, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, is located - on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is not as glamorous as it may sound. For those of us who are native Cape Codders it was not a vacation destination. I went to a school where everyone looked like this, as scary is that is to picture, not a whole lot of different perspectives. A very Catholic community, which I myself am, and I knew that growing up there, what I wanted to do is - I love Cape Cod, my family is still there - I wanted to do something different. I wanted to meet and engage different people. I went to Washington DC to study international relations, got a job  right out of college with a place called the International Republican Institute. And despite the name, it is nonpartisan, working to support democratic values and democratic governance around the world. That gave me a tremendous opportunity to meet different cultures, people of different backgrounds and faiths, to hear remarkable stories of courage for those struggling for their own freedom and their own human rights. Then a boss of mine, who was at the International Republican Institute, left to come here to Dallas to work at the Bush Institute. He asked me if I wanted to join. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts I never expected to be in Texas ever, never expected to be working for a former president, let alone a Republican president. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and it has been a great thrill working on some of our freedom and democracy programs here. As Bill mentioned, most recently looking at this challenge of pluralism, specifically here in the United States and why it matters so much to our democracy.

Richard Helppie  

Well, great. Look, we have both of the major parties trying to channel people into these narrow beliefs. We hope that people will listen, even people that have supported one candidate or another. Bill, of course, I like the John Anderson story in particular. I think across the spectrum we have people that understand we've got some really serious challenges as a country, but we still have a country populated by generous, compassionate and kind people. Religious pluralism, can you just talk to our audience about the basics; what is it, why is it important and how can we go about achieving it?

Chris Walsh   

Well, I'll start quickly by taking a step back before we go to religious pluralism, specifically, I don't think you can talk about that until you talk about pluralism; what is it and why does it matter? In fact, one of the things that set us down this road of exploring pluralism and making the case of why it's so important to our democracy, started with a survey from a group called Philanthropy and Action for Civic Engagement, I believe that was the name. They did a survey looking at different terms, in terms of democratic governance, or democratic society, and the term that was the most outstanding in a bad way was pluralism. What we found in that survey was that 40% of people had never heard of the word pluralism. Another 40% said, well, either pluralism is not a great thing, or I just have a neutral feeling towards it, and only about 19% said it was something good. That got us fairly worried. I mean, if you can't understand what pluralism is and why it matters to a country of 330 million very different, very quirky people, I think our democracy is sunk. We define democracy as a social tolerance for people of different faiths and backgrounds and geographies and ethnicities and races all working together in the framework of our American democracy. We have a certain set of values and common founding principles from which sets up the United States of America.

Richard Helppie  

But wait a minute, Chris. Chris, I think this is a little confusing, because I as I look at some of the established media ecosystem, I hear two things:  that one group wants to "own the libs," which I think means put them on a leash, and the other side says, hey, we have to "wipe out" something called MAGA. You mean we're all trying to live here under one roof with something as personal as religion inside of pluralism? That's kind of an unusual view and we've watched those on one extreme or the other - through reason, through threats, through social ostracization - try to drag somebody across. It doesn't seem to work very well. But in the religious context, you recently wrote the essay...and by the way if you don't mind, how can our listeners readers and viewers access your essay? Where can they go to get more information?

Chris Walsh  

Sure, they can go to the Bush Center website, www.BushCenter.org, and look up the Pluralism Challenge. You'll see a series of essays that we've done, including the religious pluralism one.

Richard Helppie  

Okay, great. Religious pluralism, what is it and why is it so important to include that as one of them? How can people go about achieving that, given all the turmoil in the world and the passions around this?

Bill McKenzie  

I will jump in here. Well, the need, I think, is pretty obvious. I think we can look at headlines and pretty much come to conclusion that we need to figure out some way for people to be able to express their differences without tearing each other apart. Certainly, when it comes to religion, we have some of the same tensions and the same conflicts. So what are the conditions that would give rise to people being able to share their views? They don't have to change their views, nobody's trying to convert each other. In fact, I would say one of the primary findings we came across in our research in talking to lots of different groups who practice pluralism, religious pluralism, is that the deal is done the moment somebody thinks you're trying to convert them. What you're trying to do is to understand somebody else's point of view, express it, respect it. Chris and I spotlighted a number of different groups in this essay, but one I'll mentioned here, the Multi-faith Neighbors Network, which combines leaders of the three major Abrahamic faiths who meet regularly. Chris and I went to one of their gatherings here in North Texas at a local Bible Church, where Pastor Bob Roberts has made this his calling, which is how do you get leaders of these three faiths together, as well as people who adhere to those three faiths, and be able to express their views and have a common dialogue and respect each other. So they have events, they have small group discussions, they share meals together, they work on projects together. That is, I think, a great example of where nobody is converting each other, but they're learning to respect and hear each other. I think that is obviously very important in our world today.

Richard Helppie  

 I'm really encouraged by that, because I bought my clothes for years from a dear friend of mine, who is a devout Jewish man, very observant, and the tailor in the same building is a devout Muslim and I, myself, am a Christian and we've known each other for decades. We know about each other's families and we chat with each other. At that very tiny, individual level, there doesn't seem to be a problem but the more I start to unwrap some of the religious doctrine in preparation for this interview...look, Christians believe in making disciples of everyone. That's a basic tenet of Christianity. Muslims may believe that converting others to Islam is a religious duty, and synagogues have well established practices to support conversion to Judaism. In that context, what have you been able to witness or hear about in terms of finding that pathway to acceptance and stopping short of trying to change someone's beliefs? That seems to be a pretty narrow walk there.

Chris Walsh  

I think what those faiths will find - and I don't think this will be of any surprise - is that pathway to conversion will not be successful, particularly in a democratic republic which emphasizes various freedoms and abilities to associate with who you please. Bill used the example of this Multi-faith Neighbors Network, their complete emphasis is - in fact, the reason they use the word "multi-faith," if I'm not mistaken - is to understand that these faiths are co-existing together and when you engage in dialogue, it is about understanding, it's about explaining your views and your opinions. It is not about conversion, and that if you've set about the conversation or the dialogue with conversion as the goal, you're likely going to be unsuccessful. But the beauty of something like this Multi-faith Neighbors Network is it brings together these different faith communities - in their communities and there are chapters across the country - and it gets these communities talking to one another, it gets them helping in non-religious matters. It also allows them to satisfy their curiosity where they can ask questions about the other faith in an environment where they feel safe and they don't feel stupid or dumb or offensive, where everyone is on the same page. We think that's really valuable.

Bill McKenzie  

I would say, Rich, in a secular society, you have room for all three. We interviewed, not for this piece, but for a previous piece we did for a series called "Democracy Talks," where we interviewed Eboo Patel, who is the founder -and Chris correct me on the name of this organization because it changed - it's Interfaith America, I think, now. His point is that each gets to express their own views, each gets to hold their own views, and each gets to live out their own views. That's what happens in a secular society where you have this opportunity to do it. He also pointed out something - and we came across this in various people we spoke with - the importance of having shared projects. So you mentioned having your tailor, the person who sells you clothes, Patel mentions hospitals as being a really great example where you may have, surprisingly, religious pluralism in effect. You may have a Jewish doctor, you may have a Muslim who is the anesthesiologist, you may have a nurse who's a Christian. What are they there to do? To get you well, they're there in a common undertaking, you may see that. Here in Dallas, we've got Methodist Hospital - I live two blocks away from it - people of all different faiths, they're trying to, I guess, cure people, work, treat people, take care of people.

Richard Helppie  

Again, the title of your essay is "Making Space for Different Faiths is Important for Democracy." We hear so many people saying, well, democracy is the way we want to live. We want to have some kind of self determination and yet resolving these conflicts for that strong democracy, I would imagine that's a barrier and at some point, if that barrier is held too closely, that could result in extremism. Is there any link between people going past the democratic structures and only going to their religion that leads to extremism or is it something else?

Bill McKenzie  

Well, I would say if we stop listening to each other, which is a key part of this - being active listeners - you probably will get to that point. But if you're intentional about this; you're intentional about collaborating on a shared project, you're intentional in trying to understand the other person's point of view, religious point of view, then you will not go to the wall, if you will. But you probably will if you are not willing to engage in that public sphere, common sphere, where you're trying to understand each other.

Richard Helppie  

I like the structure you put in your essay gentlemen; you're here to listen, not rebut. You want to be genuinely curious and respectfully listening as the first pillar of religious pluralism. Look, I think most reasonable people would agree that religious pluralism would be a good thing. But who benefits from religious division, who stirs this up in us that makes it difficult for us to achieve this?

Chris Walsh  

Well, it could be anyone. I'm not going to call it a specific group, because that could change depending upon the dynamics of politics at the time. For maybe an unsatisfying, but more broad picture of what that group might be, I think it's a group that's focused on the short term, who's not thinking long term. I mean, I know that we often, with these noble ideals and principles and values, try to appeal to the better angels of human nature, which we should do, but let me appeal to the selfish angels of our nature. If you have a system where one religion is oppressing another and you're okay with that, you're comfortable with that, perhaps you're in the majority, you're assuming that your tribe - or whatever you want to call it - group religion will always be at the top of the pyramid. And I think history, if it's shown us anything, is that societies change and fall and the dynamics within a civilization will be turned on their head. That is why I would advocate for a system that allows all of these different groups to practice their interests, their beliefs, their religions, throughout perpetuity. That's why I would argue that democracy - liberal democracy - is the best form of government, it's the one that's going to secure those, not just individual rights, but group rights as well. If your religion is unpopular, you're still protected. If someone wants to boot you out, you have legal rights, you have legal avenues to pursue, you have the Constitution protecting you, you have a democratic culture protecting you. That's why I would argue for the importance of religious pluralism.

Richard Helppie  

I'm glad you brought up the Constitution because we do enjoy a freedom of religion and freedom from religion. I mean, the framers did a great job with this. Look, accepting that someone else has a faith does not diminish my own. I have been to services of various faiths and we can always find some common ground. In your essay I was really struck by your talk about the four stages of multi-faith relationships:  the Other, competition, conversion, collaboration. I thought that was a really succinct formula. How did you guys get to that and how was it received when you talked about it?

Bill McKenzie  

Well, that is actually, I think, coming from Pastor Bob Roberts, who talks about these four stages that he's seen going through [it], which I think makes a lot of sense. When you look at your own individual experiences, or you look at what happens in the world, you can kind of see those four stages playing out. The rest of your question was...

Richard Helppie  

How is it received when you talk to people about it?

Bill McKenzie  

Well, I think what is received is, I would say, a surprisingly widespread sense that the importance of going through the mechanics, if you will, of religious pluralism, we - Chris and I - interviewed several groups here in North Texas, one [called] Friends For Good, and they come from various different places on the religious spectrum, they commit to meeting regularly. They have meals together, they have small group discussions that are led by somebody who's having a direct discussion, so it is not just free-form, but it's all working through these different parts of practicing pluralism.

Richard Helppie  

This past week, The Wall Street Journal had an opinion column, it said Dearborn, Michigan is the Jihad center. Look, I've done business in Dearborn. My last office was there in a prior life, I have family members that go to school there. We interact regularly with people of different faiths so I don't know what he's talking about unless it's underground, and there's no big Jewish community in Metro Detroit. It's curious to me that a credible reporting source like The Wall Street Journal would write something like that, instead of maybe getting on an airplane and visiting to see what's actually going on here. One of the things I talk to people about when they start attacking another group and "othering," I'll stop them and I'll say, how many people like that do you personally know? And more often than not, it'll be well, none. Well, then how do you know it's true? Well, I saw a television program report or whatever, and I go, okay, do you trust the people that wrote it? Were they trying to entertain you, inflame you, or inform you? Well, probably trying to get me angry a little bit. All right, now can we unwrap this a little bit. It seems to me that you gentlemen were kind of at the tip of the spear of trying to get more dialogue over more conflict. When I read your essay...you wrote this prior to the Hamas attacks in Israel, and you gave some thought to not publishing the piece, then you decided to. Can you tell our audience about what you were thinking as you wrote it, the events of the attack from Hamas, and then your decision to publish? This, I think, is a very fascinating part of what you guys have been up to.

Chris Walsh  

Well, I think...let me offer some thoughts and I'm sure Bill can add a little more context or if I leave out something. But I think when we were looking at this our primary concern was actually a little selfish, in that we did not want to be seen as taking advantage of this horrible tragedy that inflames a lot of passions of good people, and who have very different views and very different perspectives on this decades, centuries old issue. What we wanted to do in writing this and delaying it was to say we want to at least see if tensions can cool down a little bit. We didn't want to be, right at the outset, trying to promote these ideas when there are people suffering, both Palestinians and Israelis. I think we waited a couple of months and then we said we still believe that we should publish this piece. And even though the series, the Pluralism Challenge, has been focused on America specifically, we saw all the connections. I mean, you saw this on the campus protests across our country; Palestine versus Israel. What we did...there was some insight that was provided by New York columnist, David French, who we interviewed several years ago, where he said...what was his quote...basically that classical liberalism and pluralism are the greatest civil war avoidance mechanisms ever created by the mind of man. We tend to agree, probably not a surprise. And we still believe that despite all the turmoil in the Middle East, despite the strong passions and emotions here in the United States over that issue, that pluralism remains exactly what David French called it; a civil war avoidance mechanism. It is the system that will allow us to get through these divides, at least here in the United States - probably more complicated in Israel and Palestine. But even in Israel and Palestine, if we want to create a durable and sustainable peace where the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians are respected, pluralism is going to be a piece of that.

Bill McKenzie  

We spoke with one leader while we were wrapping this up and and considering how and when to publish it, and this person made the comment that people are searching for the day after - the day after the conflict ends, the violence ends. We get it, we know that there's violence going on and this isn't just going to happen miraculously overnight. But if you're thinking about the day after, that day after can be a long period of time. These are the types of fundamentals you need to bring greater stability out of this tension.

Richard Helppie  

What kind of feedback have you gotten about your essay?

Bill McKenzie  

Well, we're just sending it out now and we're getting it [on podcasts] like with you in this podcast, we've done other podcasts. We're getting it out today on Real Clear Religion. We're sending out the op-ed pieces, sending it out to our various channels here at the Bush Institute. The people that I've heard from, just more on a personal basis that I've sent it to, is that they're glad we're doing this and they're glad we're saying it. So we haven't encountered the push-back, which that's okay, it would be good to hear if somebody is pushing back against us because that's kind of what pluralism is about.

Richard Helppie  

Like the old Beatles song, try to see things my way, we can work it out. I think if you take what you're doing to its Nth degree we could have a grand outcome. I mean, there's always going to be tension in the world but for Pete's sake, we can get along. There's a lot more in the essay. I encourage my listeners, readers and viewers to find it:  "Making Space for Different Faiths is Important in a Strong Democracy" written by William Mackenzie and Chris Welsh. It's a serious topic for a serious time as we're sitting with war raging in the Middle East, with religious roots to it. And our country continues to be the greatest place in the world where people can practice the faith of their choice. As we come to our close today, gentlemen, is there anything that we didn't talk about today that you'd like to relay to the listeners and the readers and the viewers of The Common Bridge, or any closing comments for us, please?

Chris Walsh   

Maybe I'll just throw out a few quick thoughts. First of all, thank you again for the opportunity to talk about this, Rich. I never know how people will react to this, I don't know if it's unpopular but I think it's important to say when we talk about pluralism - we got into this a little bit earlier but to be crystal clear - this is not people of many colors and many nations and many backgrounds saying and singing the same song in unity. Pluralism is all about differences. It's all about disagreements but it's how we navigate those differences. What that means is, I think a lot of times we go into some of these discussions with an idea that we're very righteous and maybe my opinion is right and I just need to talk to these people and convince them that my point of view is correct. When we come away with disagreement, we get upset, we get angry, because how could these people not see the correctness of my viewpoint? Then we start to say, well, if I'm so right and they're wrong, and I'm good, maybe they're evil. I just want to emphasize that it's okay - in fact, it's good for democracy - when we disagree, even in matters of ultimate concern. When we're talking about religion, we have a system that allows us to co-exist and to practice our faiths on parallel tracks even if we really don't like what the other people are doing. We can still disagree and we can debate and we can criticize in a respectful and civil manner. But at the end of the day, those other religions, those other groups, they have the right to exist, as long as they're following constitutional and legal safeguards.

Richard Helppie  

Great. Thank you very much, Chris. Bill, any closing thoughts for the audience of The Common Bridge?

Bill McKenzie  

I would say to your listeners, take heart. Certainly, there's a lot of conflict in the world, certainly we get that there's a lot of polarization. On the other hand, there are a lot of points of light - if you will, to borrow from another Bush, from George HW Bush - around the country in local communities. We've discovered this in our other essays we've done, one of which dealt with localism - pluralism at the local level, or politically, seeing it at the college campus level. We're seeing this in different groups that we come across, that they're practicing pluralism, they may not grab the headlines every day, but they're there. They're trying to strengthen their communities and they do so by agreeing to disagree and not tear each other apart.

Richard Helppie  

Thank you very much. We've been talking today with Bill McKenzie and Chris Welsh about their very thoughtful essay, "Making Space for Different Faiths is Important in a Strong Democracy" and lots of other types of pluralism. It's very difficult to disagree with it because the entire thesis is let's listen, let's respect and let's all co-exist together. Gentlemen, thank you for being guests on The Common Bridge, and for our listeners, our readers, and our viewers, this is your host, Rich Helppie, signing off on The Common Bridge.

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