Danforth Dialogues set model for civil discourse

New online video series sponsored by Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, Brookings Institution will focus on issues that tend to divide

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for greater civility in political discourse for years. Many Americans, however, would agree that U.S. politics are continuing to grow more divisive, particularly when religion enters into the mix.

A new series, co-sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is aimed at addressing these realities by bringing public leaders together to delve into respectful, personal discussions about issues that tend to divide.

The online video series, called the Danforth Dialogues, are mediated conversations between two reflective people with distinct and sometimes contrary opinions on a topic. The idea behind the series is to demonstrate how persons with profoundly different views can engage each other forcefully and respectfully.

For the purposes of a thoughtful, focused discussion, no audience is physically present at the dialogue site. All dialogues are viewable online and archived so that they may contribute to larger public debates on the subjects under discussion and provide models of civil discourse. The intent is to produce one dialogue per academic semester.

The first of these discussions took place Oct. 3 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

Former Sen. John C. Danforth moderated the discussion between Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat and Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican and Evangelical Christian from Indiana.

After some discussion about the culture of Washington, the senators shared how personal religious beliefs shape their political commitments and views on public issues. They also talked about the challenges of remaining true to their faith while honoring the nation’s commitment to religious liberty.

Near the conclusion of the dialogue, Sen. Casey remarked: “There’s a great hymn in the church, ‘We Are Called to Act with Justice.’ The refrain goes on to say, ‘We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly, to serve one another and to walk humbly with God.’ If members of Congress focused on those four things, we might be better off.”

The Danforth Center is a new center based at Washington University in St. Louis that is committed to the idea of a democracy in which Americans can address potentially divisive matters without falling into contempt or secession. As explained by Founding Director Wayne Fields, “We believe it is a civic obligation to explain ourselves to one another, to be willing to speak and to listen, and to work and live together despite our disagreements.

“We think it of utmost importance to address our differences openly and civilly because the issues raised by our religious and political convictions speak to the very core of our citizenship and basic humanity,” says Fields, PhD, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English and professor of American culture studies, both in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University.

R. Marie Griffith, PhD, the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, is current director of the center.

To view the Oct. 3 dialogue or for more information about the Danforth Center, visit rap.wustl.edu/features/dialogues-coats-casey/.