Interfaith and government leaders gathered together at St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington on March 30 to discuss ways to create unity in the country. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, were among those in attendance.
The symposium began with Mass in the Abbey church, celebrated by Archbishop Pierre, and continued in the library where the interfaith and government leaders sat in a circle to dialogue.
In his opening remarks, Abbot James Wiseman said the main point of the symposium was to recognize there are divisions “within my own Church and in other religious groups,” as well as within our country.
He invited a variety of perspectives to come together at the symposium, with at least one person who campaigned for each presidential candidate in the 2016 election in attendance, but reminded everyone that it is “not the purpose to debate points or gain converts to our own point of view,” but rather to understand the differences and the steps toward healing the “raw and often angry feelings that have erupted in our country in recent months.”
To begin the discussion, Cardinal McCarrick reminded the crowd that there is “so much disunity in our world, not just in our country.” To heal, he said, “We need to examine the pains and the sufferings of our people.”
Through all of the problems that are present, he said there is one line that runs through them all: the question of what we do about the poor. Cardinal McCarrick encouraged everyone present to remember, “we can never forget the poor.”
David Stang, a retired lawyer, expressed the concerns of the rural poor by reading excerpts from a letter sent from his friend in West Virginia who was unable to attend. In her letter, she expressed a variety of concerns held by long-time West Virginia residents, such as the fossil fuels policy that led to many coal mines closing, with few options for jobs in other industries that have moved overseas. In turn, she said thousands of West Virginians have been forced to move out of the state, while undocumented immigrants have moved in.
The woman also expressed concern about the Affordable Care Act, saying that the premiums have become unaffordable, leaving many people without healthcare while paying penalty taxes for not being able to afford it.
Toby Roth, a former member of Congress (R-Virginia) who campaigned for Donald Trump, relayed the concerns that he heard from people in rust belt states. In a conversation he had with a man from Pennsylvania who used to be a Democrat, the man said he works hard in his shop, fixing motors, then pays taxes so “you bums can waste my money in Washington.”
The reason why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders did so well is because people like that man see politicians in Washington making hundreds of thousands of dollars for a half an hour speech, Roth said.
“Donald Trump was not elected because of Donald Trump,” Roth added. “He was elected in spite of Donald Trump.”
The election was not between Republicans and Democrats, Roth said, it was between “the people pulling the wagon and the people sitting in the wagon.”
Michael Lemmon, a former ambassador to Armenia, recounted a conversation that he had with a longtime friend when they disagreed over politics, and it was the first time that his friend had gotten mad at him in their 55 years of friendship. The way to avoid these types of conflicts, he said, is by “listening with the ear of the heart, without condescension, without being patronizing, but with real humility, love and respect.”
The attendees also discussed the role that social media plays in the current political climate. Now, political discussion is more personal, and “when something becomes about your person, your essence, it becomes a very different thing than a boring policy discussion,” said Frank Ruppert, a scholar of the German and Austrian Enlightenment.
And, by receiving news from like-minded people on social media, the country is becoming segregated and the discussion has changed, added Laura Kennedy, a retired Foreign Service officer.
Members of the symposium debated the merits of political correctness, which Stang said many people dislike because they see it as a way of stifling free speech and saying if someone doesn’t agree with certain beliefs “we are going to castigate you and punish you.”
Imam Yahya Hendi, the director of Muslim life and chaplaincy at Georgetown University in Washington, offered a different view of political correctness, telling a story about his son, whose classmate said to him, “I’m not going to be politically correct; you Muslims are evil.”
“The victims are American Muslims and people who look like them,” Imam Hendi said. “This is why I became American – to be able to express myself as I see fit…but with freedom comes responsibility.”
Imam Mohamed Magid, the executive imam at the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia, also told a story about his family. One of their neighbors had a Trump campaign sign in his front lawn and an American flag hanging in front of his house, as he is a veteran. One day, someone vandalized the sign and tore the flag, so his wife called over to see what had happened. After speaking with their neighbor, his wife, who Imam Magid pointed out is African American and wears a hijab, gave the family one of their extra flags and ordered a new sign for their lawn so the family could continue to express their views freely.
In contrast, he does not feel that his family’s free speech is being respected. While he used to pray in public frequently, he does not any more.
“I’ve never felt unsafe until now,” he said.
Archbishop Pierre spoke of the importance of responding to suffering with reality, not with ideology. “What we heard this morning is different suffering; suffering which is deep and very, very real,” he said. If politics reduces to imposing one’s ideology over someone else’s reality, then “we are lost,” he added.
Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, agreed with the apostolic nuncio, saying, “If we don’t embrace the sincerity and depth of those feelings, we are never going to find common ground.”
One place where Michele Bond, former assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, thinks everyone can find common ground is a commitment to the future of their children. Immigrants have given up their status in their home country to travel to the United States for a better opportunity for their kids, and the grievances of many people in rural or industrial areas are that they do not have hope for the future of their children, she said.
“Economic insecurity is a big part of this. We need to find ways to make people feel more secure and make them feel like they have a future,” said Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, the deputy director of Jews for Justice. “Poor white folks should feel they have allies in immigrants.”
People view the economy as a zero sum game, or a pie with a limited amount of slices, Rabbi Richman said, so “people feel under threat by people who are also under threat.” To move past this, she added that it is “critical to put people directly in relation with one another and tell stories.”
“It is very hard to keep your heart closed when you hear those stories,” she said.