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Big Sort Dinner at the Square slideshow



Robert Putnam: American Grace

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by legendary political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on his new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Putnam, he’s probably best known for Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in which he observed – metaphorically – the rise in the number of bowlers but the drop in the number of bowling leagues as an indicator of a sociological trend in American public life. Our modern life has been marked by a steep decline in social, civic and fraternal organizations that have been foundational for the functioning of our democracy. He distinguishes between bonding capital (with groups that are like-minded) and bridging capital (with diverse groups across divides… like The Village Square). Read all »



Half right isn’t good enough

As part of a story on Nevada politics (and not the central point of the story), last night Rachel Maddow commented on Republican Sharon Angle’s advertising campaign against Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid. “His opponent had a ton of money. She used that money to blanket the state with brutal over-the-top ads accusing Harry Reid of everything short of murder, and she only just stopped short of that.”

This is absolutely and completely true.

Uh, half true.

Here is an Angle accusing Reid of paying for Viagra for sex offenders:

But what Rachel failed to mention was that Reid was responsible for an ad accusing Angle of siding with domestic abusers over the women they abuse:

If we’re going to call people out for bad behavior, we need to call them out consistently rather than only when they’re on the opposite site of the aisle. If we don’t, we continue to misinform the half of the American population on our side of the aisle and fuel the fury making it awfully hard to have a real conversation.



Ross Douthat: On airport security, we’re partisans first, ideologues second (we wonder when we become just Americans)

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times about the inconsistency of the argument on the new TSA airport body scanners given the ultra partisan environment today. The article certainly supports the notion advanced by our next Village Square Dinner at the Square guest Bill Bishop that we have been sorting ourselves out into “tribes” for decades now and that the pull of group think within those likeminded groups (and the lack of trust between “tribes”) is very very strong. Noticing that partisans have taken quite opposite and ideologically inconsistent positions under different presidencies (whether it’s your party’s or not) Ross Douthat writesRead all »



David Brooks: It’s really about whether you believe in the founders’ vision of equilibrium or not

David Brooks channels Village Square in Monday New York Times op-ed:

“For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character). Read all »



Washington Post: “Widening disconnect between the polarized political system and less-polarized public.”

Why’s this happening? According to the op-ed’s author Robert Samuelson:

“First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist “bases” for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger). But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans’ positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often “too liberal.”

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to “save the planet,” “protect the unborn,” “reclaim the Constitution.” When goals become moral imperatives, there’s no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they’re immoral. They’re cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three. Read all »



Sunday at the Square: How Religion Divides and Unites Us

Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, is out with a new book that’s of interest to Village Square-ish thinking. Co-authored with David Campbell, American Grace seems to make many of the arguments our organization has advanced about division in America: To the extent that we can have positive interactions with our neighbors – regardless of how different they might be on matters of faith – we seem able to put aside differences in favor of community. From the New York Times:

…the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension. Read all »



Living the narrowcast, baby

Fascinating article in today’s Washington Post that hits on the problem The Village Square is trying to solve:

The increasing polarization of cable news is transforming, and in some ways shrinking, the electoral landscape. What has emerged is a form of narrowcasting, allowing candidates a welcoming platform that helps them avoid hostile press questioning and, in some cases, minimize the slog and the slip-ups of retail campaigning.

“There’s no question it’s contributing to the splintering of the political system and the means by which people get information about that system,” said Robert Thompson, who runs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “If there’s no standard base line of fact and reporting, where can the conversation go?”

Love to hear what people think, both sides of the aisle. Read the whole article HERE.



Kathleen Parker riffs on why NYC helps her understand the partisan divide


Since syndicated columnist and co-host of CNN’s new prime time Parker Spitzer mentions us from time to time, it seems only right for us to return the favor (although must admit we have a few less readers). Here Parker makes some insightful points about how we find ourselves on opposite sides of the partisan divide, more akin to city mouse vs. country mouse than anything to do with party politics:

This is fundamentally where Democrats and Republicans face off. At what point is the common good bad for people?

Many so-called Everyday Americans who live in the oft-maligned red states essentially are people who live in more-open spaces and, therefore, see little need or benefit for government management of their lives. The frontier may be nearly gone, but the person who prefers wider horizons will have little use for bureaucrats bearing the latest government how-to (or how-not-to) document.

Those who have opted to live in densely populated blue areas need third-party authorities to maintain order and figure they’ll trade a little freedom for the convenience and cultural riches of city life.

These are completely different orientations toward life in general and the role of government specifically, and I’m not sure the two can be reconciled. City dwellers will never understand the folks who prefer the company of trees, and country folk will always resent the imperious presumptions of urbanites who think they know best.

Read the whole article HERE.



Bob Schieffer on 9/11: Then and Now



Fire and Water in Florida

Fire came one sunny September morning to America nine years ago tomorrow. It was bright and blinding and so unexpected that even these many years later we can barely look directly at it.

Fire spreads.

When radical Islamists chose to set fire to America, the consequences – human nature being what it is – were probably to some extent predetermined: There would be more fire.

Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong writes in The Battle for God that extremism of one ilk exists because extremism of the other does. Extreme action on one side provokes an equal and opposite extreme reaction on the other. And so it goes, with many flavors of homegrown extremism having taken center stage since the 9/11 attack. Tomorrow’s installment of extremism, straight from central casting, was to be a ceremonial Quran burning. (At this writing it’s been suspended but it is not yet clear if “suspended” really means canceled in what has inexplicably become a Muslim/Christian he said/he said. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Outside of burning California hillsides, fighting fire with fire doesn’t really work. Most people with a stake is seeing a fire put out use water instead.

In the days after 9/11, in one of the innumerable searching conversations happening in the American family, my brother (a military man well acquainted with “fire”) imagined how he wanted America’s reaction to play out: We’d capture Bin Laden alive, then bring him back to New York City, get him a good lawyer and put him on trial. Then, in the darkest and least civilized corners of the world, that America would ensure such a man a fair trial in our abiding commitment to the rule of law would shine a light so bright that the forces in the world that build would irrevocably trump the forces that destroy.

My brother was describing water.

That conversation – and more generally the tragedy of 9/11 – were no small part the genesis of what would eventually become our Tallahassee Florida go at dousing the fire with water by building The Village Square.

But fire is flammable and demands attention and 50 members of a congregation a couple hours south of us has been getting international news coverage by pouring gasoline on it (by using water, The Village Square is lucky if we get covered in local briefs). Fire is hot, fire sells newspapers.

When asked to speak about The Village Square, I’ve been known to lament that we’d be a national mass movement by now if our events involved statements of outrageous fury instead of thoughtful moderation. It’s simply the elemental difference between fire and water. This week Terry Jones and his Gainesville church have proven my theory as even the Vatican weighed in on their intemperance.

Other efforts at extinguishing fire with water get equally short shrift compared to the fire starters, such as this group of national religious leaders who got a big yawn from the media as they tried to advance moderation in the face of the planned event in Gainesville.

America is – at her best – the perfect solution to fire, both at home and elsewhere in the world. Our founders were students of human nature and prescribed an effective system to balance extremism. It’s tragic when we can’t rise to the call of our birthright because we’re stuck in an equal and opposite reaction to the horrible extremism of that day nine years ago. We may not quite know it, but we are in a unique position to shine that light my brother described all around the world in multitudes of ways that dampen the fires. Maybe welcoming a mosque near ground zero is just such a moment when a country with a really Big Idea shines a really big light?

My daughter is a junior at the University of Florida. She says there is a rumor going around campus that the football game being played tomorrow in Gainesville (91,000 people in “The Swamp”) is the target of a bomb threat. News yesterday was that the FBI says there are credible retaliatory threats. And so it goes: Extremism begets extremism.

General Petraeus knows fire and water and equal and opposite reactions. He said of the plan to burn Qurans: “We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib that they would in a sense be indelible.”

Indelible is a good word for what people do with fire.


Please note that we are waiting for a statement of support for The Village Square from the Vatican.

Liz Joyner is the Executive Director and co-founder of The Village Square.

(Fire photo credit. Water photo credit: Raymond Larose)



Rhetoric that’s good for ratings, bad for the trajectory of our civic dialogue

Today on the radio Glenn Beck said that Americans are about to lose their religious freedom. He was actively rallying the forces to prevent it. Perhaps someone who agrees with his sentiment could help those of us who say “huh?”

There is a valid argument that legal secularism has overreached in working toward a “naked public square” (a term used by Christian writer Os Guinness, theologian John Neuhaus although I’m not clear of its genesis), removing faith from our public spaces, rather than aiming for a public square where all faiths – and no faith at all – are warmly welcomed into a rich conversation. The second option allows for the “constant clashing of opinion” that our Founders envisioned as a check on excess in the majority.

But the suggestion that there are vast and sustained efforts to subvert Christians’ religious freedom doesn’t seem to hold up. A drive through town on a Sunday morning paints a vivid picture of religious diversity and freedom, alive and well in America.

Overreaction on one “side” of an argument inevitably leads to an equal and opposite overreaction. Greater than the risk that Christians, though they are the vast majority of us, will lose their religious liberty is the risk that this sort of white hot rhetoric overshoots the mark enough that it will actually create what it fears. If you’re of a minority religious view, a wall of angry Christians coming at you (especially if you are not aware of any action against them) does little to make your religious liberty feel secure. Then you, in turn, feel the need to defend what you perceive as an assault. And so it goes, on and on in likely escalation if we don’t mind the exaggerations that come out of our mouths.

And this kind of “die on the hill” rhetoric also does what C.S. Lewis refers to as making “black blacker” as it creates an aggressive, powerful and villainous foe out of a largely disorganized minority of people. Read Lewis HERE.

While we’re on this topic, take a look at our We the Wiki Faith & Politics space. Feel free to add a topic and toss in what you think is important. Opposing views, when expressed with civility, are warmly welcome.



On election day in my neighborhood

Before all of our events, we plaster the town with posters so people know what we’re up to. That includes grocery stores, public bulletin boards, churches and your living room if you’re willing. We get all sorts of responses to the plastering, from warm welcomes to recitations of no-poster policies.

A couple of years ago we took a poster for Faith & The Founding Fathers to a large conservative church in town. I thought that was a safe topic and – as always – we want to invite as wide a diversity of opinion as we can to the table. Staff there said, as churches and some businesses usually do, that they have to get the OK of the pastor. A couple days later I got a call that it wasn’t approved and that I could come by to pick up my poster. I thought it was particularly kind and respectful of them to bother to call me back to get my poster (and wasn’t likely easy). Read all »