By Sharon Kant-Rauch
DEMOCRAT FAITH EDITOR
When Pastor Rick Warren was invited to give the invocation at President-Elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, gays and others on the left raised a loud and vociferous chorus of protest about Warren’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
Some on the right were also offended – they say Warren isn’t conservative enough and shouldn’t share the stage with someone who supports a woman’s right to choose.
It’s exactly that kind of political polarization that Liz Joyner and The Village Square, the group she helped found, hope to break. For more than a year, Joyner has brought Democrats and Republicans together every quarter for dinner and what she calls “civilized” conversation – no name-calling and yelling allowed, just thoughtful, engaged discussion.
At Tuesday’s dinner, a bipartisan panel will tackle a particularly thorny topic: Faith in the Public Square.
“We seem to be living in a time when we’ve stopped talking to people we disagree with . . . and we aren’t having good conversations about things that matter,” Joyner said. “I think we can do better than that.”
On Tuesday, Joyner said, she is going to tell the panelists to fight like the Founding Fathers.
“Have a real discussion, but do it with civility and grace.”
The relationship between the co-chairs of The Village Square – City Commissioner Allan Katz and Tallahassee Community College President Bill Law – provides one example of the possibilities for dialogue. Katz, a Democrat, and Law, a Republican, have different views on how to solve social problems, but during periodic jogs together and informal monthly get-togethers, they’ve learned to respect and trust one another’s judgment.
“We come from different places, but we realized that just sitting down together with our talking points wasn’t going to get us anywhere,” said Katz, who will act as moderator for Tuesday’s panel discussion. “We had to be willing to really listen to what the other one was saying.”
Lea Marshall, a Republican who has attended all of The Village Square dinners, said she goes to listen to the speakers she supports. But she often comes away with some truth from the other side.
During the last dinner, for example, which took place before the election, one speaker said that people who believe that only “their guy” could save the country were verging on idolatry.
“That made me look at the election differently,” Marshall said. “The take-home lesson didn’t come from the person I originally went to hear.”
Ken Connor, one of Tuesday’s panelists, said it was important to create a calm atmosphere where people have a chance to listen to the merits of an argument. Connor, an attorney, is the former president of Florida Right to Life and the author of “Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty.”
“If the volume is loud and the face is red, there is little opportunity to convince and persuade one another,” Connor said. “Sounds to me like what The Village Square is saying is ‘Look, we want people to have equal access to the marketplace of ideas.’ I think the outcome of that discussion will demonstrate that some ideas are better than others.”
Connor’s fellow panelists include:
W. Dexter Douglass, an attorney who has practiced Florida law for half a century, was the lead counsel for Al Gore in the infamous “Florida Recount” of 2000 and is a 16-year member of the board of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.
The Rev. Allison DeFoor, who served as vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 2002 to 2006, is an Episcopal priest who works in prison ministries and an environmental consultant who has served as director of the Florida Audubon Society and president of the Florida Land Trust Association.
Leo Sandon, a professor emeritus of religion and American studies at FSU, longtime religion columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and ordained Presbyterian minister.