When Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, agreed to film an advertisement for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s “Disagree Better” initiative, he knew just who he would ask.

It was a Republican from the western side of his state, Mayor Jack Coburn of Lonaconing, who Moore had visited shortly after assuming the governorship. The town was having a water crisis at the time.

Moore said when they first met, the mayor said, “‘Can you do me a favor?’ He said, ‘Turn 360 degrees.’ So I turned 360 degrees. And he said, ‘The only guarantee that you’re getting is you won’t see a Democrat within five miles of anywhere you just looked.’”

The two men struck up a friendship despite their political differences, and Moore said Coburn taught him the importance of friendship and of showing up.

Although the governors represent different parties, Cox and Moore have also struck up a friendship, and it was what led the two men to sit side by side in one of the nation’s most revered institutions, where they praised each other, and sought shared connection despite their differences — Cox, a self-described farm boy from Utah, and Moore, the first Black governor of Maryland — and all but pleaded with Americans to do better.

They spoke at a forum held at the soaring National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., filled with more than 800 people, while another 1,800 attendees watched online. The event was called, “With Malice Toward None, With Charity for All,” and was hosted and organized by the Washington National Cathedral, the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, the Wesley Theological Seminary and Deseret Magazine.

The evening brought together religious leaders, political operatives, scholars and the two governors, all trying to model what a revival of American community could look like if people were willing to move past their anger and disagreement.

In addition to those who spoke, attendees included David Blankenhorn, head of Braver Angels, Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and a group of Scott Scholars students from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Several of the speakers were involved in the latest issue of Deseret Magazine, which was focused on solutions for the nation’s divisions.

Cox is in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association conference. He is currently chair of the association, and, like leaders before him, established an initiative to undertake. But instead of focusing on a typical public policy, Cox decided to tackle something a little less orthodox.

Democratic Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland and Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah.
Democratic Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland and Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah dig into Cox’s initiative as Wheatley Institute joins Washington National Cathedral, Wesley Theological Seminary and Deseret Magazine in organizing and hosting an evening forum highlighting Cox’s “Disagree Better” initiative in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 21, 2024. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

Why ‘Disagree Better’?

At the forum, the Utah governor explained the genesis of his “Disagree Better” initiative.

When he was growing up in Fairview, Utah, Cox said he didn’t know the politics of his neighbors.

“And then something started to change, it started to change about 12 years ago, 15 years ago, and then it just got worse and worse and worse. People started defining themselves by their party affiliation. Politics was becoming a religion for many people, and then politics infiltrated their religion.”

During his first run for governor in 2020, Cox said a friend approached him and expressed concern about the state of the country. With a contentious presidential election, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

“She said, ‘I’m worried if (Donald) Trump wins again, the left is going to burn it down. And I’m worried if (Joe) Biden wins, the right is going to shoot it up.’”

This led Cox to film a commercial with his Democratic opponent, where they said even though they disagreed, in the end they both loved their state and country. That commercial went viral, and planted the seed for Cox’s later initiative.

Moore, a combat veteran and rising star in the Democratic Party, said he agreed to work with Cox on the initiative because he “believes in it.”

“You can’t love your country if you hate half the people in it,” Moore said.

Wheatley Institute joins Wesley Theological Seminary and Deseret Magazine in hosting an evening forum on “Disagreeing Better” in Washington, D.C., on February 21, 2024. Left to right: Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, political strategist Donna Brazile, attorney Rachel Brand, legal scholar Ruth Okediji and activist Tim Shriver, who are trying to model a new kind of politics.
Wheatley Institute joins Washington National Cathedral, Wesley Theological Seminary and Deseret Magazine in organizing and hosting an evening forum on “Disagreeing Better” in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Left to right: Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, political strategist Donna Brazile, attorney Rachel Brand, legal scholar Ruth Okediji and activist Tim Shriver, who are trying to model a new kind of politics. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

Moore: ‘I believe that service will save us’

As one of his first priorities after getting elected in 2022, Moore launched a public service year option for high school graduates. Moore praised Utah, which leads the nation in volunteering and charitable giving, as an example for the service program, which is the first of its kind in the country.

Besides helping to develop job skills and prepare young people for the workforce, Moore said he wanted to create this program because “service is sticky, and those who serve together will stay together.”

“And in this time of political divisiveness and political vitriol, and where people seem to care more about where an idea comes from rather than is it a good idea, I believe that service will save us.”

Moore praised Utah for having the lowest rate of child poverty in the country, and he asked Cox how the state made that happen.

It says something about the “humanity” of the state, Moore said, “because no humane society allows children to live in poverty.”

“It comes back to community,” said Cox, adding that “it can’t be just a government solution.” He said faith-based partners, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholic Charities and other faith-based institutions in the area, in addition to private philanthropy and a dedication to service among the state’s corporate community, provide assistance to children and families.

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah and Democratic Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland dig into Cox’s initiative as Wheatley Institute joined Wesley Theological Seminary and Deseret Magazine in hosting an evening forum on “Disagreeing Better” in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 21, 2024. The event supported Cox’s initiative through the National Governors Association followed by a conversation of leaders, including political strategist Donna Brazile, attorney Rachel Brand, legal scholar Ruth Okediji and activist Tim Shriver, who are trying to model a new kind of politics. Columnist Peter Wehner joined Joshua DuBois, director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the Obama administration, to uncover how to aim higher and do better. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

Cox: ‘There are some people rolling their eyes’

It isn’t always easy to put aside differences, Cox acknowledged. Politics includes issues that can be deeply personal and difficult.

He addressed recent changes Utah made to its diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the state’s public institutions, including colleges and universities, replacing DEI programs with student success offices.

Cox said after he signed the change into law, he was approached by a friend who disagreed with him.

“I had a friend who came up to me. She’s Black, we’ve been friends for a long time. She disagreed with what was happening. She came up to me, and she gave me a hug, and she said, ‘I’m mad at you, and I love you, and can we talk? I want you to read some things.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, will you read some things?’ And she said yes. We have this friendship that allows us to do that.”

Cox said to Moore, “Look, there are some people rolling their eyes at us.” He asked Moore how he deals with those who don’t think the two sides should even talk.

Moore said by the end of his term in office, he doesn’t want people to say “we didn’t listen and we didn’t understand the assignment.”

At the end of their conversation, the two governors embraced as the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, his wife, Abby Cox, and daughter, EmmaKate, watch as Wheatley Institute joins Washington National Cathedral, Wesley Theological Seminary and Deseret Magazine in organizing and hosting an evening forum on “Disagreeing Better” in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

Fighting fear and contempt

After Cox and Moore spoke, Cox moderated a panel discussion with Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime political strategist, Ruth Okediji, a Harvard law school professor, Rachel Brand, an executive vice president at Walmart who was previously associate U.S. attorney general, and Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics and an impact scholar at the University of Utah.

At the beginning of the discussion, Cox noted that what they all had in common was they “all know Judge (Thomas) Griffith,” a former federal judge and now a Wheatley Institute fellow who was instrumental in planning the evening’s forum.

Shriver, whose mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics, said watching the struggles faced by athletes with disabilities when he was young taught him people shouldn’t be treated with fear and contempt.

“Over 30% of Americans have ended a relationship in their own family as a function of political contempt. ... It’s not that they disagree, it’s that they demonize the person,” he said.

Brazile, who was the campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, described how she started working with his opponent, former President George W. Bush, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged her home state of Louisiana.

“I found myself in a position where I knew people in the Bush administration. And rather than go on national TV and offer criticisms about the failure to get people off their roof, or not rescue people, or not provide them with water, I went on national TV and I basically said, Mr. President, how can I help?”

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, Brazile said she went with Bush and then-President Barack Obama to Louisiana, bringing “both my presidents back home.”

After a long career in politics, which Brazile said she’s enjoyed “every day” of, she said, “I pray for everybody,” describing her lengthy prayer sessions for the nation’s political leaders.

But repairing this rift in America’s culture doesn’t just involve working across the political aisle, said Brand, it also involves not defining people by their politics. We have to stop “reducing everyone” to their politics, she said. “Your life is going to be a lot richer if you’re willing to be friends with people who are not at the same point on the political spectrum.”

Brand and Okediji serve together on the board for International Justice Mission, and, before Wednesday night, both said they were completely unaware of the other’s political leanings.

Okediji said she teaches her students they have to listen to one another in order to understand each other.

Cox asked Okediji about the importance of faith-based institutions in the work of bringing people together.

“If we don’t encourage and teach and preach and pray and speak about the strength of institutions that can be gathering places for us, then we leave this generation with nothing but contempt and hate,” she said.

“These institutions are important — vitally important — because they give us hope.”

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People are ‘seeking meaning’ through politics

The final panel of the evening included the Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, Joshua DuBois, who was director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Obama, and Peter Wehner, a writer for The Atlantic and The New York Times who was a speechwriter for Bush.

Wilson asked DuBois and Wehner how people of faith should step forward to repair the breaches in American culture.

DuBois said at the root of so many of the challenges we face today are “people who are hurting, and who are broken, and who are seeking meaning in their lives.” He included in that category the “people who descended on the Capitol” on Jan. 6, 2021, and people on the left who “cancel” others.

“The place where too many people are trying to find meaning is sinking sand,” DuBois said. He added that faith leaders can “call out and name the idols” people are replacing “true meaning” with, “and then call people into something that’s more lasting.”

Wehner called on religious leaders to attend to their own communities rather than turning to politics. One of the purposes of religious institutions is to “heal wounded people,” he said, and fill the human need for transcendence.

At the end of the forum, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, left the attendees with a benediction. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who persecute you. Pray for those who abuse you. Do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you, for the measure you give will be the measure that you receive.”