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The right (and wrong) way for pastors to help the country heal

Amid growing political violence, faith leaders should emphasize religious teachings on human dignity and love, experts say

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An angry crowd storms the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

People storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6 2021.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

A month before the 2020 election, I took a break from campaign coverage to read an essay about the problem with reading too much political news.

The piece, written by scholar Arthur Brooks, said well-being suffers when you get caught up in political conflict. It’s best to consume political news in moderation and mostly think about something other than policy debates, he wrote.

Brooks’ piece popped into my mind last week as I prepared to tune in to a Brookings event titled “How Faith Leaders Can Help America Heal.” I worried the speakers would encourage pastors to talk about political conflict from the pulpit, thereby enabling political news to dominate yet another gathering space.

To my relief, the speakers took the discussion in a very different direction. Rather than ask for sermons on the U.S. Capitol riot or Bible studies timed with congressional hearings, they urged faith leaders to create opportunities for people to volunteer alongside those with whom they disagree.

“Where we can agree, let’s work together. It’ll build a relationship that may help us to overcome differences and misunderstanding and polarization,” said Melissa Rogers, who serves as the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

She and other speakers also told pastors to do more listening than speaking. Amid rising partisan tensions and lots of cultural changes, people need the space to share their anxieties and fears, they said.

“Dialogue built on mutual respect and listening will be such an important part of how we will heal our society and our world,” said Richard Coll from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

When faith leaders do take the microphone, it should be to remind people of core religious teachings that call us to treat each other with kindness and respect, said the Rev. Cassandra Bledsoe during the Brookings event.

“We must love one another,” she said.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson emphasized this same teaching in a recent column about conflict threatening the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Religious groups — and, indeed, the whole country — suffer when people of faith diminish the dignity of their political enemies, he wrote.

People of faith “are called to stand for the idea that every human being is created equally valuable in the image of God. And when Christians cease to take this commitment seriously — when they give in to tribalism and prejudice — one major support beam for a just society is removed,” Gerson said.

If I had to summarize what all these smart thinkers would ask faith leaders to do in the months ahead, I’d riff on a famous line from the movie “Fight Club.”

The first rule of ending political conflict is you do not talk about political conflict. Instead, you talk about love.

Fresh off the press

When I covered the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the Equality Act in March, I was struck by the many (competing) claims being made about how the bill would affect churches. Republicans argued that houses of worship would face lawsuits over everything from seating arrangements to restrictions on priesthood. Democrats pushed back, saying churches would still be free to go about their work in peace. Last week, I finally took the time to dig into the debate.

Term of the week: Amici

Amici is the commonly used, shortened version of the Latin phrase amici curiae, which means “friends of the court.” It refers to the policy experts, organizations and academics who file legal briefs outlining their perspective on lawsuits and how a court’s eventual ruling could affect their work.

I often refer to these documents, also known as amicus briefs, in my articles on Supreme Court cases. For example, in my coverage of a recent battle over campus speech policy, I talked about how unique it was for the ACLU, Catholic Church, American Humanist Association and Council on American-Islamic Relations to each file briefs arguing for the same outcome.

What I’m reading...

I’m worried some of you will yell at me for including too much Equality Act news in this edition, but I had to share this Christianity Today story on how tricky it is to conduct polls about efforts to add LGBTQ rights protections to federal civil rights law. Researchers could get more accurate results if they included information about religious concerns in survey questions, but that can get unwieldy, the article notes.

Tennessee policymakers are working on a constitutional amendment that would enable ministers in the state to run for office. They’re not as interested in undoing a ban on atheists entering elections, according to The Conversation.

The Biden administration said last week that it’s prepared to defend federal education funding laws against a lawsuit filed by students who believe faith-based colleges shouldn’t be exempted from anti-discrimination rules. However, officials later added that the laws in question are currently under review, according to NBC News.

Fans of “VeggieTales” should check out Relevant magazine’s (humorous) exploration of the complex theological teachings that guided the show.

Odds and ends

The famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro is undergoing restorations right now, and the architects and climbers tasked with completing the work have been treated to some amazing views. While reading about the renovation project, I learned that the statue is struck by lightning around five times per year. Wild!

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately on walks with my son, so I’ll start sprinkling some recommendations into the newsletter. This week, I want to encourage you to check out “Saved by the City” from Religion News Service, which is about evangelicalism, feminism and being faithful in New York City. I especially liked the episode on matchmaking.