The Common Good
February 2013

Crossing the Belief Divide

by Julie Polter | February 2013

ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God's Heart. Zondervan. / Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Beacon Press.

IT WAS AS if the poison of the rancorous 2012 campaign had seeped into our social groundwater, tainting family gatherings, Facebook feeds, church coffee hours, and workplace lunch rooms. In my lowest moments I pictured an election-result map rendered with myriad fractures, like windshield glass—a nation of particles and fragments, held together, barely, by begrudging surface tension.

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How do those of good will find productive and respectful ways to talk about important civic and moral issues when a significant number of people view their fellow citizens as enemies?

Two recent books, by radically different authors, explore how to stay committed to your principles while reaching out and even finding common cause with those who live and believe differently.

ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God's Heart, is by Jim Daly, president since 2005 of Focus on the Family. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is by Chris Stedman, the assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and an activist in atheist-interfaith engagement. Daly leads a conservative evangelical institution that has been a major player on the Right in the culture wars of the past three decades (including around what Focus would term the "homosexual lifestyle"). Stedman is a young gay atheist who was once attacked by thugs who shouted Bible verses as they tried to shove him and a friend in front of an oncoming train. And yet both men argue, from both pragmatic and ethical grounds, for actively and respectfully engaging those who hold different beliefs.

The difference between Daly and his predecessor, Focus founder and culture gladiator James Dobson, is hinted at in this chapter title: "We're Not Entitled to Run the World." As Daly writes early on in ReFocus: "you should know that this isn't a book about what's going badly in the culture, but rather one about how Christians should respond to it. ... Are we more concerned with shaping the debate than we are with shaping and refining our own attitudes toward the world?" Daly argues that conservative evangelicals are called first to love, compassion, and humility.

Focus has not, of course, radically shifted its positions on things like marriage equality or abortion. Daly believes that both "God's design" and "social science research ... affirms the wisdom of the traditional one-man/one-woman marriage." But, noting the dramatic increase in societal acceptance of same-sex marriage, he asks, "If our current methods are failing to stem the tide of public acceptance, shouldn't we consider the possibility that the Lord is calling us to engage in a different way?" Likewise, Focus remains committed to overturning Roe vs. Wade, but Daly also argues for a two-track approach, maintaining the legal battle while reaching out to those on the pro-choice side to seek ways to reduce the abortion rate, such as promoting adoption.

Some Focus supporters have sharply criticized Daly for even these fairly modest steps away from "warrior mode," or others, such as signing on to the "Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform" last summer. Liberal critics might chalk up some of his shifts in tone to strategic pragmatism in the face of changing demographics. But with its emphasis on scripture and personal humility, ReFocus communicates, from within the boundaries of a conservative Christian worldview, the sincere desire of a true believer to challenge himself and others to follow "a still more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31).

CHRIS STEDMAN'S book, Faitheist, a spiritual autobiography with a nontheistic ending, traces Stedman's journey from his evangelical conversion as an adolescent, then into Lutheranism when conservative teachings and his sexual orientation became irreconcilable. He entered Augsburg College expecting it "to be a time of spiritual growth that would set my call to ministry." Instead, gradually, Stedman discovered that he simply didn't believe in God anymore; he describes himself as "insufferable" for a time in his derision toward others' beliefs.

But as his commitment to atheism deepened, so did his interest in understanding religious people, their stories, and their beliefs. He realized his attitude had been "defined by caricature and critique instead of humility, honesty, and open-mindedness." Stedman decided to concretely "bridge the vast divide between religious communities and the nonreligious." In an unusual move for an atheist, he entered seminary and also began working with Interfaith Youth Core.

Some atheists' aggressive hostility toward religion frustrates Stedman (although he notes that as a small minority in the U.S., atheists also receive some hostility). For Stedman, secular humanism intrinsically involves care for people and service to society—goals that are incompatible with bigotry of any kind. And so his book is a hand of friendship offered to people of faith and no faith. Not just to make nice, but to make ways for people with very different motivations to serve others and build justice together.

The message of combining passionate, principled belief with humility, love, and respect toward others is not new. But in this contentious age, for two people as far apart on the religious and political spectrum as Daly and Stedman to choose to deliver it is notable, and perhaps a sign of hope.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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