Princeton Theological Seminary hosted an in-person and live-streamed panel discussion on “The Future of American Democracy: The Challenge of Polarization.”
Panelists and participants alike were invited to consider how it affects Christian communities and contributes to every American’s inability to sustain the U.S. government, regardless of their political affiliation.
The first in a yearlong series of such discussions, it was convened and moderated by Heath W. Carter, an associate professor of American history.
The panel featured the prominent voices of Symone Sanders-Townsend, a Democratic political strategist and commentator, U.S. Representative Peter Meijer (R-Michigan) and Jane Coaston, a columnist for The New York Times and host of “The Argument.”
“Why do a series here at Princeton on the future of American democracy?” Carter asked in his opening remarks, which shared part of his hope for the series before opening the panel discussion.
“For me, it’s because I think for countless Americans, the very idea of Christianity in the public square has come to mean something arrogant and exclusionary,” he said. “I think these associations are understandable given the developments of recent years but those are developments … that have deep roots in the longer history of American Christianity. But I also know there are a lot of folks out there who are hungry for a different way and the good news is our tradition has resources.”
“Right now, we are living in a country where people are literally moving away from people they disagree with. We shop in different places. We go to church in different places,” Carter stated, before inviting Coaston to speak to how her faith draws her into debate.
Questioning if it were possible for persons who disagree to sit down and talk it out, Coaston said, “With faith comes debate.”
Sharing that she was raised Catholic, Coaston said that debate is inherent, adding a joke for levity but also as a dose of reality: “If you have 12 Catholics in a room, you have 11 people arguing and one person attempting to get through the parish committee meeting.”
She reminded the audience that debate and faith are a part of the Christian tradition and set the tone for the spirit of debate, saying, “There are issues. Then there are people. … I don’t want to debate people. I want to debate issues.”
Sanders-Townsend shared her experience of a debate at Politicon in 2017 with Tomi Lahren, a conservative political commentator, where they did find agreement around some issues.
However, when she was asked to debate Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial British commentator, Sanders-Townsend said, “There are many conversations I am willing to have. … White supremacy is a line for me. I believe we have to have a line.”
No happy medium, “no easy center,” Coaston assured the audience, both are nonexistent.
Speaking of her podcast and her decision to invite guests with differing opinions, Coaston explained, “It’s not that we’re coming together and we’re going to take our opinion, divide by two and that’s the answer.”
After Coaston provided a strong argument for why some things are not debatable and called for a “moral core, a moral spine,” a full discussion across the political divide ensued as Sanders-Townsend and Meijer discussed bipartisanship, the insurrection and the future of American democracy in clear and demanding terms concerning a way forward.
Speaking about bipartisanship, Meijer said: “If one side is saying we need to build the bridge and the other side says we don’t need to build the bridge and the consensus, you know, split the difference: build the bridge halfway. That can result in the worst of possible outcomes.”
“It becomes better than nothing,” he said, because you still must work within the constraints of a flawed system.
Meijer shares the frustrations of working together and the reality that both parties share the same grievances, which Coaston described as “mutual loathing.” Sanders-Townsend agreed saying, “Bringing people together since 1776!”
For the members of the panel, that was not up for debate.
Author’s note: To watch a recording of the full panel discussion, click here. To sign up for updates on the series, click here. The next panel discussion, “The Church in a Nation Divided: Perspectives on Faithful Leadership Today,” will feature the voices of Melissa Florer-Bixler, Duke Kwon and Bishop Karen Oliveto.