Seeking common ground: Interfaith dialogue goes beyond evangelism

Op-ed about interfaith dialogue published in The Collegian on Nov. 11, 2011.

The Washington D.C. Mormon Temple is among the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

I had the opportunity to visit it last summer. Although I live just miles from the building, I had never stopped to see it for myself before. The sheer white walls and golden spires literally sparkled in the sunlight and the grounds around the building appeared otherworldly – encompassing almost every color imaginable.

The highlight of my visit, however, was not the splendor of the building but the beauty
of Jesus Christ. Visitors to the Temple are met by a majestic statue of our Savior and surrounded with quotations from Scripture and plenty of warm, smiling faces. These things, along with the beauty of the Temple itself, reassured and encouraged me in my belief in a God of overwhelming love and beauty.

Had I begun my visit focused on how Mormonism diverges from what I believe to be orthodox Christianity, my experience would have been far less valuable.

I think it is the same with interfaith dialogue. It is unfortunate that the whole concept of interfaith dialogue has become somewhat discredited, often associated with pluralism or secular humanism. It is not that such connections are never warranted – Christians are wise (and obedient) to be cautious when they deal with other religions, and many alleged interfaith” attempts are little more than a disguised mockery of religion altogether.

But just as often, I see Christians (including myself) engage in a “conversation” with non-believers that lacks sincerity. They do not try to learn and do not ask honest questions; the “dialogue” is just subtle deception with proselytizing as the ulterior motive.

But there are useful ideas, even truths, to be gained from an honest exploration of other faiths. For students pursuing a liberal education, it is necessary to try and understand the doctrines of other religions before discounting them.

John Fischer alluded to this during chapel three weeks ago. Though he did not specifically mention interfaith dialogue, he encouraged the student body to seek common ground with the secular culture, and to build trust and honest relationships with nonbelievers in the process. Edification, he said, can be found outside of the Christian subculture.

In the same way, interacting with those of other religious beliefs should be an honest and humble endeavor. It is important for Christians to guard themselves from deception by recognizing the differences between Christianity and other faiths. However, focusing on those differences can blind Christians to the beauty and truth other faiths can offer.

Practically, Christians should refrain from judging the truth or merits of another faith before they fully understand it. I know little about Mormonism, and I am told many different (and contradictory) things about it from friends and mentors. But that day at the Temple, I learned from the Mormons that Christ is the Redeemer and is the only name by which one can be saved. I could not argue with this.

To apply John Fischer’s challenge more directly, I believe that it is fair and prudent to recognize the truth of other faiths wherever they align with our own. Mormons, for example, uphold Scripture as God’s revelation to man. Islam likewise mandates a reverence before God.Followers of Christ should not fear such honest evaluation and dialogue. We engage each other in this manner often at Grove City College, where denominational differences rarely get in the way of friendship and mutual understanding.

But on the flipside, there is no reason to fear being honest about where other faiths differ from our own and where we believe they fall short of orthodox Christianity. Because their God is the only true God, Christians should not fear mingling with those of other faiths nor avoid honest dialogue with Muslims, Mormons, Jews and others. Through such interaction we can proclaim the kingship of Christ.

What better way to conquer the world for Christ is there than to view everything – even the relics and symbols of other faiths – as a testament to Christ’s glory alone, capturing all truth for his name?

Nothing Short of Crisis: A Front-Row View of America’s Energy Conundrum

Reporting on 2011 National Summit on Energy Security held in Washington, DC. Published at Townhall.com on July 14, 2011.

Global oil supply is severely disrupted by a crippling attack on a key Saudi oil processing facility. Crude oil prices spike to $160/barrel. Economic recovery efforts in the United States face severe setbacks as gas prices near $6/gallon and pressures to address the growing national debt continue to be heard from around the world. Shock and confusion consume global financial markets, and the threat of further attacks is looming.

How do the US government and global markets respond? One can only speculate. But at today’s National Summit on Energy Security in DC, industry leaders and former government officials weighed in, participating in a realistic, war-game simulation of the above scenario.

Titled Oil ShockWave, the intense simulation featured several high-level former cabinet members and energy industry leaders, including former national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and former Shell Oil CEO John Hofmeister. Playing the parts of top current cabinet-members, the participants offered their opinions and debated as to the best course of action to take to best preserve both the nation’s security and its already-fragile economy. The simulation was complex and realistic, as even the participants were not briefed beforehand.

Needless to say, the event made for an exciting morning. Watching high-ranking officials skillfully respond in “real time” to a crisis of this magnitude was encouraging, while the shocking but realistic facts of the scenario provided a subtle reminder that there is only so much government can do when faced with a crisis of such magnitude.

But by far the most significant take-away from the morning was the brief but mortifying glimpse of the truly fragile place the United States occupies in regards to energy security.

According to the Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), the United States is the world’s largest oil consumer at 19.1 million barrels per day (compared to runner-up China’s 9.1 MBD). The US transportation sector alone consumes more than the total consumption of any other single country in the world, and total global consumption is only increasing as demand in emerging market economies is growing rapidly. Couple all of this with today’s oil price volatility and the fact that the United States imports about half of the oil it consumes, and the security of America’s energy future looks very grim indeed.

In the short-term, it was agreed that there really is little that can be done to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Developing domestic sources of oil and alternative energy technologies will take years, and there is currently no viable alternative to oil to meet America’s energy needs. If a crisis as the one described above (which was entirely believable) were to occur, especially with the national economy still in recovery-mode, the economic ramifications would be life-altering for millions of Americans.

But regardless, the Oil ShockWave participants were in unanimous agreement that waiting for a crisis to happen before acting is unacceptable. Though forced to respond to this simulated crisis last-minute, they commented afterwards on the folly of doing nothing during periods of relative stability to lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil. “They key is education…sustained, honest dialogue with the American people” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Deputy Treasury Secretary.

Former Shell CEO John Hofmeister reaffirmed this, but added that as much as Americans may want to develop green energy technologies, such innovations will likely be unable to meet America’s energy needs for years to come. “The pathway to the green economy should not be paved at the expense of hydro-carbon power,” he said, explaining that allowing a recession to occur now because of a refusal to deregulate America’s domestic oil industry is too high a price to pay to achieve the green technologies of the future.

The participants’ overall consensus was clearly summarized by Stephen Hadley after extended deliberation: “We need a comprehensive energy policy going forward so we can get off this corrosive dependence on foreign oil.” Though a severe energy crisis would certainly induce the public support necessary for significant action to be taken, waiting around for a crisis to happen is neither responsible nor wise. Deregulating the country’s domestic oil industry and encouraging the development of green technologies are both necessary if the United States is to avoid a crippling energy crisis.

But the most eye-opening moment of the event came during the question and answer period, when an audience-member who had attended the first Oil ShockWave simulation in 2005 noted that the consensus of the participants in that year was no different than the conclusions reached today. And back then, the “oil crisis” came about after a disruption in supply caused a spike in crude oil prices to the then-unthinkable (but now all-too-familiar) price of $100/barrel. Five years and two different administrations have failed to produce any real progress toward securing America’s energy future, and there is little talk today of achieving any real reform.

As Ambassador Susan Schwab noted, when it comes to America’s looming energy crisis, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” For decades now, Americans have known about their over-dependence on foreign oil, yet inaction remains the status quo.

Learning by Listening: Every perspective deserves to be heard

Op-ed about the value of dissenting opinions and the importance of a free marketplace of ideas. Published in The Collegian on September 2, 2011.

At Grove City College, much unites us. Whether devotion to Christ or a love for Sherri’s omelets, it is no secret that our student body is made up of many individuals who have many things in common.

But while this unity is indeed something to be treasured and preserved, there is an unfortunate downside to living in a community marked by such harmony: the tendency toward an attitude of self-reinforcement, one that suppresses dissenting viewpoints in favor of preserving the camaraderie many of us have come to love.

In 1972 psychologist Irving Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive ingroup, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Applied at the time to smaller groups of policy-makers, the concept pertains to even the largest of human associations – including college campuses.

Groupthink is by no means unique to the College, nor is the problem more significant here than at other schools and organizations. Indeed, I think that Grovers are, by and large, far more thoughtful and open-minded than many suppose. But at a small school, especially a religious one, opinions and beliefs diverge from the “norm” not only stick out, but are often too easily written off as mistaken, misguided or just plain inferior.

I don’t think it is even necessary to explain why such an attitude is detrimental to achieving a truly liberal education. When dissenting views are not taken seriously, education becomes useless.

But the real harm in such thinking is not only found in academia. The continued ignorance of alternative views, even if unintentional, can leave entire cultures with huge intellectual blind spots. And in the modern age of “majority rule,” blind spots like these can have devastating and widespread consequences. Indeed, not too long ago the ideas of women’s rights, racial equality and even academic freedom were unthinkable to the majority of Americans, who had long regarded the claims of rights activists and abolitionists as erroneous.

If there is ever a time to discover our cultural and intellectual blind spots, it is now. In college, mistakes are confined to letter grades. But when it comes time to apply what we’ve learned in a way that will directly affect our fellow human beings, blind spots and oversights can be very costly indeed.

In 1943, political journalist Isabel Paterson during the height of what would become the bloodiest war in human history, famously observed that it is not by our mistakes that we cause the most harm to our fellow human beings, but by our refusal to test our own beliefs and presuppositions.

“Most of the harm in the world is done by good people,” she wrote, “and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends…when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced … oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world … it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.”

So whether discussing gender roles or the war on drugs, no viewpoint ought to be flippantly labeled as inferior or heretical thoughtful consideration. Though disregarding “outlandish” ideas can be conducive to establishing group solidarity, the cost of doing so is too high.

In the same vein, while it is wise to draw upon the work of professors, clergymen and other of our intellectual betters, simply pointing to their conclusions to reinforce our own opinions is not sufficient. Even the most brilliant thinkers face staunch opposition from others as smart as they. No opinion ought to be considered above criticism. As Solomon wrote, “Wisdom is with the humble.”

This is why Perspectives is here. It exists not to stir up dissent, incite anger or invent scandal. Rather, it is a platform whereby we, working together, can discover where we fall short, and what we can learn from each other’s diverse and varied experiences. Any and all opinions are welcome.

Compassionate Conservatives and Libertarians: Is there hope for a union?

This article was originally published by ValuesandCapitalism.com on April 24, 2012.

How are compassionate conservatives and libertarians different, and is there any hope for a union in 2012?

That was the subject of a debate last week between libertarian Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, and self-described “compassionate conservative” Dr. Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine. Hosted by Grove City College and sponsored by The Center for Vision and Values, I had the distinct privilege to attend this event as a student at GCC.

I could not have been more disappointed.

At Grove City College, the conservative-libertarian divide is very stark. While for decades, Grove City College has been known as one of the most politically (and culturally) conservative colleges in America, the “Ron Paul Revolution” of the past few years—coupled with the school’s increasingly popular Austrian/libertarian economics department—has shed revealing light on what most see as a petty, futile debate over largely insignificant details.

Perhaps this was the reason for the topic of this year’s Kibbe-Olasky debate. As we approach an important presidential election, many are worried that the conservative movement will be too splintered to defeat President Obama—especially considering the sharp differences between libertarian ideology and centrist Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

But regardless of the reason for the debate, the event itself suffered from the same deficiency that plagues almost every other discussion about the libertarian-conservative divide—a failure to address the critical issue: property rights.

Forget what you have been told in the past about libertarians as libertine, hedonistic, “Atlas Shrugged”-toting brats. Indeed, that is not philosophical libertarianism, but an unfortunate social fad. Philosophical libertarianism rests on the non-aggression axiom and upholds property rights as inviolable. Philosophical libertarians (ought to) argue that no one has the right to transgress against the property rights of another human being.

Government is not exempt. Just as it is wrong for me to steal my neighbor’s wallet, it is wrong for the government to confiscate a portion of my income. Property rights are supreme, and no collective body of people—no matter how large—can “vote away” the property rights of any single other human being.

This is where compassionate conservatism and philosophical libertarianism differ. And this is the only place where they differ.

Unfortunately, this was not the subject of last week’s debate. Instead, I was subjected to an hour of anecdotes, stories and clever quips that did little to reveal the fundamental difference between libertarians and conservatives, and thus did nothing to further any understanding between adherents of the two ideologies.

Perhaps most frustrating was Mr. Olasky’s predictable defense of the family and beneficial social institutions that he claimed would not exist were we to all function as rugged libertarian individuals. This portrayed his gross misunderstanding of the difference between libertarianism and conservatism, and Mr. Kibbe was quick to correct him. Only childish libertarians will argue that social institutions are themselves the product of the state and would not exist in a “libertarian utopia.” Grown-up libertarians like Kibbe know that it is natural and good for human beings to voluntarily associate with one another. Indeed, survival would be impossible were it not so.

Additionally, the discussion was almost devoid of any serious economic evaluation of the two philosophies. I don’t blame Kibbe or Olasky for this—time was limited. But it is easy enough to convince a crowd that providing tax benefits for families and non-profits is beneficial social policy without examining the often-detrimental effects that “tax-exempt” status has on charitable giving in America. And sometimes the economic analysis can be damning, rendering any discussion about the benefit of policies like tax credits for families, for example, totally pointless. These economic discussions must be held. Unfortunately, many social commentators lack the economic understanding to seriously address these concerns.

There is much more that I can say about this debate, what it reveals about the conservative-libertarian dispute, and the general conservative-libertarian divide at large. I will leave those to another post. But suffice it to say that unless both libertarians and conservatives come to realize that their point of difference is property rights, we should not expect any progress or movement toward political union.