Today, at long last, is the Iowa Caucus. After months of presidential candidate news feeds that have left the American people anything but well-fed, the political process finally makes it to first base and votes will actually be cast. A caucus is not a only the opportunity to cast a vote for a preferred candidate, it also opens up the possibility for people to engage one another in dialogue about the issues of the day, gathering in common voting locations such as schools, fire stations, city halls and churches. We might want to be hopeful that these neighborhood conversations can generate more learning and listening than their prime-time television counterparts have, because dialogue is what we have been in need of for some time.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a young imam interviewed by NPR today shared how impoverished the dialogue of the American people has become these past few months of this oftentimes vitriolic campaign for President. He described how he often encourages members of his faith community not to pray publicly during air travel and that he assures female believers that it is permissible for them to remove their head covering until they arrive in the airport at their destination. ‘For their own safety’, he says. The imam, Hassan Selim, who as the father of two little girls is keenly aware of the kind of country the next generation might live in, describes the exhaustion of always having to explain himself in public, always needing to allay fears based merely on the way he or other Muslims look, an endless act that can never seem to shake off the tendency to lose something important in translation.
The U.S. has had a long and laudable history of being a place on this Earth where people of any background, any belief system, any sense of self might have the opportunity to be received, not only by the government of this nation but by its people. Yet from the earliest encounters between one people and another on these shores, this negotiation of difference has struggled to respect the dignity of the other that real dialogue requires. From the Spanish and later the English settlers to the myriad of nations which made their way to the States via the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, the meta-narrative of the great American melting pot has always had to contend with the difficult work of making space for the other to be their true selves. For the shadow side of the American Dream where anyone can make a fresh start of life within the land of liberty is the story of the struggle against systemic oppression and the promotion of fear witnessed in the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African labor, the segregation of African Americans and the marking out for difference of Muslims today.
We remain a people in need of honest dialogue, and never more so than when the country steps to the polling booth to elect its next leader. How then might churches, and the people who make up their communities of faith, be brokers of such dialogue, of exchanges between people that will refuse to allow the true voice and identity of the other to be lost in translation? As an Episcopalian, one of the fundamental tenants of the faith of our tradition that has the potential to support honest and real dialogue is the baptismal covenant which calls on all of the baptized to respect the dignity of every human being. It is a small line in a lengthy set of words, and can almost feel like a throwaway aphorism of the sort that equates ‘loving your neighbor’ with smiling at passers-by on the sidewalk. Yet at its heart, if the commitment to listen for, to be attentive to, to accommodate the worldview of, and to engage in authentic relationship with those around us is an ongoing and undeterred practice in society, then a seemingly innocuous line can become a subversive element, a postcolonial turn that has the power to undercut the bigotry and banality of what constitutes much of the public debate on what we make of our diversity as the American people. In spite of all appearances, public life in this country is in need of serious people with a thoughtful and subtle attentiveness to the complex issues facing not only this nation but our world. As people of a faith tradition who have enjoyed the privilege of freedom and status in this society, churches this election season have the opportunity to encourage their congregants to be the voices that will encourage ‘we the people’ to ensure that all of the people get a place at the American table.