Monday, December 6, 2010

My Stories, Your Stories, and Our Stories

I like stories. They go a long way to remind us who we are, where we fit, and where we're going. I don't really mean stories we learned as children or fiction we read as adults or drama we watch on television.

I'm more focused lately on the stories that we use to define identity. This is a theme I've been trying to address over the past couple of months. Identity stories are often used to divide "us" from "them".

I finished a wonderful book over the weekend, Christian America and the Kingdom of God, by Richard Hughes of Messiah University. Richard is a wonderful person, a sweet spirit, and a deep Christian. Hughes describes the history of our civil democracy, explores the periods of activity attempting to define us as a Christian Nation, and contrasts the view of Christian Nationalism with a commitment to the Kingdom of God. He is persuasive in showing the connections between biblical inerrancy, dispensational theology, and political strategy.

It's a great book and one can't argue with its logic. But I realized after reading it, and even e-mailed Richard to this effect, that those who make Christian America part of their narrative don't care about logic or the details of history. To them, being in Christian America is all tied up in who they are and how they function in the civil society. If they were to accept Richard's excellent analysis, they would be at a loss as to where they fit.

But the narrative they've tied their identity to not only isn't true historically, it's unsustainable in the present. It actually creates risk that their positions will not be taken seriously over the long run.

Let me illustrate with some recent examples; two from Oklahoma and one from California. The first illustration from Oklahoma relates to their recently passed referendum to ban Sharia law from being applied anywhere in the state. Statistics show that the total Muslim population of Oklahoma is less than half a percent. There has never been any conversation about introducing Sharia law into Oklahoma (or any other state for that matter). So what is the point? It appears to be a means of writing into law the privileged position of Christian Oklahomans.

The second example comes from Senator James Inhofe (the one who is sure global warming is a hoax). He has refused to participate in a Parade in Tulsa because it's called a "Holiday Parade." Inhofe explained to Fox and Friends that Christmas is about Christ's birth and that's what he wants to celebrate. First, Hughes' book makes clear that favoring Holiday over Christmas is not unlike Jefferson talking about The God of Nature. It is kind of religious (in a sociological sense) without being specifically Christian. That's a good thing in terms of both first amendment criteria and in creating a big tent that allows diversity. A simple Google search finds that about 1% of Oklahomans are Jewish and that the Christian population of the state (the 8th most religious) is only 65%. A Holiday parade seems to be something that would represent the breadth of folks who live in Oklahoma. So why is Inhofe offended?

The third example involved the Federal Appeals Court hearing regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that amended the California constitution to define marriage as being between only one man and one woman. The initiative passed by a slim majority (52% to 48%) and was subsequently declared unconstitutional by a state judge. Today's hearing was the federal appeal of that action. Since it was televised on CSpan, I got to watch. The proponent for Prop 8 argued that a) the CA supreme court had invalidated heterosexual marriage, b) that two-parent marriage is best for children, and c) that marriage supports procreation. As I listened to his argument, particularly after reading Richard's book, I was amazed at the narrative he was clinging to. Why would he argue that his marriage was threatened? Why does he put so much weight on "the people's voice?" Where does childrearing fit into his story? I have read conservatives like David Brooks argue that society should favor committed relationships in any form. If the people's voice is sacrosanct, what happens if the next initiative fails? Where does divorce fit in? And what about the recent surveys saying that young people, especially those with less education, don't feel marriage is necessary for companionship or procreation?

What I'm recognizing is that these stories are mythic in character. It's not that they're related to evidence or logic. They speak to what people deeply feel.

But as I've written in earlier posts, the situation on the ground is changing. The percentage of folks, particularly younger folks, who claim no faith at all is increasing. Muslims, Hindus, Arabs, Persians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Latin American populations will not only continue to be part of America, they will be more mobile than they've been in the past and many will settle in Oklahoma. Some have significantly higher birth rates which has tremendous long-term demographic implications. The flip side of the recent terrible stories of gay teen suicides is that folks are "coming out" earlier and earlier. It will be very common for today's school children to go through their school years with at least one close friend who is gay.

So our past stories will become increasingly fragile. We can choose to fight to hold on to our story or we can figure out how to write new ones.

One book I return to on a regular basis is called Primal Leadership, written by the Emotional Intelligence psychologist Daniel Goleman and some business folks. It's a marvelous book. I've not always put it into practice as I'd like, but it provides some guidance to working with others and I keep trying. The authors talk about how four domains work together to inform leadership: self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management.

I haven't worked out all the connections yet, but I'm thinking that these four domains provide us with a means of working on civil discourse and the narrative style that requires. When are we feeling threatened and why? How do we remain open while considering other positions? How do our arguments impact others? How can we put the building of civil society ahead of simply how I want things to be?

Here's what I wish could happen. Senator Inhofe would be invited to the Holiday Parade. His first reaction would be discomfort that his Christmas Parade had been retitled. He would need to talk to leaders about why Christian components of the holiday season was important to him. But he would also need to be reminded that for many people in the parade, Hanukah might be significant and for others, simply celebrating family is enough. It might be possible then to see how a narrative could be created that brought all these differing views together as a celebration of community and what makes Oklahoman life so wonderful. (Maybe I'm pushing things, but I have friends in Oklahoma and giving the benefit of the doubt!)

What we need is a more vibrant, more versatile, and more variant approach to narrative. To truly go back to our founding as a country. This is where we find story. It's in what Alexis de Toucqueville found when he toured America in its early years -- a diverse people who were able to build a common story. Not by holding to the stories from the Old Country (well, a little bit, but that became hard to maintain) but by writing new story.

One more thing. Next Monday is the official launch of a group I've joined called NoLabels.Org. It is an effort by politicians, journalists, and civic leaders to return to a form of civil discourse that isn't defined by party or political labels. I'm excited to be a Founding Member. I wish I could go to New York for the big launch event (I looked into it but the schedule didn't work). But I'm hopeful that by working with those different from me we can craft the new narratives that have the resilience required for today's challenges.

Anyone else interested in delving in some Creative Writing?

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