During Spring Lobby Weekend 2021, Alicia and I led a workshop on finding F/friends in unlikely places and lobbying those who disagree with you—a relevant workshop given the diverse young adult perspectives we brought into 144 congressional offices (65 Republican and 79 Democrat) to lobby to end police violence. We shared new skills for communicating across political divides, practicing seeing that of God in people despite disagreement, and building relationships to make change in Congress.
This is a technique of persuasion, not a call to let go of our own values in favor of respectability.
Let me be clear: this is a technique of persuasion, not a call to let go of our own values in favor of respectability. For me, this approach breaks the status quo of speaking past one another in advocating for public policy. It’s also akin to what Friends may know as speaking and listening in tongues—a kind of spiritual translation that helps us find meaning behind the words of a message shared in meeting for worship—or, in this case, a lobby visit.
We look forward to offering this workshop for deepening faith-in-action as one of FCNL’s virtual ministries for Friends meetings and churches. If you’re interested in bringing this or another FCNL workshop to your Quaker community, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read on for more of my reflection on connecting across political divides in Quaker lobbying.
Storytime: Friend or Foe
I used to know a legislative staffer for a conservative member of Congress from North Carolina. Over the years, I lobbied him on immigration, food security, and police reform. On my first solo lobby visit with him, I came in hot, arguing that military-grade equipment and weapons have no place in our local law enforcement agencies; that they cause more harm than good and contribute to violence and inequity in our society.
Little did I know, he was ex-law enforcement. He called me a socialist liar, asked me how I would like it if I was a law enforcement officer on the receiving end of bricks and flaming Molotov cocktails but was denied adequate protective gear and firepower to defend myself and civilians from terrorists, criminals, and rioters.
That meeting ended abruptly. I fled the office and paced the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building, alternating between discomfort, hurt, and rage. It was a painful interaction that left me disillusioned.
Thinking about it afterwards, though, that discomfort taught me a valuable lesson and left me with a set of philosophical questions: How could I have had that conversation more effectively? What did I need to know? What did I need to say?
Seeking That of God in People Who Disagree with Us
My search for a faithful and practical approach to having effective conversations across political differences led me to the work of Karen Tibbals, a Quaker dedicated to the work of depolarization. Her approach blends theoretical, practical, and spiritual frameworks for guiding persuasive conversations. Building on the work of social scientists and Quaker activists, she adapts and proposes an evidence-based step-by-step process for engaging with people who don’t agree with your perspective: moral reframing.
Even as a people divided by politics and religion, we share a common set of moral foundations.
Social science research on moral psychology has revealed that even as a people divided by politics and religion, we share a common set of moral foundations. All of us draw on a set of five similar moral foundations—or values—to inform our thinking about what’s right, what’s wrong, and why. What differs? People of different political persuasions tend to interpret and weigh these moral foundations differently, leading to disconnect and disagreement when opposing political perspectives come into dialogue with one another.
Moral reframing is a technique that lets us flip the script on preconceived notions of the other, listen more deeply, and seek to meet our conversation partner where they are rather than coerce them into taking our point of view. Karen Tibbals writes, “If we can learn to … reframe, then the other side will be able to hear what we have to say. Just like in meeting for worship, when we listen to each other and open ourselves up for a creative solution, one will come. This can bring peace.”
Moral Reframing as a Lobbying Technique
How does knowing about moral foundations and reframing help in your lobby visits, when you’re talking with someone you don’t think will agree with you?
Building on Quaker activist Bonnie Tinker’s LARA system (listen, ask, respond, add), Karen Tibbals inserts findings from the research on moral reframing to innovate a new four step process: ask, listen, affirm, and reframe.
- Ask: Ask questions seeking deeper understanding. Don’t make assumptions. Approach your conversation partner with wonder and curiosity. Questions can vary depending on the topic and the person.
- Listen: If we ask, we must be willing to listen. But don’t listen to find something to refute or listen only to wait your turn to make your point; listen for common ground. Listen with new ears. Listen to what moral foundations (values) your conversation partner is drawing on to inform their perspective.
- Affirm: Agree with something. If you identify the moral foundation that’s involved, agree it’s important. Because they are all important, we all have them, we need all of them.
- Reframe: Tie a different moral to the issue. Maybe you can change people’s minds when you do this.
Tacking back to my contentious lobby visit with an ex-law enforcement officer in a conservative North Carolina office with this new technique in mind, what could I have done differently? We were both talking about policing, but we came at it with different values.
What if I had paused and approached the conversation with curiosity and empathy, asking more about his experience in law enforcement and how it maps onto the issue of police reform? What if I had worked harder to listen intentionally and affirm areas of common ground, like empathizing with the threat of violence police officers face in the line of duty? I can’t say for certain, but I imagine we might have made better progress in our relationship rather than shouting at each other and ending the meeting abruptly.
Why Engage at All?
Engaging with people you don’t agree with, whose views are challenging for you, is hard work. It takes physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Why is it even worth doing at all? Here are a few ways we might parse the question while fully recognizing there are no clear right and wrong answers.
Through a practical lens, members of Congress have a lot of power to act if they will use it. Even small changes or concessions could make a huge difference in people’s lives.
At FCNL, we are often challenged by the tension between our prophetic vision for the world we seek and the incrementalism of our approach.
At FCNL, we are often challenged by the tension between our prophetic vision for the world we seek and the incrementalism of our approach. Harm reduction has been a helpful frame for the frustrating but necessary work of incremental change and requires us to gauge the cost/benefit of engaging or not engaging.
Do you work to reduce some harm now, or focus on more radical but less sure change in the future? What’s the harm done if you view people you disagree with as disposable or not worth your time? How does your decision serve to reinforce or transform existing power structures and oppressive systems? These are all necessary queries to consider when engaging across disagreement to advocate for policy change.
Another answer might be related to polarization and the deep divisions in our nation and culture. It’s far too easy to stay siloed in our bubbles online and in the real world. It’s far too easy to avoid having any conversations with people we disagree with at all. While it’s harder to work against the grain and the status quo of polarization and division, conversations with people who disagree with us give us new opportunities to listen and learn.
People who hold different views can still have important insights and new perspectives to offer. What about their life experience leads them to their views? What can you learn to help you be more persuasive to them next time?
In all of this, of course, there’s nuance. Talking to someone doesn’t mean you have to endorse or legitimize their views. The end result of these conversations isn’t one of you “winning” and the other “losing.” Probably, you’ll agree to disagree—but maybe the person you’re talking to will also be more open to a new perspective.
Why is this the way Quakers are lobbying?
As Karen Tibbals writes, “If Quakers have anything close to one theology, it is that there is “that of God” in everyone.” Quakers believe that everyone has direct access to a higher power. Part of that belief means there’s something sacred in each person. You don’t know when your presence will connect with someone in a new way. Former FCNL legislative director Ruth Flower is often quoted as saying, “When I enter an office to lobby anybody, I’m always nervous. And I do remind myself that God is in the room, and there’s that of God in everyone including in myself and in the person I’m speaking with.”
There’s also a biblical basis to this approach that helps locate it in our tradition of Quaker advocacy.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44); “See, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
The scripture above lays out some theological grounding for this orientation. Moral reframing can be a peacemaking tactic that also serves to love, pray for, and meet our opponents where they are; moreover, it is a strategic tool that helps us move like sheep among wolves practicing the wisdom of serpents.
I believe these perspectives and tactics are essential to sustaining the long game of Quaker advocacy. As a Friend, I believe in doing what is right and necessary, even if I can’t predict how things will turn out. The first head of FCNL, E. Raymond Wilson, summed up FCNL’s philosophy in his 1943 acceptance letter: “We ought to be willing to work for causes which will not be won now, but cannot be won in the future unless the goals are staked out now and worked for energetically over a period of time.” This long-term perspective is a touchstone for my own Quaker advocacy and an essential part of my story with FCNL.
At FCNL, we lobby in a particular way because it comes out of our faith and because it’s effective. We do everything we can do to be strategic and craft our messages in ways that can be heard, and as a matter of faith we also believe that something bigger than us might be working through us in that interaction.
FCNL believes there’s value in operating within a system (Congress) that is built on white privilege and systemic inequality so we might use those levers of power to effect change. Part of our approach in finding F/friends in unlikely places is helping people think about how to work within that system to their advantage. We want to acknowledge we’re participating in a system with a lot of problems, but believe that by teaching more people the way the system works it becomes another tool to use for social change and the realization of the world we seek.