By Jon Spayde
Anyone who has attended an office meeting, a rally, or a holiday dinner lately knows that as a culture, we have become profoundly divided. The media is full of stories of angry public confrontations, family rifts, and trending Google searches like “psychologist near me.” It’s become harder to talk to people with whom we disagree.
Enter Tom Krattenmaker (B.A. ’83), who as a confirmed agnostic, recently published a memoir about crossing religious and political boundaries. Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower explores Krattenmaker’s admiration for Jesus Christ while imparting insights into contemporary American culture.
Krattenmaker is a journalist who cares deeply about the topics he chooses to cover. When he was at the Minnesota Daily as an undergraduate journalism major, he wrote about draft registration on campus and protests against Honeywell’s work with the Department of Defense. Later, as a reporter for the Orange County Register, he covered televangelist Robert Schuler, whose Crystal Cathedral megachurch was embroiled in controversy. Without realizing it at the time, he had found the subject that would turn him into an author: the role of religion in public life.
Confessions, published by Convergent Books, is Krattenmaker’s third book on the topic—and a second-place winner at the 2017 Religious News Association Awards. In it, he describes how, in the course of his reporting career, he came to respect people whose evangelical beliefs were 180 degrees from his own. A recent conversation with the author yielded some pointed suggestions for how people on all sides of the yawning political divide might begin to open up to one another.
Krattenmaker’s awakening, he says, came mainly as the result of stories he wrote and people he met. After the Register, he worked for the Associated Press before exchanging the newsroom for the university press room, handling communications and PR for Princeton, Swarthmore, and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, while writing religion-themed columns for USA Today. (Today he’s a communications director for the Yale Divinity School, and is still a columnist.)
“I really had a burr under my saddle when it came to evangelical Christians, whom I just equated with the Christian right,” he says. A professor who taught in the master’s program in religion and public life he completed at the University of Pennsylvania chided him for his prejudice—but it took personal interactions to really bring him around.
“I met a couple of evangelicals in Portland who shattered my stereotypes,” he says. “I found out about projects they were engaged in that I thought were really impressive and even inspiring, and they were so refreshingly different from the stereotype. It was great material for columns and eventually a book, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know. It was meaningful personally, too, because this informed some of my own ideas about engaging with public issues, challenging my own stereotypes, and reaching across divides.”
He’s quick to point out that these people were so-called “new evangelicals,” more liberal than most—and yet for the resolutely secular Krattenmaker, there was still a divide to be crossed: He had to put his disagreements with their theology on hold. He would ask them respectful questions about their faith rather than try to score debating points.
“I asked them things like, ‘What does the idea that God loves you mean to you?’ I learned that they would appreciate and even trust the secular perspective, as long as they knew that I wasn’t against them personally and that I was committed to understanding them,” he says.
Does Krattenmaker think that such an attitude can translate into crossing today’s brutal political battle lines? His answer is a qualified yes. He has also engaged with ultraconservative evangelicals, and when he does, he says, “I lower my expectations. I mean, I immediately intuit that I’m not going to persuade them of anything right away. I’ll often fall into reporter mode, ask a couple of questions and just listen. The only thing that I can maybe change their mind about is the idea that all liberals are impossible people. I just listen to them without rolling my eyes. That’s a pretty low bar, but I can do that.”
Krattenmaker insists that he doesn’t mean we ought to falsify our own values in seeking connections with those with whom we disagree. “It’s showing respect for the person even if you don’t respect the ideas,” he says. “I’m not telling anybody to respect bad ideas or bad philosophies or ill-conceived solutions to problems.”
It’s a hard balancing act, though, isn’t it? Holding one’s ground while opening up to someone who may be hostile?
“The reason that it’s hard,” he says, “is the same reason it’s so worth doing. I’ve seen polling data that suggests most Americans think that this kind of nonpartisan communication would be a good thing, that they don’t like how the two extreme sides seem to control the microphones.”
The fact that so little of this sort of receptive, open-minded conversation takes place today doesn’t discourage Krattenmaker; it excites him to try the experiment.
“It’s transgressive in a cool way to do these things—show respect, listen, ask questions—because it’s sort of against the ‘rules’ of our current form of partisan warfare.”