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Bridging the partisan divide topic of D.C. panel

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons speaks as part of bipartisan panel

By Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, were members of a panel held last month in Washington, D.C., on how Christians can help bridge the partisan divide. (Photograph provided)

LOUISVILLE — Representing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a bit harder these days for the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.

“They’re (Members of Congress) not looking to the faith community the way they once used to, and we could definitely be an asset in bridging the divide,” Hawkins said during a recent visit to the Presbyterian Center in Louisville. “I think right now there is a lot of lip service to faith by members of Congress — they always say, ‘You’re in my thoughts and prayers, I’m going to pray for you’ — yet they don’t rely on our counsel to the degree they used to in the past.

“It’s getting pretty difficult to get an audience with members of Congress — individual audience. In the past, they were more accessible.”

A cool reception from lawmakers, not to mention the Trump administration, has come at the same time partisan tensions have flared on Capitol Hill. But Hawkins saw a little hope in a panel he participated in on Nov. 27.

“How Can Christians Help Bridge the Partisan Divide?” was hosted at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware as the featured speaker. The panel for the event, presented by the church’s McClendon Scholar Program and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, included Hawkins and these participants:

  • Pete Wehner, a former speechwriter and official in the administration of President George W. Bush who now writes regularly for The New York Times and has been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump.
  • Melissa Rogers, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the second term of President Barack Obama.
  • Tim Goeglein, director of Washington office of Focus on the Family, who was a public liaison for Bush and a former staffer for former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana), who’s now the director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration.

The panel was moderated by Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

“We talked about ways the faith community could be a leader in bringing folks together, different strategies we all shared from our different perspectives,” Hawkins recalled.

“We did talk about building unity around public issues today and not allowing issues to divide us. What are some of the issues that bring us together? For instance, the issue of being a Christian and poverty. Everyone should have positive energy around Christians working to alleviate poverty from the face of the Earth.”

Hawkins said the panel looked at questions such as how Christians should engage in public issues, what the concept of the separation of church and state really means and best practices for Christians to engage in public discourse.

He said Coons reflected on how the two major parties have drifted apart in Congress and his own desire to mend relationships with colleagues he’s recently clashed with, such as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who had some heated exchanges with Democrats during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Despite its makeup, Hawkins said panel members conveyed their differences respectfully.

“There never was any type of confrontation, and I think the panel was a good model in itself,” Hawkins said. “This is a time where we’ve got to come together. There are some forces arrayed that are ideological, which are partisan, which are not really looking out for the common good of the citizenry of this country, and we need some people to stand up and say, ‘No,’ that we are going to go forward building on the things that are positive and good in this country and to try to make this country a better place for all of its citizens.”


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