It seems to me there was a time when our public debate, our argument, if you will, was intended to persuade. There was a time, not that...

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IT seems to me there was a time when our public debate, our argument, if you will, was intended to persuade. There was a time, not that long ago, when public dialogue was aimed at moving toward solutions, reaching consensus, and even winning over opponents.

These days it seems that public debate has little to do with persuading opponents and almost everything to do with solidifying the base of our supporters. Our rhetoric is no longer even directed to our opponents; instead, we choose to preach to the choir.

Furthermore, it appears that if anyone, whatever their persuasion, attempts to involve opponents in dialogue, they are marginalized, or even vilified, by the extremists in their own base.

It is as if we suffer from one of two diseases. Either we are full of pride, convinced that our opponents are evil or stupid and we have nothing to learn from them, or we are infected with doubt, lacking confidence in our own positions and fearful that they may not endure the rigors of meaningful debate.

In either case, we give ear to the extremists on all sides who marginalize anyone who reaches across ideological divides.

This tack has been unfolding in regard to the opening on our Supreme Court. Over the past weeks, we heard conservative pundits express concern that our president might not bring a nominee who is conservative enough. I wondered then if mortal wounds in this battle would be the result of friendly fire from the right. Now that President Bush has named John Roberts, many on the left seem to be fortifying their opposition before any hearings, discussion, or substantive research.

I have been involved in public life most of my adult years, as a minister, educator and as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals.

At several points I have had to remind myself that our governmental leaders were my leaders whether I voted for them or not. This means that they deserve my respect, and they need to hear from me and those I represent. So, over the years I have endeavored to serve both sides of the aisle. In a number of cases I have even found common-ground issues with those who did not receive my vote.

One example of work that crossed the aisle was during the Clinton administration, when I was able to participate in significant work on the issue of international religious persecution. I was one of three American religious leaders given unprecedented access to more than 50 high-ranking Chinese government leaders, including the president of China.

In that instance, I was targeted by a popular, nationally syndicated radio host who condemned my participation, asserting that it somehow validated all that Clinton was doing, both politically and privately.

I chose to persist in spite of the attack, and work with our president on common causes. I think that this approach provided credibility so that I could continue to present my case on other important issues where we lacked agreement. Maybe, just maybe, I was able to persuade.

I periodically take flak because I continue to work with leaders on both sides of the aisle. Some from my own religious, and even political, persuasion seek to marginalize my voice because I dare try to persuade.

I can take it, of course. I will take it because I am convinced that the right thing to do is to continue in dialogue. I know that I don’t have all the answers, yet I am firm in my convictions and know that they can endure both public and private debate.

I am concerned that all of us, both the electorate and those we elect, are always so focused on the next election that we fail to do what is right today. Our leaders need to remember that they govern on behalf of us all; and we all need to remember that our leaders deserve our respect, especially when we are speaking in opposition on issues.

Do we really believe the words of our Pledge of Allegiance? My fear is that we are moving further and further away from our goal of “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

If we are at all serious about being one, indivisible, and for all, then we must stop marginalizing and vilifying those who seek public debate aimed at persuasion, consensus building, and healthy solutions to the challenges that confront us.

Dr. Don Argue is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, and a past president of the National Association of Evangelicals.