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Embracing the Better Angels of our Nature

David Lapp is the lead organizer for a group entitled “Better Angels.” He discusses his efforts to reunite America by helping Americans to move past hostility and insults and find common ground across the political spectrum in order to achieve that foundational goal of our American Constitution, which is to form “a more perfect union.”

David Lapp discusses better angels

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Embracing the Better Angels of our Nature

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is dedicated to restoring respectful dialogue in what has become an increasingly hostile and politically polarized country. In fact, he has helped to form a new national non-profit organization focused on providing tangible ways for individuals to embrace what President Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Our guest, David Lapp, is an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, co-investigator of the “Love & Marriage in Middle America Project,” and of particular interest for our discussion today, lead organizer for an organization entitled, “Better Angels.”

David Lapp, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.

DAVID LAPP: Thank you John. It’s great to be on the show.

JOHN RUSTIN: David, in the past, you have been on our program to discuss your excellent research. What led you to make the jump from analyzing and studying data to taking this more hands-on approach toward political discussion and engagement in our nation?

DAVID LAPP: As you mentioned, I had been working with my wife, Amber Lapp. We have been interviewing mostly working-class young people to hear their stories about forming families and how they’re thinking about marriage, since 2010. We’ve always thought about the family and marriage—families and marriages are as strong as the communities that surround them—and really, what Better Angels is trying to do is trying to strengthen civil society, you know, that arena between the individual person and the government, the private associations, houses of worship, our churches. It’s where we come together to work for the common good and fix the problems, address the problems that we see in the country. Better Angels got started a couple of days after the 2016 election. My colleague, David Blankenhorn, who’s the president and founder of Better Angels, called me up—he lives in New York City—and he said, “David, it’s like a morgue up here in New York City. Everyone’s depressed.” I live in Ohio and I, particularly, live in a county that’s 65 percent Republican. So the county was pretty happy a couple of days after the election. I said, “David, that’s interesting. I’m hearing people talk about ‘Hope and Change.'” We were talking and we said, “Are we really this far apart? Are the two sides really this far apart that we just can’t even imagine continuing to share the country?” Already, there had been a lot of protests that had started and knew that it’s much more complicated than this and that there are good people on both sides. Yes, I’m a Conservative. I approach Better Angels as a Conservative, and so I have my own convictions. But I know that there are good people on both sides and I know that there’s areas where we do agree. So, I just thought that it would be a shame if we basically said that we want a civic divorce from each other, we’re no longer one American country working together to form a more perfect union, but we’re just going to condemn each other. It seemed like we could do better than that. And we have a long tradition in America of trying to form a more perfect union. And so, that’s what’s drew me to this project. But finally also I, just as a Christian, as someone who’s trying to follow Jesus, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they’ll be called children of God.” And that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to craft a space where we can be ourselves, but look for those things we hold in common, and seeing also if we can disagree a little bit more civilly and respectfully.

JOHN RUSTIN: Then, in the context of that, what is the goal of Better Angels and how are you seeking to address the way that we operate within the culture today?

DAVID LAPP: The big goal is to help unify our divided country and we’re doing that by:

  • Building a better way to talk to each other, and then,
  • to participate in public life together.

So, there’s a talking and a doing here. And we do the talking part primarily through our red/blue workshops, and these typically involve about eight Conservative or Republican-leaning people, and about eight Liberal or Progressive or Democrat-leaning people. It consists of a series of exercises designed to deepen understanding of each other. So we’re not really focused on persuading the other side to change their political affiliation, but going into it with the goal of better understanding how the other side is thinking. And then from that, also seeing if there are areas of agreement. So for instance, one of the exercises—it’s a stereotype exercise—the reds get in a group, the blues get in a group, and the question is: “What are the stereotypes that the other side has about your side that you believe exaggerated or unfair?” And a follow-up question is if you think there’s any kernel of truth to the stereotypes. And then there’s a discussion among the reds and among the blues about that. And then we come together to share the results of those conversations. It’s enlightening. It’s kind of eye-opening to see how, you know, reds a lot of time will say, “The other side just says we’re racist.” But they’ll say, “I’m not racist, but here’s what I do believe.” And then sometimes the blues say, “The reds think we’re unpatriotic. But no, I love our country.” So, it’s always enlightening to hear how we stereotype each other and how we process those. And so there’s that, there’s the talking part. And we’re, right now, in the pilot stage of doing those red/blue workshops. But then there’s a doing part, which is after people participate in these workshop, they have tended to say: “This is great but we want to keep the conversation going.” And so, like in Ohio, where we had the first two red/blue workshops, we had a follow-up meeting and we formed what we now call, “A Better Angels Alliance.” And this is a local group of Ohioans here, reds and blues, who are meeting monthly to keep the conversation going, to begin to identify some areas where we do agree and see if we can do some work as citizens on those issues, and also just continuing to get to know each other at the level of relationship. So those are two ways that we’re doing it. And our vision, our hope, is that citizens across the country who are concerned about the divides in our country today, that we not just wait for the next politician or Washington to address this, but there’s something that we the people in our communities can do. And so the hope is, there are ultimately thousands of people who are forming these red/blue alliances in their communities.

JOHN RUSTIN: That sounds great. Sounds like a very laudable goal and much needed, as a matter of fact. How then, David, does Better Angels apply this? You’re talking about having these red/blue workshops in groups of, I guess 16-24 people. How do you multiply that across the nation to such a degree that it really will ultimately have an impact?

DAVID LAPP: So what we’re beginning to do—and we’re going to start it in North Carolina, in the Raleigh area—is we’re going to have some training workshops for people who have some background in facilitation. So, we are going to be training people to lead these red/blue workshops themselves and the idea is that they will go into, for instance in Raleigh, they’ll be about 30 people who are getting trained and they’ll be from all over North Carolina and even some other states. The idea is that if each red/blue workshop is co-chaired by a red/blue organizer so that it’s always we’re doing this red and blue together… So, if there are, you know, a Republican and a Democrat, and let’s say Western North Carolina and they want to do a red/blue workshop. There would be a trained Better Angels person who could go help to lead that workshop. And so, that’s the model for what we will be doing all over the country, and really, starting to spread that this next year, in 2018. Then again, it’s not just the workshop, it’s what emerges—so far has emerged a lot from these workshops—is the core group of citizens, red and blue saying, “We want to take responsibility for the divisions that are confronting our country. We want to do something together. For us, that means forming a red/blue alliance.” That’s the idea. That’s the idea of how this grows. The other thing I’d add is, we’re not the only ones doing this kind of work. There seems to be an appetite in the country right now to reconnect and to avoid the civic divorce. So I think in a way, if we do our job at Better Angels, we’re just responding to that desire. So it’s not as if we’re trying to manufacture something that most of us don’t want. Most of us do want the conversation to be better.

JOHN RUSTIN: Well sure. And I think there is a widespread recognition that society and this hostility that exists is not in the best interest of our country. It’s not what we all desire. However, it is interesting to note that this American experiment, even from our very founding, seems to involve some level of conflict. David, from your experience and knowledge of this, what did the Founders see as the appropriate role of conflict— and maybe even a necessary role of conflict—in a functioning society?

DAVID LAPP: At Better Angels, we think of it as our theory of conflict. There’s kind of three approaches to conflict. One is that we’re slaves to conflict, that conflict is just the master that rules us all and we’re just incapable of seeing the other side’s perspective and it’s all about conflict. And that’s kind of what happened. In a certain sense after we had the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we first had the Articles of Confederation. And you know, the Founders realized we need a little more strong central government to work through these conflicts in a healthy way. So they formed our Constitution that we have. And that forming the Constitution was kind of a way of getting at the second idea of conflict: Not being enslaved by conflict but managing conflict. So as you said, we acknowledge its presence and we acknowledge disagreement is important if we’re trying to understand the truth. But the third way is the approach of transforming conflict. And in this, in a way transforming conflict, I think that our Founders kind of left us a set of ideals in to which we do this. So for instance, our national motto, “E pluribus unum” is “Out of many one” is the rough Latin translation of that. And “Out of many one” so that we are a very diverse country coming from all these different backgrounds but we’re doing what? We’re trying to form a more perfect union. We’re trying to with all of the, you know, different backgrounds we come from, we’re trying to kind of form a synthesis. And so E pluribus unum, Out of many one, that’s an important idea for us and it means that we are not just trying to be mushy moderates, but we think of ourselves as a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Coming at the questions and issues as we are, but then allowing ourselves to be open to common ground when there is common ground so that we do not just become slaves of conflict, but that we can find those areas where we do agree and make our country better.

JOHN RUSTIN: David, where can our listeners go to learn more about the mission of Better Angels and also to stay up-to-date on your activities and events, and please be sure to mention those upcoming events in North Carolina again if you would.

DAVID LAPP: You can go to our website, and we will be in North Carolina November 6-13. On November 9,10,11, we’ll be in Raleigh [and UNC-Chapel Hill], and then November 13, we’ll be in Hendersonville. So if you’re in the area and you’re interested in participating in these workshops or in learning how to lead one of these workshops, we’d love to have you be a part of it. You can go to our website and you’ll see an email address, a way of contacting us, if you’re interested.

JOHN RUSTIN: And with that, David, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for your work to help restore productive and respectful dialogue in American culture today.

DAVID LAPP: Thank you very much.

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