Let's legislate consensus-building
In 1994, Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican congressman, narrowly won the Pennsylvania Senate seat held by Harris Wofford, a liberal Democrat. The campaign was not pleasant. Representative Santorum publicly called Senator Wofford a liar.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet, seven years later, Wofford and Santorum stood together in the shadow of the Capitol, to announce they would lead a working group on faith-based and community organizations. Wofford acknowledged the incongruity, saying they were "the odd couple."
"How could you?" former Wofford staffer Steven Waldman recalls asking his boss. "He gave me a knowing smile that seemed to say, 'Someday you'll be old enough to understand that you can accomplish more in life seeking agreement than nursing grudges.'"
The former foes came together because the nonprofit organization that we head, Search for Common Ground (SFCG), invited them to lead a working group to find consensus between right and left - both religious and secular - on the role of faith-based groups in overcoming poverty. They agreed to be part of a consensus process that we - and a coalition of national leaders - hope to institutionalize through Congressional legislation.
Santorum and Wofford buried the hatchet and attracted key players from across the political and social spectrums. The idea was to make recommendations on the role social service providers with religious ties should play in publicly funded poverty programs. The 27 participants included leaders from organizations as diverse as People for the American Way and Evangelicals for Social Action; and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations. Both liberal and conservative foundations funded the process.
None of these very busy people missed the meetings held once a month for six months - not even on 9/11, when they were evacuated from a building near the White House and walked a mile to reconvene elsewhere.
"It was our answer to those who would divide us," recalls former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, a working group member.
Still, division did exist. For example, one liberal leader arrived at a session outraged at conservative participants, because he felt their allies in the Bush White House were using "underhanded" tactics that made attempts at compromise pointless. He nearly walked out. But a key part of our process was the use of a professional facilitator who kept participants out of attack mode by guiding conversation back toward collaborative action, while still allowing anger to be expressed.
It was important to avoid recreating the debate as it was being framed in the media and Congress: a food fight over whether more funds should be given to faith-based groups and whether they violated separation of church and state.
Wofford said later that he and Santorum agreed the public debate "had gotten off track." They came to see that they could work together on the basis of shared compassion. The framing question for liberals and conservatives to cooperate became: What could they do together to help poor Americans?
At first, everyone had stereotypes. Faith-based advocates generally believed the civil libertarians cared more about constitutional rights than helping people. Civil libertarians thought that the faith-based contingent was interested mainly in proselytizing. Common ground emerged when each realized that the other was equally committed to alleviating poverty - and to staying true to core beliefs.