One night in the mid-’90s, my wife and I were watching a PBS documentary series called “With God On Our Side: The Rise of The Religious Right In America.” It featured a segment about how religious conservatives had tried to get “multicultural” textbooks banned in Kanawha County in the 1970s, back when I was in junior high school there. The show included a woman named Alice Moore. I remembered her. She was a conservative preacher’s wife who’d led the fight against the books.
I told my wife, “This woman is crazy. Wait until you hear what she thinks.”
Alice shared her views, but to my surprise, what she said didn’t seem as nutty as I’d remembered. In fact, I felt for her.
The Kanawha textbook struggle happened a little more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court banned organized prayer and Bible readings from public schools. Although I support those rulings, I could understand why Alice was troubled. Thinking about this, I had an “Aha” moment:
“Alice believes her core beliefs are under attack. I have core beliefs. What if I truly felt that they were under attack?”
That epiphany would eventually define my work.
In 2009, I produced The Great Textbook War, a radio documentary in which I tried to understand what was upsetting my Kanawha neighbors back in 1974. I interviewed Alice Moore for this program, and a funny thing happened. We got to be friends.
Often, I ring her up on the phone. Sometimes we chat about our families. Sometimes we engage like diplomats from Red and Blue America who’ve exited their echo chambers for a respectful, spirited dialogue. I disagree with Alice’s views on the role of religion in our society, the virtues of Reagan conservatism and whether or not President Obama is a communist Muslim who was born in Kenya. Sometimes, she really makes me mad. Sometimes, she says I break her heart because she thinks I’m so lost and confused.
But the person I disagree with is truly “Sweet Alice” — a kind person, who has a warm and welcoming family. The first time I visited her home in Tennessee, her 90-year-old mother baked me an apple pie. Alice seems to sincerely care about me and my family and friends.
It’s hard to write off someone I have so much affection for as a “conservative Christian nut.” I imagine that her friends warn her about her Yankee friend, who was indoctrinated in northeast liberal institutions, but I hope Alice sees me as more than a caricature.
I think conversations like Alice’s and mine are important. I don’t think I’ll ever agree with her, but I want to understand why she feels the way she does.
A recent Pew study found that Americans are more polarized than ever ideologically. It found that 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats actually see the other party as a threat to the country’s well-being. Reuters recently reported that Republicans see President Obama as a bigger threat than Vladimir Putin or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
People on one side of the political divide fear the people on the other side.
Perhaps we would fear each other less if we knew each other better.
My new podcast, “Us and Them” (produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council) will feature stories from West Virginia and other parts of the nation that focus on people’s passionate views from either side of the cultural divide. The idea is not to change anyone’s mind. It’s to find out what might happen if we take the time to listen to each other.