Is the emerging role of faith leaders to bridge political and theological divides? One biblical scholar is on a mission to do just that. Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton is the author of A House United and founder of House United Movement. Rev. Dr. Hilton previously taught Bible at Yale Divinity School and St. Mary's College of California and has been a minister for congregations in Connecticut, Washington, and Minnesota. This July, Hilton spoke to United's Religion and Politics in America class taught by Dr. Silas Morgan. Vice President for Marketing, Amee McDonald had the chance to speak with Rev. Dr. Hilton and Dr. Silas Morgan last Thursday.
Amee McDonald: What role has critical thinking played in the House United Movement? Any methodologies you follow to bridge political and theology divides?
Allen Hilton: I have been watching it and grieving its growth, and watching Fox News and MSNBC shout from across the room, and becoming grieved about churches moving further apart, and nobody else is thinking much about it. It's 2014 right, and so I start this book to blow the whistle on polarization. I'm three quarters of the way done when the 2016 election season blows up, and suddenly everybody knows we're polarized. Everybody can feel it and is getting a little sick to the stomach about it.
The book changed because of that, and the mission changed. Because it was going to be ... I hadn't yet started House United, but the way that I did the world with ministry was going to be: let people know that we're actually talking about folks on another side of the spectrum in a way that doesn't seem to be treating them as brothers and sisters in Christ. By '16 people kind of knew that, and weren't very ashamed of it. The differences became more and more strident, and so my role became to make people aware of research, anecdotes, ways that they could access the value of difference as an asset rather than a threat. Birds of a feather flocking together produce smaller brains, for instance. Your brain shrinks if you're with people who agree with you all the time. Segregation produces prejudice and stereotyping, and we have elective segregation.
I had a lot of friends on both sides, and my job became to try and get them in the same room, and if they weren't yet in the same room, try to tell one side about the other side in ways that made them open to the idea that the others were human and Christian and trying to get it right. What that looks like tangibly is, I usually go into churches and seminaries, or colleges, I work with a couple colleges, a couple divinity schools, and help them navigate that political distance that makes people loathe people who are from the other side and help them figure out how to collaborate and build communities. We do courageous conversations in local churches and other civic groups, where I go in and help them talk about healthcare in a way that allows all voices to be heard.
The exercise isn't about what the right answer about healthcare is ultimately; we can do that in other arenas. I want them to leave the room loving one another and actually experience having talked about hard things honestly and leave the room saying, "We didn't die, and in fact I kind of like that person. I don't like the idea any more than I did when I came, but I hear her or his authenticity. I hear motives that I would never have credited. This person's trying to get it right." So by the end of a few of these conversations in a local congregation, the people know the difference that they hold, and they're starting to think that maybe there's usefulness to the other position, that conservatives and liberals ought to be in the same room because we make better things if we stand in that tension.
Amee McDonald: How do you help them see the limitations of their beliefs, and also have compassion for the other perspective?
Allen Hilton: The frontal assault is, I take them to Jesus on arrogance.
Amee McDonald: Tell me more about that.
Allen Hilton: If you look at the parables in the teachings of Jesus, he so often has arrogance in the crosshairs. The Pharisee and the tax collector parable, where the Pharisee is so proud of what he's done, and the tax collector just goes down on his face and cries out for mercy from God, and Jesus surprises everybody by saying the tax collector went home redeemed and the Pharisee didn't. Jesus' assault on arrogance is consistent, but we don't read it that way. Instead we go and we find Jesus was for social justice, and so people who are about just salvation are wrong and bad people, or else they're stupid people. Well Jesus was about salvation too, but I've taken a position that Jesus is this way, and I'm so sure that I'm right that I'm disqualifying the other person and really excommunicating the other person.
What I take people to is Jesus' teachings, some from Paul, mostly Jesus' teachings, that undermine arrogance and hold humility as a sort of cardinal way of doing the world. That may sound critical and maybe not the best way to get somebody to embrace what you're talking about, but I do it in fun ways, and self-effacing ways, because I can associate with both sides who I run with. One week in January, I was with UCC pastors from the biggest chapters in the nation in the UCC, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and I was with Missouri Senate Lutheran pastors from the biggest fundamentalist Missouri Senate Lutheran churches on Thursday and Friday, and I went at their arrogance in both cases but being able to get onboard with it, because I occasionally feel it from either side.
The large strategy is to try to strike some humility into what is a very self-righteous setting, both on left and right. Because when self righteousness rises, it usually disqualifies the humanity of the other side. I see that happening when people don't interface. They get more and more able to say, "Those people aren't worth having in church, those people aren't worth having on land," on terra firma. That's the large strategy: humility. On the way I help them figure out that they can experience that humility if they sit in a room with smart people from the other perspectives. Does that make sense?
Amee McDonald: Yeah. To say it back to you, to make sure that I'm following, really your methodology is to tackle arrogance head-on using scripture to strike humanity in a self-righteous setting.
Allen Hilton: Yeah. Jonathan Haidt wrote a book called The Righteous Mind that is an evolutionary tracing of why we make groups and then feel superior to other groups, whether it's people in Indiana, who are Hoosiers, or Republicans or Democrats or, name the group. We're built to do that because it worked when we had to hunt and gather. Being in a group was an advantage over being an individual, and identifying safe people was advantageous. But that's been true of all human societies. Ours is off the charts polarized. What has happened to raise the level, put ours on steroids, over basic human tribalism? I try to help people realize that what's put it on steroids is an absence of experience of the other in any kind of real setting with people in a room.
A lot of what I do is tell people to deal with the person in the room not the banner under which you think they fly. When they do, when they actually listen, they sense the humanity and even Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, but they have to get that far, in a way, to have that work. I'm stumbling a little bit because the way that this actually happens is, people experience it. It's not primarily a rational argument, it's an argument from experience. You now know this person.
Example: North Dakota has the highest per capita refugee population in the nation, which is interesting. There aren't many capita in North Dakota, but they've got all these Somalis and other ethnic groups who have come for refuge. The white North Dakotans and the Somalis can't understand one another, and so a group came in and decided they would try to help with reconciliation and interface. They had a first day when the North Dakotans listened to the Somalis, --They paired up one-on-one-- and on the second day, the Somalis listened to the North Dakotans. On the third day the project had each person then introduce their opposite, but in the first person. You've done the, "Silas was born in X and he went to Y schools," you've done that before, but if I have to say, "I'm Silas Morgan and I was raised in X place, everything kind of moves when I have to take on that "I," the first person.
I try to get people to that experience as often as possible. Why does somebody believe what she believes or he believes? I should be able to state it from her or his perspective, and not just describe it third person. I should own it, and then I might be able to understand it. That experience changes people, in my work.
Amee McDonald: Is that process rooted in some methodology that you use?
Allen Hilton: Yeah. We do restatement a lot, the things you find in marriage counseling, and just any interpersonal communications class, but people have shut down those skills when it comes to the political sphere, and so I just re-up on those, and have people practice them and listen beyond five words and get to a better way of interacting with one another.
Amee McDonald: Would you say that the House United movement really leads with those processes and then supplements with faith and the teachings of Jesus, or would you say that you really lead with the teachings of Jesus?
Allen Hilton: It depends on where I am. I started out just going to churches or audiences wherever I found them, and getting them all excited about, "We can come together across difference for the common good." Then I'd go away, and of course they didn't do anything about it because they didn't know how. What I do now is engage for longer periods of time, and I go on. Contractually I go on a retainer for a year, and I just help them do the practice sort of including multiple perspectives in their lot.
One piece of that is teaching them Christ conversations, and that comes out of speaking the truth in love, which is scriptural. If I'm in a church audience we start with John 17, "That they all may be one". We then move to First Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, where the gifts vary but they're all given by God, and ask: in an age where we think politics may be genetically inherited, is it possible to say,this person is oriented genetically to be conservative, and oriented genetically to be liberal, so how do we deal with that theologically? Is it one of the gifts? Is being conservative one of the gifts of the spirit? Is being liberal one of the gifts of the spirit? How do those things work together, as Paul saw the gifts working together in the church? In a environment of Christian assumption, I go to Jesus and Paul, and then Jeremiah.
I did my first interfaith thing in Lincoln maybe two months ago, three months ago, and of course went to Jeremiah 29, because the main people there were Abrahamic folks. In those settings I might go to a more perfect union language, more national or cultural sense of belonging to one another, and know that I'm motivated by Christian warrants but I'm not going to be able to use those primarily in the way that I talk to people. Make sense?
Amee McDonald: Yes.
Allen Hilton: I start in a local place with Christ conversations, and then once they can do those a little bit on their own, I do what I call Christian mingle, which is, I do yenta work with them. You know what a yenta is, a matchmaker, a Jewish word for matchmaker, or Hebrew word for matchmaker. I try to find, for a progressive church an evangelical church and say, "Both of you like to do service outreach; why don't you build a habitat house together. Don't talk politics yet, just help these people and talk about where your kids go to school, and get to know one another and build a trusting community." Then we'll get around to courageous conversations with that crossover group.
The first step is, get the internal part of the organization, or the church, talking to one another across their difference. The second part is, if your church or organization leans left or right, find your opposite in another community and get together. The third step is, now that you've done that, there are a lot of people who don't have assumptions of Christianity, so why don't you help them learn the skills you've learned and be an asset to your city.
In Westport, Connecticut, four months ago, they had three consecutive planning and zoning meetings where they had to call in the police to keep the meeting going. Because people don't know how to talk to one another. If the church becomes highly skilled in that, and becomes a resource, then, what I call it in the book is Mission 4.0, it's not evangelism, it's not service, and it's not justice; it's community as mission. We've figured out how to talk to one another in a world that can't be thankful to one another, so we're going to offer them that skill and host their hardest conversations.
For what it's worth I'm booked through March now, every available date, because churches and other groups need help. The book is helping unearth those concerns, but the level of need that people are now recognizing in themselves is high enough that, I don't do very well at marketing, you've seen my website, it's placeholder basically, I do a little Facebook-
Amee McDonald: Fairly active on Twitter.
Allen Hilton: Little bit, every once in a while. But I can't fight off the people who want help doing this. It's mostly by word of mouth, but they say, "We need that because we aren't getting along very well," or they read the book and they say, "We feel like we're on the left edge, all of us are, and we can't fathom that 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. We can't even understand that people like that exist." So they call me, and I help them try to meet people like that.
(Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton speaking in Religion and Politics in America course at United)
Amee McDonald: Knowing how busy you are, and how in-demand what you're offering is, why are you here today with our students?
Allen Hilton: Because Silas asked me. Silas is using the book in the class, and I was so excited when I saw that. It happened that I was in Minnesota on vacation, and we worked it out for me to come. I love the idea of a political theologian. I haven't many political theologians, or at least who call themselves that. There are a lot of people who are theologians who are political, but you focus on the very things that this enterprise is about addressing. I'm excited to meet the students, and I'm excited to strike relationship with Silas, because we care about some of the same things.
Amee McDonald: Anything you would add, Silas?
Silas Morgan: Yeah. We're reading this book in the course, and I invited Allen because our students, as graduates of a seminary, will be called to serve communities and engage people, and work in congregations where addressing theological and political differences is part of their vocation. It'll be precisely what it is they are called to do as faith leaders, as thought leaders, as nonprofit leaders. They will be responsible to be on the front edge of doing this work. I wanted them to hear from someone who had done it, someone who has done it in the congregation, and now someone who is serving a broader community, who had a method, approach, a style, that could model for them what it looked like on the ground. I wanted them to have a book on their shelf that they could go to as they find themselves looking for inspiration about how to do it. Because they're going to have to give a sermon, and they're going to have to be at the bedside of someone with a Make America Great Again hat on their dresser. They're going to have to think about what it means for them as a faith leader, as a thought leader, as someone who's been shaped by a religious tradition, to engage that person in both pastoral ways, but also deeply prophetic ways.
That's a big theme of the course that this book is specifically designed to address, this tension between pastoral care and prophetic truth telling. United is really good at embracing the prophetic truth telling, and I think Allen provides a theological and pastoral look at how to do, how to think, them both together. That this distinction is as false and as perilous as all the differences that mark the body politic and the body ecclesia. I'm incredibly grateful he's here.
Allen Hilton: To piggyback on that, I think it's malpractice for any seminary right now not to offer some kind of training on what you do when you run into a hat. Because otherwise we turn out people who preach as if nobody's in the room except their tribe, and that's hardly ever true, unless you work really hard at being obnoxious to everybody else from the pulpit. You can do it, but you're going to have a mixed crowd, and so you have to ask, what's my role in the life of somebody who is from the other tribe, and how does Christianity address that?
Because frankly, if Jesus were telling the parable of the Good Samaritan right now, it might be of the good Make America Great Again guy. It might be the guy with the hat who stops and helps the person on the side, if you were telling it at United. If you were telling it at Dallas seminary it would be, Barack Obama stopped. In order to understand the shocking nature of Jesus' illustrations that undermine arrogance, you kind of have to be able to reverse the polarity, or reverse the assumptions of rightness, for a second, I think. I loved the way you put it, that they're going to be encountering this, and they have to be prepared for it.
(Religion and Politics in America Class, left to right: Current Student Claire Klein, Dr. Silas Morgan, and Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton)
Amee McDonald: Are there other seminaries that are using your book and your materials, and how have you seen that work?
Allen Hilton: Princeton seminary is, I'm doing some con-ed with them. I'll be teaching a seminar class there this fall. When I go back to teach the con-ed class I'm going to also sit with a political theology seminar. Duke Divinity School has me come out for their summer institute for reconciliation, which is a gathering that involves Duke people and a whole lot of other people from around the world. Yale Div, I worked on the pastoral advisory committee of their Center for Faith and Culture initiative on joy, and we took up joy as a shared value on left and right, and what does that mean, and does it look different in different contexts. I have worked with those, and Fuller, we're kind of probing if they want me to do some work on campus.
Seminaries are a place where ... Tim Keller got an award at Princeton last year and nearly blew the place up. You know who Tim Keller is? Okay, Redeemer Church was a planned, he's a PCA person, really popular kind of evangelical, but in many ways accessible more widely than the far right, but he's from a far right place that doesn't ordain women and doesn't ordain gay people. They gave him an award for the excellence of his church planting, and the place nearly blew up because of his other beliefs, or his denomination's other beliefs, and so they called me in and had me do some things there. Because it's an idea-based community, and they can't talk about ideas, in a way, very well with one another. Because they had people on campus who were PCA, and then they had a lot of people who weren't, and they tried to figure it out.
It's really fun work, but when I tell people what I do they just laugh and say "Good luck". I go into places and try to bring left and right into conversation, they say "Good luck" at that. But when I preach at any given place, I preach a lot, but when I preach on this people stand up and clap.It's not because I'm a great preacher, because on other things I preach they don't. They just don't want to have enemies in their own town, and they want to figure out how they sort these emotions that make their Thanksgiving table blow up. Or, I think one out of every 10 divorces in the year after the last election was caused by a Hillary-Trump rift. They want help with that, and it's fun to offer the help. It's just kind of pushing a rock up a hill.
Amee McDonald: Last question is, is there anything I should've asked you that I didn't?
Allen Hilton: Yeah, that's a good question. I think the "Is it fun" question that I insinuated in my comments just now. The prophets of Israel had a hell of a time. People who go against the grain of their culture get lonely, so it's a decent question, why do people do that? For me, and the irony is, as Silas said, on the left House United is accused of diminishing prophecy because you can't claim anything stridently, and truth gets relativized. Of course neither of those things are true, but the idea of bringing people together rings on the left, as you can't really ever tell the truth. Does that make sense? So I can't speak prophetically because I have to be nice to those people.
Ironically I think it is a prophetic thing to say the church is falling apart at the seams, and Jesus said he wants us to be one. Which means the very things that you hold dearest in your sense of yourself may need to be put in conversation with things that somebody else holds dearest if Jesus' prayer for unity is going to ever happen. It's really--and this is back to the fun thing--it's really fun to see people's light come on about that. To see people who had disqualified a whole block of Christian population, open themselves to the fact that God may actually not only love them, but may be able to use them in their lives. It's fun to see people's epiphanies.
This interview is the first of three blog posts we will be publishing about Dr. Hilton's work in the conversation with United's Religion and Politics in America class. The forthcoming posts will include responses to Hilton and A House United from current students Nathanael Welch and Lisbeth Rivera.