Faith & Politics: Seek to understand, or to be understood? NiebuhrGreg Garrett’s Faithful Citizenship is the new book we’ve considered all week: how politics trumps faith, that God should come before country, how we rise and fall together as a society, and the model of faithful citizenship as an answer to the deep divide in politics and religion. We end the week today by continuing to talk about what faithful citizenship means.

Do we first seek to understand, or to be understood?

From Greg’s book:
“We might remember the life of Reinhold Niebuhr, once America’s most renowned religious thinker, a sort of theological celebrity.… What Niebuhr offers us above all is a sense of intellectual restraint, fairness, thoughtful consideration. As E. J. Dionne pointed out at a panel on the resurgence of Niebuhr (President Obama’s favorite theologian), ‘Niebuhr is the person we turn to for balance. We turn to him when things get out of hand. He is a critic of the left’s utopianism and he’s a critic of the right’s tendency to deify our own country….One great Niebuhrian quote should hang over all seminars. Niebuhr once said ‘We must always seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth’.’”

This excerpt reminded me of Habit 5 in Steven Covey’s bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” Most often, Covey points out, we focus on the second part—trying to get our point across. Only after that do we (sometimes) attempt to understand the other person. Reflect on current political debates and advertisements. Do they seek to understand the other person? To see truth in what the other says?

Seeking first to understand puts the onus on each of us to understand the other person’s position, motivation, and reasoning—no matter how we disagree at first. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have Republicans and Democrats first seek to understand?

Do you know of any political figures who first seek to understand?

Do you agree that seeking to understand should be the first objective?

What conclusions have you reached after our discussion this week?


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Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

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