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I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. If we choose to attack our opponents before we’ve taken the time to understand them if we prefer denunciations to genuine dialogue … if we seek political victory rather than constructive compromise we will not be able to find solutions to the problems before us. This is the soul-searching plea of today’s idealistic guest. Father John Jenkins is president of the University of Notre Dame. Reverend, professor of philosophy, and a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Jenkins celebrates his tenth year at the helm of the university. Six years ago he showed admirable resolve, grace, and soundness of mind in the face of blistering criticism from the religious orthodoxy protesting President Barack Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame. In a brilliant 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed “Persuasion as the Cure for Incivility,” Father Jenkins harkened back to the incivility that marks much public discourse and leads to political stalemate – his words again. He further asks, “What if instead of demonizing opponents we took steps to persuade them?” Jenkins observes that in the modern world bluntness and even coarseness have somehow come to be celebrated in many quarters. In this climate he says, the path to free speech, sound argument and open minds is still there and promising as ever, but I want to ask Father Jenkins, “How so?” How is he instilling the virtue of civility to a generation that has to fight back against entrenched partisan interests.
It’s a challenge … Alexander and it’s a delight to be here …but a universities should be about … if nothing else they should be about places where reasoned discussion prevails, reasoned respectful discussion prevails, and I hope that we at Notre Dame and I’m sure of many other universities are modeling that… And it is a challenge because the wider culture often undercuts that it gives other, um … other alternatives. But that is important thing. And there’s also an important is an important that young people are committed to the good of society not simply their own agenda their own narrow interests but the health of society at large. I hope work we’re instilling that in our students. We’re certainly trying to.
HEFFNER: How are you trying to model that.
JENKINS: … I think … just to try to be a place where we can have such discussion… but also to try to give our students a sense of their responsibility for a broader society, I mean, I think there’s a tendency in our contemporary society to narrow one’s individual interest to the group or whatever.
But to see their … to help our young people to see their responsibility for the health of our society – which includes a reasoned discussion about issues, issues that are of common interest and so I hope in our classes, I hope in our discussions on campus and I hope in.. in every aspect of our lives our students get a sense of that.
HEFFNER: Beyond basic manners in terms of how you teach civility, there has to be an appetite for compromise on many different levels within a faculty, within a student body, within a Senate, within an executive branch. I’m wondering in this climate that still betters us with the divisive debates like reproductive rights, abortion, contraceptives. How do you teach civility in that context.
JENKINS: You know it’s a challenge. You know there was a military strategist named von Clausewitz who said war is the continuation of politics by other means. Now, there’s probably a kind of um, innocuous interpretation of that. But there’s a really a seriously troubling interpretation that I think is all too prevalent in our political culture — that is that war is the attempt to impose my will by violence. Well, if … if we see politics is that then it’s really an attempt to impose my will on my opponent through the electoral system, through whatever means I have. And that’s dangerous, because, then, political discussion simply becomes a way to manipulate the electorate so that my group can be elected so that we can impose our will.
And that undermines serious debate where two sides come together, present reasons, and a kind of creative integrative solution is sought. What I hope is that instilling in our students as well as modeling in our public culture an approach to disagreement where it’s not “I want to impose my will by whatever means I can find” but rather “I want to engage people who disagree with me,” understanding that we may not ultimately agree – but attempt to find some solutions that can respect the interests and pursue many perspectives through reasoned discussion.
I think that’s the ideal we have to model in ourselves, we have to teach our students. And frankly, we have to challenge our leaders, our public leaders to live up to, because too often a different kind of discussion is modeled.
HEFFNER: Well certainly in the environment outside of academia, elsewhere … what you’re describing the opposite is modeled regularly. And you had … have a presidential campaign season now in which one of the leading Republican contenders was asked if he believes in evolution.
I think it’s .. it’s incumbent upon the press, interviewers — people who want to contribute to the health of society — to think before they ask a question — well is this further enveloping us in the partisan gridlock. Asking a candidate if he believes in evolution. If the Evangelical community hears a “yes” or a “no” — they’re going to respond in a certain way
JENKINS: I think. I think… I’d say two things about that.
I think first – yes – I think clearly I mean that’s just such a complicated issue. The danger of that is that what often is sought when you ask that question is that you know that thirty second sound bite that you can play again and again and again that you can get a certain group riled up or a certain group liking you whatever..
I do want to say what one of the great contributions to public debate is this show which gives you time to explain things and …and delve into issues and I hope there’s more of that.
But what I hope we can teach our students is to be critical, to be somewhat suspicious of us sort of media of a sort of presentation that tries to present every issue in simplistic terms that will serve a certain political set of interests, right?
I think our students, and all of us need to be sophisticated enough to challenge that kind of simplistic, black-white, narrow debate and kind of political presentation that really simply serves to manipulate the electorate..
We are being manipulated by that and we need to challenge it.
HEFFNER: You sit on the Commission for Presidential Debates and we were talking a bit off camera about how the Commission can modernize, in light of what you’re doing in academia when you’re not asked in a seminar “Yes, No” but there’s a gray area, there’s nuance.
JENKINS: Well .. and I understand the candidates. I mean that is high stakes, you know, hour or several hours in the course of the campaign. They don’t want to be caught in a moment that can destroy their campaign. So they’re very, I will say, structured and … contrived a bit, you know to present a view.
The challenge of the Committee is to get a real discussion, right, so it’s not just sound bites. It’s a real conversation about important issues and …and …what we have to continue to search for is a format that will allow us to do that it’s not easy and I understand the pressures on the candidates but that’s what we need we need real conversations not sound bites. That’s the only way we’re going to address and solve the great and serious issues facing our society.
HEFFNER: Just as there are proponents of an open primary system, where folks can… be enlisted regardless of their partisan affiliations – there might be a movement – I’ve certainly called for it – to have Republicans and Democrats on the same stage; not be in two separate universes when they’re when they’re debating issues.
JENKINS: Oh. Absolutely. I agree if we can find a way to do that, and again, it’s one thing to get him on the same stage. and trying to get kind of a little bit of one upmanship. And Another thing to try to get them to engage the issues and discuss complex issues in serious way. It isn’t easy in our political climate. But that’s the goal.
HEFFNER: Is this a generation, from your ten years again at the helm, that can find compromise on the social issues that often plague our politics, that prevent us from seeing a path forward… progress as something we can uniformly get behind? In the instance of abortion in the it seems like there’s been a rallying cry around same-sex marriage that folks in the religious community have been responsible for uplifting the status of gay people.
What … what about the terrain of abortion. What about the terrain of evolution and intelligent design, are those still lightning rods.
JENKINS: Those issues bring up deep issues. I mean we just have to all admit that to ourselves. They are not trivial issues — they’re not trivial for either side whether it’s the issue of life — I mean what could be more morally significant in human life or choice or whatever you want to say, or marriage, I mean what is a more important social institution… so I don’t want to suggest that lets kind of put the disagreements to the side let’s kind of just mollify though let’s everybody just get along agree that’s not what I’m saying and I think that’s false in a way… we have to acknowledge our disagreements and acknowledge the depth of our disagreements. But at the same time acknowledge that we have a responsibility to wider society. We have to engage one another recognizing that we can’t impose our will on others who disagree, but try to find a way that will as far as possible accommodate these deep … deep moral concerns of opposing groups.
I don’t want to sweep that under the rug. I mean I think it’s a mistake to do that if they are real issues at stake. But we have to find a way to move beyond a kind of gridlock of opposition. The vilification. of demonization, to seeking ways in which we can live together … always less than we might think of perfectly but in some way to move forward for the good of a society that of which we’re all a part.
HEFFNER: Is there still a tension … in the in the view of this issue as a clash between reason and faith, or have we moved beyond that.
JENKINS: Well, I do think that …that reason .. it’s a little .. it’s more complicated than that … in that …I mean marriage or life. I mean… in my tradition, Catholic tradition those aren’t matters of faith strictly they’re matters of reason as well.
And so, but we do disagree on reasons, and there are deep disagreements on fundamental assumptions and.. and that that is a problem. I mean I think we’ve …
HEFFNER: Fundamental assumptions. Elaborate on that.
JENKINS: … the status of a fetus. I mean is that a human being or not I mean that’s I don’t know of any more basic question we have. I mean is this a human being. And so… But there are others, the nature of marriage and its role in society. Those are important ones. So we may have to recognize that look we have convictions. We accept those and we try to live those, but we’re not going to agree, and so the question is how do we live constructively with our disagreements, right? Not how do we overwhelm the others how do we impose our will. But how do we live together in a society in which all are respected, given that we disagree on these fundamental issues. That’s the challenge before us, it’s not a small one, but I think a solution is not to try to defeat the other side, to vilify the other side that gets us nowhere.
HEFFNER: In the issue of evolution, a solution might be saying that there is such a thing as intelligent design where there is such a thing as science.
How can they be compatible … And there are a lot of people of faith who … have that point of view. That share that Tenet and so when Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, is asked that question he’s forced to choose.
JENKINS: Yes. His answer should say.. be ..yes. I mean look, anybody you know who knows much about …about science, biological sciences,,, evolution is occurs… I mean there’s just …it’s hard to dispute that …and so what the implications of that have for a belief in a transcendent.
HEFFNER: Right but I guess I was going to elaborate. There’s been a backlash for decades against liberals who refuse to implement school prayer, or allow for school prayer. And, um… I think in some part the whole civic education movement has lost traction too, which was long championed by progressives –and that the void of moral education is the paramount issue. Moral education could allow for prayer, could allow for teaching of science, but just in the public vs. charter debate, we are in these chasms. Is that the way you view it. — I mean to your mind… where, …what’s most responsible for the for the absence of moral education today.
JENKINS: Well it’s a long story and a complicated story… I…
HEFFNER: How do we get back to moral education.
JENKINS: I think it’s a great question. I mean, I will say I think we have to have to acknowledge that one of the challenges before us is that there’s not much moral consensus out there, I mean that’s …that’s the challenge before us. And how … but…so, but how do we? But of course we have to educate children. Morally. I mean I think we’re in a bad way in society if we can’t and how do we do that? You know what I personally believe that we need strong religious institutions not not only religious institutions I mean there are sort of non-religious moral institution but institutions that stand up for a certain moral tradition.
Now we don’t all agree. OK we don’t all agree, but they should have a role in our public life. My great worry is that they are being pressed to the margins a bit and sort of less able to impart the wisdom of that tradition in our discussions and often part of the problem is we’re kind of locked in these hot button controversial issues that just hamstrings everyone and we can’t get beyond them to talk about OK we disagree about that particular issue. What’s the broader issues we can agree about those the kind of conversations we need to have and I think there are there are more difficult to have in our time.
HEFFNER: Pope Francis for President?
HEFFNER: It’s a real question. He has embodied something that no political figure has in quite some time. You might have a look at Reagan or F.D.R. as examples.
JENKINS: It’s interesting you bring him up, in this connection because I think his popularity is due at least in part to the fact that he is perhaps arguably the most prominent moral voice in our society. He provides a sort of moral perspective on things that I notice I mean he’s very insistent that look I’m not going to focus exclusively on the hot button issues. I’m not going to talk all the time, even though I’m sure he’s adamantly pro-life he’s not going to make that the sole concern. Or gay marriage, he’s not going make that the sole concern. He’s… he’s going to step back and talk about what are the moral …what’s the moral vision guiding us as a society. And interestingly, I find with Pope Francis, Catholics I think admire, but often Catholics find him interesting engaging here’s an important voice in what he does is he steps back from the gridlock issues to start one talk about the purposes, the deeper purposes of our society. That’s an important role that he plays and that’s what I’m talking about. I think religious institutions and leaders like him can provide a role in lifting our gaze up from the controversial issue of the day to the deeper purposes of our life together, and he’s been very powerful at that.
HEFFNER: Getting down to the boots on the ground here. Has there been any negative response…There have been individual bishops in this country, one or two in particular, who said this is the wrong direction for the Catholic Church. Are the archconservative theologians that you talk to, are they upset?
JENKINS: Well, there’s a there’s a group upset and they speak publicly in criticism or how to maybe be of influence…
HEFFNER: More American than international
JENKINS: Oh, probably both. Probably some Americans and some in.. in other places.
HEFFNER: Why? What’s what’s..
Take us inside that mindset.
JENKINS: I frankly think they’re critical of this step back from this kind of set of controversial issues I spoke about. I think they’re …they’re…. they’re kind of perhaps not as …
as um, in tune.
I don’t want to say they’re against, but they’re not as in tune with his making front and center the poor, the marginalized. the voiceless, and I think that’s been a critical issue of his. I think …he’s and I think the third thing and this is important. He said let’s talk about the tough issues whether it’s divorce and remarriage, whether it’s homosexuality, Let’s talk about the tough issues. Let’s open up the conversation, and I think, I frankly think some people are nervous about that. They don’t want to open up the conversation because they’re afraid where it might go, but I think Francis wants to open the windows that’s a phrase from Pope John the twenty third open up the windows. Let’s have a conversation, let’s refresh our vision.
And whenever… whenever you want to change an institution as traditional, as old, as ..as prominent as the Catholic church you’re going to get resistance and he’s gotten resistance.
HEFFNER: Why have the faces of the dispossessed, the impoverished, been a source of contention. The church has historically been a source of great philanthropy.
JENKINS: Yeah. I don’t I don’t want to say people are against that. But. But he has made that front and center where as I’m sure you know in our in the developed world like the United States there are sort of other set of issues.
We tend not to pay much attention to the millions who live in very hard conditions around the world, and we’re concerned about our set of controversial issues.
I think it’s not that people are opposed to that but they’re worried about the shift of focus away from those issues to the immigrants from Africa, to the people who live in you know just subsistence existence and in many parts of the world.
HEFFNER: I just wonder … a spiritual fidelity to the, you know a strict constructionist view, uh, could very much endorse fighting inequality.
JENKINS: Oh absolutely. I mean
HEFFNER: And that’s that’s the message he’s taking…
JENKINS: That’s that’s just it I mean that’s that’s the power of Pope Francis. He goes back to the charter document you know that Jesus’ message of mercy – that that is the power of Pope Francis that he’s not arguing about some small issue of canon law but the central missions of Christ and that, that is why he’s inspired so many. He’s not inside baseball with kind of the ecclesial issues but what does Christ challenge us to do every day and what is clear he challenges us to attend to people who are most needy or most poor, or most struggling.
HEFFNER: And as you look at these issues and your presidency at Notre Dame. When …when you think of the vast promise that you allude to in your op-ed. Where must young people take charge now that they haven’t in the last ten years since you began.
JENKINS: It’s difficult – you know and I do want to say you know we have ideals and we it’s difficult to live up to those ideals but we try. And what we’d like to present to young people is the possibility of a kind of moral ideal, the deeper moral purpose of the life
HEFFNER: An empowerment…
JENKINS: Of them, or others you mean?
HEFFNER: Of others. Of others. The calling of the church in a millennial empowerment.
JENKINS: Absolutely. I mean there are complex issues that won’t be solved simply, but unless you know Pope Francis is one of the lines of globalization of indifference you know that we just don’t care that people are dying, unless we can get beyond that globalization of indifference, we will not move forward and I think young people are always inspired by ideals …and I think our young people are deeply inspired by the ideals of overcoming that indifference.
HEFFNER: And overcoming a system that seems rigged to favor people of great wealth, because … Pope Francis has made some creative analogies when it comes to cannibal capitalism and the eating …eating.. the flesh of us.
START HERE — JENKINS: You know exactly. I mean certainly, I mean capitalism has has raised the level of so many people in the world.
I don’t want to I don’t think he should be interpreted as anti-capitalist but it can lead us to think that it’s all about …material acquisition, that that’s what our life is about and that’s what we have to challenge to challenge that with the deep moral purposes of a human life. If that’s what life is about then it’s a very impoverished life and to give young people the idea that your life can be about more than that. It’s not about how much money you make, how many good you have but about the purposes you serve. That is inspiring.
HEFFNER: There seems to be. though a disingenuousness … a disingenuousness in the … perception that our American public has of candidates in the way that they espouse faith.
JENKINS: It’s tough. I will say, I mean I am sympathetic with that with candidates because it all becomes this very shallow litmus test, you know, does this person pray …rather than a deep …faith should reside at the deepest reservoirs of human life and, you know that’s hard to put that in a thirty second sound bite, and I will say it, with all respect to your profession you know I mean I think sometimes the media conspires to make it simplistic – to make it a litmus test to make it a gotcha moment – rather than a deep reflection on purposes.
And I think I think I and I will also criticize religious leaders who have been co-opted often by political interests to sort of, you know, to narrow down an issue.
Religious leaders should not be …and I do believe at the at the level of political give and take … they should be calling us to a transcendent vision and they should be reminding us of our responsibility to that, and not be co-opted by short term political interests. So I fought that and so because I fought a lot of people and I think we have to be stronger about that: enriching the moral conversation in public life.
HEFFNER: So for this campaign, Father Jenkins, I hope you’ll transcend the Al Smith Dinner and Company. Humor is great. It brings an element to our politics that we need. And maybe it’s that humor that will lead us to a more complete embrace…
HEFFNER: …Of, of civility.
JENKINS: Humor is valuable for that.
HEFFNER: But…continue on your mission.
JENKINS: Well thank you very much a pleasure talking to thanks for this time.
HEFFNER: Thank you Father Jenkins And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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