Less than a year ago, we were on opposite sides of a heated legislative debate in California, pitting LGBT student protections against the religious freedom of faith-based colleges and universities. One of us (Evan) is a Democrat in the California State Assembly and chair of the LGBT Caucus. The other (Barry) is the president of a theologically conservative Christian university, Biola, in Southern California.
Our paths crossed for the first time in the context of two bills introduced in the California legislature in early 2016, one of them authored by Evan. These bills (Assembly Bill 1888 and Senate Bill 1146) were written to protect LGBT students in California as a response to a Human Rights Campaign report that a growing number of religious universities were seeking exemptions from certain requirements of the federal government’s Title IX non-discrimination laws that conflicted with their religious beliefs on matters of sexual ethics.
One of the bills, SB 1146, gained momentum in the California legislature, with its supporters (including Evan) arguing that religious exemptions were a loophole that gave faith-based institutions a “license to discriminate” against LGBT students. For their part, leaders of faith-based colleges and universities in California (including Barry) said SB 1146 raised important issues about protecting students but went too far in weakening First Amendment-protected freedoms for religious schools to operate consistent with their religious convictions.
As president of Biola University, one of several dozen faith-based colleges and universities in California whose access to state financial aid was threatened by SB 1146, Barry and a number of other presidents lobbied for months to oppose the legislation, unless amended. Over the summer the tensions escalated when alumni and supporters of Christian colleges in California heard about the legislation and registered their opposition in Sacramento and on social media. It became a national news story, and emotions ran high.
By September, an amended version of the bill had passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Though the modified bill — which required new transparency and disclosure requirements for schools with Title IX exemptions — was one that Biola and other religious colleges could support, the bill’s passage did not resolve tensions or allay fears. Distrust continued on both sides.
It seemed as though our respective communities and interests remained on a collision course that would not end well.
Then something unexpected happened. The collision began morphing into a cooperation. And now here we are. This time last year the two of us were foes in a religious liberty skirmish, but now we are friends.
Two leaders on opposite sides of a divisive ideological issue decided to talk to each other. We listened to each other’s perspectives. We listened while wanting to learn rather than listening while waiting to respond. Generous listening helped deconstruct some of the wrong impressions we had about the communities the other represented.
Barry visited Evan’s office in Sacramento several times, and Evan came to Biola to meet with Barry as well as with students, faculty and staff. And at the end of the day, we sat down together over a long dinner. Breaking bread sometimes begins to break barriers.
We both had notions that informed our initially defensive stances toward the other. It’s amazing how quickly biases can be overcome when real relationships are prioritized, when you realize the person you once thought an adversary is in many ways like you, with a story and passions and fears, and a hope that we can make the world a better place.
Do we agree on everything? No. Do our ideas of how to make a world a better place align? Not on every issue. That’s okay. But what we have discovered, in getting to know one another, is that two people do not need to see eye-to-eye in order to work shoulder-to-shoulder. There are big, complex problems in our state and in our nation that need addressing, and they demand collaboration among those who bring different perspectives to the table. The two of us are committed to working together on areas of common interest, such as supporting first-generation and other minority students on college campuses, college affordability and combating campus sexual assault.
In light of the complexity of the national challenges we face, we need to cooperate with others. Few problems are best addressed by homogenous groups, closed off to the voices of alternative views. Echo chambers are never good environments for productive problem solving. This is as true for the conservative Christian college as it is for the legislature’s LGBT Caucus. Our respective interests are made stronger when we reach out and seek to understand the other, working together to tackle the complexities of our time, for the common good.
This approach is urgently needed in American culture, where sadly we’ve grown accustomed to the new normal of division, incivility and hate. We shouldn’t be resigned to this.
Our nation needs to rediscover the inherent strength of its pluralistic diversity, where the dignity and perspectives of everyone matter and where we don’t have to agree in order to affirm that we are all in this together. A strong and vibrant democracy allows for diverse visions of human flourishing, but it need not be a zero sum game. Rather, what if we listened to each other more in order to focus on where our visions overlap toward a better state, a better nation?
The two of us can attest to the fact that relationships don’t need to be built on 100 percent agreement in order to be fruitful. But they do need to be built on listening, kindness and respect. As Jimmy Kimmel said Sunday night, we need more “positive, considerate conversations” among people who disagree with each other.
Relationships like this, whether on university campuses or in the halls of government, are crucial in a democracy that thrives insofar as its citizens know how to disagree without demonizing and work together for the common good without diminishing differences.
Evan Low is a California Assembly member. Barry H. Corey is the president of Biola University in La Mirada, California, and the author of “Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue.” They wrote this for The Washington Post.