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Obama Common Ground column

It's Tough to follow Atticus, Obama across the Great Divide

Printed in the Kansas City Star on June 19, 2009.

If he were a fictional character, he'd be Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," who said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view &emdash; until you climb in his skin and walk around in it."

That's all well and good, but it runs against the modern American grain. We love to ridicule and demonize those we disagree with. Genteel, civil discussion is passé. Dig in your heels and man the ramparts!

Respecting others' views isn't easy when you have strongly held beliefs. And everyone, it seems, has strongly held beliefs these days.

I'll give you an example. Last year, my wife and I were discussing evolution with an elderly man. He asked, "Do you really believe we came from monkeys?" We looked at each other, shocked this was even a question. We answered yes. He shook his head in disbelief. After we left, we shook our own heads. "Can you believe that guy?"

This is typical of the blue-red divide in America. It's a constant rolling of the eyes. To us evolutionists, the creationists are simpletons. The planet is 30,000 years old? Dinosaurs and men existing simultaneously? Do you even get the Discovery Channel?

The creationists might counter that we're faithless snobs. Have you considered the beauty and order inherent in all life? Do you deny a higher hand in it? Do you even own a Bible?

How do I bridge that gap? Obama and Atticus Finch would tell me to slip into that creationist's skin and try to understand where he's coming from. Move away from judgment. For heaven's sake, look for common ground.

I'm trying. It's hard.

Look, "One Million Years B.C." was a wonderfully campy movie, with Raquel Welch fighting off T-Rexes, but it's hardly science.

Yet, if I take time to get past my snobbery, when I contemplate the role of the divine in life, creation, even evolution, I wonder about the possibility of some form of "intelligent design." Some force started this process, envelops and empowers it, perhaps in some way even guides it.

The abortion debate is an even tougher example. Just look at the murder of George Tiller, a prominent abortion provider, only weeks after the president called for a calmer discussion of the issue.

Even after that tragic event, we'll probably continue to yell at each other across a chasm. You’re either a baby killer or an enslaver of women. Where's that point of agreement? Calmer heads say let's work together to lower the number of abortions. Let's promote responsible sex education that includes both birth control and abstinence. Let's make adoption easier.

But go deeper into abortion policy, and critics of Obama's approach say it breaks down when you have to make hard choices. In the end, don't you have to choose whether abortion should be legal or illegal?

Yes, we have to choose, Atticus Finch might say, but can we first slip on that other skin and listen to each other? Much of the time, our views are preconceived. We choose first and then listen &emdash; or more likely never listen at all.

And then we never get to civil discussion or to compromise. Bipartisanship is a nice word, we say, but it doesn't work in the real world.

There are many reasons Obama won the election, but I believe one of the most important was that many Americans are tired of bickering. They elected his rhetoric of peace, you might say.

All Atticus Finch asked is that we look for that one point of agreement where we can understand what the other guy's talking about. Where we can nod knowingly at each other and say: "I hear what you're saying. Good point."

And for the love of God, let's stop rolling our eyes, as fun as that is.