From a distance, it seems like a simple task:
The Revs. Mark Harris and Robin Tanner would co-write a letter to their city, pledging that in the widening divide of the marriage-amendment debate, they would treat each other with understanding and respect. Then they would get other clergy to add their names, too.
“The intention,” Tanner said this week, “was to create a public covenant, a sacred relationship between religious leaders, that ‘We are pledging to you, city of Charlotte, that during this campaign we will not engage in any violence, and that includes language.’ ”
A group of spiritual leaders taking a stand against hate speech, how hard could that be?
Three months later, the letter remains an unfinished draft.
With 10 days remaining before the May 8 amendment vote, an opportunity for a cross-denominational endorsement of public civility appears to have come and gone.
In hindsight, supposedly simple tasks have a way of revealing their true complexities.
Did time, as Harris contends, simply run out?
Or is there something septic in the public square that makes trust and cooperation across philosophical lines far more difficult than one might think?
A lunch meeting, an idea
Tanner and Harris first got together in January, three months after their photos had appeared side-by-side in the Observer. In a Sunday front-page story, they had fervently represented the developing camps of the amendment debate. The amendment would limit marriage to a man and a woman and strengthen a current ban on same-sex unions.
The pastors may have appeared to be opponents. Except they had never met. And that bothered Tanner.
So the pastor of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church and a leader in the statewide campaign to defeat the amendment invited Harris, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte and a statewide leader in getting the proposal passed, to lunch.
They chose Cabo Fish Taco in NoDa. At Tanner’s invitation, Park Road Baptist pastor Russ Dean joined them. So did Jonathan Rebsamen, Harris’ associate at First Baptist.
They had plenty to talk about. Shortly after that first story appeared, Tanner, a lesbian, arrived home to find her house being picketed. The slurs poured in by emails, letters and phone calls.
Harris, also on the receiving end of abusive emails, had grown tired of hearing amendment supporters described as homophobic hate-mongers.
Both preachers wanted to win, but neither wanted to be part of a campaign that made things more divisive.
So over lunch, the question soon arose: What steps could they take now to ensure that Charlotte was a place they all could call home after May 8?
Dean, co-pastor of moderate Baptist congregation, had an idea.
‘I find that tragic’
Why not draft a letter, he said, a statement that could be circulated to clergy across the city then jointly published?
Thirty-one states had already passed marriage amendments. Many had featured bruising campaigns that left both sides damaged and angry.
In such polarized times, Dean said, “When people on the right think people on the left are demons, and vice versa, the chance that a Unitarian woman and a Baptist man would come together for something like this might have national implications.”
Tanner would take the first crack at writing something, and the full group would get back together in three weeks.
Harris, president of the state Baptist Convention, said he supported the plan.
Dean, though, recalls that politics quickly became an issue. In a Jan. 13 column to his congregation about the lunch, he wrote:
“While our conversation was genuinely gracious, and while Mark seemed not to disapprove of my suggestions, he was somewhat hesitant – because some of his folks would have an issue with his name appearing in print alongside ours.”
“Talk about incivility,” Dean continued. “… Some folks among us can’t even tolerate my name being associated with yours. I find that tragic.”
The group met again on Valentine’s Day, at First Baptist. A draft of the statement was circulated, discussed.
Harris didn’t call for substantive changes. But Tanner says he wanted to show the draft around, then have the group get back together in two weeks.
The third meeting never took place.
No answer, no time
Tanner and Dean says emails and phone calls to Harris and his executive assistant suddenly went unanswered for days and even weeks. Harris says his schedule, already a balancing act between his church, the presidency of the state Baptists and the amendment campaign, was complicated further by a monthlong medical condition that required surgery. In the end, he says he didn’t have time to spend on the letter.
“I’m saddened that we didn’t get further down the road in putting something together, and I certainly bear a good bit of responsibility,” he said this week. “But time ran out… Looking back, we should have started this in November.”
Harris reacted strongly to Dean’s version of events, that “I was being pushed around by fear of what others might think … that (I’m) a puppet of others,” he said.
“That would be dead wrong, and that would damage everything that we have built.”
Tanner puts it this way: The effort it took “to try to sign a letter together to condemn violence,” she says “shows how uncivil the discourse and how divisive the public square have become.”
What could have been
Would a statement have changed the tone of the campaign?
Absolutely, Tanner says. It would have confronted “the far extremes that have incited hate, violence and fear.”
Harris says both campaigns have acted admirably, even without the shared statement. And he believes his meetings with Tanner have lasting worth.
“It was extremely valuable early on to understand who Robin is and to know her as a person,” he said. “If there is ever a desire in the rest of the campaign for me to rattle off some rhetoric, I couldn’t do that. Because I know her and I have sat across the table from her. I hope she would say the same thing about me.”
Adds Tanner: “Meeting with Mark deeply connected me to my own values …that there’s a big difference in standing against an amendment, and not a group of people.”
A door that was unexpectedly opened is not completely shut.
“The biggest test is what happens May 9,” Harris says. “This issue is really about treating one another well. It’s going to have a far more lasting impact on how we handle the results of this vote, rather than the last two weeks leading up to it.”
Tanner differs to this degree: “I think the present moment and how we’re acting and how we’re treating each other is just as important. I do agree with Mark that we need to find a different way.”
If he’s interested in exploring that further after the election, she said, “I’d be very open to that.”