The Values I Learned at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit

by Parisa Parsa

As I boarded the plane in Boston for the conference I was attending in Washington, DC, the headlines started lighting up my phone:

“Donald Trump to Address Anti-LGBT Hate Group”

“Trump Becomes First Sitting President to Address Hate-Filled Values Voter Summit”.

I first received the news of President Trump’s appearance in very different language. An effusive email the afternoon before heralded the confirmation that Mr. Trump would be addressing the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit. As a first time registrant who never imagined myself at this type of event, or even in the same room with Donald Trump for that matter, this was just the beginning of 48 hours of deeply unsettling dissonance.

As Executive Director of an organization devoted to the practice of bringing people together across divides, I wanted to develop a better understanding of one of the most conservative organizations in our country today. Having strong liberal leanings myself, I knew I was in for an education. What I experienced was even more eye-opening than I anticipated.

Sitting in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreline Hotel, I felt myself surrounded by people of faith and passion who spoke of God’s love and God’s call in this time. “Our issue is not with flesh and blood,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) on Thursday morning’s first panel, “it is with powers and principalities.” Speakers proclaimed how far we have wandered from the promise of grace and how easily we have turned our backs on the teachings of scripture as the audience clapped in recognition. Far from the finger-wagging I was expecting, the theology that was spoken was of deep humility. The command to love our enemies was spoken repeatedly, and seemed utterly genuine.

Liberals filled the #VVS17 Twitter feed with posts like “Trump goes for evangelical voters because they are the easiest of the easy marks.” [@Astorix23, 10/14/17]

And “Meanwhile at the Values Voter Summit…” over a photoshopped image of a Nazi rally, Trump’s face pasted on the fuhrer’s with the signature mustache [@LeftwardSwing 10/14/17]. Under normal circumstances, this would have been my only “news” about what was happening within those walls. And it was true: big names at the podium and regular folks in the seats and exhibit hall spoke of their conviction that marriage belongs to a man and a woman, that ending a pregnancy was categorically wrong, and that our founders wished for a state that was governed by their very particular understanding of Christian values. Those values are very different from my understanding of Christianity as a faith based on love and justice. As a former pastor and a liberal Christian, I found myself reflecting that the conclusions they had drawn from their religion are false, yet the authenticity of their faith and the depth of their convictions rang true.

As speakers on the roster exhorted strategies to advance policies and laws that I utterly disagree with, I spoke during breaks with individuals whose convictions, honesty, and care for each other, our nation, their families and the fate of the world were deep and real. And I did not hear or experience hatred of any people — as individuals or as groups. And yet folks on the left felt fine about posting things like “The #VVS17 is not a Christian conference. It is a Talibangelical conference of anti-American religious zealots and extremists.” [@opinionatedTim, 10/14/17]

Although Donald Trump had talked about Iran (my birthplace, first homeland and half of my cultural heritage) as “the worst terrorist nation,” when I shared with a seatmate that I am Iranian, I was not shunned or dismissed. I was met with curiosity, engagement, and good conversation.

My companions for the two days of the summit were kind, I would go so far as to say loving people. Many of the people I met identified themselves as a minority watching a nation lose its soul. People who felt their faith losing its power and voice in a reckless landscape of immorality. Did I agree with them? No. Did I see that their experience was genuine? Yes, I most certainly did.

Our national commitment to democracy is appropriately struggling under the demands of our pluralist ideals. Voices across the political spectrum are pushing constantly for equity, engagement, and inclusion that were undreamed of in the time of the nation’s founding. I believe that to keep our commitment to inclusion, we cannot exclude the folks who disagree with inclusion; in fact, the minority who dissent need to be heard in a healthy democracy.

When I see headlines touting and organization or a group of people as a “hate group,” though I know there are some very particular criteria for the designation, I get a very specific picture in my mind. Hate is supposed to be dramatic, strong, angry. People in such a group must be grimacing, seething, violent, boorish. And the real people at this gathering were quite disappointing on that front. The disconnection between media and Twitter reactions to the conference and the kindness of the actual participants was alarming. Once you have decided that a gathering is “hate-filled” what is off limits?

It matters that we take time to learn the story as it would be told by the neighbors with whom we disagree. Categorically shutting down these ideas and alienating the people who hold them not only makes the ideas more powerful, it runs counter to the spirit of engagement and spirited debate that make for a healthy democracy.

We everyday citizens have a powerful choice in this moment in history. Will we turn toward our neighbors and seek to understand them, or will we perpetuate a machine of alienation and rage until we are all destroyed? We live in a landscape of some of the greatest diversity of ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality, gender and political persuasion the world has ever witnessed in a single society. In the midst of the fear, division and misinformation, we must choose a path.

Parisa Parsa is the Executive Director of Essential Partners in Cambridge, Massachusetts.