[Editor’s note: Julie Hanlon Rubio is Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Louis University, where she has taught since 1999. Her research interests include family, feminism, and faith and public life. She has received two Faculty Excellence awards for teaching from SLU as well as an excellence in teaching award from the department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Her book Hope for Common Ground has won the College Theology Society Book Award. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her work.]
Camosy: Congratulations. Why do you think Hope for Common Ground has struck such a nerve with people?
Rubio: Thanks! I am so grateful to have this kind of recognition for Hope for Common Ground. It was a book I had to write and it makes me so happy to know that many find it compelling.
When I talk to people who have read it or used it in their classrooms, they talk about the way the book gets at major divisions between people not by engaging in a lot of theoretical discussion but by walking through the weeds of concrete issues.
Also, I try very hard to draw from the writings of theologians and social scientists on both sides (or many sides) of polarized issues while carving out places where we can actually talk to each other. Some have told me they find that modeling of generous and constructive dialogue to be very helpful.
I believe that my experiences have contributed to an ability to appreciate a diversity of perspectives. I grew up in a politically and religiously liberal family but married into a mostly conservative family.
From hours of spirited argument in college with my future husband (and my father in law!), I knew that good people could disagree on an awful lot and still have common core values.
I saw that limiting one’s circle could create serious blind spots. I also learned a great deal from being around liberal mainline Protestants and Catholics when I studied at Harvard Divinity School and from studying with conservative evangelicals during my doctoral work at the University of Southern California.
All of this prepared me for teaching and writing that explores polarizing issues in unique ways.
Where in particular do you find hope for common ground?
My sense is that we agree on more than we think we do. We share a sense that political change is needed but are realistic enough to know that politics can’t solve all our problems.
We feel at least somewhat responsible for what the Catholic tradition calls “cooperation with evil” or our connection to evil actions we don’t intend (e.g., buying clothes made in sweatshops, eating factory farmed meat, or voting for someone whose policy positions on abortion or torture we find morally reprehensible).
And we can see that, at least sometimes, local solutions to bigger problems are more possible to envision and enact.
Take poverty. If we frame the problem as “more government spending or less?” we find a big divide and little possibility for conversation.
If instead we all concede that our perfect political universe is unlikely to materialize any time soon, acknowledge our complicity with social structures that are strongly associated with poverty, and think creatively about local solutions, there is a lot we can talk about.
To be clear, I’m not advocating soup kitchens as a solution to systemic poverty!
I’m much more interested in thinking about how nonprofits, schools, businesses, neighborhood associations, and churches can work together to address problems of job readiness, child care, food deserts, just wages, inequity in public services, and public transportation.
Imagine what could happen if some of the energy that is currently flowing into debate on national political issues were redirected to organizing and problem solving in local communities.
What is the relationship, in your view, between finding common ground and compromising one’s principles?
Most common groundwork doesn’t involve compromising moral principles. Often, we can bracket some issues in order to work together.
On abortion, for instance, pro-life and pro-choice advocates could set aside differing views about Roe v. Wade and ask questions like, “What do women facing crisis pregnancies really need? What could help more women avoid unintended pregnancies? What strategies would do the most to actually reduce abortion?”
Although it’s common to hear people say that the two sides either don’t ask the same questions or have very different answers, in my research I found a great deal of overlap.
We can learn a lot from pro-life feminists and feminists interested in reproductive justice.
This doesn’t mean letting go of our moral principles or visions of a good society. It just means clearing some space where we can put these convictions aside in order to enable productive conversation and work toward common goals.
Of course, not everyone agrees with your approach. What are one or two of the most important critiques you’ve faced and how have you responded?
One major critique is that I’ve walked too far away from politics. My response is that I’m not giving up on politics.
On every issue I address, I assume that political advocacy must continue. My worry is that in putting so much energy into politics, we’ve neglected other ways of solving social problems.
The genius of Catholic social thought is its twin advocacy of solidarity and subsidiarity. Theologians have thought too little about the network of social and cultural institutions between individuals and the state. My interest is in spurring creative thinking in what I call “the space between.”
Another key point of critique is that on some issues (immigration, for instance), political change at the national level is the only way to make progress.
I readily cede that point. A common ground/local strategy isn’t a perfect fit for all issues.
Though I still wonder, given studies I’ve read about how people’s minds change, if churches and other groups might be able to shape the national political conversation by providing opportunities for people to work together across lines of difference at the local level.
I imagine some of these folks might have the danger presented by our current administration in mind. What might what you’ve proposed look like in the era of Donald Trump?
This current political moment is a particularly difficult time to talk about hope for common ground.
Like so many others, I have found it absolutely necessary in this moment to protest, make phone calls, and donate to political causes.
I am proud that my university joined with all 28 Jesuit universities in affirming our commitment to immigrants and refugees in the face of policy proposals and actions which, in my view, cannot be reconciled with Catholic social thought.
This is a time to stand up. But I hope that even now, we can find ways to continue talking to those who disagree with us – especially fellow Catholics. I hope we can keep saying, “Tell me how you see things.”
And perhaps if national politics is not now a space for progress toward solidarity, “the space between” might be a place to turn.