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Attorney knows civil discourse is possible among churches

A conservative, a liberal and a moderate spar each semester before a Gonzaga University political science class. 

Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson
They respect each other and are friends after three years of exchanges.  They have even found points of agreement.

For one, Tom Robinson, an attorney active in the Spokane Alliance, the experience models what he’d like to see conservative and liberal Christians do. 

“In civil, professional discussions, we explore reasons for our perspectives and values that lead us to our opinions and beliefs,” he said.  “We expand the conversation and leave as friends.”

Political science professor Jerry Hughes moderates the discussions with Tom, Mike Fitzsimmons and Jim Shivley on issues ranging from abortion to the Middle East.  Mike, a Gonzaga journalism professor, has a conservative talk radio show on KXLY and is on the St. Vincent de Paul board.  Jim, a moderate, spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and served as U.S. attorney in Eastern Washington under Republican and Democratic presidents.

“Many students seem surprised that people could hold such different viewpoints but talk like we do and then agree to disagree,” Tom said.  “We all can do it if we understand that each of us has value and we are all children of God.”

He believes Christians who differ should converse, listen, love each other, pray for each other and commune together rather than be swept into the political fray of prescribed arguments for politically expedient “solutions” that fall short of addressing real issues and Christian values.

“Arguing is in my blood,” Tom said, “arguing to resolve differences.”

He values meeting with a group of mostly conservative Christians in an interdenominational Bible study he has attended since participating in a Walk to Emmaus retreat in 1997. 

“I’m involved, because I believe we need to share our diverse perspectives and be in community,” he said.  “It fine-tunes for me how important faith and sharing views are in the political arena.”

Tom also finds a niche to foster dialogue through the Spokane Alliance, a nonprofit organization representing about 30,000 Spokane area people. 

He and its other leaders offer listening seasons, leadership training and assemblies for people in congregations, education, labor and other organizations to discern common values and develop public action to advance the common good.

After training in broad-based community organizing in 1998 in San Antonio, Tex., he set aside his early dream of running for political office.  He knew he had found an avenue to express his love of political science and his desire to make a difference through the political action involved in community organizing.

Since the 2004 election, Tom has been frustrated, believing the influence of a segment of the religious community on the political process “has affected the integrity of both the political and religious communities.”

He is learning he is not alone

“People today are tired of partisan bickering.  I hope that means we will see more people sitting down and conversing,” he said.

A committed Catholic in his early years, Tom initially studied for three years to be a priest.  Until he was 15 and entered Mater Cleri Seminary in Colbert, he shared caretaking responsibilities with his siblings for his father, who was paralyzed by polio.

He has lived in Spokane, except for studies in 1975 through Gonzaga University in Florence, Italy, and a year in graduate school at Arizona State University.  He graduated from Gonzaga in political science in 1976 and earned his law degree there in 1980.

Tom began attending Grace Baptist Church after he married Debra, a Baptist. When they moved to the North side, they attended Northview Bible Church, and for the last 13 years, they have been at Covenant United Methodist Church, through which he became involved with the alliance.

He also switched from practicing law that emphasized retribution in favor of guardianship law for seniors, which he finds more in line with his goal of fostering reconciliation.  He prefers caregiving to litigating, working to see that his clients have appropriate care as they age.

From his experiences as a college debater and then as an attorney, he knows the fine points of remaining civil while arguing.

In debate, he learned to argue both sides of each issue, so he understands the importance of thinking through arguments to make them convincing—even passionate—but still civil.

“Jesus’ command was that we love one another.  That trumps our judging others,” he said.

While he challenges judgmental “stepping on toes,” he believes “stepping on toes” in open, honest debate is a critical need today.

Tom observes how media and politicians help create polarization, limit discussion and promote single-issue voters.

Media seem more concerned with selling papers or attracting viewers than digging to the bottom of issues.  Too often, media let non-answers go, abrogating their role of challenging viewpoints,” he said. 

“Sound bytes afford no accountability, leaving the press a mouthpiece for elected officials, instead of their watchdog.  If journalists are doing their job, they help hold officials accountable by creating greater transparency.”

For example, when media buy into labeling anything unpopular as “liberal,” they confuse the term and make it a slur, so those in power stay in power, he said, implying that to do the same to conservatives is no better.

Tom is concerned that people are setting aside Christian values, particularly their obligation to the poor, and supporting limited agendas for secular political gain. 

“Both liberals and conservatives compromise in politics,” he recognizes.

Too often, he said, Christians act like some secular social groups, splitting when they don’t agree.  He believes that makes them prey for political manipulation.

From his understanding of political science, he sees secular forces encouraging divisions among Christians over issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and judges. 

“Many politicians seek to split the Christian community, so they avoid talking about shared values on poverty,” Tom said, “and focus on a narrow agenda that alienates, inviting extremism or apathy.”

These forces facilitate a “cultural war” between conservatives and liberals, focusing on sexual morality instead of human rights, he said, and diverting attention from the Christian obligation to care for the vulnerable and the environment, he said.

“Christian values lose ground with each tax cut that transfers more wealth to people who have the most.  About $700 billion has been transferred to the upper five percent, while millions more children and families fall into poverty and lose access to food, housing and health care,” said Tom, appalled that so many Christians support values contrary to Jesus’ emphases in exchange for political gain for just the anti-abortion and anti-gay agendas.

For him, the call of Christian faith is to love people irrespective how they live and to love outcasts as Jesus did. 

Tom knows that conservative Christians also have misgivings about liberal Christians straying from the Bible and embracing “unacceptable” secular forces.

For example, he believes conservative Christians need to challenge liberal Christians when they take separation of church and state too far or support politicians whose concern for the poor is a sham designed to win elections.

Both liberal and conservative Christians also need to challenge people they elect to pursue policies that represent the wide range of their faith values, instead of single issues, he said.

We need to hold politicians accountable—as stewards of our resources—to balance the budget,” he said.  “If we form coalitions and stay together, we can effect change that represents common values.”

He urges both communities to follow Jesus’ command “to love one another” by finding a place where they can spend time together and dive into the issues that divide them.

He suggests they gather for joint Bible studies and challenge each other face-to-face, passionately, forcefully, lovingly and respectfully. When differences stir anger, they can pray and listen.

“I may strongly disagree with some people, but I hope I can challenge them and they can challenge me, so we can hash out our differences without the anger that typifies much public discussion,” Tom asserted.

He knows it is possible, because last spring his Bible study group held a special meeting to hear his concerns.  He talked.  They listened.  Everyone shared.  It opened doors to discussion.

“We need to talk with each other to remind ourselves of our obligations as people of faith and to be mutually accountable for our actions,” he said.

What Tom promotes is like the liberal-moderate-conservative presentations for Gonzaga University and Mead High School classes.

He urges Christian communities to become catalysts for discussion of larger issues to help people understand each other and their different opinions. 

“Valuing people with whom we disagree helps us move from debate to understanding,” he said. 

Through the Spokane Alliance, Tom can also help people examine different views before taking an issue to the community.

He believes the alliance would benefit from more diversity, too, because issues come from within member groups. With more groups involved, it will be more  representative of the community when it brings issues to elected officials and corporate leaders.

In October and November, the Spokane Alliance facilitated bipartisan meetings with state legislators from the third and sixth districts—Republicans and Democrats—to discuss health care, sustainable jobs, green building, and the state’s regressive taxes. 

Representatives will meet at 7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 12,  Highland Park United Methodist Church, 611 S. Garfield, to discern issues for common action in the next legislative session.

Tom sees the alliance’s strength as being nonpartisan and bipartisan, bringing people together to  converse so it can help change the culture now dominated by partisan bickering that inhibits finding community-based and legal solutions to issues when people really do share values.

For information, call 370-7381.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © December 2005