November 11, 2002
By the People
-- Martin E. Marty
"By the People," a sixteen-month initiative from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, is designed to encourage citizen involvement in a conversation on "America in the World." Preparing for a National Issues Convention of randomly-chosen citizen-delegates, Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, and their PBS staff called together about sixty "foreign policy, media, civic group, and academic community" leaders to start the conversation. It met, we met, at Wye Plantation in Maryland.
Plenary session interviews engaged Madeleine Albright, Richard Haass, and Lawrence Eagleburger of State Departments past and present. Breakout groups discussed "Barriers to Citizen Engagement," "Provoking Dialogue: Suggestions for 'By the People,'" and some case studies involving foreign policy issues and American citizen interests and responses.
The general, but not utterly unquestioned, assumption is that America would be better off if more citizens were informed and involved in foreign policy matters. A few spoke up for the idea that such matters are too complex for ordinary folks and better off left to the experts ("elites," which was to many a dirty word). Sightings is too short a column for me to elaborate on the doings, utterances, and tentative conclusions. I'll get right to the point and talk about the faith- or religion-connected communities and contexts that we discussed in our final breakout group "Provoking Dialogue."
While militant religionists like to speak of PBS and NPR and "the media" as being made up of the company of secularists, I would have to say that at Wye, and as usual, there was plenty of respect for (and often involvement with) religion in private lives, and plenty of wariness for its militant and often lethal expression in world affairs. But our agenda had to do with the involvement of citizens. So, Nathan Baxter, dean of Washington National Cathedral, took the floor and suggested that since religious communities are among the more alert communities in respect to world affairs, why not use them more to initiate and promote "dialogue?" This got everyone's attention and many nods of assent in the audience. (Needless to say, I pitched in on this subject, too.)
My hope is that "By the People" will carry away that there's a HUGE latent foreign-policy-concerned cohort in church and synagogue. Mention: "Israel and Jews," "Islam," "Christian change in Africa, Latin America, etc." plus "missionaries," "foreign workers," "human/religious rights interests," and you will find religion at the crossroads of all the "Wye" concerns.