The Governor of Utah, Republican Spencer Cox, received a standing ovation Saturday when he announced a new initiative to more than 700 delegates and speakers nationwide at the Braver Angels convention held at Gettysburg College last week.
“I want to thank you for your blood and toil, your labor and sacrifice to try and teach our fellow Americans to disagree, not to hate,” he said, “which is why next week, when I assume the chairmanship of the National Governors Association, I will be launching an initiative called Healthy Conflict, Disagreeing Better. It will feature governors modeling healthy conflict, helping to amplify the good work you are doing.”
Braver Angels is a non-profit organization that brings conservatives and progressives together on equal terms to understand differences, find common ground where it exists, and introduce grassroots programs that teach civil discourse and respect.
“Can we transform our politics?” asked Cox. “The answer, of course, has to be yes, because the alternative of going down the current path is unthinkable, but perhaps not unthinkable since we are here on the site where the unthinkable actually happened.” He referred to the Civil War Battle of 1863 at Gettysburg, which pitted Americans against Americans in one of the conflict’s bloodiest battles.
Braver Angels, formerly known as Better Angels, was named after President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, where he closed by saying: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The four-day conference featured workshops and speakers addressing ways to reduce political conflict through membership recruitment, local alliance-building, regional leadership development, convention delegation, and community events, including workshops, debates, and town halls. The organization delivers its message of effective conflict resolution through projects, caucuses, music, film, books, and scholarly discourse.
The Braver Angels mission statement warns that Americans are dividing into groups that increasingly do not even know or interact with people of differing opinions, thereby losing trust in America’s institutions, eroding the ability to govern itself, and lowering the caliber of citizenship. Effective self-government, the members believe, depends precisely on what this type of polarization destroys.
Cox, sometimes criticized for embracing and promoting liberal platforms, seems to agree. “I think it’s important that we think of depolarization as a policy issue and that in our interaction with our elected officials we ask them, ‘What are you going to do to rebuild institutions and depolarize our country?’”
Later, when asked about trusting sources of information, he said,” One of the reasons for the polarization that we’re seeing is that we’re not even starting from a common set of facts. It’s an issue on the right and the left.” He added that both sides need to work on honest disagreement without disparaging each other but really trying to understand where we’re coming from. “It is un-American to hate Americans,” he said.
Cox’s remarks echoed the theme of the conference, where attendees wore red (conservative), blue (liberal), yellow (independent), and white (abstaining due to profession) lanyards as they attended nine plenary events, focusing on Braver Angel’s goals, such as building movements, creating a platform, planning for the future, and learning about the organization’s roles in education and at the community level.
Among the presenters were Bill Doherty, co-founder of Braver Angels; David Blankenhorn, President of Braver Angels; Paul Edwards, director of the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University; Hawk Newsome, co-founder of BLM Greater New York; Erica Manuel, CEO of the Institute for Local Government, Wilk Wilkinson, host of Derate the Hate podcast, Salim Amir Bey, founder of League Network TV, Keith Allred, President of Common Sense American, Ross Irwin, COO, Bridge USA and others.
Forty-five workshops held among the main sessions concentrated on various challenges and calls to action, interspersed with visits to the battlefields of Gettysburg. Debates in which Braver Angels practiced their discourse skills centered around current hot spot political issues such as abortion, trustworthy elections, removing controversial monuments, Christian Nationalism, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), media bias, and the coming 2024 presidential elections.
Created following the 2016 elections, Braver Angels has grown and, in 2022, included more than 11,700 members. Over 24,000 participants attended Braver Angels workshops, debates, town halls, and online discussions last year.
John Wood Jr., National Ambassador for Braver Angels and opinion columnist for USA Today, closed the conference by praising the delegates for their hard work promoting political empathy and encouraging people to learn to disagree without malice or hate. “What we have to offer America is hope, not just hope with a vision, but hope with a plan,” he said.
Noting the presence of Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, at the conference, Wood acknowledged the positive and negative feelings that might be elicited by the scientist’s presence and the distrust of the institution he represents. “It’s okay to be skeptical, to have some doubt–or to have some discomfort.”
But Collins cautioned that if Americans can’t trust the electoral system, elections, public health establishments, the media, or political parties, there will not be a democracy to defend.
“Debate is a part of this, and this why in the interest of building trust between the American people, we need space for us to challenge each other because it matters, because it’s necessary. It starts with us seeing each other as human beings. If we skip that step, we can build nothing on top,” said Collins.
Featured image captions:
Erica Manuel, CEO of the Institute for Local Government, and Wilk Wilkinson, Debate the Hate
podcast host, share a private smile at the Braver Angels convention, Thursday.
Paul Edwards, left, director of the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, and Troy
Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ civil rights organization discuss the Utah way of
reaching a compromise.
A group of Braver Angels listens to an argument during one of the debates.
Carlos Hernandez, a California conservative – has the floor.
Judith Cameron Seniura is a freelance reporter. She began her journalism career in the early ‘70s and has written for newspapers, magazines, and other media in Ontario, Canada, Alaska, Michigan, Nebraska, San Antonio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.