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    PloughCast 73: Achieving Disagreement and Other Tips for Political Conversation

    By Stephanie Summers and Susannah Black Roberts

    November 22, 2023

    About This Episode

    Susannah speaks with Stephanie Summers about how to disagree well. Stephanie is the head of the Center for Public Justice (CJP), a DC-based group that works with faith-based and secular organizations, as well as with Congress, to help craft a political culture that supports pluralism.

    We don’t all agree on issues of religious and moral import. Is there a way that we can nevertheless work together on things where we do agree? And can we provide protections for all organizations to live out their idea of the good life, and in particular their faith commitments?

    Summers describes her approach to conversation and disagreement, and gives several case studies regarding the work that the CPJ has done over the past several years, most notably in light of the Dobbs decision.

    She also discusses what happens when you reach the limits of pluralism: Is there room for actually seeking common justice, justice that we can all agree on despite our differing commitments?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Today I’ll be speaking with Stephanie Summers, of the Center for Public Justice, about how to have better political disagreement, especially when the stakes are high.

    Well, Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me today.

    Stephanie Summers: Oh, thank you for having me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s been a conversation that has been a long time coming. I first got to know you actually at a retreat that we were at that Anne Snyder put on as part of the Breaking Ground project a couple of years ago, right at the end of Covid. And I’d sort of heard of the Center for Public Justice, but I hadn’t really been tracking with your work. But since then I’ve been following you pretty closely and I’m just really interested in the things that you guys are tackling and the way that you’re tackling them. Specifically with regard to this question, which is the theme of both the current issue of the magazine and of this podcast series, which is enmity. So, you guys at the Center for Public Justice have a particular approach to public discussion of really hot button topics and public policy work even on really hot button topics. Can you describe the work of the Center for Public Justice?

    Stephanie Summers: Sure. Well, we do work to equip citizens and we do work to develop leaders in several different spaces, including leaders of faith-based organizations, multi-faith faith-based organizations and political leaders as well. And then we also do work on shaping public policy, and it’s towards the end of serving God, advancing justice and working for the transformation of public life. And specific to a conversation about enmity, really a place where we are trying as much as we’re able to contribute to the ordering of our common life in our nation in a way that would build peace, rather than an enmity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s quite a task that you’ve taken on, really. The concept of public justice, you guys have a fairly dialed in and specific way of thinking about this. Can you describe that and what its origins are?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah. So, public justice as a concept, we really talk about that as the normative purpose for the work of government. And really that has a couple of dimensions to it. The first is really ensuring justice for all, and that’s not just for individuals, but it’s also for society’s diverse institutions that are not governmental, that are diverse in nature and in their God-given purpose. So, just an example, the ensuring justice for families in society, for businesses, for schools, for the robust network of associational life out there, for worshiping communities. We could continue with the list. But the idea being that our common life is actually ordered inside these institutions and associations, and government has a responsibility not just to treat us all as autonomous beings, but actually ensure justice for those associational expressions and the institutional expressions of our life.

    In addition, so the second dimension of public justice, government has a responsibility to provide for our life in common to do things that would ensure human flourishing that don’t fall within the remit of one of those other associations or institutions. So, to give a concrete, it’s kind of a silly example, but the fact that we have traffic lights to govern traffic so we don’t run all into each other at every intersection, institutionally coordinating a network where we agree, “Hey, you know what, there’s going to be traffic lights. And hey, red means stop and green means go, and yellow means yield,” and all these other pieces that go along with that. That there is both an order being brought to that common life, and also the ability to enforce that order and adjudicate claims when there’s some disordered thing that has happened as a result of someone not following that order.

    And then the third thing is a responsibility the government has to adjudicate whether proactively or responsibly between institutions in potential areas of conflict or in actual conflict. So, this drive towards saying, “Hey, conflict is the enmity, and particularly the opposite of the peace that we would be looking for.” And government has a responsibility and is authorized to deal with those challenges.

    An example, just to make it a little more concrete is how we treat families in society and then how government intervenes in situations where child welfare’s in danger. Government actually thinks about its normative purpose there not as, “Hey, the government is now going to raise kids because government’s better at doing it.” Government looks at it and says, “How do we restore this family? And if we can’t restore this family, how do we restore this child to a new family that can fulfill the responsibilities that families have for the education and nurture of children?” So, just one example of adjudicating conflict that would happen there. Similarly, what are conflict situations that might happen between those institutions? How do you deal with a challenge between businesses and families, for example, or between worshiping communities and claims that abridge in some way is their religious freedom. So, some of those things are responsibilities that government has.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, it seems to me, based on what you’ve said, it does sound to me like your definitions of things like justice and equity and the common good do largely follow a traditionalist understanding?

    Stephanie Summers: They’re rooted in the Reformed thinkers, and in particular take a lot of their shape within the domain of Dutch Reformed thinkers who, I say this about every person that ever gets referred to, were people with feet of clay who didn’t live up to their professed ideals in all the ways we would have it done. But people who were looking at the ordering of the world and trying to be really clear around where the boundaries might be between the work of the state in ensuring justice and where institutions, like families, for example, have their own types of justice to fulfill that are well outside of the reach of the state. And carrying that out into all kinds of other things actually requires a fair bit of work on the part of government to either say, “This is a limit we place upon ourselves. We’re not going to mess with your religious freedom as an institution,” for example. That really got developed most fully within the Dutch Reformed thinkers. And so a lot of the reformational theological frame is actually where most of this is rooted.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, probably Kuyper would be a big guy for you guys.

    Stephanie Summers: Kuyper would be a big guy. And like I said, feet of clay. And a man who, I say this a lot at the beginning of talks on Kuyper, Kuyper was a nativist racist. And it’s not sufficient to say he was a man of his time, because he was a person who was formed by scripture and actually confessed something he didn’t live out well. And we think that’s really important to acknowledging the legacy of Kuyper, but then also looking at it and saying, “Yes,” but how do you engage with and sort of redeem troubled theology by both acknowledging that reality and then acknowledging the reality of some of the insights that are super important in how the world’s ordered? And I would also just say within the broader scope, it is not as though we’re ignoring millennia of Christian tradition. It’s informed by all kinds of other thinking as well. But when you get to the particulars around something like the norm of public justice for government, you can’t really find another thinker that got us there besides Kuyper.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That sort of tradition is also where you’re drawing the principled pluralistic stance that you guys take from as well?

    Stephanie Summers: Yes, yeah. And there’s a broader set of thought within the reformed worldview around the stance on principled pluralism, which really is rooted in the theological principle of common grace. So, within the reformed thinkers, this thinking of there’s salvation grace, and then there’s also grace, which is God allowing the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. And that God can actually work through the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work in people who are not regenerate, but work within their lives to help shape them so they can work for good. And so that’s the piece there, how it loops into principled pluralistic kind of policy positions. So, our approach very much to public policy is to say, We are Christians who are living in a pluralistic society. We don’t all share the same views, and those differences go all the way down in lots of cases where it’s not a surface kind of difference or semantic difference.

    And given that when we are aiming for government to do its work of ensuring justice for all, not just individuals, but also society’s institutions, we have to take into account that that means institutions of different faiths and people of no faith or people who have deeply different views, rather than just work to enforce and codify in law only our perspective. And so that’s the place where there’s lots of discussion, negotiation, et cetera, to help work towards getting a broader view of what would need to be in place in order to help government actually accomplish its normative task.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, basically governing, consciously seeking to promote good government in a world, in a society, in a polity that has people of many different faiths in it, and so Kuyper’s, I think original framework was in Holland, this was essentially Protestant and Catholic, and he was trying to seek to govern according to allowing people of both of those faiths or of both of those traditions to live out their lives in their institutions, interacting in just ways and really finding a common good, but without trying to square the circle, so to speak.

    Stephanie Summers: Sure. And I think too recognizing say the limits on government to enforce who’s right or wrong on confession, and make room for the diversity of views that might proliferate. In Kuyper’s context, it was decidedly less diverse than we have in our multi-faith society and certainly we have to wrestle with the different types of pluralism than they had to do in the Netherlands. But yeah, I mean to sort of think about it in a way that . . . I think one of the challenges maybe in thinking about the principled pluralistic approach is typically the way people think about this work, to go back to your theme on enmity, is that there’s the people who are right and there are people who are wrong.

    And we’re coming from an approach that says, “Confessionally we may believe that the people who are in disagreement with us are confessionally wrong, like truly damned.” But that doesn’t mean we think government is authorized by God to tell them they’re wrong and not make room for their institutional expressions. In fact, we would say that a principled pluralistic approach would actually encourage organizations like ours to make room for that confessional difference, which gives our institutions the freedom to continue to make the case for the truth. As opposed to a situation where, well, we’re in favor now and we’re disfavored later, rather instead to say, “We’re going to allow the proliferation of worldviews and negotiate on the trickier places where there’s conflict between them.” But not ask to government to decide whose theology is right or wrong.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, this is just me knowing less about that tradition than I do about Thomism, for example. To what degree is there a sense within the pluralism that, based on common grace or on natural law, that there is a justice that can cross confessional boundaries so that there are laws that ought to be in place because they appropriately name a universal justice that can reach across confessional boundaries?

    Stephanie Summers: So, I would probably use different language to talk about this typically, because I’m less familiar with Thomas on this, but I would talk about it as – there are always limits to pluralism. And so it is not a free-for-all. So, when you actually think about, so to use your language within a concept of justice, if government is going to ensure justice for all and ensure justice for all societies, institutions, that actually is going to require certain things about say a perspective on the value of a human life. So, the thought experiment we use a lot with our interns for example, is talking about many of the ways we in our culture shorthand this question is by thinking about it in terms of ethics 101, and people will say something like, “Well, those people consented, therefore it’s fine.”

    And we’re often saying, “Well, consent is not meeting this much richer definition of justice.” So, by implication, yes, there is this whole set of things that would go along that would actually limit pluralism. So, you’re not in a situation where, and anybody’s definition of justice is the way it kind of nets out every time. But what it protects from is government subsuming the authority to take and decide a priori for every institution what that definition necessarily is and prescribe it. So, it is definitely something that requires more thought than a simple answer.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, with that kind of groundwork laid, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the specific things that you guys have done in the last couple of years.

    Stephanie Summers: Sure.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You have, as we talked about, you’ve worked on a couple of different specific issues, which are some of the most divisive in our society. And one of the things that you’ve tried to do despite really intense challenges is to actually work across the aisle. So, let’s talk about your work around religious freedom in the context of the, I think it was before the Obergefell decision or . . . what was the project and what were the challenges and victories?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, so we do a bunch of work with faith-based organizations leaders, and we work to train those organizations’ leaders in aligning their organizational practices with their faith-based mission, helping them understand how to connect basically the fruit of their work with the root of their work and their communication to the public. Often people are like, “We like you guys, but we don’t really understand you,” and really helping people make that much more clear. And then the third thing is really equipping those organizations to be savvy about public policy. Lots of these organizations are small, they’re busy doing their mission, and they’re basically finding themselves in situations where they were running up against LGBTQ discrimination claims in their most local community.

    If you look at a national map, 60 percent of the country is under LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances at either the local or the state level. And so a variety of things that faith-based organizations would experience and they didn’t know how to handle. So, that’s sort of a precipitating thing that’s chugging along in the background in our work over the last two decades. In the 2000s, we have a whole series of things that happened, but essentially we started to see with Obergefell, with Bostock, a series of court cases way before they hit the Supreme Court. So, your thing about before the Obergefell decision, yes, we started to see these things happen and the implications for faith-based organizations were really clear that whichever way the court would rule, it’s easy to know. A court decides one-sided victories, a winner, a loser. And in the recent court decisions around like LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, the court has stated again and again in its decision, essentially there’s all these other questions that the legislators need to resolve. Like, “Congress, do your job.”

    And we basically were in a situation where we were looking at something that had happened in the State of Utah that had helped settle some of the conflicts between religious organizations and LGBTQ rights groups, and had a quick discussion with a couple other organizations that we work with where we said, “How do we do Utah at the federal level?” And we’re able to look at a way to do that that was much bigger than what we initially thought. Because just to be candid, we didn’t know if there were going to be LGBTQ rights groups who would talk to us about this. But we knew that we didn’t want to spend the next two decades with faith-based organizations in court. We wanted them to be free to serve, and we wanted them to figure out how we were going to navigate this.

    And again, court decisions, one-sided victories, but also, we wanted the predictability and durability of legislation that would protect everyone, because in addition to the impulse from faith-based organizations, most faith-based organizations don’t think, and most people of faith don’t think people should be, say, losing their housing, or jobs, or access to credit for being gay. And so we knew there were real harms out there that were happening and we were trying to figure out, “How do we bridge this?” So, that was the beginning of this project that has gone under the banner of Fairness for All is the project.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, Fairness for All in this context is fairness, sort of providing protections for LGBTQ people and couples at the same time as providing protection for religious groups to make the decisions that are consistent with their faith commitments. Is that right?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, it’s pretty precise. The work itself was really challenging, but really rewarding, and trying to have conversations to listen to understand. So, our approach was not, “Hey, let’s tell you all the ways that faith-based social services provide resources in the world and how right now the federal proposals that are gay rights only proposals would make all of those services unable to do their work.” We didn’t start there. We started with, “Can you help us understand and would you be willing to have another conversation?” And so it really was building relationships over time to get to a place where we really understood what the real needs were in that conversation before we ever said about the work of discussing what a legislative proposal for something that would look like.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, what were the conversations that you had, can you describe some of the most striking ones or the ones that gave you . . . that were the most surprising in your ability to reach across the aisle in these very divisive issues?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, I mean, first I would say that these conversations, you’re using the language of reach across the aisle. And these conversations were, in the beginning, not at all with legislators or hill staffers. These conversations were with leaders of civil society organizations. So, leaders of faith-based organizations, leaders of denominations, and leaders of LGBTQ rights groups differentiated. Some are just straight up trans rights groups, some are lesbian legal groups, things like that. And really having clear discussions around each place where if you’re thinking about proactively solving conflict, places where we knew there were trouble spots already. So, just give a concrete example, we spent a ton of time talking about foster and adoption, because we were seeing the things that eventually turned into the Fulton Supreme Court case. Because we were working with faith-based social services and LGBTQ people were trying to foster and adopt, and we were seeing these conflicts happen again and again. And so trying . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: What were the conflicts in particular, can you just describe for people who don’t know the case?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, thanks. So, thank you. Good reminder. The Fulton case was really around the City of Philadelphia choosing to not partner any longer with a Catholic social service agency because they would not permit adoptions to same-sex couples. And again, court cases, especially Supreme Court cases are decided really narrowly, so the facts of the case really matter. So, just one more second on the facts of the case. In this situation they were essentially singled out, and that’s why the Catholic group prevailed in the case, because it was clear that the criteria by which they were not able to have their contract continued was purely based on that criteria unfairly applied. And so the conflict though is much bigger than the court case. The conflict is you have the foster and adoption services that are contracted by governments at local, municipal, city, county levels. And arbitrary ways in which there are both the contracting process, the clarity around who can foster and adopt, do they have a pluralist system in the sense that there’s multiple providers?

    So, for example, many Catholic organizations that provide foster and adoption services, they will not place children with a single parent family either. They really believe in mother and father families. And so that’s the only . . . and in cases where that was happening, where they were living out exactly what they said they were going to do, if that was challenged in, again, one of these LGBTQ non-discrimination situations, there’s that harm there where that organization that has long held to the standard is now running afoul of something that has happened in their community that’s been a change. Or you also have people who are LGBTQ folks who are being turned away and the feeling that goes along with that. And then is there another option for them as a provider? And a whole patchwork of ways across the country that are the ways that, again, this is kind of the lowest order of government, your county, or your city, or your municipality is dealing with how they’re codifying, who they’re contracting with and to what end. In many cases not systems where everyone could be served.

    And so that’s the larger question there. So, there’s a lot of very strong feelings because you have faith-based organizations who are going to court over something that they’re being taken to court over a way that they have shaped their work for a 100 years. And you have an LGBTQ couple who seeks to foster or adopt being brought in front of judges and judges in the foster and adoption system basically assuming that they’re pedophiles. So, you’ve got these just awful things that are happening in both cases. So, trying to figure out, how do we navigate that place where everyone’s being harmed, and how do we figure out ways to get unstuck from that?

    [Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of my conversation with Stephanie after the break.]

    Susannah Black Roberts: Since that time, one of the things that you’ve been heavily involved with and before as well are issues around abortion. And most recently, especially in the wake of the Dobbs decision, you’ve shifted to a real focus on that. Can you describe just what that work has been in the past and also since Dobbs?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah. So, we’ve done work for, I don’t know now, well before Dobbs, seven years probably, on child and family supportive policy. So, again, talking about, “Hey, government has this responsibility to do all these things.” So, some of that is about caring for vulnerable families, so contributing to their flourishing. And so it requires, again, some work on government’s part. We have had a whole series of deep theological work, research, all these people related to family supportive and child supportive policies. More recently, we ended up intersecting in the context of a policy lab kind of situation with people who were very strongly in the pro-choice movement. So, this is pre-Dobbs, a couple years pre-Dobbs.

    And as we spent time listening, one thing we started to see is that there really was among not maybe the upper movement level of the abortion rights movement, but among the grassroots level. People whose lives were being affected in their communities on a day-to-day basis. There was really there a pretty profound way of talking about abortion as an economic decision. And in particular black and brown women in the movement who were leaders would say to us, “Help us get a better choice. This is an economic choice.” And so for us, we started to think, “OK, what is the set of things that would truly lead to family flourishing?” Then quickly follows on things like ways of ensuring child supportive funding, it quickly moves to things like paid family leave, maternal healthcare, like those kinds of pieces.

    And again, this isn’t an all-government, or all-civil society. But really the reality of needing both an all hands on deck approach, childcare, these types of things, and then also bringing in something that’s very consistent, has lots of continuity with our work over decades, which is really about the work of faith-based organizations in that context and how government can make room for or put barriers to the participation of those programs in providing the solutions.

    So, that all came together in that. And at this point we have a pretty robust advocacy effort. We’ve had to do a lot of work to cross denominational lines and denominational thinking. So, in this case, it’d be people who on matters of theology really probably disagree with each other quite robustly, but really agree about the value of human life more broadly and trying to figure out, “Can we get to a place where we’re able as a nation to focus our support on valuing life?” As opposed to focus our support on just shutting down the abortion industry. And what is the path forward approach that we’ve been convening?

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, I mean, one of the things that I’ve seen obviously in the pro-life movement has been precisely, it’s funny, precisely those groups that in Kuyper’s time felt themselves to essentially need different spheres, different silos, Catholics and Protestants. Some of the most profound ecumenical work that I’ve seen has come out of the pro-life movement, which I think is interesting.

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah. And Kuyper, interestingly enough, really pulled together a coalition party between Protestants and Catholics, because out of some of these shared commitments and really a stand against the autonomy-only way of thinking about rights, and which was really what was part of the French Revolution. So, you have that thinking, and that’s actually what the Protestants and Catholics were able to come together around was in sort of opposition to that. And you’re exactly right, that same dynamic is actually what’s playing out within the pro-life conversation today.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I don’t know if you, I’m sure you’ve seen this, but one of the things that’s very exciting to me right now is just in the way that Catholics taught Protestants, this can be overstated because obviously there was some Protestant opposition to abortion before Roe, but the way that Catholics really galvanized Protestants and taught them in a more intense and thoughtful way to think about life before birth. It seems to me that Catholics are once again in this post-Roe moment teaching Protestants things about, it’s called Catholic Social Teaching, which these wider ways of thinking about justice, where we can’t rely on just shutting down abortion clinics and then having libertarian economics.

    Which is really exciting to me, just because it seems to me that people who’ve been involved in pro-life work for decades have now, there’s now like this breath. We can take a breath and be like, “OK, all right, so now what would good laws look like? We know what bad laws look like, what would good laws look like?” What would good laws around abortion, but also around things, like there’s this new make childbirth free movement. There’s obviously different ways of trying to put together, as you said, something that would look more like social democracy and something that would look more like civil society focused and faith-based organizational focused work. And that seems to me to be like nobody’s, everyone’s a little bit freaked out by it because I feel like, especially from the mainstream of the pro-life movement, it can feel quite new. And there is still this kind of residual Reaganism almost, but I just wonder whether you’ve seen movement in the pro-life movement over the last year or so in that?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, no, I definitely have. And I think one of the things that gives me maybe some encouragement within the broader conversation is there are ways that folks have thought about this larger set of questions in the past, but they’ve been very tied to a benefit that you . . . it’s been tied to concepts of desert. And desert related to your contribution personally to GDP. Are you a worker? Rather than thinking about mothers, children in the context of families. And rather than thinking about folks in the context of the kind of multiple hats they wear, so to speak, yes, you’re a worker in a workplace, but you’re also a parent in a household. And the constellation of responsibilities and roles that you have.

    So, I think one of the things that has been encouraging is, so over the past seven years as we’ve been doing the work under – Rachel Anderson is the person who leads our family’s valued work. She founded that work for us. And within that conversation at the very beginning we were having to really be clear that work that was pro-worker and pro-family was pro-life. People didn’t connect all those things together. And I think that there’s been a certainly growing way that people have started to see that, rather than see it as your worth for getting a benefit is because you are a worker, period, full stop. Instead, seeing your worth in the much broader way that theologically informed who would think about the worth of a human person, but then also really seeing the full complement of responsibilities and roles that folks are part of. And so it becomes a way of energizing the policy responses that are available, as opposed to just like, “Well, did you work? And are you a white collar employee who has a benevolent employer that’s going to pay for paid family leave?”

    Instead, it’s a, “If we say this is true about what we value, what’s this look like in the world?” And that hasn’t just been a shift with sort of advocates or even policy makers or even people within the pro-life movement. It’s also been a shift within faith-based organizations. The desire for faith-based organizations to say, maybe participate in a public system in a way that for decades the approach has been, “Hey, we actually would like to be categorically exempt because we don’t want any interaction with government. We just would like less of that if we could get it.”

    And instead to say, “Yeah, but doing that means we don’t actually have a way that we can provide this for our workforce or provide this” . . . and it means it limits the scope of what’s available in our geography for the actual people we serve and their families. So, it has catalyzed a set of things that I think are good. Whether or not the policymaking can catch up with it at the federal level, I think there’s so many challenges in the dynamics of Congress that we are hopeful and we continue to work towards that. But we also think there’s a lot of things that are creative and may happen more easily at the states in this particular season.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just the way that you described that, it makes me think that it is . . . so, it’s a question of the pro-life movement is really good at seeing the unborn child as a person who needs to be valued, whether or not they’ve yet contributed anything, whether or not they’re able to do certain things, whether or not they’re able to have object permanence or self-knowledge, or their brains are finished developing, which they are not. And obviously, when you’re talking about adult women, one does expect more of an adult, but at the same time there is this thing where you’re just like, “OK, if we think that the unborn child is valuable in his or herself and should be supported, can’t we also say that about his or her mother?”

    Stephanie Summers: Right. Yeah, I mean, you’re exactly right, because the way we think about this generally in policymaking unfortunately is it’s an individual, as opposed to this is actually a family that needs particular protection and respect in this specific season. Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And it’s really, it was scary for me to stop thinking and talking in terms of a Right to Life, because that phrase is so powerful in the American psyche to say that someone has a Right to Life. And it’s not a totally wrong phrase, but it does seem to me to be casting the weight of the question in the wrong spot. It’s not just that this baby has a Right to Life, and so you, its mother shouldn’t kill it. You’re its mother, and therefore there’s a lot more that you should do besides not kill it. And so this sort of respecting the existing, the family that exists in the body of the pregnant woman and the family that, because we think that families are valuable and should be supported as families. Thinking about policy that supports women and their children and the men in their lives to the maximal degree to help them all thrive. That does seem to me to be a different model than the Right to Life model. I don’t know whether that is something that you’ve worked through or thought about?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, it definitely resonates, because again, thinking about government– clearly government has a responsibility to protect individuals. This is not, “Hey, we’re ignoring individuals in favor of institutions.” But this is not the only question where we often think about a rights-based, autonomy based approach, and that’s it. Rather than the reality that most of life has actually lived in these institutional expressions, including the family. And so we haven’t structured our, I could give you two hours of examples. I’m resisting the temptation to do that right now. We haven’t given that same weight to thinking through what it would look like to actually take family and the responsibilities that parents have quite seriously in the ability for that baby to thrive.

    And so that’s the place where, yes, I think the shift is super important. And it’s why you see people of faith making choices to be advocates in their states for things like in red states, for Medicaid expansion for pregnant women. Because they’re like, “Hey, these are folks who really have a real need and the need is today.” And this isn’t about the decision this woman at this moment is making about the life of her child. It’s about her capacity to be physically well and have a physically healthy pregnancy and a postpartum period. And when you think with that family frame, it starts to make much more sense for people on the importance of doing something like that in this season, which is a major shift.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And just to, for listeners who aren’t aware of the current expansion of this, there was, I’m trying to get this right, I think in 2022, there was an offer from the federal government to expand Medicaid for the women who are eligible for it from sixty days postpartum to a year postpartum. And I think at this point, forty-three or something like that, states have taken them up on it or are in the process of taking them up on it, which is just spectacular. The figure that I ran across was that four in ten births in the United States are covered by Medicaid. And that means four in ten babies, four in ten mothers for the first year of being a mother, and for the first year of the baby’s life ex utero, they’re covered, their healthcare is covered. And that is, it’s not my ideal social democratic single payer plan, but it’s really good. And it’s something that’s happened in the last year to not as much fanfare as I think there should be about it personally.

    Stephanie Summers: Well, it’s interesting, because I think the impulse to put a spotlight on something is always to put a spotlight on spectacle, because spectacle draws attention. And so this work that’s happening that is really transformational and is really truly lifesaving and on so many levels, there’s no conflict that’s like, can be featured in this story. It’s like, isn’t this good news story? And unfortunately there are not a lot of people out there who really want to tell the good news stories.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I mean, we at Plough do.

    Stephanie Summers: I love that about you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And these Medicaid expansions across, again, it’s blue states and red. Largely the states that are holding out are red states for, in Texas’s case, fussy reasons for whatever. But in general, almost all red states as well as I think all blue states maybe, I’m not sure what the breakdown is, this is just a massive cross-party thing that people have jumped on board about, and I’m just really happy about it.

    So, one of the things that has been, I guess, transformative for me was Leah Libresco used to do these things, and I think she still does, but I remember doing one when she was still living in New York City, and I just dropped by and she would have a “conversation about abortion with cookies.” So, she would gather together twelve women of wildly varying beliefs about abortion, and she would make skillet cookies. She has a excellent skillet cookie recipe. And we would just talk to each other and we would talk to each other about, “All right, what is it that you believe and why?” And it can be very scary, in part because we’re so used to yelling at each other that putting yourself out there and saying what you believe in the face of someone you know disagrees with you is quite frightening. But it was very powerful when I did it. What have been the conversations that you’ve had across disagreement, that kind of disagreement in the course of doing this work?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah, yeah. I wrote about this in a big compilation book for Routledge, that’s like the cross-cultural Religious Literacy handbook or something like that, one of these Routledge texts. But the reason I mention it is because a lovely donor made it possible for the entire book to be free online. So, it’s one of these ones that’s a berserk expensive that is now available to everyone.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We will leave a link to that.

    Stephanie Summers: But within this conversation, I think the piece of shaping a container, what I love about what you just described is that she set a table literally for people to have the conversation. And with a plan for we’re going to have a conversation about this hard thing. Those types of things presume that you have people at the table who are willing to listen to understand, and are willing to be patient. Because it’s not like, “Hey, I’m hearing you and now I’m jumping in right now to rebut your point.” So, I would just say, every one of these conversations across these lines of deep difference that I’ve ever had have been in the situation, whether it’s I’ve created the container or someone else has of, we’re going to have a conversation that could feel hard, but we want to talk about this hard thing together with the goal of listening to understand.

    So, when I’ve been the person who is creating the container or inviting someone to that conversation, sometimes literally we’ll get through everything that they want to say about something. And I’ll say, “I’d love to talk to you, I’ve asked my clarifying questions.” Whatever I say, “I’d love to talk to you a little bit about some ways that I might see it a little differently. Do you want to do that today?” And this is literally a principle I operate by called Permission to Ask, which is if they say no, I say, “OK, maybe another day.”

    And I’ve had to do that so many times. But what people respect and value about that is I’m willing to be patient enough to ask a different time. And so what’s common about that is maybe I’m four conversations in with someone who then says to me, “I think it would be important for you to know this about me.” And then they tell me something like, “I worked in an abortion clinic. I have assisted in thousands of abortions.” But we have had that conversation for long enough, and I have not been fighting them, that they can say that as context for why there might be places we could agree or disagree, but also places where they feel like, “You need to understand this about me to understand why I think the things I think.” They weren’t going to tell me that in the first conversation.

    Whereas there’s other things that are not quite so deep into the pool with people that they may say in the first conversation, or I’ve had this conversation before where literally someone said to me, “OK, we’ve been talking about this hard thing we were working on.” And they’re like, “I’m just curious. How do you feel about Death with Dignity?” And I was like, “You mean euthanasia?” And he was like, “No, I said, Death with Dignity.” And I was like, “I heard you.” But it was funny at that point because the candor in the whole conversation had made it free for us to be like, “Absolutely, no, there’s no way we’re on the same page about this thing.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: And predictably not. Yeah. So, the two things that I have experienced in having good conversations about this is basically what you said, allowing people to opt in and making it clear that, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to have this conversation. I’m not going to make you. Would you like to?” And then the other one, I forget if you told me this or if Leah told me this, I think it might have been Leah, but the idea of coming to disagreement.

    Stephanie Summers: Oh, no, I talk about that all the time.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, that totally, you told me that probably about two years ago. And it’s really reframed the way that I think about these conversations, and it’s incredibly helpful.

    Stephanie Summers: It’s not original to me at all. I was given this gift. Yeah, no, it’s the idea of achieving disagreement.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Achieving disagreement, right.

    Stephanie Summers: I’ve gone into conversations with policy advocates where we have a deep disagreement and an active piece of legislation in Congress that we’re at odds about. Where I’ve started the conversation by saying, “I think we’ve achieved disagreement on 15 percent already. We know there’s this hole. But 85 percent I think we might agree. So, can we talk about what we might be able to do together that could help get this unstuck?” And what I’ve often found is naming the places where we’ve achieved disagreement specifically. In that case, I just gave as an example, that’s because we’ve actually done the work to achieve disagreement over time. So, it’s not typically on the front end of the conversation, but being able to say, “I think we’ve achieved disagreement about this. What do you think?” Because sometimes literally the response people have had to that sentence to me is, “I think so, but.” And then they have a thing where they’re backing, they’re really trying to find the place where we might actually agree.

    And in that case I started to talk about, so in that case, we came to the end of the conversation and one of the advocate people said, “I actually think we agree on more than 85 percent. I agreed with you at the beginning when you said there was fifteen that we had achieved disagreement on. But having been through the whole conversation, I actually think that’s smaller.” And I agreed. We had definitely come to greater agreement about the things even at the beginning that we thought we had achieved disagreement about it before. But it is a wonderful way to make room for someone and say essentially like, “OK, then let’s not pour all our energy in here to try to deal with that.” Or to say, the reflection of do you agree? Gives them an opportunity to tell you, “No, actually I think it’s 45 percent or whatever.” Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you describe concretely what some of those policy victories or the actual work that you’ve been able to push forward with people with whom you initially disagreed . . .

    Stephanie Summers: Oh, sure.

    Susannah Black Roberts: . . . quite strongly on?

    Stephanie Summers: Yeah. Yeah. So, I’ll just pick a recent one as an example. So, when the Dobbs case happened . . . well, I’ll pick two, because they both actually were precipitated by Dobbs. So, when the Dobbs case happened in the Supreme Court’s various ways that they talked about the case to the public, there was this little thing raised by Clarence Thomas that really concerned the LGBTQ community that their marriages would be in jeopardy. Something that had already been made a law of the land by virtue of the court’s decision, but not codified through Congress’ legislative process. So, really quickly, there was this impetus for the Respect for Marriage Act to codify same-sex marriage protections as the law of the land. And it passed the House very quickly, and it passed the House with forty-seven House Republicans supporting it. And it had no religious freedom protections in it whatsoever. And then it went to the Senate, and many people were shocked how many members of the House who were Republicans supported the Respect for Marriage Act. But nonetheless, that’s what was on the table. And we were able to work with essentially the same groups of advocates within the LGBTQ community who we’d been working on the larger Fairness for All project with. We had nothing about marriage in Fairness for All, that was totally outside of that project. But we were able to work with those advocates and also with senators who were coming and basically because of the work we’d done on Fairness for All, asking for our advice on their religious freedom thinking about what would need to be specifically spelled out if the law was actually going to codify the full decision?

    Because the decision, again, I said this thing at the very beginning about the court will say something that’s essentially, and all these other serious concerns that need to be upheld kind of thing that are legitimate, but the court can’t do anything about that because it’s not the case.

    Susannah Black Roberts: They have to deal with the case before them.

    Stephanie Summers:Right. That has to decide a victor and a loser. We’re not legislators. So basically this group of senators trying to figure out, “If we’re going to do this, what would need to be in place?” And so we were able . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: For religious freedom protection?

    Stephanie Summers: For religious freedom protection, specifically around marriage. So, again, it doesn’t accomplish the whole Fairness for All project, which has all kinds of other components, housing, I could go on and on. But this is really just marriage . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: Visitation rights and stuff.

    Stephanie Summers: And so we were able to have really robust conversations to get to that place where we were giving advice about what those things should look like, how to strengthen them in ways that made it more clear what needed to be included as a matter of findings. And in the end there were, so Congress did adopt the Respect for Marriage Act through the Senate’s action. And then the House came alongside and supported the Senate version of the Respect for Marriage Act with the religious freedom protections in it. And it really is like it’s the greatest expansion of religious freedom protections since 1993. And it provides a giant, through federal protections for LGBTQ folks, a pretty massive, because if you think about all the protections that have been accorded to LGBTQ people, they’re at the federal level they’re only being done through court decisions.

    Not any of this has been codified through a legislative process. So, they’re super expansive in what they’ve been able to accomplish. And then just the second one, I can be briefer. So, also in the wake of the Dobbs decision, one piece was to try to close some loopholes within protections for pregnant workers. This piece of legislation, this is all happening at the same time, so you can imagine the frenzied pace that we were working at here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Agree.

    Stephanie Summers: Right at the end of the year last year. But the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, and really this was a place where communicating the importance of those basic protections for workers, things like the ability to go to a doctor’s appointment, so some scheduling stuff. And the ability to have a stool, or extra water, or extra bathroom breaks, or stuff like that. And legislation that actually made sense in the real world where conversations would happen between employers and employees as a means by which to make it happen so there were not kind of some of the gray areas that had been put in place by earlier attempts to do this kind of thing. And so that was another place where it was just hugely important in that conversation to be able to communicate both with legislators from both parties, but then also with advocates on the particulars of what the legislation would actually entail, and just address the real concerns that people had.

    So, folks were able to get to a yes, rather than having fears about what it might do or not do, be the reason that they were just a categorical no. But that required people like Rachel Anderson really working to help people hear each other and convening conversations and tables where people could do that and ask their real questions and say their real concerns, and have those things be taken seriously, and then really investigated and real answers given. So, when you had legislators who typically would not, because maybe their Republicans would not typically support a piece of legislation like that come out so strongly for it, they could do it because the concerns that they had had, had been satisfied.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, that’s a really interesting one, and I think incredibly fruitful things like that, I think are going to be incredibly fruitful. So, obviously what you’re talking about is drawing together something that’s more typically thought to be a left or democratic platform plank, which is sort of worker protection rights and union movement stuff even. Stuff that we typically thought not to be part of the union movement.

    And then also stuff that’s good for pregnant women, which this is one of these things where it’s difficult for . . . I know so many people on the left who are very much in favor of protections for women’s health, but it’s scary for them, because they think that that means that when we talk about women’s health, that means abortion restriction, which it does. But at the same time, the fact that we do mean abortion, we do mean we need to transform the world, the way the world works such that it’s easier to be pregnant so that pregnant women are taken care of properly, that they’re able to not be subject to the harshness of a brutal workplace. That’s something that could allow people on the right to see that things that are more Union Movement-y are in fact in line with their values, even if they didn’t realize it. Is that what you saw?

    Stephanie Summers: I think that there are many opportunities for folks to think outside of the narrow categories that they have put themselves into. When folks step back and think about human beings in the context of institutional and associational life, that we all bear different roles and responsibilities in society. And so it’s not sufficient to solve, say, a childcare crisis by saying, “Well, we’ve got X number of kids, so we need to find X number of seats so we can get those kids’ butts in those seats.” And as the way we think about how to do this. And so to me, something that I’m longing for, and I continue to be a hopeful person, because as a person of faith and a person who is Calvinist enough to believe in the doctrine of common grace, I really do think that the creativity to think outside of the well-worn grooves of let’s just fight the other side, is really possible. I do think that one of, and we’ve been on about this as an organization the whole time. I’ve been at CPJ since 2009, and this is something that we’ve been on about since 2009.

    For people of faith who are tired of the toxic stuff in politics, who just want to sit on the sidelines. Because it’s kind of like, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to sit this one out because it’s ugly in there.” Unfortunately, that’s the posture of someone who is comfortable and who is not asking a broader set of questions about the conditions in which their neighbor is being asked to live out their life. And so it is super important to invest in the context of faith-based institutions and our communities. So, you’ve heard me say ten times, we work with leaders of faith-based organizations, the quality and character and substance of those organizations matters tremendously, even apart from government and what they’re able to provide.

    But no one who is living in America is unaffected by the public policy climate at the federal, all the way down to the most local level. So, the shift that I think needs to happen among our citizenry and particularly among Christian citizens, is not sort of a wholesale adoption of like, “Hey, we need to just decide we’re on team X or Team Y,” but giving team X or team Y an incentive to think more capaciously. Because right now it’s narrow, because lots of folks are just like, “Just tell me the answer.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Tell me what my side says to do?

    Stephanie Summers: Exactly. And that’s really unfortunate, because that’s not going to help us lead into the complexity that exists right now. It is desperately needed by our neighbors.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And it’s also, I mean, just something that a lot of Christian conversations about politics are happening now is lighting on is a kind of insistence on leaning into enmity for the sake of clarity. And also, in some cases leaning into enmity because you’re philosophically a Schmittian, which is not a good thing to be. But even if you’re a Schmittian, you can’t be a Schmittian within the polity, that sure does not work.

    So, even if you believe that politics is constituted not on friendship or on shalom as I believe it is, but through the experience of enmity with an outsider, we can’t do make people who are our fellow citizens the outsiders against whom we define ourselves, so that we know who we are. We can’t do that, because that will break a polity apart. And so figuring out how not to be outsiders to each other and how not to use each other in order to define ourselves as, to use each other as enemies in order to know who we are. That seems to me to be incredibly crucial, and that seems to me to be the kind of work that you guys are doing.

    Stephanie Summers: Oh, thank you. And yes, I wanted to just say yes and amen to what you just said. Grateful for that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, Stephanie, thank you so much for this. I’ve wanted to have this conversation for a long time. Bye, Stephanie.

    Stephanie Summers: OK, bye.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By StephanieSummers Stephanie Summers

    Stephanie Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, a group based in Washington, DC that works with faith organizations and other organizations, as well as with Congress.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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