Guest BloggersSkepticism

Purple State of Mind

Earlier this year, I introduced you to John Marks and Craig Detweiler when I briefly mentioned John’s book, Reasons to Believe. John, an unbeliever, and Craig, a Christian, have been working together on a project called “Purple State of Mind.” They have blogs, a film, and a book (by Craig) with that title.

The Purple State of Mind is all about the American culture wars, about people in red states and blue states getting along, about cooperation instead of competition, and about discussion instead of debate. It goes “beyond the politcal” according to the cover of the DVD, to where “it gets personal.” The subtitle of Craig’s book is “Finding Middle Ground in a Divided Culture.”

With Obama’s inauguration and message of hope and inclusiveness, it seems that these two guys have been onto something. Perhaps Americans are tired of fighting and being angry (I know I am), perhaps it’s actually possible for believers and unbelievers to be friends and to work together to make the world better for everyone. 

With that in mind, I’ve invited John Marks and Craig Detweiler to talk to us about the topic of their choice. I asked them to each address the topic from their own perspective, and to give us some food for thought. Their articles are below the fold.


by John Marks

A few weeks ago, in the giddy days right after the election victory of Barack Obama, I walked into my favorite local café and encountered a baked and frosted miracle of political symbolism. It was a perfectly purple ‘Obama cake’, flavored and colored by beet juice, mixed with chocolate, served up in squares. Not only did I swallow the symbolism. I ate the cake, and it was delicious. I thought to myself, ‘Hunh, beets for dessert. It is a new day.’

Such were the whimsical tides of November 2008, when even the little things had a touch of the magical.

I’m still happy that Obama won and feel confident that he was the only man for the job in the race. When his dessert shows up at the café, I still enjoy the frisson of a seemingly impossible dessert, a caloric analogy to the seeming improbability of his win. The moment of self-indulgent whimsy has passed, however, and I can’t help feeling my own triviality called to account as I pick up my newspaper and read about the latest nightmare in Gaza. Palestinians are “trapped, some among rotting corpses in a nightmarish landscape of deprivation”, says The New York Times.

That’s more like it. That’s the world I thought I lived in, the one in which seasons of unmitigated joy come few and far between, in which guiltless whimsy is as rare as peace.

First Mumbai, now Gaza, the inevitable return to the wars of absolute dichotomy, where two sides come to blows over differences about land, history, faith and culture. In the case of Gaza, most of the underlying reasons are now beside the point. Recently spilled blood serves as the principle argument.

Over here, meanwhile, the bliss of transformation feels harder and harder to sustain, as everyone prepares to survive the downturn or armor up for political battle or both. The fight over Rick Warren’s invocation is only the first of many conflicts to come. I personally look forward to that first Supreme Court appointment, when Obama will have to dodge incoming mortar from both sides.

Yet I hold out the hope that something has, in fact, changed. It’s not really about being “purple”, whatever that means. In retrospect, I see a preciousness in the idea of the “purple state”, that happy land where neither red nor blue exist, where the mellow in-betweeners, the so-called “real” people, get together and love each other up. In that scenario, purple becomes a gimmick, a version of that beet-frosted cake, because it trivializes an unavoidable truth. Our differences are real, and in some cases, blood-stained. Purple, at its worst, ignores the darkness as a child ignores death. At its best, its hue nods to a history of violence.

We have to live with death, and we have to face our differences. As we go into this next phase, then, that is the key point in having a conversation across enemy lines. It’s not about being nice or striking the proper tone, not really.

It’s about taking ourselves and our concerns seriously enough to demand the utmost of ourselves and our political and cultural opponents, the utmost in moral and intellectual rigor, the utmost in compassion and decency. Part of the problem for the last two decades has been a curious tendency to treat our great national debates as a cross between a game and a comedy routine. Oh, we insisted that our issues were matters of life and death, whether abortion or gay marriage, whether freedom of speech or the right to bear arms, but we hired huge numbers of professionals to fight those battles for us, our proxies, our mercenaries, our lobbyists, our activists, and their handiwork often enough turned the entire public discourse into a freak show fueled by the rage virus.

Our national conversation became a version of American Idol, the emphasis on empty gestures of cruelty, vapid sentiment and specious notions of achievement. We allowed ourselves to see this massively complex and mysteriousness country in the broadest of show biz clichés. Whether gay or straight, Christian or skeptic, black or white, we were either going to Hollywood or going home. As we now know, there is a price to be paid for triviality in bitterness, frustration and self-disgust.

Our sham dialogues on cable news network, the Hannity and Colmes effect, were as deceptive in their own way as Wall Street practices that hid the truth about the markets. Now that our eyes are open, it is time to walk away from the game. It is time to despise the trivialization of those who have different worldviews, time to stop believing that reality has anything to do with television, and time to entertain the possibility that our divisions can take us to some very dark places, even Gaza and Mumbai, if we don’t wake up.

Is everyone aware that high unemployment is one of the indispensable keys to homegrown terrorism in places like Pakistan and Palestine? Has anyone seen our unemployment stats lately?

I’m not saying that we’re headed for that kind of violence quite yet. I am saying that we flirt with disaster if we ignore the presence of true division and pretend that we can joke or jive our way past it. In December, I traveled to Gettysburg and registered the presence of 675,000 hungry ghosts in the winter fields of south central Pennsylvania. The memory of that violence lives on, just as the hope of the Gettysburg Address does in the election of Barack Obama.

Forget the cake. Barack’s the real thing. You can hear it in his speeches, when he invokes Abraham Lincoln. You can sense it in the gravity with which he addresses the economy. He knows what lies underneath. He knows the cost to be paid for negligence. Do we?

John Marks is a novelist, journalist and a former 60 Minutes producer. His first work of non-fiction, Reasons to Believe, a portrait of American Christianity, was published by the Ecco Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, in February 2008.


by Craig Detweiler

Last Spring, barnstorming across America with my atheist college roommate and our dialogical documentary Purple State of Mind, we felt a bit like presidential candidates.   We engaged in heated debates on college campuses.   We stopped by churches and synagogues to rally the faithful.   We answered phone calls on local radio shows.  While Barack and Hillary were swiping at each other, John Marks and I were taking heat from animated audiences.

Skeptics wondered why John seemed so negative, almost acting like a bully.   Christians wondered why I took so much abuse from John without punching back.    Both sides were disappointed that their representative failed to champion their side with more authority.   The crowds wanted a bloody boxing match.   Instead, we offered a perverse bit of peace, love and understanding.   Tired of the gridlock created by the culture wars, we offered a different way of being, promoting a purple state of mind.

In an era of red state and blue states, who proved the most purple candidate?   John and I pulled for Obama in the primaries.   He emerged as the candidate most likely to inspire substantive change.   His conciliatory, bridge-building speeches pushed past the divisive politics that preceded him.   Every previous election in my lifetime felt like a referendum on the past—the responsibilities of the 1950s versus the freedom of the 1960s.   Your opinion of Vietnam, Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury was reflected in your voting record.   But Barack came of age after that tumultuous era.   His approach to governing felt pragmatic rather than ideological.   

For a brief moment, Sarah Palin managed to reignite her party’s faithful.  She dusted off the old divide-and-conquer script, begun by Patrick Buchanan, polished by Lee Atwater, perfected by Karl Rove.   Palin put a positive spin on negativism.   Her candidacy was an entertaining sideshow.   John McCain even abandoned his own principles by embracing racism and scare tactics.    But the depths of the economic depression trumped their appeal to our worst instincts.   A majority of Americans chose hope over fear, the future over the past.

Yet, even before the inauguration, the culture war reared its decidedly ugly head.   By inviting Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the opening invocation, Obama stepped into the firestorm swirling around gay marriage and California’s Proposition 8.   Reaching across the aisle only resulted in more flames coming his way.   Those who viewed the Warren invocation as a political maneuver found equal calculation in the late addition of Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to inauguration week.   While SkepChick readers may disdain all prayers in such a public setting, Robinson vowed to offer an inclusive invocation, crafting “a message that everyone in the nation can identify with.”

I am thrilled that Obama made room for people who not only disagree with each other, but possibly even with him.   We desperately need a leader who can listen to his critics, who can bring people together across the ir/religious, political and cultural divide.   I embarked on the Purple State project because I need a voice of dissent in my life.   The doubts of John Marks make me a better believer.  He keeps me honest, keeps me questioning, keeps from getting comfortable.    Can we continue to make room for the loyal opposition, even when it causes complications?

I join John Marks in a call for more than a new found cooperation.   We don’t expect people to abandon their principles, to set aside significant differences.   But the gravity of our current crisis surely forces us to subsume our agendas for the sake of the greater good.  There will be plenty of time to argue after we’ve gotten out of this mess.   Until then, I desperately need to come alongside those who want to forge a future for America.  We can no longer afford to be entertained by surface distances or ideological divides.  It is time to be adults–to work with skeptical neighbors, faithful friends, and disbelieving college roommates.

Craig Detweiler, PhD, directs the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary.  His new book, Into the Dark, seeks the sacred in the top ranked, contemporary films on the Internet Movie Database.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Fantastic.

    What hits me here, particularly in the comment about people being upset with the lack of confrontation as just sitting back and “taking it” when the other side speaks, is the importance of listening.

    Really listening to that which we disagree with is maybe more important than anything else we can do. Simple concept, hard to practice. It’s what I saw President Obama do in the debates, and what he seems to do as a general rule. Much might be accomplished if we could master the practice of listening. . .


  2. We can only hope that they are successful in starting a counter-revolution to all the political acrimony. I’m SO tired of the “Us vs. Them” mentality in today’s politics. Obama is right: We ARE one nation. Let’s start acting like it.

  3. @writerdd

    Is this a one shot deal or are they coming back? This was great. It feels like the beginning of a larger discussion. The question I’d ask these gentlemen is, “Now that we acknowledge areas of overlap, what are we going to try to accomplish together?”

  4. While a purple state of mind sounds good, it seems to me that America is so polarized that any attempt to reach moderate ground is an exercise in futility (lets hope its aerobic). We KNOW they are wrong, and they KNOW we are wrong. Lets just go back to the old days and throw poo.

  5. I see no problem with “bridging the gap” as long as both sides are operating from rational principles.

    If religious fundamentalists insist on placing irrational faith-based claims on equal (or even superior) footing to rational ones, there can be no progress. Faith can be useful as a tool for selecting between rational alternatives; it should not in and of itself be a basis for any of those alternatives.

    Of course, the same can be said of far-left ideologues. The point is less the origin of the position than its basis in reality.

  6. @davew: Probably a one-time thing. We’ll be moving on to a different book next month. But you can always read John’s and Craig’s blogs and books to get more of their writing. But if they’re game, I guess we could invite them back again to continue the discussion.

  7. Nope. Can’t be done. The pluralistic mess is an irreconcilable difference. It is indeed important to put aside differences for the greater good. But what is the greater good? I’ll never meet anyone half way on making policy based on the supernatural, I’ll never compromise on a woman’s right to choose.

    The answer– revert back to the spirit and intentions of the framers back in 1776 as best we can. Personal liberty, small government ruled by the people and no taxation without representation. The hard ideas have been forgotten and now agendas rule.

  8. @kevinf

    There are many solutions. As you bring up abortion let’s start there. What pro-choice and pro-life both agree on is there should be fewer unwanted pregnancies. It should be possible to come up with a program that both sides agree on to accomplish this.

    I also notice that the prime energy extracting states are also some of the best positioned to take advantage of wind and solar energy production. I think gulf states would go along with some alternative energy plants as long as they got a cut. Pork wins every time except this would be the very highest quality pork.

    The larger point is the government prioritizes the issues where common ground can be had and leaves the divisive stuff on the back burner as much as possible.

  9. @davew: Speaking of abortion and other “hot button” topics, the only way both sides can come to an agreement is if they are willing to “give to get,” which is the heart of any kind of negotiation. I wonder if the true believers on either side would be willing to do that. It seems to me that, at least for now, there is real reluctance to do that. It’s a “my way or the highway” mentality at the moment that stalls any progress.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with your larger point. I also agree that, if the “pork” is “tasty” enough, everyone will clamor for their share (and more, if they can get it).

  10. kevinf:

    It is indeed important to put aside differences for the greater good. But what is the greater good?

    This is why the all too frequent calls for bipartisanship annoy me. Different people have different conceptions of the public good and that is what the different sides are about. Honestly, its like some people think that everyone agrees on what the right thing to do is and the other side is just being difficult about it.

    I also agree that the best way to manage this problem is reduce government’s scope. If the government does something, expect to have a political bunfight over it. Now maybe you’ll get lucky, but you should never plan to be lucky.

  11. @kevinf: “The answer– revert back to the spirit and intentions of the framers back in 1776 as best we can.”

    -I have a real problem with this kind of thinking. The founding fathers didn’t actually agree with each other as to what the spirit and intention of what our government should be. Also the “spirit and intentions” of our founding fathers in 1776 was so lousy that they had to get together and rethink them in 1787 to get rid of the Articles of Confederation and replace it with the Constitution. We live in a different time and what was good back then isn’t necessarily good today; it’s a different time, a different world, with different expectations.

    “Personal liberty, small government ruled by the people and no taxation without representation. The hard ideas have been forgotten and now agendas rule.”

    – Personal liberty, yes (Bill of Rights), but were in the constitution does it talk about “small government”. The backbone of the constriction is democracy while protecting freedoms guaranteed in Bill of Rights. If “the people” elect representatives and a president to bring about a huge socialist government with expansive services, heavy regulations, and a tax rate of 50%, well, that’s democracy Skippy. And democracy is the “spirit and intentions of the framers”.

    Only the people in D.C have to worry about taxation with no representation. I would love to hear a coherent argument where people are being denied this right (outside of D.C., where they are, unfortunately).

    Like most libertarian/conservative arguments I find yours simplistic to the point of being incoherent.

  12. Reducing government scope, is not what Obama has in mind, anyone that believes that has not been paying attention. it is going to be all government all the time, in every aspect of our lives. And the push to silence dissenters will be amazing in it’s swiftness.

    And when the republic is no longer, and we all bow down to the state, no one will remember that is was done to cheers of glee, and the giddiness in the air,.

    Nor the purple.

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