What Gov. Cox said in D.C. about working with people you disagree with

Cox, a Republican, took the stage with Democratic Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland to discuss repairing breaches in civic life

When a U.S. governor becomes chair of the National Governors Association — a nonpartisan political group comprised of the country’s governors — they often choose an issue like infrastructure or transportation to focus on during the yearlong role.

But when Republican Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox took the reins in July 2023, he started the Disagree Better initiative.

The project aims to help people “learn to disagree in a way that allows us to find solutions and solve problems instead of endlessly bickering,” according to the initiative’s landing page on the National Governors Association website.

“The experts told us that we need people in elected office to model this behavior … that used to be so normal in our country, and is no longer normal. And that’s why I chose to do it,” Cox said while speaking at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 21.

He and Maryland Governor Wes Moore, a Democrat, were the opening speakers at “With Malice Toward None, With Charity for All,” a forum exploring how to repair breaches in civic life.

The free event was held in partnership with the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University and Wesley Theological Seminary, and sponsored by Deseret Magazine. Other speakers throughout the program included ABC’s Donna Brazile, attorney Rachel Brand, legal scholar Ruth Okediji and activist Tim Shriver.

Cox said that while campaigning for reelection in 2020, he had the “crazy idea” to call his Democratic opponent Chris Peterson and ask him to film a political ad together. The result — a video in which they focused on their shared values and committed to upholding the presidential election’s results — later provided the foundation for Cox’s Disagree Better initiative.

Deseret News reported that the ad was later tested by Stanford University’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge. Researchers selected 25 interventions to show 31,000 U.S. partisans and found 23 of them reduced partisan animosity “significantly.”

Cox’s was one of the most effective, coming in at No. 2 for reducing support for partisan violence and No. 4 for reducing support for undemocratic practices, including overthrowing an election, gerrymandering and trying to withhold votes from people.

Now, Cox’s Disagree Better initiative pays for his fellow governors’ political ads — on the condition that they film it with someone who’s different from them.

“I’m grateful that there are people like you who are willing to get on stage with someone like me,” Cox said to Moore, “and show America that we don’t have to hate each other. That we don’t have to treat each other with contempt.”

President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church, speaks during the Sunday morning session of the 193rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 2, 2023. | La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días

President Nelson’s ‘Peacemakers Needed’ talk

Cox and Moore aren’t the first to discuss the need for greater civility among people with opposing viewpoints.

Speaking during the Sunday morning session of April 2023 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson invited listeners to follow the Savior and become His peacemakers, Church News reported.

“I am greatly concerned that so many people seem to believe that it is completely acceptable to condemn, malign and vilify anyone who does not agree with them,” he said in his talk titled “Peacemakers Needed.”

Disciples of Jesus Christ are to be examples of how to interact with others — especially when faced with differences of opinion, he said, adding that contention and peacemaking are both a choice.

“One of the easiest ways to identify a true follower of Jesus Christ is how compassionately that person treats other people,” President Nelson said.

He continued by saying that the Atonement of Jesus Christ makes it possible to overcome evil, including contention. Charity, or the pure love of Christ, is the antidote to contention.

“Today, I am asking us to interact with others in a higher, holier way,” President Nelson said. “Please listen carefully. ‘If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy’ that we can say about another person — whether to his face or behind her back — that should be our standard of communication. … Examine your discipleship within the context of the way you treat others. I bless you to make any adjustments that may be needed so that your behavior is ennobling, respectful and representative of a true follower of Jesus Christ.”

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox (Utah) and Democratic Gov. Wes Moore (Maryland) embrace during a forum held at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 21, 2024. The free event discussed working with people of opposing viewpoints, and was held in partnership with the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University and Wesley Theological Seminary. It was sponsored by Deseret Magazine. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

Working with people of opposing viewpoints

During the Washington National Cathedral forum, Moore discussed his own Disagree Better video filmed with Jack Coburn, the Republican mayor of Lonaconing, Maryland.

Moore was in his early days as governor, he said, and traveled to Lonaconing to help address the small town’s water crisis. Upon arriving, Coburn said Moore wouldn’t find a Democrat anywhere within five miles of the town.

But Moore was also the first governor to visit Lonaconing since 1996, Coburn told him.

“We actually built this really beautiful friendship,” Moore said. “And Mayor Coburn, who I now probably speak with every other week … showed me the importance of presence, of showing up, of being willing to engage. … Even if I know I might not get your vote or might not get your support, I’m going to keep showing up.”

Moore said there’s “real power” in getting outside of echo chambers — in genuinely listening to people with widely different opinions. Tough conversations, when done right, create the best concepts, ideas and policies, he said.

Cox agreed with Moore, and as an example of opposing sides working well together on an issue cited the recent codification of Utah’s conversion therapy ban. Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice that’s intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, Deseret News reported.

In Cox’s example, legislators were considering a bill that would have loosened the state’s 2020 conversion therapy ban.

The bill created a lot of hostility and anger, Cox said, but legislators sat down with leaders from LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Utah.

“They basically locked themselves in a room and said, ‘We are going to figure this out,’ and they committed to each other,” Cox said. “They had enough faith in each other, enough trust in each other, to have that conversation.”

The result was HB228, which codifies Utah’s conversion therapy ban. The Utah Senate passed it unanimously, “the only conversion therapy bill in the United States to ever pass a legislative body unanimously,” Cox said.

Additionally, the day he signed the bill, he was joined by representatives from both Equality Utah and from conservative social group Utah Eagle Forum.

“That’s something I’m very proud of, something that we worked really hard to do, and something that I think has really made our state a better place,” Cox said.

Moore also noted the importance of service in helping people overcome political divides, which is why he helped pass legislation making Maryland the first state in the country offering a service year opportunity to students.

In a time of political vitriol, where people seem to care more about where an idea comes from than if it’s a good idea, service allows people to see the full potential of others, not just their differing beliefs, Moore said.

“I believe that service will save us,” he said.

Cox, who said he’s working on a youth service bill similar to Maryland’s, added that overcoming divisiveness is a community problem, not just a government one. That’s why he’s so proud of Utah’s faith communities, he said.

Cox is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. And throughout the state, Latter-day Saints help make up Utah’s strong faith-based community, he said.

Latter-day Saints aren’t the only ones, either, Cox continued. For example, the Catholic church is “amazingly strong” in Utah, working with refugees and children living in poverty. “So our faith-based community is fully engaged,” he said.

He added that giving back “builds community. It solves problems and it depolarizes our country.”

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President Russell M. Nelson: ‘Peacemakers Needed’
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