by Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon Press. New York. 422 pages
You attend or lead a Presbyterian church. You have your challenges, but you’re proud of your Reformed heritage. What you can’t understand is why anybody goes to that new megachurch down the road with its rock band and cup holders in the sanctuary. But they do; in droves. Maybe they just prefer a show to real worship. Or they’re probably people who can’t handle the complexity of real life and good theology and just like being told what to think. In a darker moment you ponder whether they aren’t just afraid of all of the changes going around them and want to live in a little like-minded bubble. You shudder and thank the good Lord you aren’t like them. If New York University moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is correct, you’re wrong about these people. Dangerously wrong. And the inability to understand “those” people may go a long way to shedding light on mainline decline.
Basing his theory on thousands of interviews, Haidt challenges the importance institutions like the PC(USA) place upon reason. Likening reason to a tiny rider astride the far more powerful elephant of intuition, Haidt argues that reason functions mainly to convince ourselves of what we’re already feeling. Citing well-known studies, Haidt argues liberals and conservatives are predisposed to see the world through partisan metanarratives, after which we marshal reason to highlight the facts that confirm our bias and ignore the facts that don’t fit. Haidt doesn’t believe all is lost, though. We can guide these elephants of intuition. We just have to know how.
At the heart of Haidt’s project is his Moral Foundations Theory. Viewing morality to be akin to taste, Haidt articulates six major “flavors” of moral reasoning — care, equality, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt’s discovery: liberals rely on just three of these moral foundations (care, equality, fairness); while conservatives speak to all six. Polarization occurs in part because liberals tend to have difficulty in seeing how loyalty, authority and sanctity can even be articulated in ways that are moral. Haidt’s point is not to champion conservative views, however, but to encourage mutual understanding and to prod liberals to expand their own moral palette.
Haidt even studied this in a congregational context, comparing Unitarian Universalist preaching with Baptist preaching. Surprise, surprise: the UU preaching relied heavily upon care and equality, while Baptist preaching touched on these centers, as well as loyalty, authority and sanctity.
“The Righteous Mind” isn’t perfect. Haidt’s functionalist view of religion as merely an evolutionary tool to create community is incomplete. While Haidt’s defense of religion from the New Atheists is welcome, the way he compares religion to the drunken rituals of college athletics provides an inadequate account for the depth of our witness.
Yet church leaders do well to read Haidt’s work. It suggests our failure to articulate the Gospel in any key other than love and equality signals we’re missing octaves of moral meaning for which people’s ears are tingling.
KEN EVERS-HOOD is pastor of Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Tualatin, Oregon.