These are divided times in the United States. The country was trending toward polarization anyway, but 9/11 activated the “fight, flight or freeze” part of our collective brain. Conversations about difficult topics increasingly became the means of defining who is “us” and who is “them.” With recent elections and the increase of hate speech and hate crimes, the divide grows wider.
Pastors to the left and right can find these to be the best of times for preaching about social issues as long as they preach to like-minded congregations. With no pressing need for self-examination, it is empowering – and sometimes fun – to give voice to shared convictions and fears, identify with snark and scorn those who stand opposed to the clear mandate of the gospel, and win a rhetorical victory in the righteous cause. The congregation is easily moved — in the direction in which they are moving already.
For pastors serving congregations who vote both red and blue, fun is not likely the word they would choose to describe preaching on social issues. Promoters of political and social agendas have tapped into primal fears as a way of enlisting support, and the resulting cultural climate is one of reaction instead of reflection. Even church-attenders are primed to take offense as soon as they sense someone taking an opposing stand on quick-blush issues. Use the wrong pronoun, you’re a sexist. Hope for universal health care, you’re socialist. Express discomfort about gay marriage and you’re homophobic or voice support for gay marriage and you’ve rejected the authority of Scripture. Speak in defense of the police officer or the one against whom the officer used force and it immediately is clear whose lives matter and whose do not.
Most mainline pastors I know have stories of being surprised by the angry letter or phone call simply for mentioning an issue, quoting from the wrong media source or saying a politician’s name from the pulpit. When the lectionary reading for a Sunday hits too close to what MSNBC, Fox News, the speaker of the house or the president has talked about the past week, it is tempting to choose another Scripture just to avoid the grief.
In these tribal times, moral persuasion is not easy. The difficulty begins within. Moral persuasion takes moral courage. I am not speaking of self-righteousness that is often mistaken for moral courage. True moral courage begins with the courage to be swayed. It begins with humility to accept that your own strongly held views are corrupted and need to change, or that you sound as crazy to someone else as others can sound to you. It also means that those who seem so defiant in their beliefs that they seem to be leaning into the headwinds of logic and facts are doing so because they sense that something important is at risk.
That is the message of a book that would be required reading if I were teaching homiletics at a seminary these days — even though the book was written by an agnostic. Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” helps those in the business of persuasion understand why people defend so strongly what they believe, even when they seem to defy facts and logic. I certainly encourage reading this book before the 2020 presidential election season moves the country from bake to broil.
I offer three areas in which Haidt helped me as a pastor of a politically diverse congregation.
“The Righteous Mind” is a primer on understanding and dealing with the illogically defiant, the company of which Haidt says includes liberals and conservatives, indeed any member of the human species.
Haidt did not begin his research so inclusively. His initial goal was to learn how better to help liberal Democratic candidates be more effective in political campaigns. His research frustrated him, though, because it wasn’t cooperating. It failed to prove just how misguided were the conservatives and how wise the liberals, nor how everything would be all right if facts and logic were just allowed to have their say. Haidt remembers the moment when he turned to his wife to tell her that he no longer could call himself a “liberal.”
Haidt won’t call himself as a conservative either. What his research revealed is that those who sound crazy to liberals or conservatives are trying to protect something important. Those who support gun rights and those who call for gun control, those who celebrate gay marriage and those who oppose it, those who want to fill for-profit prisons and those who see incarceration as a modern form of slavery, those who want to lift burdens on the poor and those who want to free corporations from regulations — all are protecting values needed for human survival. Sure, held positions might be wrong – even dangerous – but those holding them intuit that a fundamental value is at threat.
Haidt identified six core values (“the taste buds of a moral palate”) that have all been defined by negative experience. They are:
- Caring, defined by the negative experience of harm — harm to ourselves, but even more to children who need protection;
- Fairness, defined by the experience of cheating;
- Loyalty, defined by the experience of betrayal;
- Authority, defined by experience of subversion;
- Sanctity, defined by the experience of degradation (or yuck!); and
- Liberty, defined by the experience of oppression.
All six values are necessary for human survival, and all six have biblical grounding.
However, no one can hold all six equally at the same time. Due to DNA, upbringing, culture, experience and training, we develop different moral palates. Be glad, for each value needs its champions; but beware, because we all are vulnerable to being manipulated when what we value seems at threat.
In today’s America, Haidt says, liberals give priority to caring and fairness while conservatives flip the list and give priority to the other four beginning with sanctity and liberty. This seems all good when conservatives and liberals are grateful for keeping each other accountable, but too often liberals and conservatives are pushed to see each other as enemies. “They’re not being fair,” scream liberals when speaking out for minorities, the LGBTQIA community and immigrants. “They’re not being loyal,” scream the conservatives when calling for safe borders, the defense of traditional family values and preserving what they think makes America great.
Only, maybe defending loyalty does not automatically mean being racist. Maybe defending fairness does not automatically mean being socialist.
Let’s look at a stark example about an issue for which many pastors are gun shy (allusion intended). Look at the divide that opens wide immediately after a school shooting. Some immediately speak to the defense of the value of liberty and protecting the right to bear arms: But it is not like they don’t care about children. Others immediately come to the defense of the value of caring in speaking out for the vulnerable, especially children, and call for gun control: But it is not like they don’t value liberty. If both caring and liberty are important values, then maybe there can be conversations and negotiations where both values can be honored and firmly held positions can shift in dealing with this national crisis. When sides are demonized, though, middle solutions are harder to gain, communities become more divided, the status quo remains and the mass shootings multiply.
2. What it takes
Haidt’s book dashes Plato’s hope in thinking that the “rider” of reason can tame and guide the “horse” of emotion. First of all, Haidt says, we think of intuition instead of emotion. Second, think of “elephant” instead of “horse.” Why? Because the elephant is smarter than the horse, more powerful and, once it starts leaning in a certain direction, the elephant is more difficult to turn.
The elephant, Haidt says, is going to take the rider where the elephant wants to go. Facts and reason may or may not matter. It depends on if one’s intuition trusts the facts or the argument or even if it wants to do so. The intuition of a bright teenager can trust the evidence that says smoking is harmful, but trusts more the intuition that tells her smoking is cool.
How one’s intuition develops, what one trusts, is a result of many factors – DNA, birth order, culture (that’s a big one), desires, experience – but once the elephant leans, it doesn’t want to change direction. Even worse, when a herd of elephants runs in a stampede, good luck trying to turn one of them without being trampled (think about that analogy in relation to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia).
That’s the way it has to be with humans or we would not have survived as a species. Intuition has to call the shots. Most decisions must be made quickly without time to weigh all the facts and options. An effective persuader should accept this reality and learn to speak to the elephant.
Political and ideological manipulators know how to do this in immoral ways. They fan fears, feed hatreds, abuse logic and invent facts. And once they get folks moving, they encourage stampedes. Each elephant feels empowered running with the herd but is afraid to change direction and get run over.
Haidt suggests that great moral leaders find a better way to address fears without fanning them. They begin with a willingness to be influenced as well as to influence. They seek to understand why those who disagree with them lean the way they do and what it is they are trying to protect. They strive to build relationships with those who believe differently so as to discover common ground of shared values. They encourage movement in others by moving themselves, because they know there is not a person on this planet who is where everyone else needs to go.
3. Encouragement of the church
Finally, Haidt suggests, great moral leaders know that moral transformation happens best within moral communities: communities closed enough to provide protection and foster identity and communities open enough to adopt new ideas and adapt to the times.
Though agnostic, Haidt is a critic of the “New Atheists” because he does not see all faith communities as promoters of superstition and irrationality. Of course, there are unhealthy religious communities that add fuel to out-of-control ideological fires. And, of course, there are weak communities that don’t know how to promote boundaries and constraints in a culture that perhaps dangerously over-celebrates individual expression and rights.
Still, Haidt won’t get caught up in today’s over-wrought anti-institutionalism. The world is better served by communities that honor “the sacred” even at individual sacrifice. He wrote that moral formation occurs when people within the embrace and safety of healthy communities become “enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence … behavior,” behavior that is both boundaried and open, respectful and self-sacrificial.
Case in point: The border crisis
“The border crisis” is a perfect title for the kind of issue that polarizes because it involves fears about open and closed boundaries. Consider the stories that play on those fears.
Stories of immigrants with infectious diseases, stealing American jobs. Stories of rapists, drug smugglers and human traffickers looking to spread their mayhem. Stories of terrorists embedded within massive caravans of invaders. These reports strike at the heart of those who prioritize loyalty and sanctity (fearing degradation). How easy these stories make it for conservatives to accuse liberals of being unpatriotic and heartless about protecting American jobs, children and health.
Stories of families separated, and children kept in cages where they are mistreated. Stories of refugees from persecution being forced to return home. Stories of drownings in the Rio Grande. These reports strike at the heart of those who prioritize fairness and caring. How easy these stories make it for liberals to accuse conservatives of being unpatriotic and heartless: unpatriotic about forgetting what the Statue of Liberty stands for and heartless about poor and desperate people of color.
How might an ideologically diverse congregation deal with an issue almost perfectly designed to drive a wedge between conservatives and liberals making each appear monstrous to the other?
Earlier, I suggested Haidt’s book for a homiletics class. A sermon that too easily identifies the gospel with one point of view may encourage a stampede reaction either with or against the preacher. Certainly, a sermon that suggests that those on either side are by definition heartless and unpatriotic is inflammatory. Can a sermon begin with underlying values and real fears? Can it go deep enough to acknowledge that everyone should have a sense of “stranger danger” at some level and that it’s unwise to have completely open and unmonitored boundaries between strangers and children, teachers and students, people with power and those who work for them, and adjoining nations? Can a sermon go deep enough to acknowledge that children are not to be mistreated, that refugees from persecution need refuge, that immigration laws need to be improved and deportation is not the best answer for all who live in this country illegally? The preacher can be honest about his or her own lean, but can’t empathy and understanding be shown toward those who lean differently leaving room for reflection and conversation?
Of course, if Haidt is right, no matter how well-crafted the sermon (or lesson), it is within the context of community where moral transformation best takes place. The community that can best face such a controversial issue as the border crisis is one that has spent years in worship and education giving attention to voices within tradition and Scripture that speak to both exclusion and inclusion, giving focus more to moral values underlying moral positions, and has insisted on respectful ways of listening and speaking to each other.
Then, when debate about the border becomes hot or news from the border is shocking (a caravan is said to be approaching the border or children are said to be held in cages), the faith community is the first and best place for redeeming dialogue that can lead to faithful action.
I’ll offer a glimpse into efforts to promote both respectful dialogue and effective action from the church I serve, Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, with members who want a border wall to be built and members who would march to protest it being built. As to dialogue, we host forums on controversial issues where truthful but balanced information is presented, both sides are given voice through informed speakers and respect is insisted on by those who participate. We held a forum on immigration and will soon hold one on the connection between hate speech and hate crimes.
As to action, we encourage engagement in the world even when we disagree. Together, we support a Florida ministry to migrants, many of whom are undocumented. Together, we support ministry to those in detention centers thanks to a former associate pastor now serving in Arizona. We own our past history of hosting refugee families and have raised significant funds to help today’s refugees. Of course, we could do more, but perhaps through this kind of engagement on the common ground of loyalty to each other and compassion for others will help us be morally swayed so more is possible without unnecessary division.
I pray it is so.
George C. Anderson is head of staff at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia.