How We Can Stop Talking Past Each Other
At the dawn of the 21st century, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, was asked what he thought were the most divisive issues facing Christians in the 21st century. His response: how Christians approach the LGBT issue and how Christians approach the exclusivity of Christ. I recently heard Leith say that he was right about the first issue (LGBT has loomed very large) and wrong about the second (Christians have not generally been fighting about the exclusivity of Christ). Leith went on to say, “In my wildest dreams I never imagined that politics would be the most divisive issue for the church in the 21st century!”
There are at least four reasons why America has become so politically polarized:
1. Political parties are further apart than they have historically been.
After President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, America’s political parties realigned. Conservative Southern states, which had been solidly Democratic (because Lincoln was a Republican), began to leave the Democratic Party. By the 1990’s the South became solidly Republican. The Northeast, which historically was home to many liberal and moderate Republicans, became solidly Democratic.
Before this realignment, there were liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams. After the realignment, there was almost no overlap. The most liberal Republican is usually more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. The parties became more ideologically pure – a liberal and a conservative party – with few members of either party ever breaking ranks with their party on any vote.
Before 1995, Congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on the weekends. Their kids went to the same schools and played on the same teams; their spouses were friends. Now, Congressmen fly into D.C. on Monday, huddle with their party for three days and hustle home on Thursday evening. There are precious few friendships across party lines.
2. People increasingly live in ideologically segregated neighborhoods.
Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote a book back in 2008 titled The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart. This book suggests that when people move today, they most often choose to live near others who share their political views. People are increasingly deciding to segregate themselves into politically homogeneous enclaves – liberals on the coasts, conservatives in the middle of the country. Many Americans encounter few people who dramatically differ from them politically in their neighborhoods or in their schools. Just look at the political yard signs in Clintonville as opposed to say, Grove City.
In 1960, Americans were asked if they would be pleased or displeased if their sons or daughters married members of the other political party. 4% of Democrats and 5% of Republicans said they would be upset. By 2010, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats said that they would be upset. In 2016, nearly half of both parties said they had very unfavorable views of people who were members of the opposite party.
Today, we don’t just disagree with the other political party; we believe that the other party is evil. Nearly half of both parties think the other party’s policies are “a threat to the nation”.
3. Many of us live in self-reinforcing information bubbles.
50 years ago, there were three TV news outlets – CBS, NBC, and ABC. When Walter Cronkite, the anchor for the CBS Evening News, signed off every evening, he said, “That’s the way it is.” And tens of millions of Americans believed that that’s the way it was! Today, with the multiplication of news media outlets, a person never needs to hear a political perspective other than the one she already holds.
4. Our political opinions are shaped by different deeply held values.
Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist at NYU. He wrote an incredibly enlightening book called The Righteous Mind in which he listed five fundamental values that drive people’s political opinions. Progressives tend to emphasize two values: fairness/justice and care/compassion. When someone of a more progressive persuasion is asked about undocumented immigrants, these two values – fairness and compassion – will often drive that person toward a welcoming and generous response to the undocumented immigrant.
Conservatives, according to Haidt, are also concerned about fairness and compassion, but conservatives have other values that are equally important to them, including: loyalty (often expressing itself in patriotism and self-sacrifice) and authority (expressing itself in obedience and deference to law). Frequently, in debates about undocumented immigrants, progressives use the language of compassion and justice while conservatives use the language of obedience to law and loyalty to our country. We talk past each other. Let’s learn to speak in ways that others can hear, translating our thoughts into their preferred language!
Here’s the question: Is the reconciling power of Jesus through his death on a cross strong enough to break down the dividing walls of our political differences?
The cross of Jesus is strong enough to reconcile sinners to God. The cross of Jesus is also powerful enough to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, and by extension, ethnic groups to each other. Surely the cross of Jesus is strong enough to reconcile Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives!
So how can we stop talking past each other? We don’t need to give up our convictions or pretend that every argument is equally good or that every politician is equally moral (or immoral). And we don’t need to give up legitimate criticism of racist, sexist, xenophobic, or anti-Christian comments. But there are four practical ways for Christians not to be swept away by the current level of partisanship and rancor in American politics.
1. Stop buying pre-packaged ethics.
My dear friend, James Mumford, who received his doctorate from Oxford University in theological ethics, has written on the subject of “packaged ethics”. What does he mean by “packaged ethics”? Have you ever seen a car with bumper stickers that make you shake your head? For example, a car may have a bumper sticker that says “Pro-life” next to a bumper sticker that says “Pro-gun” Or pro-life and pro-capital punishment.
On the other side of the aisle, progressives are often people who care about the poor and the most marginalized in our society and yet are also pro-euthanasia. How do those two things go together? The likely victims of euthanasia are going to be poor elderly people who are alone and shut away in a state nursing home, not the wealthy elderly who can protect themselves with an army of lawyers and strong family support. We Christians should not buy the packaged approach to issues sold to us by either Democrats or Republicans. Our loyalty is to another kingdom. We Christians ought to think through our perspectives on each individual issue based upon our biblical convictions. Sometimes you will agree with one political party; sometimes you will agree with the other party, and sometimes you will agree with neither.
2. Read and listen to perspectives across the political divide.
Do you ever read or listen to news that challenges the views you already have? Vineyard is a Both-And church! I am a Both-And thinker! I regularly read and listen to perspectives from both sides of the political aisle. I read articles from The Ethics and Public Policy Center (www.eppc.org). This site offers some of the best conservative opinion writers in America. And I read the New York Times. But even when I read The Times, I read a range of columnists – liberals like Nick Kristof and Paul Krugman, moderates like David Brooks, and conservatives like Ross Douthat and Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank). I read articles from Slate, a progressive publication, and The National Review, a conservative periodical.
3. Pay attention to the best arguments from both sides, not just self-selected quotes excerpted by talking heads from your side.
It’s easy to build straw men and then knock them down. It’s easy to cite the most ignorant arguments from the other side pulled entirely out of context. Christian charity requires us to pay attention to the other side’s strongest arguments. When we listen to the strongest argument and not the weakest, the wisest and not the most ignorant, we find ourselves pulled toward each other rather than away from one another.
4. Walk in another person’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective.
Not every progressive is unpatriotic, hates hard work, or hates God. And not every conservative is a racist or hates the poor. There’s an old saying that “we should seek to understand before we seek to be understood”. Why should we ever walk in the shoes of someone else and see things from their vantage point? For us as Christians, the answer is obvious! We believe in a God who stepped out of heaven and took on our humanity. If there’s anything that should characterize us as believers, it is our willingness to understand the other person’s point of view and see things from their perspective as well as our own.
I believe that one of the greatest witnesses the church can have in the world today is by serving as a countercultural force in the partisan divide of America. The church can be a healing place where we bring people together instead of tearing people apart.