Starting Points in a Post-Truth World

Is finding and expressing yourself the primary goal of life? Should it be?

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What are the sources of authority for establishing truth in your life, especially when it comes to questions of religion, politics, and morality?

I recently asked this last question to a group of students in a class on church history. Every single one of them, ranging in age from 19 to 60, and across the theological and political spectrum, said something very similar. Their families and early experiences with church and/or scripture informed some of their early convictions and perspectives but somewhere along the line, their own experiences became the ultimate arbiters of truth in their lives.

I thought that was quite self-aware and also not unique. One of the big themes in Worshiping Politics is that our political positions and our theological beliefs are the result of an ongoing process of formation, primarily rooted in affective (emotional and intuitive) experiences and not from well-reasoned arguments or thought processes. Those very processes are actually explanations or justifications that come after the strong impressions, instead of logical processes we use to arrive at a particular position or conviction. Intuition plants strong impressions in our brains and it immediately goes to work explaining why they’re there and protecting them from challenge.

Intuition plants strong impressions in our brains and it immediately goes to work explaining why they’re there and protecting them from challenge.

So many of our established bias tendencies that interfere with clear thinking explain and confirm how our thinking is motivated rather than “objective”—the Dunning-Kruger effect, confirmation bias, self-serving bias, in-group bias, etc.

And for all you geniuses out there, before you activate the overconfidence or curse of knowledge bias, know that there is significant evidence to show that the smarter you are (the higher your analytical IQ and vocabulary level) the better you are at rationalizing biases and untruths.

So what does that mean for how we establish truth about the world? Or even more subjective ideas about religion or politics?

Many of us have experienced some kind of conversation or interaction that can only be described as a “proof-text war”. It consists of an exchange of ideas between people, at least one (or both) of whom sees the Bible as a source of authority and truth.

For example:

Person A: Why did you vote for Trump?

Person B: Because he is going to stack the supreme court and they are going to overturn Roe v. Wade. And abortion is the only issue that matters because God knit us together in our mother’s womb and knows every hair on our head.
Person A: Oh. Cool. What about the part where it says love your neighbor?

Person B: Unborn babies are our neighbors, too.

Person A: Ummmm…ok.

So as not to single out this perspective, its converse can be equally or even more dangerous:

Person A: What do you think about abortion?

Person B: Women should be able to do what they want with their bodies.

Person A: But what about our responsibility to one another, including the unborn?

Person B: I don’t know. That seems unfair and people don’t think like that anymore. Let’s take care of the living.

Obviously these two imagined dialogues are oversimplifications and caricatures of two world views, but they are not that far off from some perspectives I’ve heard. In the first, the Bible most certainly serves as a justification for ideas received and felt through other means (church, community, pastor, parents). It functions in the service of the ex post facto (after the fact) reasoning mechanism.

In the second, the care/harm intuition is explained away with a vague reference to societal norms (which change) and an ungrounded notion of fairness.

What is also apparent in these two imagined dialogues is that each person is coming from different epistemological (authority and foundation of truth) starting points. For one, the main authority is scripture, and an inherited interpretation of a particular passage. For the other, the main authority is societal norms, or what I sometimes call “the stream of culture.”

But in both views, the epistemological starting points, or at least the use of them, are fallible, and operate primarily in the service of justifying what the view-holder has come to by means other than objective truth or thought processes. There are good arguments on both sides depending both on foundational starting points and ultimate ends. For example, whether the goal of our lives is to “please god” or to “create a more equitable society” will determine the value of the approaches to any particular question.

If we make assumptions about others’ epistemological starting points and ultimate ends, we will never get beyond the point of talking past one another. If instead, we ask more questions about peoples’ experiences, knowledge, world view, and goals, we might find more places of commonality and connection.

This is why Facebook and Twitter are not good means for civic exchange and are largely responsible for heightening both polarization and misinformation. When you are not staring someone in the face and trying to understand them, all of the regulators of social cohesion go out the window and we end up resorting to our core tribalistic tendencies—defend my group at all costs.

This is certainly not what scripture is for. But I’ll save that until next week.

Trump, the Democratic Primaries, and the Moral Channels of Liberals and Conservatives

Light Brown and Blue Leaves DIY Influencer Instagram Post Set

liberals and conservatives generally care about and respond to different moral motivators

Our responses to moral stimuli, including political candidates, policies, and issues, are not primarily well-reasoned positions that are the result of a process of logical deliberation. Instead they are affective (intuitive and almost primal) responses that our brains immediately go into action in order to reason through and justify. That doesn’t mean we can’t ever change our “minds” (see Proven Ways to Change Someone’s Mind here), but it does mean that our “minds” are most likely to change as the result of other affective experiences and factors rather than from more reasoning or information. That may include certain ways of framing things, as I tried to illustrate in the last post.

Part of the reason why is that liberals and conservatives generally care about and respond to different moral motivators. Liberals primarily respond to the components of care/harm (i.e. protecting the weak and vulnerable) and fairness/cheating (with the particular angle of equality of access and the leveling of unearned advantages).

moral channels

Conservatives are a little bit lower than liberals in the care/harm channel (though it is still very important), but more even across all five channels, including fairness (with an emphasis on procedural fairness), authority (value of a strong leader and institutions to identify with), Ingroup/Loyalty (going along with a group is powerful for everyone but much stronger as a stated moral value for conservatives), and Purity (also called sanctity/degradation, which places an emphasis on religiously-derived bodily or sexual taboos).

It doesn’t take much to see how these map out. Take an issue like Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem. One side emphasizes and praises his independent-mindedness and his defense of those who are vulnerable (care/harm and fairness), and the other side cannot get past his shirking of sacred ritual norms (purity) and ostensible lack of patriotism (authority/ingroup).

Liberals refuse to emphasize what makes America great and the importance of patriotic expressions for group cohesion.

While many liberal politicians and candidates still give lip service to phrases like “God bless the United States of America” and try to reclaim the discourse on patriotism to include free speech, they largely cede the entire authority/ingroup channel to conservatives. They refuse to emphasize what makes America great and the importance of patriotic expressions for group cohesion. They may have good reasons (helping and doing justice toward those in our nation and other nations), but they could easily find ways to incorporate other channels into the language they use.

If you look at some of the most important issues that liberal/progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are promoting, they fall almost exclusively in the liberal versions of care/harm and fairness as access. Health Care. Free Education. Wealth redistribution. But important language about the uniqueness of what it means to be American and the role of national cohesion is largely absent (except perhaps from Amy Klobuchar) and therefore missing a huge swath of the American public.

It is obvious to anyone paying attention that the impeachment hearings and trial have brought out strong ingroup/loyalty channels framed along the lines of republican/democrat (instead of American/other, or human/climate crisis). But you can also see in the arguments made by republicans that things like authority (use of power to gain advantage) and loyalty (whether of Giuliani or other officials refusing to testify) are things that conservatives VALUE.

Liberals need to think about how to reframe some of those moral receptors instead of vilifying them

Liberals are not winning people over by trying to denigrate the very things that many people value. They need to think about how to reframe some of those moral receptors instead of vilifying them, and conservatives (think of the compassionate conservatism language of George W.) need to recapture some of the discourse around care for the vulnerable in society instead of letting ingroup (white nationalist) concerns override.

What are your main moral channels?

Did you know the research on confirmation bias tells us that our brains and emotions have developed in such a way that we seek out information and test hypotheses in ways that confirm what we already think instead of trying to poke holes in our pre-existing assumptions? In fact, it has been shown that getting more information that is contrary to one’s idea/belief can actually move us more staunchly in the opposite direction (i.e. away from the well-founded facts). This has been demonstrated in areas as far ranging as physical laws of the universe, climate change, vaccinations, even simple math. For more on this, see Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the New Yorker from 2017: “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”

There are lots of great books and podcasts that make emerging social science research that formerly only appeared in academic journals much more accessible to all of us. Some of my favorite podcasts are Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam, Freakonomics Radio with Stephen Dubner, and Revisionist History hosted by Malcolm Gladwell. What much of this research does is challenge conventional wisdom about how we function as human beings socially and psychologically. Of course, some of it is still being tested and retested, but much of it has also been repeated and verified in multiple settings by multiple researchers.

I have especially done a deep dive into the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, and more recently The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, with Greg Lukianoff. Here’s my summary of Haidt’s work on Moral Foundations Theory:

We tend to think of “morality” as a code of right and wrong written on the universe that is ours to discover and then live out. Whether it is a duty-laden rulebook (a la many religious codes) or a deductive way of thinking about ethics (the Kantian universal imperative), we tend to think about making the right choices about the right things to do in any given situation. Not only is this impractical, it is not really how we work as human beings. Haidt argues, and many others have shown that most of our reasoning about things that matter is not reasoning at all, but ex post facto explaining of the intuitive or emotional responses we have. In other words, what we are actually doing is having an emotional reaction to a given issue, person, or situation and then our brains go into overdrive to explain that reaction to ourselves.

What Haidt and Craig Joseph have also theorized is not only that our emotional or affective responses precede any kind of “rational” deliberation, but that those reactions tend to align loosely with a finite set of categories that they call Moral Foundations. Through perusing of major worldwide religious and moral texts and then by using thousands of surveys of people’s moral reactions to various scenarios all around the world, Haidt and Joseph synthesized people’s moral explanations into five (now six) categories. You can think of these like moral channels or antennae that have different sensitivities for different people, but are present to some degree in all of us.

The channels are:

  • Care,
  • Fairness,
  • Loyalty,
  • Authority,
  • Sanctity,
  • and Liberty.

Most of our moral reactions and appeals fall into these categories.

What Haidt also discovered is that people in advanced technological societies map out differently on these channels than those from more “traditional” cultures, AND that conservatives and liberals also tend to value and emphasize these moral foundations differently. Not surprisingly, liberals tend to overemphasize the importance of care and fairness and underemphasize the importance of loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty, while conservatives, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, tend to emphasize ALL six of the moral foundations, while emphasizing care and fairness a little less than liberals.

moral channels

There are lots of implications to these findings for the way we engage politics, religion, and relate to one another. For example, Haidt describes conservatives as more “morally well-rounded” because they draw on more of the foundations common to human experience, while liberals emphases work better in more diverse environments but can become a limiting “moral matrix” if they can’t see the logic of other environments and contexts.

One of the biggest implications, though, is that it does no good to demonize those whose moral foundations are different from ours. And often it is helpful to try to discover those foundations and find common ground than to win an argument.

What if, for example, we re-messaged some of our conflicting political ideas like the ones at the top of this page? What if we talked to each other in ways that honored our most important moral channels instead of blaming one another for being different?

Redefining Politics for Gen Z (and the Rest of Us)

While we are seeing new forms of political activism and engagement among young people in the last few years, there are still high levels of skepticism and apathy. If voting practices are one indicator of that, then the data is depressing. Philip Kearney shows Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 8.24.48 AMhow if every eligible voter who didn’t vote in 2016 had instead been counted as a vote for “nobody,” then nobody would have taken 6x the electoral votes of the next closest candidate!

My experience with students and my own kids indicates something very different going on, and I believe it is something we can and should capitalize on, as I believe philosopher Aristotle, sociologist James Davison Hunter, and others would have us do. I explore these themes in my class on Religion, Politics, and the Good Life, and in chapter 2 of Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith.

Aristotle introduced us to the word and concept of the “polis” from which our modern notion of politics comes. At the beginning of his treatise on Politics, he writes that

Every polis is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good. But if all communities aim at some good, the polis or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

If we can set aside our modern understanding and experience of the government and how it functions and dig back into the heart of politics, we see the connection between community and the pursuit of the good. This is the core of what politics is.

Hunter has explored some of the disconnect between our timeworn understanding of politics and a reinvigoration of a commitment to a common good. He writes in To Change the World:

[The] turn toward politics means that we find it difficult to think of a way to address public (by which I mean collective, common, or shared) problems or issues in any way that is not political.

In other words, we have gotten so used to “politics” referring to things having to do with government instead of the collective concern of our political community (i.e. our whole society) that people have withdrawn from other spheres of problem solving and at the same time become apathetic about the capacity (and limits) of the government.

Politics is not just government.

Another way to say this is that politics is not just government. It refers to the process of the political community defining and pursuing the good. Of course that is fraught with challenges and there are other theories that would render it a nostalgic and hopeless quest. But I have found that it can be very empowering for students (and the rest of us) to recognize that our shared challenges and triumphs are political in nature (beyond the government). And their (and our) involvement in negotiating and pursuing the common good of our collective communities is at the heart of politics and our shared future.

Faith and Education in a Secularizing World

Percentage Reporting

Source: Gallup Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

As more and more students and more and more of our world come from backgrounds and experiences that are not rooted in specific (organized) religious traditions, it makes us have to continually rethink what it means to be “Christ-centered” and what spiritual formation looks like in that context. One of the elements of that rethinking is a reframing of “religion” and its purpose altogether. I engage this reframing in the first chapter of my book, Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith, as well as in my class on Religion, Politics, and the Good Life.

What do we do when religion fades in importance from everyday life?

Many of the leading social thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud—believed that religion would fade in importance and influence. In most industrialized nations, we have certainly seen that fading of importance of organized (especially Christian) religion that has left us with what many have called “Post-Christendom.” But organized forms of religion have remained, even increased, in importance in places that are less economically and politically stable (Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa), AND we have yet to see the death of the church in the United States as many expected by this point.

One of the huge critiques of religion, issued by folks like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, is that beyond being untrue (they are noted atheists), it is a destructive force in society. Dawkins, for example, attributes the political and social violence in places like “Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad” to the persistence of religious delusion. What is quite easy to see, though, is that religion is being used as a straw man and easy target for blaming more complex political, economic, and social problems onto visible religious difference. In other words, more pathological versions of religious belief and practice get used as an easy scapegoat for deeper issues.

Is religion bad for the world?

An exercise I do with my students gets them to reflect on the elements of culture—shared or communal ways of making meaning that get embedded in narratives, practices, symbols, etc.—in contrast to the elements of religion, which I would also characterize as shared ways of making meaning that get embedded in narratives, practices, symbols, etc. that sometimes (but not always) have some reference to a metaphysical or divine element in that meaning-making process. We combine this with Paul Tillich’s definition of faith, which is “the state of being ultimately concerned.”

Religion is a lot like culture (and a**holes)–everyone has one.

If everybody has culture (shared ways of making meaning), and everyone is ultimately concerned (the absence of that would be nihilism)—then everyone, yes I would say everyone, is religious. Maybe not in the structured and organized ways of the past or in ways that have names, but certainly in ways that involve ultimate meaning, communities, practices, convictions, exemplars, narratives, etc.

I see my job as helping students to evaluate the ultimate meaning of what they are organizing their lives around, and in that process to bring more intentionality to the ways they are going about it.

Election 2016—At the Table

I have spent much of the last two years investigating the connections between politics and Christian discipleship. Many people have commented how relevant, timely, and needed such an analysis is. My response is often that my findings are more relevant to a long-term and expansive view of politics and spirituality than to the specifics of this (2016) or any other election. At the same time, even amidst the blur of commentary leading up to and after the 2016 presidential race from which I usually shy away, I feel compelled to offer some of those insights. I believe that discipleship is a political activity oriented toward the kingdom of God (a political metaphor), and I deeply care about how discipleship plays out in the world, especially among those with whom I am in relationship.

I also recognize that I have a personal investment in Election 2016, and, indeed, in all politics, which I redefine as a collective process of pursuing and negotiating a common good for the political communities of which we are a part. Politics goes way beyond elections. And insofar as politics involves you as my neighbor, or my family member, or even my fellow citizen, I owe you myself, my truth. I offer it not in haughtiness or indignation, as I am so tempted to do, but at a common table, with thanksgiving in my heart.img_7957

Here is some of my truth: I know that voting is a limited form of choice connected to vast arrays of reasons, motivations, experiences, and sensibilities. Just because Donald Trump has said publicly and repeatedly racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering things does not mean that people agree with those or that those things about him attracted their vote. And just because Hillary is under a cloud of suspicion for corruption and potentially criminal political negligence does not mean that those are things that Hillary voters support. I get that. I get that some people think they are placing the plight of unborn children above all other considerations in their vote. I get that people see Hillary Clinton’s transgressions as more off-putting than Donald Trump’s. I get that federal politics is broken and could use an outsider’s touch. I get that many people have felt left out of the conversation, economically, socially, politically and discovered a potential voice in Trump. I get that people have deep partisan and philosophical ties that transcend individual candidates. I think I understand all those impulses. I don’t feel them the same way maybe some of you do, but I understand them at a certain level.

Another main insight that my research in moral psychology, theology, and human anthropology has shown me is that voting is a behavior, like many others, that is driven more by intuition than by logic or reason. We have reactions or impressions toward people, issues, and situations that are intuitive before they are logical. Unless we are completely disinterested in an outcome, the vast majority of the time we engage in what is called ex post facto reasoning. What this means is that we have an intuitive reaction that comes from the gut and then almost instantaneously afterward we form a rational explanation. The process is undetectable to us, but it is driven by the gut or intuition and emotion. When our gut and our rational explanation do not coincide, we experience dissonance and cannot function until they are resolved. Most of the time we rationalize our gut rather than revise our reaction because of information.

I am not explaining this in order to say your rationalizations are therefore wrong and somehow mine are right and pure. It is just the opposite. I rationalize what is in my gut just like you do. And I’m doing it right now, though I’d like to think there is still the possibility of stepping back and examining what is in our gut, and potentially shaping it differently. What ultimately drives those intuitive responses are all kinds of things—who we are surrounded by, what we do, who and what we love, how we’ve experienced people and circumstances in the past.

In my first presidential election (1996) I voted for Bob Dole. Yup. Good ol’ Bob. I don’t think it was because Jack Kemp played for the Bills, but maybe that played a role. At the time, I thought Bill Clinton was evil. I worked for Steve Forbes’s campaign leading up to 2000. In 2000 I ultimately voted for Dubya. He was likeable. Still is. I liked the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” In fact, I still do.

What was in my gut then? My family growing up was not full of staunch Republicans. But at a critical time leading into my early voting years, familial, church, and other social impressions predominated my affective (emotional) experiences. Singing praise songs on the way to “pro-life” rallies. White suburbia and its aspirations. An association between Christian identity and Republican politics. You see, all these things created impressions and sensibilities—identity, emotion, love, disgust—that took priority over any rational deliberation.

In 2001, my wife and I moved to Guatemala. I was introduced to the ways in which American neoliberal economic and political policies destroyed the lives of indigenous peasants in ways that were contrary to the touted American ideals of democracy, equality, and justice. Dissonance. We moved into the inner city of Buffalo where some 70% of our neighbors were living below the poverty line. Dissonance. We got involved in foster care. Dissonance. Jillana worked with immigrants and refugees. Dissonance. These experiences shaped me in such a way that my rationalized picture of the world had to catch up, and I am eternally grateful for them.

St. Augustine was one of the first and best theological anthropologists. He understood that we are driven by what we love, and that when our loves are disordered, so are we. He understood love for God to be the ultimate and highest organizing love, but it was always either connected to or in competition with other, earthly loves. Those loves drive our gut, and, I think in most cases, they drive our votes in one way or another.

We live in Portland now. We have relationships with women and children who grew up in destitute poverty and broken homes. Many of my students, friends, and neighbors are immigrants, Latinos/as, gay, black, Muslim. I have worked with survivors of sexual, physical, and spiritual abuse. I have at least a dozen students who are undocumented because they were brought to the U.S. as children and are only able to work and go to school because of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We love them and they love us. These experiences have deeply formed me. And your experiences have formed you. A corollary to this, of course, is that our lack of certain experiences have also created blind spots for us.

So when Donald Trump says he is going to build a wall and deport millions of people, I have in my heart Pedro who plays the trumpet in a mariachi band and is a coach and social worker to at-risk youth. When Trump says he is going to create a registry for our Muslim neighbors and ban their entry to the U.S., I have in my heart Cyrus and Manaizheh who taught me how to make rice with potato on the bottom of the pan and needed my help setting up their internet. When he objectifies and dehumanizes women, normalizing a culture of unwanted sexual advances, I have in my heart the stories and pain of men and women who have courageously overcome abuse or assault and are now ministering to others. When he says he is going to double down on the unconstitutional and inequitable policy of “stop and frisk,” I have in my heart Josh, Andre, and Damon, who have shared their alternative universe as young black men with me.

Our daughters are intuitively put off whenever they heard Donald Trump speak because they recognized him as a bully. They have been affected by a culture of fear because their friends, too, feel their bodies under threat from the toxic speech he has uttered. Of course I have them in my heart. Even if, as some say, it was all “just talk,” it has had a real, lasting psychological effect on many in our community that we know and love, and by extension, on us. It is not a “let’s wait and see” situation. It is a situation where someone’s actions and behavior put in a national spotlight has done real damage already.

We are not sad and disappointed and angry because Hillary lost and Donald won. I would have smiled at a Kasich, Bush, or Rubio victory. I may have even voted for them. We are sad and disappointed and angry because we are intimately connected, even in our life and position of privilege, to many other precious lives who find themselves under real threat. When they hurt, we hurt. And a vote for Trump, to us, was a vote for their degradation.

I get that you may not have seen it that way, and I regret not engaging in this conversation more proactively. Like many, we were shocked that Trump could be taken seriously and have much to learn from the fact that he was. Not just that racism, sexism, and homophobia are still around. We already know that. But also that there are many who have felt disenfranchised and condescended to by a wealthy, educated, liberal elite, and Washington machine. I know that in my patterns of thinking I sometimes participate in that condescension and elitism. I vow to work on that.

I share all this not because I think I am “right” and you are “wrong,” but because our sensibilities, our gut, seem to have been formed differently, especially in the primary relationships that shape our loves. As a Christian, that is a problem for me, much more than any differences we might share as Americans or in our ideas about politics.

When I read scripture I see a God who came into this world starting in the womb of an unwed, teenage mother, born in a barn, who quickly became a homeless refugee, and who favored the marginalized in society. One of Jesus’s most consistent and enduring messages was love for one’s neighbor, whom he defined in the parable of the good Samaritan as one who materially cared for a cultural/religious other. The Old Testament is full of prophecy calling Israel and the governments under which it was exiled to do justice to the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow.

I am not saying all that adds up to a vote for Hillary. What I am saying is that it does add up to a Christian call to cast your lot, your fate, your life with folks who have been more marginalized than you. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean loving yourself and your interests first. It very specifically means putting others’ interests ahead of your own. And in order to do that, we must be in touch with those others and their interests.

David Brooks recently described a family that has what he calls “an intolerance for social distance”—not letting their neighbors go unnoticed or uncared for. It is not a liberal or conservative thing, but it is a Christian thing. I believe that if you truly have an “intolerance for social distance” by sharing life with people from marginalized groups in relationship everyday, you would also cast your vote with them. And I have a very difficult time understanding how that could possibly have been a vote for Trump.

So the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, or anyone whose primary identity in this world is a follower of Christ for that matter, troubles me. I get why it is the way that it is, but I also believe it shouldn’t be. As Christians we should be making a place at the table of our lives for all those who are other to us. We have a lot to learn, and only when such tangible neighbor love is borne out in reality will our rationalizations have any merit. St. Augustine said: love God then do as you will. What he meant is that when our loves are properly formed and ordered, so are our actions. A corollary to this is: tangibly and materially love your Muslim, Hispanic, gay, survivor, undocumented, black, white, immigrant neighbors then, and only then, vote as you will.