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The Political Jackass

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Here’s a perfect way to get everyone hot and bothered: talk about politics on a religion website. But we’re talking about the things that make us act like jackasses, so we can’t skip politics.

The Political Jackass is not the person who votes for a specific candidate. Nor is it the person who cares deeply about politics. It’s the person who is rigid in their adherence to some political view, party, or official. Is this you? I’ll confess that it’s been me.

The problem with the Political Jackass is rigidity. When something is overly rigid, it will not bend. When pressure is applied, it can’t bend, so instead it cracks. This is exactly what has happened in our political landscape, and that includes within the Church.

“Many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Right now, we are politically polarized. Mention Donald Trump at a dinner party and the only guarantee is that you won’t hear an apathetic response. Identify yourself as a Republican or a Democrat and the people around you won’t be indifferent. Ryan and I have become convinced that many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

You might think that rigidity lies at the heart of Christianity. But you’d be wrong. Sure, there are concrete truths and unchanging realities. But over the last 2,000 years, Christianity has thrived in a shocking variety of settings, cultures, continents, political regimes, and time periods. Christianity thrived while ancient Rome tried to stamp it out. It adapted when it was legalized under Constantine (and later became the official religion). When the “barbarians” destroyed Rome, Christianity was flexible enough to transform the new rulers. Christianity was at home in Charlemagne’s empire even while it flourished in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It has found a way to make people feel at home in fundamentalist churches, modern megachurches, pentecostal churches, and tiny house church gatherings.

As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.

“As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.”

Over the millennia, Christianity has shown remarkable flexibility. The current trend of divisive rigidity on the part of conservatives, progressives, and liberals in the Church is causing us to crack. And it’s making us less like Jesus.

Since the drama of the 2016 campaign and election, we have all been especially tuned in to the increasing polarization in America and the negative effects of our extremely partisan news outlets. The whole thing feels like a reality TV show, which shouldn’t be surprising since we have a reality TV star for a president and receive much of our news from TV shows.

While Jesus walked the earth, there was political polarization as well. There were Pharisees who believed that salvation would come in response to their radical obedience to the Law. There were Sadducees who found their salvation in a political alliance with their Roman overlords. They were given status and control over the temple in exchange for complying with Roman politics. There were even Zealots who believed that salvation would come through a revolutionary Messiah who would violently defeat the pagans who held them in exile.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus didn’t align with any of these camps. In other words, every political affiliation was wrong. Jesus wasn’t at home in any of them. Not one had it right. Should it surprise us that the same is true now? Could we possibly imagine that Jesus would register to vote as a member of any political party?

Jesus was then and is now offering us a more beautiful path forward. It’s not the way of polarization. It’s the way of love. Central to it all is not a news show or a political party. Central to it all is a table. He’s more likely to invite us to join an actual party than to register for one. He’s more likely to invite us to join our supposed enemies for a meal than to feed into the polarization.

Affiliate with any party you want. Vote for whomever you want. But don’t assume that Jesus is on your side and against anyone else’s. He’s for us—all of us. He wants our hearts, not our sound bites or talking points. The path forward is not found on a news show, let’s stop acting like it is.

Why Can’t We Have Rational Dialogue?

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Have you ever made the mistake of trying to change someone’s opinion on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog comment? It’s a crazy trap that so many of us have fallen into. We lay out our best arguments only to be attacked, yelled down, and misunderstood. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to get sucked into responding, which only makes matters worse.

Why is this? Why is it so impossible to dialogue and persuade?

Jonathan Haidt gives a compelling piece of the answer in his book The Righteous Mind. If you have the time, this book is worth reading. Haidt is a great writer. His concepts are convincing and the studies he interacts with are fascinating.

Here’s Haidt’s overall contention: Judgment and justification are separate processes. It’s that simple. That’s a profound statement, but I know it’s confusing. Read the book, but I’ll unpack that a little bit.

We all think we make moral judgments (what’s good, what’s bad) on the basis of carefully considered arguments. In other words, we THINK that we begin with reason and end by making a judgment. But Haidt contends that the exact opposite is true. What happens in reality, he says, is that we make a moral judgment almost instantly, and then we employ our reasoning skills to justify the judgment we’ve already made.

Perhaps that sounds exactly right to you. It explains the “confirmation bias” we all have trouble escaping. I find it extremely helpful in explaining my own actions and those I observe in others. But if you need more convincing or explaining, keep reading.

Haidt describes a study done by Alexander Todorov in which he flashed the images of two faces on a screen in front of subjects who were unfamiliar with those faces. The subjects were then asked which person seemed more competent. What Todorov did not tell the subjects is that the two faces were opponents in senatorial and gubernatorial races. 70% of the time, the candidate that subjects deemed more competent (a judgment they made in seconds) also went on to win the election.

“We think we begin with reason and end by making a judgment. But Haidt contends that the opposite is true: We make an instant moral judgment, then we employ reason to justify the judgment we’ve already made.”

What’s going on here? The participants in this study couldn’t determine anything about the person’s positions, character, beliefs, etc. But they did what people do: they made a snap judgment that determined whether or not they thought that person was competent. And their choice was America’s choice most of the time! The implication is that as much as we believe we’re weighing a candidate’s positions and character, we’re usually just voting for the person we’re predisposed to like (a decision we make instantly).

But once we’ve made a snap judgment, we instantly begin employing our reasoning to explain why we made that choice.

Haidt refers to this process as “the intuitive dog and its irrational tale.” We decide intuitively, then our mental faculties kick in to provide that rationality (which Haidt says is so unlike “rationality” as we think of it that it’s more like irrationality). He puts it more plainly by saying, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Our reasoning is less like a philosopher that employs wisdom to decide where we should go and more like a press secretary who has to stand before the world and explain the President’s policy decisions—decisions which she had no role in developing.

Is there any hope, then? Are we all just locked into our own intuitions, completely unable to dialogue or help each other act in wisdom rather than pure intuition?

Haidst sees hope in other studies which show that when a subject is given time to reflect, their rational faculties play a larger role in shaping their judgments. Do you see the implication there?

When we allow ourselves to respond quickly, we’re basing it all on unreasoned intuition. When we slow down enough to reflect, weigh, and consider, we give our rationality a seat at the table in deciding what we should do.

Unfortunately, most of our decisions are made quickly. Our opinions of people are formed in seconds. Our consideration of candidates and character and theological positions are more knee-jerk reactions than carefully weighed conclusions. So we rarely give ourselves a chance to slow down and form a healthy opinion. We just listen to the news station our tribe has taught us to tune into.

The truth is, you’ve already written this entire blog off, or you’ve immediately accepted it. You knew what you thought about it pretty early on. And that’s okay. But it helps to understand the process. And when we recognize the (ir)rational tale being wagged by the intuitive dog, we can choose to slow down. To engage in dialogue. To do some research or ask some questions or—what’s best—get to know some real people. Maybe then we can all have some constructive dialogue about the things that matter.