Where Politics Happens

It is surely cliché at this point to say that the U.S. is politically polarized. This reality is corroborated not only by the daily experience of most Americans, including older generations of people who say they can hardly remember a more divided time, but also by ongoing research which demonstrates an increase in ideological “purity” and a decrease in bi-partisanship and political compromise in recent decades. But one of the more fascinating findings among social and moral psychologists in recent years is that many of these divisions are rooted not so much in our conscious processing of the political landscape or our attempts at rational political discourse. Rather, our divisions are primarily rooted in and reinforced by our unconscious response to daily experiences, our enculturated habits, implicit biases, and pre-cognitive reception and processing of the world around us. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, our intuition both precedes and is more powerful than our reasoning. This is why powerful stories, poignant experiences, and emotional appeal tend to guide us more than facts and reason, or put differently, why pathos trumps logos. It’s also why we tend to view people of different political views with such suspicion and dismissiveness, as we unconsciously interpret our emotions, stories, and cultural identities in a way that binds us to people we see as most like us and blinds us to – and make us fearful of – people who are not. And then we rationalize our entrenchment at great lengths in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Christian leaders and congregations can learn a lot from this unique cultural moment as well as the ongoing social psychological research. In order to cut through the cultural and political divides and put a question mark next to all worldly ideologies, Christian formation has to happen at much deeper level, the level of intuition, habit, custom, and disposition. It has to shape us at the more primitive and even unconscious levels of human experience. It’s important here to distinguish between this deeper experience from what researcher Christian Smith identified as the unsustainable experience of “moralistic, therapeutic deism” in many American churches. For it is not the American church’s focus on experience that is problematic, but that the focus doesn’t dig deep enough into experience. To use George Lindbeck’s language, we must go beyond “experiential-expressivist faith” versus “cognitive-propositional faith,” and instead focus on a “cultural-linguistic faith” that instills in us the unique habits, customs, language, and formative experiences of Christian community. More formation, less information. More communal experience, less shallow emotionalism.

There are several ways in which I think this deeper faith formation takes place.

  • For one, we are called to enter into the lives of “the other,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it. This means intentionally exposing our lives to the lives of those unlike us, both in the life of the church and in the community. Our implicit bias and unconscious discrimination, especially toward other races, will be difficult to overcome without a new set of experiences that challenges how we are prone to see others. How can we as the Christian community more intentionally discipline ourselves to follow Jesus into the lives of every tribe, tongue, nation, and people?
  • Second, and as a corollary to the first suggestion, I believe we could reclaim friendship as a spiritual discipline. Friendship is a context for deep trust and common identity, shaping us in ways beyond our understanding. The experience of intimate friendship, especially with “the other” is one of the most powerful ways to be nurtured in faith in Jesus, who made friendship a central theme of his ministry. Who we pursue in the context of friendship matters. Notably, there has been throughout the history of the church many contexts in which friendship was not only highly valued, but even liturgically solemnized.
  • Third, we ought to think carefully about the sights, sounds, interactions, and movements in the context of worship. If it’s true that our daily experiences are unconsciously shaping how we see and act in the world , what better opportunity to form people than during their weekly gathering together in worship? What is the worship space communicating? How are the sacraments playing a formative role? How are we instilling mystery and wonder with our words and movements? (On this theme, I recommend James Smith’s book on cultural liturgies, Desiring the Kingdom.)
  • Fourth and finally, preaching and teaching should be bold to penetrate the individual’s deepest longings, fears, joys, and desire for reconciliation and wholeness, recasting the conventional narratives of our day into the true narrative of the triune God’s love for the world in Christ. This “deep preaching” goes deeper than therapy and individualistic moralism, opening the heart to the power of the gospel so that hearers are instilled with humility, awe, patience, and with perhaps more questions than answers, knowing nothing except Christ and him crucified. This epistemic humility before God, neighbor, and the world will shape our social and political selves, such that we will retain both conviction and openness to compromise, the possibility of being wrong and the promise of God’s forgiveness.

None of this should be read as an attempt to downplay the prophetic vocation of the church to address political systems and institutions. The church has an indispensible role to play in engaging with politics on the level of policy, legislation, protest, and solidarity with the vulnerable and oppressed. Here, my aim has been to offer a simple reminder that our systems are shaped by people whose hearts and minds have been formed in powerful ways by seemingly mundane daily experiences of everyday life, including – for good or for ill – by their daily experience of religious faith. The path from pew to politics is well traveled. And so as we endure a terribly ugly and divisive political season, may we not lose sight of “the faith once delivered,” and consider more carefully how it is being delivered in the seemingly innocuous, yet extraordinarily formative moments of daily discipleship. Our politics depends on it.

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