Reaching Out to Conservative Christians: A Time for Healing Old Wounds

Obama’s recent reversal of the Bush Administration’s ban on stem cell research offers progressives an opportunity to reflect upon our relationship to religion. We can take this moment to consider how our views of religion differ from those of many conservatives – and how we might start the healing process with these fellow Americans while working to address our most important issues.

The perspective I will share is informed by the cognitive sciences – a cross-cutting field of research that explores the workings of the mind. This is a powerful lens that offers many insights into the nature of political discourse around religion and morality.

Distinguishing Fact from Belief

A common criticism progressives make about conservative religion is what we see as a stubborn blindness to facts. We have been known on occasion to call fundamentalists stupid or worse because they place belief over fact. What we fail to realize is that we are similarly blinded by our faith in the power of facts.

Many progressives believe that human beings are “rational actors” who consciously weigh the pros and cons of every decision to “maximize our self interest.” This view is based on the notion that all people reason in the same way, which leads to the belief that people only need to get the facts and they’ll reason to the right conclusions.

This view of human nature is a belief. And it flies in the face of the facts! Research in psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and a host of other fields has shown that this view of the mind is inadequate at best, and is fundamentally wrong in many important respects.

So what happens when a belief is confronted by a fact? The belief trumps it. This should make sense because every fact requires a context to make sense. And the foundation of every context is some idea about how the world works. Beliefs are this fabric of our inner worlds.

My goal here is not to criticize progressives for holding a faulty view of humanity (though I do want to help improve upon this deficiency), but rather to make the point that human beings are “believers” before we are “knowers”. Our beliefs, often called presumptions, shape what we consider to be valid and what we consider to be suspect. This is a basic truth of human nature. And it is something we share in common with our fundamentalist neighbors.

Painting Demons (The Distortion of Truth)

If I had to pick one word to describe the political discourse around religion in the U.S., I’d say that it is toxic. Conservative Christians paint liberals as godless and devoid of morality. We tend to paint Conservative Christians as radical hate-mongers completely devoid of compassion. We each see the other through our own worldview. And we tend to focus on the negative.

Last year I had a conversation with my brother, an intensely religious person who considers himself to be a fundamentalist. It was one of those heart-to-heart talks intended to get to know each other after years of growing apart. I was a bit surprised to discover that my brother actually believed that I had no morality because I don’t believe in God. I pleasantly discovered that he is strongly motivated by his concern for the suffering of children in sub-Saharan Africa where he does missionary work. Through the conversation, we learned as much about ourselves as we did about each other.

Progressives have a similar opportunity if we can get beyond the stereotypes that paint our opposition as demons. The truth of each side has been grossly distorted by the vitriol of toxic discourse. And it is hurting all of us.

The existence of stereotypes is not the problem. Cognitive psychologists will be quick to tell you that human reasoning is always shaped by “heuristics” that guide our understandings of complex issues. We use stereotypes, idealizations, and simplifications all the time. Our brains cannot generate fluid streams of consciousness without packaging knowledge “on the fly”. So stereotypes are here to stay.

We can, however, be more sensitive to the stereotypes that shape our thinking. Religious distortions are commonplace today, just as many racist and sexist stereotypes were prominent in times past. And they are just as destructive to our politics as the old relics were to previous generations.

While we’re at it, we might also want to challenge the idea that progressives aren’t religious. Just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t mean that progressives are godless. In truth, I am in the minority. Most of my progressive brothers and sisters apply their faith to guide them toward a more just and compassionate society.

Reclamation of Faith

Progressives are all-too-familiar with the damage done in the name of God. Many of us, even our Christian brethren, are appalled at the travesties committed by the religious right. We have watched the legal sanctioning of discrimination against the GLBT community. Scientific integrity has been replaced by attitudes left over from the Dark Ages, and our security is now compromised because of it with a destabilized climate, tainted foods, and toxic toys. And the lifeblood of innovation, fundamental research, has been stalled by a fear of losing authoritarian control of the human story. These are lessons we should not, and must not, forget.

Yet, it is vital that we realize that fundamentalism in the United States is not a monolith. It is vibrant and diverse. And it can change. As the American story returns to its progressive roots, we have the opportunity to break the religious right’s stranglehold on religious language. They talk about “family values” but refer only to a narrow impression of strict father homes where daddy knows best. They speak of being “pro-life” as the myopic view that every choice is black or white.

We know better than this. And it is our responsibility to expand the discussion of family values to include living wages and healthy communities. It is in our power to build a nation on the premise that life is precious and should be celebrated in all its forms.

I may not believe in God, but I am a man of faith. I have faith in the basic goodness of people. I can work alongside my religious friends as we lay the foundation for a new economy based on the principles of human dignity and the common good. This is a faith that deserves to be reclaimed by religious and secular alike.

Bridging the Great Divide

For too long progressives have abandoned the landscape of morality in political discourse. It is time for us to make our values clear and put them at the forefront of our agenda to address society’s ills. But we must also realize that we can’t succeed on our own. We’re going to need the trust and support of those who have opposed us in the past. The work is just too vast for us to do on our own, especially if we continue to be opposed by a group of misinformed and fearful people who don’t really get what we’re about.

The first step to bridging the divide between progressives and conservative Christians is to admit that we haven’t taken our end of the conversation seriously. Blaming them for their faults has been easy, and generally it hasn’t done us much good. Getting them to see that we have values too, some of which they are likely to agree with, is a much more difficult (and promising) piece of work.

All these years of “only the facts” and “pushing policy platforms” has alienated those who don’t already see things the way we do. It’s not a very effective way to show people how our hearts work, which is how they’ll know if they can trust us. It is time for a new strategy that recognizes the importance of belief and the centrality of values in knowing where a person stands – and why.

Barack Obama has done this admirably. He often speaks of the empathy deficit, responsibility to the people, and the basic goodness of Americans. It’s pretty easy to see where he stands. All you have to do is listen to what he says.

We can do this too.

The United States needs a progressive vision more than ever before. We have eight years of political devastation to undo. And it has to happen while creating jobs, ending military occupations in the Middle East, addressing the climate crisis, and transitioning our cities and towns toward greater resilience and prosperity.

Our responsibility as citizens is to make politics civil again. Our fundamentalist neighbors have been manipulated and lied to by the powers that exploit them, often for personal gain. They are generally good-hearted people who have been fed distorted messages about who and what we are for as long as they can remember. These people – our neighbors – need to know that we are good-hearted people too. They need to know that we stand for something. And we need to let them know exactly what it is.

While the media machine spins out its stories about what Obama’s renewed commitment to stem cell research means, we can tell our own stories. Neighbor to neighbor. Person to person. Heart to heart.

It is time for the healing process to begin. We can change the nature of our politics and move beyond historic lines of division. A good place to start is with members of our local communities. All it takes is a little trust and an open heart.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.