Why we’re coming apart, and how we might come together again.
New fractures are forming within the American evangelical movement, fractures that do not run along the usual regional, denominational, ethnic, or political lines. Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.
Recently, a group of my college friends, all raised and nurtured in healthy evangelical families and congregations, reconnected online in search of understanding. One person mourned that she could no longer understand her parents or how their views of the world had so suddenly and painfully shifted. Another described friends who were demographically identical, who had once stood beside him on practically every issue, but who now promoted ideas he found shocking. Still another said her church was breaking up, driven apart by mutual suspicion and misunderstanding.
“These were my people,” one said, “but now I don’t know who they are, or maybe I don’t know who I am.”
What do you do when you feel you’re losing the people you love to a false reality? What do you do with the humbling truth that they have precisely the same fear about you?
The quandary is not unique to evangelicals. But fellow believers who once stood shoulder to shoulder now find that tectonic shifts have thrust them apart, their continents are separating, and they cannot find a bridge back to common ground. How could our views of reality diverge so dramatically—and is there anything we can do to draw together again?
The plausibility curve and the information curve
Among the most persistent interests of my academic career was the question of how people form beliefs. Not how they should form beliefs, in some idealized vision of perfected rationality, but how they actually form beliefs as embodied creatures embedded in communities and cultures. I want to introduce a simple conceptual tool, influenced in part by the work of Peter Berger, that may help us understand what is happening.
Imagine a horizontal plane that curves downward into a bowl, rises back again, and returns to a horizontal plane. The curve, from one end of the bowl to the other, represents the range of claims an individual finds believable. Let’s call it a plausibility curve. Claims that fall in the center of the curve will be perceived as most plausible; they require little evidence or argumentation before an individual will consent to believe. Claims falling near the edges are increasingly implausible as they deviate from the center, requiring progressively more persuasion. Claims falling entirely outside the plausibility curve are beyond the range of what a person might believe at a given point in time, and no amount of evidence or logic will be sufficient.
What determines the plausibility of a given claim is how well it conforms to what an individual experiences, already believes, and wants to believe. The full range of a person’s beliefs is rather like a photomosaic (see an example here): Thousands of experiences and perceptions of reality are joined together, and out of those thousands emerge larger patterns and impressions, higher-order beliefs about the nature of reality, the grand narratives of history, the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, and so forth. Attempts to change a single belief can feel fruitless when it is embedded in countless others. Where does one begin to address a thousand interlocking disagreements at once? Evidence to the contrary is almost irrelevant when a claim “fits” with an entire network of reinforcing beliefs. This is part of what gives a plausibility curve its enduring strength and resistance to change.
Desire plays a particularly complicated role in the plausibility curve. We may desire not to believe a claim because it would separate us from those we love, confront us with painful truths, require a change in our behavior, impose a social cost, or so on. We may desire to believe a certain claim because it would be fashionable, confirm our prejudices, set us apart from those around us, anger our parents, or for countless other reasons. We will require more persuasion for claims we do not want to believe, and less for those we do.
Like the Overton window in political theory, a plausibility curve can expand, contract, and shift. Friends or family members whose plausibility curves were once identical may find that they diverge over the course of time. Claims one person finds immediately plausible are almost inconceivable to the other. But how does this happen? That’s where the information curve comes in.
Imagine a mirror-image bowl above the plausibility curve. This is the information curve, and it reflects the individual’s external sources of information about the world—such as communities, authorities, and media. Those sources in the center of the information curve are deemed most trustworthy; claims that come from these sources are accepted almost without question. Sources of information on the outer ends of the bowl are considered less trustworthy, so their claims will be held up to greater scrutiny. Sources outside the curve entirely are, at least for this individual, so lacking in credibility that their claims are dismissed out of hand.
The center of the information curve will generally align with the center of the plausibility curve. The relationship is mutually reinforcing. Sources are considered more trustworthy when they deliver claims we find plausible, and claims are considered more plausible when they come from sources we trust. A source of information that consistently delivers claims in the center of the plausibility curve will come to be believed implicitly.
Change can begin on the level of the plausibility curve. Perhaps an individual joins a religious community and finds it is more loving and reasonable than she had expected. She will no longer find it plausible when a source claims that all religious communities are irrational and prejudiced, and this will gradually shift her information curve in favor of more reliable sources. Or another person experiences the loss of a child, and no longer desires to believe that death is the end of consciousness. He is more open to other claims, expands his sources of information, and slowly his beliefs shift.
Change can also begin on the level of the information curve. An individual raised in a certain community with well-established authorities, such as her parents and pastors, goes to college and is introduced to new communities and authorities. If she judges them to be trustworthy sources of information, this new information curve will likely shift her plausibility curve. As her set of beliefs changes, she may even reach a point where the sources that once supplied most of her beliefs are no longer considered trustworthy at all. Or imagine a person who has lived his entire life consuming far-left media sources. He begins to listen to conservative media sources and finds their claims resonate with his experience—only slightly at first, but in increasing measure. Gradually he consumes more and more conservative media, expanding or shifting his information curve, and this in turn expands or shifts his plausibility curve. He may reach a point where his broader perceptions of the world—the deeper forces at work in history, the optimal ways of organizing societies and economies, the forces for good and evil in the world—have been wholly overturned.
Consider the 9/11 Truth movement and the QAnon movement. Most Americans will find the notion that the Bush administration orchestrated a massive terrorist attack in order to invade the Middle East and enrich their friends in the oil industry, or that global liberal elites would construct an international child trafficking operation for the purpose of pedophilia and cannibalism, beyond the bounds of their plausibility curve. Others, however, will find that one conspiracy or the other resonates with their plausibility curve, or their information curve may shift over time in such a way that brings their plausibility curve with it. Claims that once seemed impossible to contemplate came to appear conceivable, then plausible, then reasonable, and finally self-evident. Of course conservatives would sacrifice thousands of innocent lives to justify a “war for oil” because conservatives are greedy and that’s what conservatives do. Of course liberals would sacrifice thousands of children in order to advance their own health and power because liberals are perverse and that’s what liberals do.
As a final definitional note, let’s call the whole structure, the plausibility curve and the information curve, an informational world. An informational world encompasses how an individual or a community of individuals receives and processes information. Differing informational worlds will have differing facts and sources. Our challenge today is that we occupy multiple informational worlds with little in common and much hostility between them.
What does all of this have to do with the evangelical movement? A great deal.
The evangelical crises
The American evangelical movement has never been comprised of a single community. Depending on the criteria, estimates generally put the number of American evangelicals at 80-100 million. Even if we split the difference at 90 million, this would make the American evangelical population larger than every European nation save Russia. It is also diverse, reaching across all regions, races, and socioeconomic levels. What held the movement together historically was not only a shared set of moral and theological commitments, but a broadly similar view of the world and common sources of information. Their plausibility curves and information curves largely overlapped. There were some matters on which they differed, but the ground they shared in the middle served as a basis of mutual understanding and fellowship.
This sense of commonality grew increasingly strained as groups not formerly identified as evangelical came to be lumped together, defining the category “evangelical” less in theological terms and more in social, cultural, and political terms. This broader evangelical movement today is dividing into separate communities that still hold some moral and theological commitments in common but differ dramatically on their sources of information and their broader view of the world. Their informational worlds have little overlap. They can only discuss a narrow range of topics if they do not want to fall into painful and exasperated disagreement.
One group within American evangelicalism believes our religious liberties have never been more firmly established; another that they have never been at greater risk. One group believes racism is still systemic in American society; another that the “systemic racism” push is a progressive program to redistribute wealth and power to angry radicals. One is more concerned with the insurrection at the Capitol; another with the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. One believes the Trump presidency was generationally damaging to Christian witness; another that it was enormously beneficial. One believes the former president attempted a coup; another that the Democrats stole the election. One believes masks and vaccines are marks of Christian love; another that the rejection of the same is a mark of Christian courage.
There are countless groups in between, of course, but these examples illustrate the tension: We occupy the same reality but starkly different worlds. There is a real question whether these worlds can (or should) draw back together again. This is a critical moment for our movement.
What, then, can be done? The model itself suggests where to start. If we move the information curves toward a common center, the plausibility curve will follow. Information comes through three sources: media, authorities, and community. One reason for our disunity is that these three sources are in crisis in American evangelicalism. I will only briefly outline these points.
First, the crisis of media is acute. Even as media today has grown more powerful and pervasive, it has also grown more fragmented and polarizing. The dynamics of modern media reward content that is immediate, angry, and hyperbolic, rendering the media into a marketplace for scorn sellers and hate merchants. Evangelicals find themselves torn between social media platforms and legacy media sources that openly advocate progressive causes and cancel conservative voices and far-right sources that traffic in paranoia and misinformation. In short, the digital media landscape has evolved to profit from our vices more than our virtues, and it has become incredibly effective at dividing audiences into hermetic media spheres that deliver only the information and commentary that confirms the audiences’ anxieties and antipathies.
This presents an extraordinary challenge for Christian discipleship. Media consumption has been climbing for years, and it soared amid the pandemic. Members of our congregations may spend a few hours a week in the Word of God (which should always be the Christian’s most important source of information and authority) but 40 hours or more mainlining the animosities of the day. Once the information curve begins a leftward or rightward drift, the algorithms of digital media and the manipulations of politicians and profiteers accelerate the momentum. Soon Christian communities that once shared a broader view of the world find they only agree on the bare essentials of faith. It will be difficult to address other parts of the information curve until we have brought some semblance of sanity into our media consumption. The longer we live in separate media worlds, the deeper and broader our divisions will become. The longer we give ourselves to media gluttony, skimping on the deeper nourishment that cultivates Christ within us, the less we will have in common.
The media crisis reaches across the whole of society, but the evangelical movement also faces an authority crisis of its own making. A generation of evangelical leaders who commanded immense respect, at least across the broad middle of American evangelicalism, have passed away. The current generation of evangelical institutional leaders, though markedly more diverse than their forebears, struggle to rise above the rampant ideological othering of our time. Moreover, the movement has seen countless leaders fall from grace in spectacularly destructive ways. At the same time, we have seen the rise of the celebrity pastor. It was once the case that a long obedience in the same direction, a life of humble study and service, earned a person a modicum of spiritual authority and a modest living. Today, a dashing profile and a talent for self-promotion can earn wealth and stardom in the Christian celebrity marketplace.
The consequence is disillusionment and division. While younger generations head for the exits, those who remain in our churches become further entrenched in their own ideological camps. If it is ever to be true again that broadly respected authorities form an important part of our shared information curve, it will be because we turn from a culture of celebrity to a culture of sanctification, where leadership is less about building a platform and more about carrying the cross of Christ. It will be because we remember the words of Jesus that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26). It will also be because we relearn how to listen to men and women of wisdom, leaders as well as neighbors, without crucifying them over political differences.
The third way to shift the information curve is to address our crisis of community. Community is essential to Christian life. It deepens our knowledge of the Word, forges our shared identity in Christ, cultivates Christian character, and disciples our young. Yet the pressures, temptations, and glowing distractions of contemporary life have strained the ties that bind us, replacing the warmth and depth of incarnate community with a cold digital imitation. The pandemic has only deepened our isolation, causing many to look outside their churches to political tribes or conspiracist communities for a sense of purpose and belonging. Further, the hyper-politicization of the American evangelical movement has led to a political sorting. Congregants who do not like their pastors’ stances depart for other churches whose politics are the same as theirs. But congregations comprised of individuals whose informational worlds are nearly identical will tend toward rigidity and increasing radicalism—what Cass Sunstein calls the Law of Group Polarization.
Rather than withdrawing into communities of common loathing, the church should be offering a community of common love, a sanctuary from the fragmentation and polarization, from the loneliness and isolation of the present moment. The church should model what it means to care for one another in spite of our differences on social and political matters and affirm the incomparably deeper rootedness of our identity in Christ.
Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he has studied religious congregations for 30 years but has “never seen” such an extraordinary level of conflict. “What is different now?” he asked. “The conflict is over entire worldviews—politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.” What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we have come to such a pass, and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project before us.
We are not without hope. Lies ring hollow at the end of the day. Hatred is a poor imitation of purpose, celebrity a poor replacement for wisdom, and political tribes a poor comparison to authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be redeemers and reconcilers.
So perhaps we can begin to build bridges across our informational worlds. Perhaps we can nurture a healthy media ecosystem that offers a balanced view of the world and a generous conversation about it. Perhaps we can restore a culture of leadership defined by humility over celebrity and integrity over influence. Perhaps we can invite those who have found counterfeit community in their political tribes to rediscover a richer and more robust community in Christ. All of these things will be essential to rebuilding a shared understanding of the world God created and what it means to follow Christ within it.
After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, commissioned an internal party study to examine why the party had won the popular vote only once since 1988.
The results of that so-called autopsy were fairly obvious: The party needed to appeal to more people of color, reach out to younger voters, become more welcoming to women. Those conclusions were presented as not only a political necessity but also a moral mandate if the Republican Party were to be a governing party in a rapidly changing America.
Then Donald Trump emerged and the party threw all those conclusions out the window with an almost audible sigh of relief: Thank God we can win without pretending we really care about this stuff. That reaction was sadly predictable.
I spent decades working to elect Republicans, including Mr. Romney and four other presidential candidates, and I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Trump didn’t hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Donald Trump up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today’s Republican Party.
I saw the warning signs but ignored them and chose to believe what I wanted to believe: The party wasn’t just a white grievance party; there was still a big tent; the others guys were worse. Many of us in the party saw this dark side and told ourselves it was a recessive gene. We were wrong. It turned out to be the dominant gene.
What is most telling is that the Republican Party actively embraced, supported, defended and now enthusiastically identifies with a man who eagerly exploits the nation’s racial tensions. In our system, political parties should serve a circuit breaker function. The Republican Party never pulled the switch.
Racism is the original sin of the modern Republican Party. While many Republicans today like to mourn the absence of an intellectual voice like William Buckley, it is often overlooked that Mr. Buckley began his career as a racist defending segregation.
In the Richard Nixon White House, Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips wrote a re-election campaign memo headed “Dividing the Democrats” in which they outlined what would come to be known as the Southern Strategy. It assumes there is little Republicans can do to attract Black Americans and details a two-pronged strategy: Utilize Black support of Democrats to alienate white voters while trying to decrease that support by sowing dissension within the Democratic Party.
That strategy has worked so well that it was copied by the Russians in their 2016 efforts to help elect Mr. Trump.
In the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, on which I worked, we acknowledged the failures of Republicans to attract significant nonwhite support. When Mr. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative,” some on the right attacked him, calling it an admission that conservatism had not been compassionate. That was true; it had not been. Many of us believed we could steer the party to that “kinder, gentler” place his father described. We were wrong.
Reading Mr. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention now is like stumbling across a document from a lost civilization, with its calls for humility, service and compassion. That message couldn’t attract 20 percent in a Republican presidential primary today. If there really was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, we lost.
There is a collective blame to be shared by those of us who have created the modern Republican Party that has so egregiously betrayed the principles it claimed to represent. My j’accuse is against us all, not a few individuals who were the most egregious.
How did this happen? How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. What others and I thought were bedrock values turned out to be mere marketing slogans easily replaced. I feel like the guy working for Bernie Madoff who thought they were actually beating the market.
Mr. Trump has served a useful purpose by exposing the deep flaws of a major American political party. Like a heavy truck driven over a bridge on the edge of failure, he has made it impossible to ignore the long-developing fault lines of the Republican Party. A party rooted in decency and values does not embrace the anger that Mr. Trump peddles as patriotism.
This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics. The closest parallel is the demise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, when the dissonance between what the party said it stood for and what citizens actually experienced was so great that it was unsustainable.
This election should signal a day of reckoning for the party and all who claim it as a political identity. Will it? I’ve given up hope that there are any lines of decency or normalcy that once crossed would move Republican leaders to act as if they took their oath of office more seriously than their allegiance to party. Only fear will motivate the party to change — the cold fear only defeat can bring.
That defeat is looming. Will it bring desperately needed change to the Republican Party? I’d like to say I’m hopeful. But that would be a lie and there have been too many lies for too long.
Shrinking in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world.
Back when I was in the religious liberty litigation business, I’d sometimes give my clients—especially my college student clients—a little talk that went something like this: “Your lawsuit is likely going to get more media attention than anything that your group does for the next 10 years, but that gets the importance of this moment exactly backward. Winning your religious freedom and maintaining your presence on campus is far less important than what you’ll do with that liberty. Your witness will ultimately define you on this campus, not your rights.”
I’ve thought often about those talks in recent years. The reason is simple—Christian liberty is largely secure, yet Christian fear is harming the Christian witness and damaging the culture of the nation we love.
A moment’s historical reflection should demonstrate that few political and legal movements have been more successful in the last 40 years than Christian conservatism. Through a combination of activism and litigation, Christian conservatives have not only achieved veto power over the electoral fortunes of one of America’s two great political parties, they’ve erected a veritable thicket of laws that protect religious expression in public (and even private) spheres.
Court decision after court decision has held that churches and religious organizations enjoy enormous autonomy (greater autonomy than secular organizations) in hiring and firing employees, and that autonomy is nearly absolute when it comes to hiring and firing ministerial employees. They enjoy rights of equal access with secular organizations to public facilities and (in some cases) taxpayer funding. Employees of private companies enjoy broad federal, state, and local protections against religious discrimination. Many of these freedoms aren’t protected by fragile 5-4 Supreme Court majorities. Instead, they rest on precedents decided by 7-2 and even 9-0 margins.
At the federal level, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act secures religious Americans extraordinary protection against infringements on religious liberty through federal law. A total of 21 states have enacted similar provisions.
Decades of patient pro-life activism (protected by many of the court precedents referred to above) have resulted in hundreds of pro-life laws in states across the nation—including 288 laws passed between 2011 and 2015 alone—and are drivers in the extraordinary drop in the American abortion rate. The abortion rate is now lower than it was before Roe was decided, when abortion was actually illegal in multiple American jurisdictions.
Yes, I know there are challenges. I know that threats to religious conscience exist, especially for Christian institutions that engage in heavily regulated professions like foster care, adoption services, and health care. But it’s hard to think of a single developed country in the entire world that more robustly protects religious freedom than the United States of America.
Yet in spite of this liberty and power, all too many Christians are afraid. Once again a time of social upheaval is elevating illiberal voices, and those illiberal voices have disproportionate power in America’s leading cultural, educational, and corporate institutions. Right alongside an extraordinarily welcome wave of reflection and anguish about the reality and legacy of American racism is a disturbing wave of intolerance for dissent from the most radical and divisive anti-racist ideologies.
In a searing newsletter published Friday, progressive journalist Matt Taibibi penned a cri de coeur against the illiberal left:
On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.
They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense, from a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!
In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect. The cultishness of this can be seen in the way people are actually cutting off contact with their own families if they don’t awaken and see the truth and repeat its formulae. Ibram X. Kendi insists that there is no room in our society for neutrality or reticence. If you are not doing “antiracist work” you are ipso facto a racist. By “antiracist work” he means fully accepting his version of human society and American history, integrating it into your own life, confessing your own racism, and publicly voicing your continued support.
None of this is particularly new. “Woke” culture has spawned years of cancellations, terminations, and boycotts. It has also created a sense of pervasive fear in Christian communities. I’ve heard from friends even in deep-red communities such as Franklin, Tennessee, who are afraid to share their thoughts on social media for fear of corporate reprisal.
Sullivan is correct that intolerance is very real, but he’s wrong that present conditions are “very reminiscent of totalitarian states.” There is a substantial difference between state censorship—enforced at gunpoint—and the professional and social intolerance that dominates illiberal institutions. The East German Stasi would leave your body in a ditch. That’s a different universe of oppression compared to the harms woke America inflicts on its victims today..
Yet excessive fear reigns. My friend Rod Dreher’s influential blog has become a clearing-house for frightened Christian professionals to (anonymously) express their deep fears. Comment after comment will begin with the notation that the authors feels they can’t identify themselves:
“I am a full professor in the humanities at a major private university. Everyone on this blog would likely recognize my name if I published it here.”
“From a reader I know personally, and who correctly says she cannot identify herself: ‘Very few of us have practical freedom of speech anymore. Sure, the constitution lets us say it, but what good is that if it gets us mobbed?’”
I get correspondence like this all the time. And expressions of fear like this aren’t all that new. I’ll never forget the professor who spoke to me in whispers about his faith lest anyone overhear and threaten his tenure bid. I remember an extraordinary case in Georgia where the university Christian community remained largely silent as a fellow believer faced racism, rape threats, and death threats for defending religious freedom on campus.
As a matter of law, Christians are free. As a matter of fact, in many contexts across the country, Christians are afraid—and many of the people who are most in the grips of fear are those individuals who have thoughtful and reasonable things to say.
Rod points out that millions of Americans, repulsed by “wishy-washy” religiosity are seeking purpose in the “strong gods” on the illiberal left and right. It’s riots vs. crackdowns. It’s left-wing intolerance versus right-wing aggression. The reality hearkens back to the lines from W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” that I wrote about two weeks ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The fear of the Christian “best” is harming this nation. Millions turned to Donald Trump to fight for them, forgetting that a church that is supposed to be a source of salt and light should not empower malice and lies. The result, in Gen. James Mattis’s words, is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.” Christians put in power—and sustained in power—precisely the wrong man for this perilous moment.
Others, in spite of Christ’s admonition to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Him, are not willing to risk tweetings when the apostles braved beatings. Their jobs are too precious to risk. Though they enjoy greater freedom from actual censorship than arguably any people in the history of the planet, self-censorship suffices to drive too many thoughtful Christian voices from the academy, the boardroom, and the office. But shrinking back in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world. While the fearful Christian would never say this out loud, they’re functionally treating the “strong gods” of the partisan political moment as greater and more powerful than the God of the universe they seek to serve.
How do you respond to those “strong gods”? By showing them to be weak. Speak in the face of fear, but speak in the way that God desires. He has given His people a mission statement: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Each element is transformative. Each element is necessary. Any Christian movement that lacks justice, kindness, and humility is flawed.
America is at an important crossroads. There is a stirring in the American heart—men and women who were once hardened against the words and testimonies of their black fellow citizens are starting, at last, to listen. But extreme voices seek to hijack the debate, to take advantage of the moment to continue ripping this nation to shreds.
Are Christians prepared to be the instruments of justice, mercy, and humility that this nation so desperately needs? Not if they remain afraid. Not if in their timidity they continue to empower our worst voices or refuse to speak the truth with grace and conviction. Christians have immense liberty in this nation, but our witness ultimately defines us, not our rights, and presently the Christian witness is all too often a witness of fear.
A shameless plug …
My new book, Divided We Fall, is available for pre-order, and I just got my first review, from Publisher’s Weekly, and it’s good! The reviewer called the book an “incisive examination of contemporary political polarization” and said this “well-informed and often moving account provides an antidote to the ills of political partisanship.” I’m grateful! And I’d also be grateful if you pre-ordered the book, either at the Amazon link above or at Barnes & Noble (which needs your support.)
One last thing …
This new song, from Kristene DiMarco, has truly touched my heart. I hope it blesses you—in a time of uncertainty and fear, let Jesus rise:
Photograph by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.
He is not a liberal, he’s the end of liberalism.
A few months ago, I wrote a column saying I would vote for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump. I may not agree with some of her policies, but culture is more important than politics. She does not spread moral rot the way Trump does.
Now I have to decide if I’d support Bernie Sanders over Trump.
We all start from personal experience. I covered the Soviet Union in its final decrepit years. The Soviet and allied regimes had already slaughtered 20 million people through things like mass executions and intentional famines. Those regimes were slave states. They enslaved whole peoples and took away the right to say what they wanted, live where they wanted and harvest the fruits of their labor.
And yet every day we find more old quotes from Sanders apologizing for this sort of slave regime, whether in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Nicaragua. He excused the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens. He’s still making excuses for Castro.
To sympathize with these revolutions in the 1920s was acceptable, given their original high ideals. To do so after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or in the 1950s, is appalling. To do so in the 1980s is morally unfathomable.
I say all this not to cancel Sanders for past misjudgments. I say all this because the intellectual suppositions that led him to embrace these views still guide his thinking today. I’ve just watched populism destroy traditional conservatism in the G.O.P. I’m here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is not a liberal Democrat. He’s what replaces liberal Democrats.
Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to
- John Stuart Mill,
- John Locke,
- the Social Gospel movement and
- the New Deal.
This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.
This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.
Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.
He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.
Liberalism celebrates certain values:
- intellectual humility and
Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different:
- bitter and relentless polarization, a
- demand for ideological purity among your friends and
- incessant hatred for your supposed foes.
A liberal leader confronts new facts and changes his or her mind. A populist leader cannot because the omniscience of the charismatic headman can never be doubted. A liberal sees shades of gray. For a populist reality is white or black, friend or enemy. Facts that don’t fit the dogma are ignored.
A liberal sees inequality and tries to reduce it. A populist sees remorseless class war and believes in concentrated power to crush the enemy. Sanders is running on a $60 trillion spending agenda that would double the size of the federal government. It would represent the greatest concentration of power in the Washington elite in American history.
These days, Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is. He claims to be nothing more than the continuation of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He is 5 percent right and 95 percent wrong.
There was a period around 1936 or 1937 when Roosevelt was trying to pack the Supreme Court and turning into the sort of arrogant majoritarian strongman the founders feared. But this is not how F.D.R. won the presidency, passed the New Deal, beat back the socialists of his time or led the nation during World War II. F.D.R. did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.
Sanders also claims he’s just trying to import the Scandinavian model, which is believable if you know nothing about Scandinavia or what Sanders is proposing. Those countries do have generous welfare states, but they can afford them because they understand how free market capitalism works, with fewer regulations on business creation and free trade.
There is a specter haunting the world — corrosive populisms of right and left. These populisms grow out of real problems but are the wrong answers to them. For the past century, liberal Democrats from F.D.R. to Barack Obama knew how to beat back threats from the populist left. They knew how to defend the legitimacy of our system, even while reforming it.
Judging by the last few debates, none of the current candidates remember those arguments or know how to rebut a populist to their left.
I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populisms threatening to tear it down.
If I am so smart, why am I know winning.
You should build relationships with people you don’t like for the good of the mission.
If you don’t like someone, most of the time that is your ego.
do you talk about building or you talk about building relationships a lot at
work even when people whom you might not like even with people who mean you don’t
like have you always been this way or did you also feel difficult also
difficulty in wanting to build relationships with those people if the
latter what are the things that help you to actually want to build relationships
with him things so when I was a young seal
I was pretty typical young seal pretty typical young man meaning I thought I
was invincible I thought I could beat everyone in a fight cuz I didn’t know
jiu-jitsu so you just think you’re just gonna win but that you’re wrong I
thought I knew everything of course and I thought I was smarter than everyone
else kind of typical sometimes I would rub people the wrong way and the people
that I would rub the wrong way were especially people that I third thought
were not squared away in the chain of command so if you weren’t square if you
if you were my boss and I didn’t think you were squared away I was gonna rub
you the wrong way no cuz I was gonna be slightly offensive yeah as a matter of
fact I got an evaluation it’s one of the first evaluations that I got when I got
to a SEAL team and back in the day yeah you’d get you were rated 4.0 was the
highest you could get and it would go all the way down to whatever like one
but at this time basically everyone got four oh and everything right you
basically got four oh and everything and like you’d have to mess up you have to
mess to get deviate from the four so I got all four O’s and I got a 3.8 which
was like a major dig and the dig was in I think it was like in relation like I
don’t know what the word was but when I got debriefed on it what the
guy that gave me the 3/8 what he what he told me
which I actually was proud of because that’s how stupid I was
he’s like you you you’re too hostile with people that aren’t squared away
that’s literally and I was all like whatever you’re damn
right I am hostile towards people that aren’t square to go to war right just an
idiot that’s what that’s what the situation
was and you know it made me mad if a leader was weak and I would form these
antagonistic relationships with leaders if I thought that they were weak and one
of these bosses eventually that I fought I was better than right I thought I was
smarter I thought I was smarter than him right I thought that he was an idiot
sure I should have his job right how often do you think that right I should
have that guy’s job I’m smart and the more I showed this attitude the worse
our relationship got in the world and the less he listened to me and the less
influence I had over how we did things and therefore the the worse we did and
the and the the worse our ability to perform God because he was just doing
things the way he thought without any good input from anyone below him in the
chain of command mm-hmm all because I had formed this antagonistic
relationship with him which was bad because then he’s not listening to me
and then one day one day I said to myself if I’m so smart if I’m such a
smart guy why am I losing why am I losing if I’m so smart if I am so smart
why can’t I get this guy to do what I want him to do even though he’s my boss
doesn’t matter if I’m so smart yes they were smarter than him why can’t I get
him to do what I wanted me to do hmm why if I’m so smart how come I can’t
have more influence over the way we operate if I’m so smart and he’s so dumb
mm-hmm and that’s that’s when I realized that’s when I had an away
an awakening that instead of blaming him for being stupid I was the one who was
being stupid I had lost the ability to influence my boss because I was being
stupid and because of my ego I literally thought I deserved his job okay I
thought pretty much anyone could anyone in the platoon should have his job and
therefore since I thought that I I understand of supporting him they said a
building a relationship with him i undermined him now once I got humble and
I started to build a positive relationship with him instead of an
antagonistic one that started to change and because because then he started
listening to me he started to change some things and my influence over the
whole situation became better because I now had a relationship despite the fact
I liked the guy despite that fact I built the
relationship and the situation got better I had more influence and that
became kind of my standard operating procedure was to build relationships
with people even if I didn’t like them to build relationships with people so
that I could have more influence now does what does that sound like right
that sounds like I’m kind of this manipulative two-faced superficial
disingenuous guy yeah that’s that’s being devious and conniving not keeping
it real not keeping it real right but the fact is that is not true that’s not
that’s not that’s not who I am you don’t know who I am I’m a guy that’s trying to
accomplish the mission that’s what I am I’m a guy that is trying to accomplish
the mission who is putting my own ego in check to build a relationship with
someone that I don’t like that I don’t respect but what I’m trying to do is
improve our operational capability what’s more important to me trying to
arrange the situation build the relationship so that we do better not so
that I get promoted not so that I’m getting some accolades but so that we as
a team do a better job I put the little feelings aside because I want the team
to win so if you’re having having some trouble getting over your feelings and
getting over your ego to build relationships for the good of the team
ask yourself the same question I asked myself a long time ago
which is this if I am so smart why am I not winning and if you answer that
question honestly then you’ll put your ego in check
you’ll go build the relationships that will make you and your team accomplish
the mission and win hmm there you go
can’t help but agree with that one you know what’s funny is if you think
about like why you wouldn’t like someone mm-hmm what what causes you and not like
someone most of the time that’s your ego anyways most of the time that’s your ego
anyways yeah and so you know you had that story of the you know you were
consulting somebody it was like a big CEO of yeah like a lacrosse guy that
story is probably the most common story I mean the way you handle it different
yeah but that scenario that you started with with us are so common man
where ya they rub you the wrong way because right off the bat you see him as
some kind of competitive figure to you like they’re you know some you know
compare you know you’re competing with them in your own mind in whatever and
the feelings probably meet you a lot of the time you know see kids don’t like
each other you know one anything he says you’re you know you’re already defensive
but it’s weird man how you can how that happened like that’s happened to me
before not is it wasn’t as overt but just like yeah I don’t really feel that
guy you know I don’t like I would because I not only is he like when you
look at them whatever they’re kind of competitive with you but maybe they do
something just this much different than you you know like it’s just different in
philosophy or something like that I was like oh let me again second and then
they open their mouth and say one word to you and it’s real nice you’re like oh
I love that guy you know just one little thing just one little like hey I’m cool
you know I like you kind of thing and it’s like oh man yeah when they say
something humble to you yeah it disarms your ego and you’re all of a sudden
you’re bros yeah it’s so weird but if they don’t if they escalate the ego
situation which then it’s very problematic happens all the time I mean
really that’s the natural course of things because you do have to put on the
brakes on your feelings and be like okay let’s make a different kind of decision
than the automatic one I got to switch to manual real quick and then bling but
the bottom line is you’re gonna interact with all kinds of different people if
you’re in any kind of team want so ever which is most most human beings interact
with other human beings through their job through their life through I mean
you could apply this to your family too right
there’s someone in your family that you don’t get along with well what good does
it do does it make your family unit better when you let those emotions play
out and let your ego play out no it doesn’t you’re better off you’ll get
further and you’ll have a better you’ll have a better life in your family if you
put your ego in check and then say you know what I’m just gonna build a
relationship with this person it’s gonna make everything better and smoother but
it’s like man if you it I feel like you can take the place of any marriage
counselor by just saying that for real like all you have to do is in and they
got to do it but all you got to do is ask like is this gonna help the
relationship with my wife or my family whoever it is in your is this gonna help
the relationship if I do this or don’t do this or is it gonna hurt it and
that’s it that’s it that’s super general question or whatever but it’s it’s so
cut and dry most of the time yeah of course it’s exceptions but generally
speaking it’s pretty cut and dry okay and a lot of time just like I said it
has to do with like your ego or your you know this this sense of vengeance little
micro sense of vengeance because I can’t believe she doesn’t respect the fact
that I took out the trash you know she asked me to take the trash all the time
finally when I do it nothing you know like chilli its I was talking to a
friend of mine and we were talking about you know I’ve talked about the mutiny
that I had yeah yeah Co platoon but we had a mutiny we fight
we had a mutiny against uh our platoon commander we fired he got fired and then
the other guy that came in to take his place was like the best guy mm-hmm and I
was talking to a guy that worked with him much later when he was a senior
senior guy and I was telling him I was like oh when I talk on the podcast about
the platoon commander that was like the best that’s who I’m talking he’s like no
way and and this guy working with he’s a senior guy and he says you know when he
when I worked with him he would take out that he would take out the trash from
the office every day and he and I started laughing said that’s right and
I’d be look and he was saying like oh I look at him and be like sir you know you
don’t need to do that it’s like no no it’s not good you know someone’s got to
take out the trash I got it mm-hmm this is a seat a guy that shouldn’t have
been taking out trash for 25 years taking out the trash
well is he picking up breath picking up brass taking out trash you know that’s
that’s being humble yeah being humble goes a long way