American culture has been growing more and more polarized in its politics over the last few decades. Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, Coffee and Tea. One cause of this polarization is our tendency to construct and reside in our own ideological bubbles in which every conversation, article, and statistic echo back to us what we already believe. We are naturally drawn to people who hold values and opinions in common with us, but this tendency has major consequences for the quality of dialogue in our culture.
Political partisanship has increasingly infiltrated our churches as well. Given the unhealthy conflation of politics and theology this brings, it is quite possible that your church is becoming an ideological bubble itself, in which people tend to agree not just on issues of faith but on politics as well, effectively shielding themselves from opposing viewpoints and confirming that their political views are not just the correct ones, but correct in God’s eyes as well.
We can choose to be fed a steady diet of information and “data” that never challenges the things we hold dear. We can select political commentators who we know will stroke our beliefs, affirming us in holding them and assuring us that those on “the other side” are not nearly as bright as we. Take this cable news show, this radio station, this newspaper, and a Sunday school class full of like-minded people, and voila, there we have it—a nice and neat little ideological bubble of our own construction. It can feel safe and secure inside the bubble.
But it is not.
The problem is becoming so deeply concerning, we must identify ways in which the problem can be resisted and corrected. Some of these corrections will need to happen at the personal level, changing some of our own personal habits, for example, while others will have to be taken on in concert.
1. Select News Sources with Care
There was a time when information was not readily accessible to the public. Any nuanced grasp of what was happening at the federal, or even state, level was virtually impossible due to lack of access to information. While one might also argue today that “any nuanced grasp of what [is] happening at the federal, or even state, level [is] virtually impossible,” it is not likely to be due to lack of access to information.
Today’s news consumer is bombarded by a virtual non-stop stream of news bits. The “slant” of various news sources runs all across the political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, with none likely to pass a test of “pure objectivity.” To narrow down the stream, we tend to select the ones whose perspectives we already agree with.
As we get more and more of our news online, this narrowing can happen even without our knowledge, thanks to so-called “personalization technology." Google, Facebook, and other social media use your past selections to “learn what you like” and then to use that information to funnel you into areas that match. (Read the New York Times article on this concept.)
We have to be intentional about seeking out voices from all across the ideological spectrum. It takes more time to gather these resources; it is sometimes uncomfortable to have our pet ideas challenged; and perhaps no one likes to admit error and revise their position. But we have to build a collection of news sources that assure that our already held beliefs are being appropriately challenged, assure that we are hearing the best arguments the “other side” has to offer, and that place a premium on getting key facts right.
2. Don’t Be Seduced by Sound Bites
In our “never pause for a moment” culture, time is very much at a premium, or so it seems. When we feel constantly under the gun, the pressure is to squeeze ever more information into shorter and shorter communications.
Of course, there is more to the popularity of the sound bite than just the pressure for increasing brevity. Many of the challenges that we face as a culture are remarkably complex. It takes a good deal of time and research to study the issues and to get one’s arms around the nuances in sufficient detail that one can understand and speak intelligently on them. It often seems to be the case that sound bites are constructed with the intent of obscuring the complexities for partisan gain.
Sound bites can be powerful for at least two reasons: they are short, memorable statements, and they make things seem simpler than they are. And, therein lies the problem. The more popular and simplistic the sound bite, the more difficult it becomes to engage the issue adequately. We allow the simple solution to seduce us, and we are too easily manipulated to support those who promise their overly simplistic proposal will actually resolve the problem at hand.
3. Do Not Allow Loudness of Presentation to Trump Soundness of Argument
Have you ever been in a situation where you find yourself moved to embrace a particular position by a powerful presenter, and then, after later reflection come to see that you had been drawn to conclusions unwarranted by the presentation itself? A charismatic and engaging presenter can seduce us with his or her passion. I have never listened to a speech from Hitler, but I have been told that he was remarkable in his ability to draw persons into supporting and collaborating with him. He could make the outrageous sound rational and persuade folks to embrace the plans he put forward.
We have to learn to distinguish between a speech that rallies us around common goals aimed to serve the common good and one that attempts to manipulate us to serve a personal or ideological set of goals. Of course, the ideal solution is to find passionate speakers who unite the call to action with a careful analysis of the problem and the proposed solution. We live in a time when we seem often to reward our politicians more for being loud than for being thoughtful and reflective. We need to reverse that.
We must insist upon sound, rational argument along with passionate presentation and not allow passionate presentation to replace rational argument. And, we must carefully and reflectively secure the information needed to be able to make a rational assessment of the proposals on the table.
4. Do Not Let Non-Experts Convince You They Are Experts
We live in a day in which expertise is frequently viewed with suspicion. If a person has expertise in a particular field and, thus, expects to have more credibility on a given subject than the non-expert, that person is often criticized as an “elitist.” Unfortunately, the most significant challenges we face are deeply complex and will require our best experts to resolve.
When it comes to complicated policy positions, everyone has an opinion, but few have the requisite knowledge base for being able to understand and articulate the complexities. I wonder how often the so-called “talking heads” on television news shows are selected not for their expertise on the subject, but rather because they are willing to articulate a particular ideological position as a solution to one of more of our challenges.
The remedy for this problem is straightforward: check the credentials of the speaker. Do they have the requisite training to speak authoritatively on the issue at hand? If the debate is about economics, do they have training in the field? Of course, one might have the requisite knowledge to speak with authority on a given topic, but still be heavily partisan in their take on the topic. This problem we handle with our earlier admonition to gain voices from across the political spectrum, from both right leaning and left leaning sources. If we make sure we are recognizing as expert folks who are expert and if we are intentional about listening to diverse voices and opinions, then we will have progressed a long way toward moving past the facile partisanship that characterizes so much of the debate.
5. Consider the Broader, Historical Christian Tradition
As Christians, our first goal is to hold positions consistent with our faith commitments and our belief that God calls us as a society to great wholeness and flourishing. Consequently, we do not seek primarily to formulate our positions based upon non-Christian voices, but rather first and foremost upon the basis of what Christians have held on the topic at hand. And those Christian voices we seek to hear have to be from across the centuries, not just from our contemporary setting. Too often, we Christians read materials from the last 20 years (or, in extreme cases, from the last 75 or so years) and think we have captured the collective wisdom of the tradition. Little could be further from the truth.
To see this, one only need consult the writings of the early church, perhaps most particularly, the sermons that were preached in the early church. Most Christians would find themselves shocked to hear for themselves what the early church had to say about, for example, riches and war. I often point out that when it comes to politics, we Christians tend to be much more driven by the political liberalism of John Locke than by Scripture on what the life together that pleases God looks like. The sort of mutual interdependence characterized by Scripture or by the sermons of the early preachers often sounds strange to folks used to a steady diet of thought that comes from only the last few years. We Christians need to spend more time immersed in the sources of the faith that come from a wide variety of times and circumstances over the course of the history of the Christian faith. (Are you a Ministry Matters subscriber? Check out A History of Christian Thought, Part I. And Part II and Part III.)
Now, lest we be misunderstood, we are not suggesting that simply being a Christian replaces the need to have expertise in the field at hand. Rather, we are suggesting that hearing from a wide variety of Christian voices across the centuries will enrich in ways immeasurable our grasp of what it genuinely means to “embrace a Christian way of doing things.”
The tendency to fall into an ideological bubble is seductive, for obvious reasons, and avoiding it requires intentionality. We must learn that “they” are not always wrong, that “we” are not always right, and that “we” and “they” are both needed if we are to find permanent solutions to the political/economic/theological challenges we face today. It might not be easy, but it will be a significant step to moving beyond partisanship and developing a much better understanding of the strengths of all positions. All in all, it’s a fine step toward disconnecting ourselves from ideological commitments that unnecessarily divide the body of Christ.