By Rev. Kate Braestrup
As a rule, my New Year’s resolutions are notable neither for originality nor for their chances of being fulfilled. Year after year, along with so many of my fellow Americans, I resolve to– -surprise!– – exercise and lose weight. Year after year, my failure to do either is discouragingly evident by February.
New Years 2015 was different.
Though I was as fat and out of shape as ever, my usual half-hearted feint at overcoming the common sins of greed and sloth seemed self-indulgent. Surely, given the urgent issues playing out in full-color rage and riot in the news, I should resolve to do something that might make me a better person, and more useful citizen?
What seemed most striking about the national mood wasn’t just the explosive intensity of the passions in play. It was the complete absence of anything like a true national dialogue or even a real debate. Americans on the left and right weren’t so much quarreling with one another as talking past each other, preaching to their respective choirs and reinforcing the beliefs of the true believers.
The issues involved seemed to be the same urgent issues my classmates and I had hollered about back in college; racism, abortion, gay rights, what to do about guns, what to do about crime and poverty? College students may be forgiven for making noise rather than progress, but adult citizens of a mature democracy are supposed to possess sufficient self-discipline to engage in constructive conversations and find common ground with those with whom they disagree.
And yet, according to the Pew Research Center, Republicans and Democrats in the United States are, today, more divided along ideological lines, and the resulting political acrimony is deeper and more extensive, than at any point in recent U.S. history.
It would be one thing if these political divisions were resulting in hope, happiness or at least a little triumphant schadenfreude for one of the two, broadly-defined sides. Instead, everywhere I looked there was evidence of a pessimism bordering on despair. “Conservatives and liberals don’t just disagree, we loathe each another,” a friend agreed and then proceeded to explain how the blame lay entirely with conservatives. He concluded with an emphatic “those people are crazy.”
Ah, religion and politics! The two famously divisive subjects, the ones our mothers told us never to discuss in polite company. We are in polite company now, of course but this is a website for religious liberals, so we sort of have to discuss religion. And though we like to think of ourselves as post-Christian, there’s probably a Holy Bible on the bookshelf in our various homes, a book in which these two subjects– -religion and politics– -are intertwined and indivisible.
Human moral reasoning is made manifest in religion and politics. “Help the poor,” is an original- religious imperative we translate into secular public policy– -Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the like. Signs reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill” are held aloft at political protests against both capital punishment and abortion, even if plaques listing the Ten Commandments are taken down from courthouse walls. There’s a reason that even the most theologically liberal, avowedly non-hierarchical clergyperson, who normally eschews clerical garb, will put on her collar and robe when picketing the White House on behalf of illegal immigrants, and “who would Jesus Bomb?” was an anti-war message even atheist pacifists were known to stick onto their bumpers.
A phrase from the Gospel of Matthew jumped out at me on a winter Sunday: “leave your gift there at the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Maybe those conservatives are crazy, I thought, but they are my brothers. And the phrase that I, for one, take as an absolute, implacable command– – “love one another” —is inclusive. I’m pretty sure it means that I’m supposed to love even those whose moral reasoning I don’t agree with.
I highly recommend Haidt’s book as a fascinating look at what scientists are finding out about how precarious and flawed our moral reasoning can be. For example, Haidt explains how all of us—-and I mean all of us—-are subject to what scientists call the confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what we already think.
In fact, we’re hard-wired for it: Being right, or confirmed in one’s rightness releases a little hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the ventral striatum, a pleasure/reward center in the brain. Lab rats given the chance to press a lever and get a dose of dopamine have been known to keep pressing that lever, forsaking all other activities including eating, until they starve to death. Being wise in your own sight– -having your biases confirmed — -isn’t just fun, it’s potentially addictive.
One of the particular and important claims made by the Unitarian Universalist movement is that we-wee….UUs …deliberately try to counteract the seduction of the confirmation bias in ourselves and in one another. Unitarian Universalists aim and claim to tolerate people whose lifestyles, experiences and ideas are different from our own, to allow ourselves to be challenged by them, and learn something from them. However, simply declaring oneself or one’s church to be tolerant and open-minded does not make it so.
I worry that, having defined ourselves as “open minded” we UUs can too easily imagine ourselves exempt from the natural human tendency to create like-minded communities. How often do we engage in substantive, meaningful conversation with people who are ideologically different?
So I resolved to spend 2015 talking to … conservatives.
Confession time: I came into the world a liberal, back in 1962, the year I was born to a pair of Kennedy Democrats. When I was in high school in Washington, DC, I used to cut class and spend whole days down on the Mall, marching and protesting for the ERA (Equal Rights [for women] Amendment), the legalization of marijuana, the Nuclear Freeze and the Sandinistas, against South African Apartheid and Japanese whale hunts and (because I was a little confused) both for and against the Shah of Iran.
I grew up and married a liberal State Trooper– -yes, these exist. More recently, I was ordained as a minister in the most theologically and politically liberal denomination in the country.
So yes, I wanted to, as Jesus recommended, leave my gift before the altar and go find my brother and be reconciled…but my actual brother is a liberal, and so are most of my close personal friends, and all of my colleagues in Unitarian-Universalist ministry. On the other hand I did have one big advantage. I’ve spent the past 14 years or so working with game wardens. Though there are exceptions, law enforcement officers tend to lean conservative. I may be the Maine Warden Services’ token, Birkenstock-and- Socks Liberal but I dearly love my wardens. At times, I trust my life to them. And I know they love me.
“If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury,” wrote the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou. I believe that. If nothing else, my relationship with Maine game wardens proved that it was possible for a liberal to agree in love with a conservative.
But I didn’t want to force Maine game wardens into political and religious arguments while we were, say, at a search-and- rescue scene. So I had to make a real effort to find some other conservatives to argue with, but the effort was definitely worth it. I’ve learned a lot. For example: get this! There are different kinds of conservatives! Social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives– -Catholic, Protestant and Jewish– -there are atheist libertarians, gay libertarians, Right-Wing Republicans and Republicans In Name Only: socons, ficons, RINOs…
And they aren’t all white, Christian men either. I’ve met truck drivers and doctors, schoolteachers and stay-at-home moms and dads, Buddhists, bartenders and businessmen, physicists, psychologists and public defenders… and yup, they’re male and female, black, brown, white, Asian, gay, straight, trans—such diversity! Who knew?
One of my new conservative acquaintances is—-get this—-a female, immigrant Hindu libertarian gun nut. Top that?
Yeah, I’ll admit it: subconsciously, at least, I was sure I would be able to persuade all of these fine people that they were wrong about …well, about everything, really. I’m a persuasive person. I’d convert them all to liberalism! Birkenstocks and socks all around! Isn’t that the way we all secretly hope to be reconciled to our brother? To make him reconcile himself to you? This was going to be awesome!
Well, it has been fun. And…interesting. After two years of serving as a secret agent of liberalism, an agent provocateur in conservative circles I have not, so far as I know, made a single convert to political or religious liberalism.
I have, on the other hand, made friends. I’ve had long arguments with bona fide, right-wing wing-nut conservatives and come away feeling challenged, stimulated, provoked to new and expanded thought… and humbled. Lots and lots of humbling: I’ve also had to admit, more than once, that some long-held righteous opinion of mine wasn’t just different, it was wrong. Wrong facts, wrong conclusion, wrong opinion.
That’s been unsettling.
There are a lot of intimidatingly smart and very knowledgeable conservatives. There are those who are passionate about one subject, and others who are interested in everything. There are some who express themselves with patience and restraint. And there are those who just like to kick the hornet’s nest and see what comes flying out.
I’m a little like that myself… so I’m growing used to getting stung. Luckily, I am meeting lots of deeply compassionate and humane conservatives. Let me repeat that, for the liberals among my readers; I am meeting a lot of deeply compassionate and humane
conservatives. I’ve been part of discussions that go deeply into very difficult terrain—“like running through a field of mesquite” as one conservative friend wrote– -and resolve themselves not in agreement but in what the same writer described as “kindness and the honest attempt to understand views we may never personally hold…” It’s been impressive.
How strange it was to realize that a liberal might learn a lot about patience, tolerance and love …from conservatives.
I can tell by the looks on your virtual faces that you are inspired by my example! Still, pastoral responsibility demands that I offer a note of caution: Be careful what resolutions you make, because you just might fulfill them. Resolutions are always about change, and change is, by definition, unsettling at best, painful and unpleasant at worst.
As my cousin Ollie remarked, “You can’t really call yourself open-minded if you never actually change your mind,” but it’s a whole lot easier not to change, easier to go on doing the same things in the same ways, easier to go on thinking in the same ways, reading the same kinds of books, having the same kinds of conversations with the same sorts of people from pretty much the same perspectives. Friends, let me testify: My life was a whole lot easier when I was an automatic progressive.
Yes, I had to swallow the occasional lump of incredulity.
Yes, I had to pretend not to notice a few uncomfortable facts and endure the occasional bout of cognitive dissonance.
But the pleasure and reward centers in my brain got regular doses of dopamine, my membership in my familial social, religious and clerical circles was regularly affirmed, and I got to enjoy the feeling of safety such membership bestows.
But growth— intellectual growth, spiritual growth, growth in one’s ability to love God and neighbor—-isn’t safe, and it’s never painless. That same Holy Bible (or the Four Noble Truths, if you prefer) can tell you that much. Whatever our political persuasion, and however we feel, as citizens and as individuals of conscience, about the state of race relations or any other vexing issue, members of my denomination—-Unitarian Universalists—-are the adherents of a religion that claims to prize not creeds, not dogmas, not exclusive blueprints for individual or collective salvation, but a principled process of which the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is bedrock.
It’s not easy. It is, however, most definitely worth it.
Copyright 2017 © Kate Braestrup