Book excerpt: Confessions of a spiritual mutt

Note: This is an excerpt from my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

My church’s adult faith formation class has been discussing Christianity’s Family Tree, a fascinating exploration of how several denominations came into being and what their members believe. One thing I like about the book is that author Adam Hamilton refrains from criticizing the denominations he writes about. Instead, he compares members of various faith traditions to relatives we might meet at a family reunion, and invites us to enrich our own faith by learning what we can from our “cousins” in Christ who belong to the other traditions.

Studying the book has also helped crystallize for me why I’m increasingly at peace with the convoluted nature of my own spiritual journey. Hamilton’s personal faith experience somewhat resembles mine in its twists and turns – he started life as a Roman Catholic, joined a Pentecostal church as a teenager, then ended up a member of a United Methodist Church, where he is now a minister. I’ve done some hopping around myself and, like him, I’ve come to see my rather zig-zaggy spiritual path in a positive light.

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend often depended on where we had Sunday dinner. One week we might attend the mainline Protestant church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the more conservative church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad regularly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru), a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to participate in the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (In the early 1970s, both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at a local evangelical free church, where congregation members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great outreach effort for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and Happy Hour gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and convinced myself these alcohol-soaked events were essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

When I embarked on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I immersed myself in the 12-Step movement, which labeled itself “spiritual but not religious.” The people I met “around the tables” came from a wide variety of spiritual/religious backgrounds with wildly diverse understandings about God. Folks at the meetings advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

Meanwhile, my husband and I joined a church that shall remain mercifully nameless. Members seemed obsessed with pointing out how smart they were in comparison to most Christians. The toxic organizational culture – marked by constant bullying, backbiting, infighting and power struggles between rival cliques – ultimately drove us out of the congregation. After that, I took another hiatus from church, though I continued to attend 12-Step meetings.

In my late 40s – after a huge medical scare during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped would still listen to me – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaked into a couple of Evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

Shortly after I started going to church again, I began working for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged congregations to “adopt” incarcerated mothers reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting and training a team of volunteers from each congregation to work intensively with their “adopted” mother and her children. The recruitment process required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches – from Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian to Baptist, Evangelical and Pentecostal. Every month or two would find me attending a different congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord as part of my new job, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I now belong to the mainline Protestant church I began attending nearly 20 years ago with my husband and mother-in-law. I like that the people at my current church do their best to practice what they say they believe. I like their involvement in serving the larger community. I like that I’ve been able to ask questions in our adult faith formation class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, my current church is where I’ve settled and plan to stay.

But I haven’t stopped exploring ideas or getting spiritual support from a variety of sources.

Over the years, I’ve continued to attend Evangelical and Pentecostal services when visiting family and friends. Members of my parents’ congregation never failed to make me feel welcome when I went to church with them and I absolutely appreciate how supportive they were of my parents during their final years when I lived too far away to be as involved in their day-to-day care as I would have liked.

More recently, my husband and I have been receiving spiritual direction from a pair of Dominican teaching Sisters and this year we joined their “associates” program. Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God, and serves as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. During monthly sessions, I have been examining my relationship with God, prayer, my personal values, and various lifestyle choices. As associates my husband and I assist, among other things, with the Sisters’ social justice activities such as their anti-racism and environmental efforts.

I’m an insatiably voracious reader as well. I subscribe to both Christian Century (mainline Protestant) and Christianity Today (Evangelical), as well as America Magazine (Catholic). I devour books by authors from a variety of faith traditions – some of the more interesting titles I’ve been reading lately include Falling Upward by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, Do I Stay Christian? by Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk by Evangelical pastor Eugene Cho, Creation as Sacrament by Greek Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis and Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.

During a recent session of my congregation’s adult faith formation class, I shared some details about my rather eclectic spiritual background. “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt,” I joked. One of the other participants responded, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing,” and I would be inclined to agree.

Some might consider my spiritual journey – with its hopelessly squiggly lines – confusing. (At best!) But I’ve come to believe that experiencing a variety of traditions has had benefits. I certainly don’t claim to have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters. I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles with other Christians over the long list of issues Martin Luther would label “adiaphora.” And I get thoroughly impatient when either conservative or progressive culture warriors imply that people who belong to a denomination other than their own “aren’t real Christians.”

Instead, like Hamilton, I prefer to learn from my “relatives” in Christ and to look for areas of agreement. What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

“When we view the body of Christ as a tree, there are several things we begin to realize,” says Hamilton, in Christianity’s Family Tree. “We are reminded that all the branches share the same roots and trunk. Our roots are Judaism. Our trunk is Jesus Christ. Permeating the entire tree is the Holy Spirit, which feeds the leaves and allows the tree to grow.”

Hamilton reminds us that in the beginning, Christianity did not have denominations. There were no Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal churches. Christians were known as “followers of The Way” or simply followers of Jesus Christ.

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Remember, in the end, we all worship the same God.”

Question for readers: What has your spiritual journey been like, and has it changed over the years? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Memes worth sharing

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

As I search for an appropriate Christian response to the polarization ripping apart our society, one question in particular confronts me: What can I do personally to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

I’ve decided one small step I can take is to examine my relationship with social media. As I’ve done so, I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: I need to pay more conscious attention to what I post, share and “like” on sites such as Facebook. 

My research suggests that several culprits contribute to social media’s role in dividing us. Algorithms that create “echo chamber” bubbles of one-sided information and opinions. Viral spread of false or misleading information in “fake news” stories with click-bait headlines. Political “discussions” that amount to little more than judgmental blaming and shaming, name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents.

But one of the biggest culprits? Endless memes promoting hateful and inflammatory messages.

On any given day when I go on Facebook, I can count on seeing at least a dozen memes from progressives and conservatives hurling insults and accusations at each other. The typical fare has become as predictable as rain in April.

Republicans are people too: Mean, selfish, greedy people.

It was so cold this morning I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets.

Folks on both sides of the divide seem to relish in-your-face rudeness.

Excu-u-u-use me if my posts offend you, but the future of my country is more important than your precious feelings.

Misanthropes of all stripes show off their generalized contempt for anyone anywhere who disagrees with them about anything.

I lose track of how many times per day I want to say, “You can’t seriously be that stupid.”

The worst part? I have to admit I’ve been part of the problem from time to time. 

Until recently, I often found myself getting sucked into social media fights – even with people I ordinarily liked – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues.

Whenever a Facebook skirmish erupted – whether the trigger was a Supreme Court decision, debates about a political candidate’s suitability for office, or a crisis playing out in the news – my first instinct was to try and stay out of the fray. 

Alas, I tend to have strong opinions about a lot of issues (imagine that!) and sooner or later, someone would post a meme I couldn’t seem to resist sharing against my better judgment. Okay, I knew it was snarky. Maybe a bit judgmental or even mean. But it was SO clever.

Then, of course, someone on “the other side” would beg to differ with my assessment of the meme’s cleverness, and before I knew it, I was bogged down in another argument.

Finally, I made a decision: I would no longer post memes that “called out” or in any way disparaged other individuals or groups of people – even public figures considered to be fair game. I’ve been pretty disciplined about sticking with that resolution for the past couple of years.

I’ve also started to ask myself this question: What am I encouraging others to post by hitting the “like” button? Am I inadvertently enabling and rewarding name-calling, character assassination or polarizing comments? With that in mind, I no longer react to others’ memes that do any of these things.

On the other hand, I’m not totally against memes in and of themselves. Some make me laugh out loud, and we can all use a bit of humor after a stressful day – especially if we can have a good laugh without it being at someone else’s expense.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites.

So, in addition to avoiding negativity, I’ve decided to take a proactive approach to the meme-war issue. I’ve begun collecting positive memes and posting them on my own Facebook page’s newsfeed when the feuding gets especially fierce or obnoxious.

If I feel I must respond to a political meme (for example, one that I believe promotes dangerous misinformation), I make a conscientious effort not to insult the person who posted it.

For example, I love this meme. Unlike those that try to shame people who resist COVID safety measures, it uses humor to get the point across about the importance of masking without calling anyone names or assaulting their character.

When the meme wars on Facebook get particularly heated or nasty, I occasionally like to drop this favorite into my news feed, with some words of wisdom “attributed” to our 16th president.

However, I’ve come to believe that part of the problem fueling our culture wars is our modern emphasis on brevity.

It is hard to give a complex issue the depth it deserves when our communication is limited to 15-second sound bites, 280-character tweets, bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans. Or memes. And most hot-button issues are complex or they wouldn’t be “hot button.”

With that in mind, I usually prefer to post memes that have nothing whatsoever to do with political/ideological hot-button issues.

Cute animals are one of my favorite go-to subjects when I’m looking for something innocuously funny to share. I mean, who can resist this adorable kitten?

I can also change the subject to the weather. When I post this meme, Facebook friends like to dicker with me over whether the caption should read “Weather in Kansas” or “Weather in Colorado” rather than “Weather in Illinois.” But at least it’s a friendly argument.

I’ve found that Bible-verse memes can be a bit tricky – such a meme in direct response to someone else’s post can come across as hitting people with a “clobber verse.” (And we certainly wouldn’t want to do that, would we??)

But an occasional meme posted to my personal newsfeed – on its own rather than in response to anyone else’s post – can be a subtle, unobtrusive way to share Biblical wisdom in a society that needs to hear it.

Or I can demonstrate love of neighbor by posting a cheery feel-good message.

Religious memes can also be seriously funny. (Who says Christians don’t have a sense of humor?)

If I want to avoid Facebook nastiness, I’ve found I can’t go wrong with a bad pun – especially with some of my friends and relatives of all political stripes (they know who they are).

For a twofer, how about a bad pun that doubles as religious humor – with a cute animal tossed in for good measure?

I’ve found memes that help us laugh at our own foibles are great for sharing – like this one that gently ribs my urge to correct other peoples’ grammar.

Or my “old-timer” frustration with technology.

Finally, there’s always this piece of sage advice, which I may preface with the words “Note to Self.”

Just to clarify: When I say I no longer plan to “like” or share memes that keep the culture wars going, this doesn’t mean I plan to retreat from the political arena altogether.

I don’t plan to stop discussing hot-button issues in appropriate settings such as personal conversations, Bible study sessions or religious education classes. And I certainly don’t plan to look the other way in the face of injustice or forsake my favorite causes.

However, I do plan to stop enabling the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our social media interactions. 

Fear-mongering, blame-gaming, and self-righteous outrage may be the norm on social media these days, but I have a choice whether to participate. Increasingly, I’m choosing not to.

The good news: If I want to share something on Facebook, I’m finding there are all kinds of memes that can make us laugh – or brighten our day or provide a bit of inspiration – without ridiculing or insulting or otherwise bashing anyone.

More good news: I now waste a lot less time arguing about politics with total strangers on Facebook.

Question for readers: What are some positive steps you’ve taken to avoid being part of the culture wars problem? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Creating God in our own image

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

During my participation in Bible study groups, 12-Step meetings and spiritual direction sessions, I have frequently been encouraged to evaluate different concepts of God. Most discussions have tended to focus on a pair of competing images – Loving God versus Angry God.

The benevolent Loving God provides for our every need and wants us to love and care for each other. John 3:16 tells us God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The Angry God of my childhood understanding, on the other hand, was a short-tempered bully who frankly hated people and regretted having created us. This ‘God’ reserved an especially hot place in you-know-where for kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

Critically evaluating the ideas we hold about God can be a valuable exercise. Many of us who grew up with the image of a perpetually angry and capricious bully have benefitted from advice often heard around the tables at 12-Step meetings: “It may be time to fire the ‘God’ of our childhood understanding and meet the real one.”

Lately, I’ve noticed another “God” wreaking havoc in the U.S.: The Culture Warrior God. This false god, I’ve come to believe, is responsible for fueling much of the toxic polarization in both our churches and our secular society.

CULTURE WARRIOR GOD appeals to our self-righteous instincts and our resentments, as well as our desire to fit in with peers. This god has many faces:

  • The god who plays favorites. Culture Warrior God favors one special group of people over all others, and – by some stroke of luck, coincidence or superior righteousness – the favored group just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. This group may be our own church congregation or denomination. (Not to worry: Culture Warrior God assures us that members of those other denominations aren’t real Christians anyway.) But the favored group may also be a nation, a racial or ethnic group, a political party or followers of an ideological movement.
  • The god who dabbles in politics. Culture Warrior God just happens to be a card-carrying member of our own political party or ideological camp and – to make it easier for us to conflate our religious beliefs with our political agenda – has personally authored a creed that includes 650 boxes for us to check. We may suspect parts of the “creed” were developed by bending and twisting Biblical teachings until they conform to our political party’s platform. But if this editing process makes us nervous, it’s best not to say anything, lest we be cast into the outer darkness for eternity. Or canceled by our peers in Culture Warrior God’s chosen group. (Peer pressure is certainly not limited to junior high school.)
  • The god who hates Those People. Culture Warrior God encourages us to reject and condemn anyone who votes for the wrong candidate in an election, refuses to check every single one of the above-mentioned 780 boxes, or otherwise fails to look, act and think the way we do. One way to hold these nefarious transgressors accountable is to publicly call out their sins on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter and invite others to pile on. Yes, we know the Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and only those who haven’t sinned should cast stones. But Culture Warrior God assures us that Those People’s sins are WAY more egregious than our own. Besides, stone-casting helps signal to our peers how virtuous we are.
  • The god whose “messengers” mustn’t be questioned. If the leaders of Culture Warrior God’s chosen group say something is true, then it’s true. Period. Never mind if the Bible says something a bit different. We must never challenge even one of the 870 boxes we are asked to check as a condition of sitting at the popular kids’ table. (Ever notice how the number of boxes keeps growing? Best not to mention that little detail either.) Unlike the members of all those hundreds of other Christian denominations, we can trust we have the corner on the Ultimate Truth because Culture Warrior God has told us repeatedly our group is the only one that really “gets it.”

I HAVE TO ADMIT  that the contrarian in me often finds it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to discern what I do believe. But I think I can safely say it’s time to fire the Culture Warrior God of our adult creation, right along with the Angry Bully God of our childhood nightmares.

What the many faces of Culture Warrior God add up to is a god created in our own image.

It’s tempting to believe this particular form of idolatry is limited to fringe cults like Westboro Baptist Church or white Christian nationalist movements. But if we’re completely honest, we must admit this thinking can pose a challenge for all of us, even if we identify ourselves with a traditional brand of Christianity such as mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox. And Culture Warrior God’s siren song can appeal to us whether we lean toward the conservative or progressive side of the political spectrum.

One problem is that many of us subconsciously anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. (Does an elderly white man with a long beard and flowing robes come to mind?) We also tend to cherry-pick Biblical teachings that match our biases – whether intentionally or not – while reflexively ignoring those inconvenient passages that challenge our cherished worldview.

Given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us not to create God in our own image, at least to some extent? Is there a way to avoid putting our own spin on Biblical teachings? How do we know when we – or the group we belong to – might be doing these things?

Here are some clues I’ve come to recognize as red flags:

  • When any belief system claims God favors one group of people exclusively. (If I’m interpreting Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 correctly, God does not favor any one group of people over any others.)
  • When God starts sounding too much like a conservative Republican, a progressive Democrat or a member of any other secular political party or ideological movement. (We’d do well to focus on following the Lamb, not an elephant or a donkey.)
  • When we secretly believe in our heart of hearts that our own little group of believers – out of the thousands in existence – is the only one that gets everything completely right.
  • When we choose our congregation based on how closely its interpretation of Biblical truth aligns with our political beliefs – or at least refrains from challenging them. (For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine,” warns 2 Timothy 4:3-4. “But having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.”)
  • When a group or leader discourages questions. (A group whose leaders or truth claims can’t be scrutinized or challenged is not a religion – or even a legitimate political party or ideological movement. It’s a cult.)
  • When we feel a bit too much glee at the prospect of God punishing someone who doesn’t share our views. (A former pastor at my church once observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea of certain other peoples’ eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation.)
  • When God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. (This should be a dead giveaway.)
  • When a group hands us one of those lists titled “People God Hates.” (We can confidently pitch said list in the recycle bin. ’Nuff said.)

PERHAPS ONE ANTIDOTE to our tendency to create God in our own image is a dose of humility. While I do believe there is an Ultimate Truth, no mere human being, including me, will ever have a corner on it – at least not on this side of eternity. “For now we see through a glass darkly,” 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us.

We can also use the mind God gave us to develop our critical thinking skills. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” Whether or not we question God’s will, we can certainly question another human being’s interpretation of it. Sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.

If we want to take the first step toward healing the divisions in our churches and our larger society, we need to stop asking, “Is God on our side?” Instead, we need to ask, “Are we on God’s side?”

Question for readers: What helps you avoid the pitfall of creating God in your own image? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book Excerpt: More resources

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for navigating the culture wars. In my last excerpt, I listed several thought-provoking books I’ve been reading.

In this excerpt, I include some additional resources. They range from organizations that help us have better conversations and improve our news media literacy to web sites that let us evaluate a public official’s truthfulness and fact check what we see on Facebook and other social media.

More in Common

With teams in the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and Germany, this organization seeks to counter polarization and build bridges across dividing lines through research, publications and other initiatives. Their detailed research into what drives fracturing and polarization incorporates insights from political science, psychology, sociology and other fields to map different segments of the population according to their values, beliefs and sense of group attachments. Their research is summarized in a number of publications on topics ranging from immigration to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of their most widely-quoted publications is Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, in which they identify an “exhausted majority” of Americans who are fed up with this country’s endless culture wars. Link HERE.

Braver Angels

Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) seeks to depolarize the American public through grassroots organizing. The group offers a range of experiences including online and in-person workshops, documentary screenings, book discussions and one-to-one conversations on a variety of polarization-related topics. The group’s premise is not that we must change our mind on issues we’re passionate about in order to agree with people on the other side, but that we learn how to have more reasoned conversations. The organization emphasizes engaging those we disagree with, trying to understand the other side’s point of view even if we don’t agree with it, and supporting principles that bring us together rather than divide us. Link HERE.

Living Room Conversations

Dialogue experts have developed Living Room Conversations as a conversational model to help people bridge their differences by identifying areas of common ground and shared understanding. Within this model, the nonprofit organization has developed over 100 conversation guides on topics ranging from politics in faith communities to abortion, immigration, race and gender issues that can otherwise be tense to talk about. The conversations can take place in person or online. The organization has a Faith Community Team to help church congregations that want to host these conversations. Link HERE.

The Flip Side

The Flip Side promises to help us get out of our media bubbles and analyze important issues by presenting the best points from both sides of the political spectrum. An editorial team – consisting of both progressives and conservatives – sifts through more than 30 news publications daily, chooses one or two issues to focus on, and reads the recent op-eds and analyses about these issues, choosing the most thoughtful and informative articles from each side. The team then chooses the most representative excerpts and quotes from each side, has each of these fact-checked by at least one progressive and one conservative team member, and compiles them into an email that can be read in about five minutes. Link HERE.

AllSides

The mission of AllSides is to expose people to information and ideas from all sides of the political spectrum so we can better understand each other. The site takes each day’s top news stories from the left, center and right of the political spectrum and displays them side by side so readers can get a feel for how each side’s news media may be slanting their coverage. The site also provides media bias ratings for over 800 media outlets and writers, so the reader can easily identify different perspectives. Their “Red Blue Dictionary” explains differences in perspectives on hot-button issues like climate change and racism. In addition, they offer “civil dialogue partnerships” to provide opportunities for respectful dialogue across political divides, and a school program to help students from middle school through college learn media literacy skills. Link HERE.

FactCheck.org

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck.org bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. The organization monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. The web site also offers a guide on how to spot fake or misleading news, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to flag fake news on Facebook. Link HERE for the organization’s web site, HERE for the fake news guide, and HERE for instructions on flagging fake news.

American Psychological Association: Stress in America

Since 2007, APA has commissioned an annual nationwide survey to examine the level of stress across the U.S. and understand its impact. The annual Stress in America survey measures perceptions of stress among the general public and identifies leading sources of stress, common behaviors used to manage stress and the impact of stress on our daily lives. In recent years, the APA has consistently found that significant numbers of U.S. citizens feel stressed by the current political and social divisiveness. If nothing else, the survey results make clear that the culture wars are more than simply a petty irritant and draw attention to the serious physical and emotional implications of the stress caused by constant conflict. Link HERE.

Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

The center, at Columbia University, offers programs which integrate the theory of conflict resolution with its actual practice. The center publishes an extensive list of more than 100 organizations/groups/web sites seeking solutions to toxic polarization. The focus of the organizations on this list ranges from government, news media and business/economics to education, the environment, technology/social media and faith-based initiatives. Link HERE.

Question for readers: Do you know of any additional organizations/web sites – particularly faith-based groups – that help the public navigate the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Books to help us navigate the culture wars

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for understanding and navigating the culture wars, ranging from books and academic research to web sites created by organizations working for change in the way we relate to each other. 

Following are some books I’ve found especially thought-provoking. The authors include ministers and theologians, academic researchers, historians and journalists. They span the ideological spectrum from those who lean conservative to those who lean progressive to those earnestly trying to remain nonpartisan.

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter. This is the book that introduced the phrase “culture wars” to our vocabulary when it was first published in 1991. Reading it now reminds us that the polarization tearing apart our society has actually been developing for decades. Hunter, a sociologist, uses the term to describe how conservative Christians (Protestant and Catholic) and Orthodox Jews joined forces in a battle against their progressive counterparts – secularist, reform Jews and liberal Catholics and Protestants – to gain control over the family, art, education, law and politics. The term not only captures a political struggle over cultural issues, but a conflict over “the meaning of America,” he says. 

The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, by Deborah Tannen. This eye-opening book is, if anything, even more relevant today than when it was originally published in 1998. Tannen, a linguistics professor, describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere” that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to settle disputes is litigation; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize. The author demonstrates how our use of language reflects this mindset (the war on drugs, the war on cancer) and shows how our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.

Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein. Using insights from political scientists, media commentators, and cultural critics, this book aims to show how America’s political system is polarizing us — and how we are polarizing it — with disastrous results. In the past, says the journalist and political analyst, parties separated over their ideas for dealing with specific issues. But now the name of the game is “negative partisanship,” where we hate the other party more than we like our own. Klein describes the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that he believes are driving our system toward crisis, and shows how these feedback loops reinforce each other.

Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity, by Lilliana Mason. Political polarization has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy, says Mason, a political scientist and professor. The author explains how the growing social gulf across racial, religious, and cultural lines has recently come to divide neatly between the two major political parties, then shows how our current “us versus them” conflicts are rooted in partisan “mega-identities” that tap into a powerful current of anger and resentment. She warns that, although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, these divisions have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy. 

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, by Arthur C. Brooks. Today in the U.S., there is an “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American, says Brooks. This has created a “culture of contempt” – the habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect, but as worthless and defective. Brooks, a social scientist, uses a combination of behavioral research and his experience as head of a policy think tank to argue that our only choices are not to simply play along or be left behind. Instead, he offers suggestions for how to love and respect one another despite our differences.

Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics, by Eugene Cho. According to Cho, an evangelical pastor and president/CEO of the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World, Christians should never profess blind loyalty to any political party, but should engage with politics because politics inform policies which impact people. Cho urges readers to stop vilifying those they disagree with – especially the vulnerable – and to remember that hope arrived not in a politician or system or great nation, but in the person of Jesus Christ. “When we stay in the Scriptures, pray for wisdom, and advocate for the vulnerable, our love for politics, ideology, philosophy, or even theology, stop superseding our love for God and neighbor,” he says.

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. This book focuses on what Wallis considers to be the role of religious hypocrisy in politics, and critiques both the “religious right” and the “secular left.” Clearly, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, says the theologian and founder of Sojourners magazine. He argues that America’s separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. But he also believes the best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or loyally partisan but to maintain the moral independence to critique both the Left and the Right. 

Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, by George Yancey. Christians have struggled with racial issues for centuries and often inadvertently contribute to the problem, Yancey says. He adds that the situation is made more complex by the fact that Christians of different races see the issues differently. A sociologist and consultant for a variety of churches on racial diversity, Yancey analyzes secular models of addressing race promoted by conservatives (colorblindness, Anglo-conformity) and progressives (multiculturalism, white responsibility) and explains what he sees as the advantages and limitations of each. He then offers a new model for moving forward, urging people of all races to walk together on a shared path – not as adversaries, but as partners.

Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, by Charles Camosy. Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics, promotes a Consistent Life Ethic that goes beyond a narrow focus on abortion to include such issues as poverty, immigration, mass incarceration and treatment of the environment. He believes a new moral vision, especially one which embraces Pope Francis’ challenge to resist “throwaway culture,” has the capacity to help us find common ground and move beyond stale and lazy arguments which artificially pit progressives and conservatives against each other. He calls for a culture of encounter and hospitality to replace a consumer culture in which powerful people profit from ideological conflict and the most vulnerable get used and discarded like so much trash.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This epic saga may be more than 1,000 pages long, but it turns out to be a fascinating read. MacCulloch – an ecclesiastical historian – traces in stunning detail the origins of the Hebrew Bible, how Jesus’ message spread through the ancient world, how the New Testament was formed, and how the three main strands of the Christian faith (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) developed and spread through every continent. In his section about Christianity in the U.S., he charts the surprising beliefs of the founding fathers, the rise of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and religion’s role in the present culture wars. In the process, he helps us discover Christianity’s essential role in shaping human history. We also gain an understanding of how Christianity came to have so many denominations, and an appreciation for the fact that our recent splits and schisms are certainly not a new phenomenon.

Question for readers: Have you read any good books on navigating the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Clarification and some definitions

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

When I express my desire to step back from the culture wars and find less-polarizing ways of addressing societal problems, I get a pair of common responses.

Some folks who identify as progressive will say sarcastically, “Oh, I see. You think we should all be NICE.” They practically spit out the word nice, then accuse me of wanting to look the other way in the face of injustice. Some who identify as conservative will suggest that what I really want is for everyone to simply ignore sinful behavior.

My spiritual director – a wise woman who had a talent for posing questions most people don’t think to ask – challenged me with this question: “What, exactly, do you mean by culture wars?” And this one: “What would you consider to be polarizing behavior?” She made an important point. Those words may not mean the same thing to everyone who hears them.

So I’d like to clarify: When I speak of the culture wars and the resulting polarization in our society, I’m not talking about honest disagreements between people of good will who just happen to have differing ideas about the best way to resolve issues. I’m not saying we should look the other way in the face of injustice or cease discussing sin in sermons, Bible study sessions and religious education classes. I not suggesting we should retreat from the political arena, refrain from sharing opinions on social media about issues we feel strongly about, forsake our favorite causes or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger.

When I speak of the culture wars and the resulting polarization in our society, I am talking about the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our daily conversations and social media interactions. I’m talking about activist groups doctoring videos and jerking quotes out of context to make ideological opponents look sinister, candidates for public office deliberately playing on fears and divisions to score political points and get votes, ordinary folks combing through comments on Facebook or Twitter looking for “gotcha” opportunities so they can pounce, and extremists phoning in death threats to people who say or do something they disagree with.

Dictionary.com defines culture war as “a conflict or struggle for dominance between groups within a society, or between societies, arising from their differing beliefs and practices.” Wikipedia points out that “in American usage the term culture war may imply a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal.” Dictionary.com defines polarization as “a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions.” Urban Dictionary defines culture warrior as “a member of one of the two major political tribes who have come to dominate political discussion in the U.S. with their divisive, polarizing conflict.”

A key concept for me in these definitions is dominance. The competing factions in our culture wars aren’t so much concerned with actually resolving issues as they are with winning – at any cost – by humiliating and annihilating people perceived to be their opponents. These “opponents” are no longer simply misguided or mistaken, they are stupid, crazy or just plain evil.

When I express my desire to step back from the culture wars, I also get another common response. Some equally exhausted folks enthusiastically nod their heads and suggest I should turn off the TV, log off the Internet and disengage from the larger society. Some will argue that even talking about politics or hot-button social issues is poor etiquette. That getting involved in causes is the province of people afraid to look too closely at their personal problems. That marches, rallies and boycotts are inherently divisive. That civil discussion is a waste of time since most of us already have our minds made up. That special interests control our government to the point where voting is futile, so why bother?

I would respectfully disagree with the idea of simply “dropping out.” The Constitution guarantees our right to petition our government for the redress of grievances. Participating in the political process is not only a right, but one of our responsibilities as citizens. Supporting a good cause with our time or money beats sitting in front of our screens mindlessly surfing the Internet or playing one video game after another. Too many problems need addressing for us to move in the direction of apathy and disconnection. We do need to stay engaged.

But could we please, please, please stop the vitriol? If we really want to change hearts and minds, we must stop the name-calling, the scapegoating and the demonizing. It’s one thing to write a politely-worded letter to an elected official. It’s another to send a profanity-laced screed containing death threats. It’s one thing to attend a candidate forum or town hall meeting and ask an intelligent question when it’s our turn to do so. It’s another to shout down a lawmaker or candidate who is trying to speak. It’s one thing to participate in a march or rally in which organizers have obtained all the proper permits. It’s another to vandalize property, set fire to a police station or bomb a clinic.  

Name-calling and other rude behavior stop genuine discussion and problem solving in their tracks. Lashing out gives others an excuse to ignore our concerns, discount us and dismiss our issues. For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing snarky insults gives people ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion. And violence only begets more violence.

In my own case, I actually have changed my mind now and then over the years, even on some fairly important issues. When I did so, it was because someone presented factual information in such a way that I could listen without becoming defensive. It also helped if the other person was willing to hear my side of the story, shared their personal experience of the issue in question, or showed me how I could come around to their way of thinking without sacrificing important values.

But I can promise I have never, EVER changed my mind about anything because someone called me names, insulted me or tried to convince me they were morally superior to me. All yelling and character assassination ever did for me was encourage me to dig in my heels or walk away. People of all political stripes have let me know I’m not alone in this regard.

In our current environment, we are so often presented with only two alternatives – be “in-your-face” reactionary or be apathetic. I’d like to see a third option. I’d like to see all of us eliminate the name-calling, the trolling and the flaming, and have a respectful discussion about serious issues. We need to replace our desire to be right and come out on top with a desire to solve problems. That way, instead of our side winning, perhaps we can all win.

Questions for readers: Have you found a constructive way to address pressing social issues without getting caught up in the vitriol that characterizes the culture wars? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Little epiphanies

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

Insight doesn’t usually come to me in big EUREKA! moments, but tends to creep into my awareness through a series of little epiphanies. And so it was with the realization that our society’s culture wars were wreaking real damage, both in our communities and in my personal life. Even worse, I began to discern – albeit more slowly – that my own attitudes and behavior might be contributing to the problem.

The first of these little epiphanies came during my 20-year career in human services. Between my paid employment and my volunteer commitments, it was hard to avoid the fallout from our larger society’s political battles because the never-ending conflict so often affected my ability to simply do my job. Government funding to the social service agencies where I worked would be cut or delayed on a regular basis because elected officials liked to hold state and federal budgets hostage until they got their way on ideological priorities. This often resulted in staffing shortages and a reduction in the level of services we were able to provide for people in need.

“Philosophical differences” within the social service system itself sometimes kept helping professionals from working together for the benefit of people who sought assistance for problems ranging from drug addiction and homelessness to domestic violence and mental health issues. Conservative colleagues said poor choices and lack of personal responsibility were to blame for these individuals’ problems, while progressive colleagues insisted bad luck and social oppression were the culprits. My own experience told me the cause of most client problems was a complex combination of poor choices, bad luck and social oppression, but I often felt pressured by colleagues on both the left and the right to deny the reality in front of me when certain details of a person’s situation were not “ideologically correct.” 

Outside of work, I frequently found myself sucked into arguments with friends, relatives and even strangers over contentious “hot-button” issues such as abortion, gun violence, climate change and racial unrest. Sometimes online squabbles would get sufficiently nasty for me to block or “snooze” Facebook friends – both progressive and conservative – who refused to stop insulting my other Facebook friends. This situation got more pronounced after the 2016 election, with some friends actually pressuring me to stop associating with people on the “wrong” side of the ideological divide. 

However, I have to admit I wasn’t always the innocent victim or bystander in these skirmishes. For years, I had been repelled by the culture wars and yet attracted like the proverbial moth to a flame.

One sign that I might be a bit too invested in the culture wars came when I realized I had just wasted an entire afternoon arguing with total strangers about jello. Yes, jello. Progressives and conservatives on one Christian denomination’s Facebook page had been wrangling for days over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about jello at church potlucks?” I further realized it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Conservative and progressive Christians frequently mauled and skewered each other on Web sites such as Patheos, gleefully calling each other names and dropping F-bombs on people left and right. While I didn’t resort to insults or profanity myself, I confess to participating in too many of these “discussions” for longer than I should have. 

Another “Aha!” moment came during election season when I realized I hadn’t done my morning meditation in several days. Morning meditation was one of my favorite prayer rituals. I settled in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap and asked for God’s protection and guidance as I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. Sometimes my husband serenaded Oley Cat and me with sacred songs on his dulcimer. So why was I missing out? Not because of early doctor appointments or work commitments. Before I even had my morning coffee, I would rush to my computer and click into Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight.com to see who was ahead in the polls. Housework and my writing also languished while I aimlessly surfed the web, looking for that news story or editorial that would magically reassure me the right side was winning.

One beautiful October day, I was taking a twilight walk when I suddenly stopped short. Mother Nature’s handiwork prompted me to gasp. Fall leaves flashed yellow-orange-crimson. Light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the trees for sheer outrageousness – the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow, pink, purple. A still-warm breeze blew gently across my face. Then I stopped short again. I realized I had been walking for several minutes before I noticed what was in front of me. While God was putting on this living fireworks display, I had been gazing at the sidewalk, my mind flitting from one surly thought to another: I wish our elected officials would stop acting like children. … What kind of people would vote for a monster like that? … What on earth is wrong with people?! … How can they think that way?  

The final straw that convinced me I’d had enough of the culture wars came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we were, facing a virus that was killing hundreds of thousands of people, and our elected officials would not stop brawling long enough to develop a coherent plan for addressing this urgent public health issue. One would think the general public might urge lawmakers to put aside their political differences and collaborate on ways to get personal protective equipment to our frontline workers, ensure ICU beds were available for everyone who needed one, and help families and small businesses affected by our shutdown orders. Instead, all we could seem to do was bicker about face masks and shame each other with Facebook memes while we retreated further into our ideological camps and dug in our heels.

So what could one person do to stop the lunacy? I was pretty sure the answer was not to retreat from the political arena, look the other way in the face of injustice or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger. On the other hand, something clearly wasn’t working – either in our society or in my responses to the endless strife. At the very least, my own responses needed to change. 

Unfortunately, the church community – where one might hope to find some guidance – seemed only to provoke more confusion and discord. Many Christian denominations were drawing progressive-versus-conservative battle lines that matched those of secular society. As people on either end of the political/ideological divide pressured me to take sides, I often found myself performing mental gymnastics to make my religious beliefs about an issue fit a particular political party’s platform. And I came to realize how much my own beliefs were being shaped by my desire to fit in with the people around me rather than by an objective search for truth. 

This internal tug-of-war brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society prompted me to ask myself several questions: What were my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consumed our nation’s culture warriors? Should I continue holding onto these beliefs and values, or should some of them be changed or discarded? How could I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking? What was my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How should I engage people who disagreed with me, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps most importantly, how did I avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grew ever more partisan and angry? How could I be part of the solution?

To help me sort through these questions, I engaged a spiritual director shortly after the 2016 election. With her encouragement, I began questioning many things I thought I knew. I questioned values other people wanted me to hold – whether they be conservative or progressive. I began asking myself how much I really believed everything I claimed to believe concerning church dogma and secular political ideologies. Was it possible I was merely paying lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? I decided for the time being to ignore what academic “experts” thought. I did not want a value system that simply let me fit in chameleon-like with my surroundings. Ultimately, I wanted a personal faith that would stand up to reason, scrutiny and pressure from the various culture warriors in my life. 

In 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul said, “Test all things; hold fast to that which is good.” 

I certainly haven’t figured out all the answers. But I do think one key to finding an appropriate Christian response to our society’s polarization problem is to avoid knee-jerk ideological responses to heated controversies, hear people out on all sides and keep asking those pesky questions.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: How did we get so polarized?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Some blame the news media. Some blame our political leaders. Many blame folks on the other side of the culture wars. But my research shows that a variety of interrelated factors contribute to the extreme polarization in our society, including some influences that creep in beneath our conscious awareness:

  • Social media. If there’s one thing most people actually agree on, it is that social media can exacerbate polarization. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide the ideal forum for the moral grandstanding and flame-throwing that fuel our culture wars. Some folks love a good fight and make a hobby of keeping everyone stirred up through deliberate trolling. For more of us, the relative anonymity of a screen allows us to share sentiments we’d never dream of expressing out loud to someone in a face-to-face conversation. 
  • Ideological bubbles and echo chambers. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop describes a demographic trend in which Americans have segregated themselves into homogenous communities, choosing everything from cable news networks to civic organizations and church denominations compatible with their lifestyles and beliefs. We have even separated geographically from those who differ from us ideologically. The result, Bishop says, is “a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, the people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.” Meanwhile, on the Internet, sophisticated algorithms create “echo chambers” that ensure we are exposed mostly to people and sites promoting our own worldview and shielded from conflicting ideas or viewpoints.
  • Manipulation. We are relentlessly manipulated, often without realizing it, by folks who profit handsomely from keeping us polarized. Social media advertisers know the most salacious headlines get the most clicks – and generate the most ad revenue. Politicians whip us into an us-versus-them frenzy to secure our votes. Cable news networks boost their ratings by keeping people angry and divided. Online businesses appeal to our partisan divisions with in-your-face merchandise – a Deplorable University coffee mug or Safe Spaces Are for Snowflakes bumper sticker for conservatives, a Jesus was Progressive car magnet or Democrats Cleaning Up Republican Messes Since 1933 dog sweater for progressives (or their pets). 
  • Groupthink and our need for belonging. Kids begin forming in-groups as early as kindergarten and our cliquish behavior unfortunately doesn’t end when we leave high school. “The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference,” says political analyst Ezra Klein in his book Why We’re Polarized. “It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups.” The more we identify with a group, the more we feel pressured to agree with its dogma – a party line that seems to include 650 boxes which must all be checked or we risk rejection by our chosen peers. The deeper our commitment to an identity group, the more vulnerable we are to the effects of “group polarization” – the tendency for the group as a whole to adopt attitudes or actions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its individual members.
  • Projection and scapegoating. We humans have a distressing tendency to project our own less-than-admirable thoughts, behaviors and forbidden impulses onto others. Christians and non-Christians alike “are at times behaving horribly in the ways they engage in our political discourse,” says the Rev. Eugene Cho in his book Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk. “We want to preach to others, but we don’t preach to ourselves. We love to flip tables, but not our own. We love to expose the privilege in others, while rarely considering our own.” The concept of scapegoating first appears in Leviticus 16:8-10 – a goat would literally be cast into the desert to carry away the community’s sins – and the word “scapegoat” has since developed to indicate a person or group of people blamed and punished for the sins of others. Once we’ve blamed someone for all of society’s problems, it’s a short step toward demonizing and dehumanizing them.
  • Our soundbite culture. One problem that keeps us from discussing and resolving issues appropriately is our modern emphasis on brevity, which is often designed to accommodate our increasingly short attention spans. According to the Rev. Cho, our failure to engage issues more intelligently prevents us from fully understanding the “why” behind our convictions. (“Don’t just be a headline reader,” he urges us.) It is nearly impossible to give an issue the depth it deserves when we limit our communication to bumper stickers, 15-second sound bites and 280-character tweets.
  • Our inability to tolerate ambiguity or acknowledge moral complexity. Moral and ethical questions don’t always lend themselves to simplistic answers, and honest people can honestly disagree about the best way to resolve complex issues. A current example of this dilemma is our struggle over the best way to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. How do we protect people who are more vulnerable to severe illness or death without destroying the jobs that allow other people to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and afford basic health care? When we don’t have enough of a life-saving vaccine to go around, who gets priority? Adding to the dilemma, scientists’ changing understanding of the virus has made it difficult for public health experts to offer consistent advice on safety measures. But rather than remain open to new research, too many of us prefer to dig in our heels and stick with whatever our identity group decrees to be “the truth.”
  • Our oppositional mindset. We often hear how it’s easier to unite Americans against something than to unite them for something. In The Argument Culture, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” She explains that our society constantly urges us to engage the world in an adversarial frame of mind: “The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as ‘both sides’; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize.” Our use of language reflects this mindset, she adds: “The war on drugs, the war on cancer … war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking.” 
  • Relentless pressure to take sides. Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe every issue has two sides – no more and no less, Tannen says. But opposition “does not lead to truth when an issue is not composed of two opposing sides but is a crystal of many sides. Often the truth is in the complex middle, not the oversimplified extremes.” In other words, an issue may not actually have two sides, but rather, three or four or seventeen sides. Pressure to choose between the two sides presented to us keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.
  • Negative partisanship and defining-by-opposition. Partisan behavior is often driven not by positive feelings toward the political party we support but by negative feelings toward the party we oppose, according to Klein. You might be guilty of negative partisanship, he says, “if you’ve ever voted in an election feeling a bit bleh about the candidate you backed, but fearful of the troglodyte or socialist running against her.” Charles C. Camosy describes “the politics of defining-by-opposition” in his book Resisting Throwaway Culture. “We almost always view the ideological communities to which we belong through the lens of a narrow progressive/conservative binary – a binary into which all issues, regardless of their complexity, are shoved and made to fit,” he explains. “We define ourselves by our opposition to ‘the other side’ well before we even engage their ideas and arguments.”
  • Logical fallacies. The dualistic, oppositional, either/or mindset outlined above is an example of a logical fallacy – a thinking error that distorts our perceptions and leads to inaccurate conclusions. Other logical fallacies that contribute to polarization include zero-sum thinking (we insist that one side’s gain must be the other side’s loss); fundamental attribution error (when bad things happen to other people, we believe they are personally at fault, but when bad things happen to us, we blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control); confirmation bias (we embrace information that supports our viewpoints, while ignoring information that doesn’t); and all-or-nothing thinking (if we change our mind about one issue, it will mean everything we’ve ever believed in is wrong, so we’ll be forced to change our entire worldview). 
  • Addiction to outrage and contempt. There certainly are plenty of issues to be legitimately angry about in our society right now. But face it, outrage and contempt can help us feel so superior to others that many of us are hopelessly addicted. We live in a culture of contempt, says Arthur C. Brooks in his book Love Your Enemies. Brooks variously defines contempt as “anger mixed with disgust,” “an enduring attitude of complete disdain,” and “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” While most of us hate what unbridled outrage and contempt are doing to our society, he says many of us “compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers and some of the news media.” 
  • Our sinful nature. Many Christians believe sin can ultimately be defined as separation. And what word would describe extreme polarization better than separation? Several “sins of separation” contribute to the polarization tearing our society apart. We commit idolatry when we turn the conservative/progressive movements into quasi-religions and place our loyalty to a political ideology or party ahead of our loyalty to God. We take God’s name in vain when we use it to promote hatred toward people or groups we oppose. We bear false witness against our neighbors when we deliberately twist their words and distort their positions on various issues so we can portray them as terrible people. We ignore the plank in our own eye while focusing obsessively on the speck in our perceived opponent’s eye. Most of all, we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially if they voted for the wrong candidate in the last election.

Unfortunately, polarization can be self-reinforcing, creating an endless feedback loop, according to Klein. To appeal to a polarized public, political institutions, cable news networks and other public entities behave in more polarized ways. As the political institutions and other actors behave in more polarized ways, they further polarize the public. To appeal to a further polarized public, institutions must polarize even more. The cycle becomes a downward spiral.

If we want to stop this depressing cycle, a good first step might be paying attention to the ways we are pressured and manipulated to take sides in situations where taking sides may not be the best idea, as well as recognizing the logical fallacies that encourage polarized thinking and behavior. I’m also thinking those of us who identify as Christians may need to renew our commitment to follow the Lamb rather than the elephant or the donkey.

Questions for readers: What factors do you see leading to the extreme polarization in our society? What would help alleviate this? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Is this criticism constructive or abusive?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Most of us would agree that a hallmark of maturity is the ability to give and take constructive criticism without getting defensive or provoking defensiveness in others. Proverbs 9:8 and 17:10 commend people wise enough to profit from correction. If we must criticize others, Ephesians 4:15 reminds us to speak the truth in love.

Unfortunately, what some people call “constructive criticism” isn’t really all that constructive. Sometimes criticism can be a form of abuse. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with the “critiquing” so characteristic of the culture wars in recent years. 

In a previous excerpt, I shared my theory that the extreme polarization in our society – along with the constant vitriol – has rendered many of us more defensive than we used to be. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of fragile egos. How many times can we hear words like “moron” and “Nazi” directed toward ourselves before the most thick-skinned among us shuts down?

When we react defensively to criticism, are we being overly sensitive, or is our reaction a signal that we’re being abused? When we deliver the criticism, are we speaking the truth in love or are we abusing others? 

Here are some of the guidelines I was taught by parents, teachers and various mentors about giving and receiving constructive criticism. I invite readers to compare and contrast these examples with the “criticism” so often dished out by our society’s culture warriors on both the right and the left.

Constructive criticism stems from a genuine desire to help the recipient. The motive might be to help the recipient resolve a problem, be more successful at work, gain a different perspective on an issue or improve relationships with others.

Abusive criticism stems from less than honorable motives. The moral grandstanding so prevalent among culture warriors offers a prime example of criticism designed to help participants look good at other people’s expense in order to gain approval from their identity group or tribe.

Constructive criticism attacks the problem, not the person. Criticism focuses on the recipient’s actions or ideas, rather than on the recipient as a human being – for example, “I feel like I must challenge what you just said” vs. “anyone who thinks the way you do is a moron.”

Abusive criticism attacks the recipient personally. Examples of personal (ad hominem) attacks include the name-calling, ridicule and demonization of opponents so characteristic of our culture wars. People don’t just have wrong or misguided ideas. They are stupid, crazy or downright evil.

Constructive criticism respects the recipient’s dignity. The critic may take the recipient aside or raise concerns in a private message, thus allowing the recipient to avoid embarrassment.

Abusive criticism disregards the recipient’s feelings. The critic “calls out” the recipient in a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter, and may get others to join in and pile on. For culture warriors on both sides, public humiliation is often the whole point. Some folks actually make loud pronouncements like, “I don’t care about your hurt feelings.”

Constructive criticism is even-handed. The critic notices strengths as well as weaknesses, and offers praise for things the recipient does right.

Abusive criticism is unbalanced. In our polarized society, we’re discouraged from acknowledging that someone perceived as an opponent might have any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Constructive criticism happens only occasionally. The criticism might take place in the context of a workplace performance review or a private discussion in which the recipient has asked for feedback.

Abusive criticism happens too frequently. The critic finds something wrong no matter what the recipient does, and the criticism is relentless. On a societal level, the “criticism” sounds more like a steady drumbeat of bashing than an honest critique. “Gotcha” games abound.

Constructive criticism is fair. The critic targets things the recipient can realistically change, such as a faulty idea or an inconsiderate action, rather than things beyond the recipient’s personal control such as race, gender or someone else’s behavior.

Abusive criticism is unfair. Culture warriors on both the right and the left often resort to stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups of people, blaming individuals who belong to these groups for all of society’s ills. 

Constructive criticism is stated calmly and respectfully. The critic speaks in a normal tone of voice and treats the recipient like a reasonably intelligent person.

Abusive criticism often feels condescending or threatening. The critic yells, constantly interrupts, stands over the recipient, makes threats, or talks down to the recipient in a patronizing manner. These behaviors have been on frequent display by members of both parties during political debates in recent years.

Constructive criticism is specific and relevant to the situation at hand. Criticism focuses on current issues or concerns, and the critic offers concrete suggestions or solutions for any problems raised.

Abusive criticism resembles a fishing expedition. Culture warriors may dredge up everything an “opponent” has done in the past 30 or 40 years, including mistakes the individual has long since atoned for. The goal is not so much to resolve a problem, but rather to demonize, discount or destroy a perceived enemy.

Constructive criticism is a two-way street. The critic understands there are at least two sides to most issues and is able to look for their own part – or their own side’s part – in any problems being addressed.

Abusive criticism is all one-way. The critic can dish it out but can’t take it. Culture warriors often dodge a gentle invitation to look in the mirror by offering up accusations of “false equivalence” or “whataboutism.” 

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 reminds us. 

I truly believe the heat generated by our society’s intense polarization could be turned down several notches if people on all sides of our culture wars could learn how to distinguish constructive criticism, which builds up, from the abusive variety, which tears down. We could all profit from more building up and less tearing down.

Questions for readers: What are some examples of abusive criticism you’ve encountered? What would make the criticism more constructive? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Why is everyone so angry?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Even in this age of extreme polarization, conservatives and progressives still have at least one thing in common: Our anger.

Why are we all so angry?

We’re angry because we can’t trust anyone these days. People in positions of authority lie to us shamelessly. Congress sells out to special interests. The news media are hopelessly biased. We suspect insurance companies make more medical decisions than our doctors. Members of the clergy molest children and church leaders cover it up. Scam artists pose as IRS agents so they can steal our identity and go on a shopping spree. 

We’re angry because we’re bombarded with change. Occupations become obsolete before we finish training for them. Staying current with the latest technology is a full-time job. Cultural shifts mean the rules of etiquette keep shifting. We adapt to these transitions, only to confront more demands for change, with no time to catch our breath. We worry we’ll lose everything that matters to us – our livelihoods, our way of life, respect for our values. 

We’re angry because injustice reigns. People face discrimination based on race, gender and every other human difference imaginable. Powerful people bully and exploit less powerful people with impunity. Nations go to war for reasons other than national security. Poverty persists as the gap between the rich and poor becomes a yawning chasm. Nearly 30,000 children die every day from starvation and other preventable causes. Political candidates vow to address these issues, then forget their promises once elected. 

We’re angry at the petty annoyances of modern life. Junk mail, email spam and telemarketing calls elude our efforts to block them. Appliances stop working the minute the warranty expires, and giant corporations no longer seem to care whether we’re happy with their products or not. Getting a prescription refilled or a driver’s license renewed has turned into a bureaucratic ordeal. And just try to get a live person on the phone when we have a question or need help with something. Yes, these annoyances may seem like trivial first-world problems, but they keep coming at us. All. Day. Long.

We’re angry at other people’s sins. Those progressives/conservatives (depending on which side we’re on) not only keep sinning, they flaunt their iniquity. They celebrate their greed, their violence, their bigotry and their moral depravity, and no one lifts a finger to hold them accountable. What’s worse, these same people stoke public anger at us for not thinking or acting the way they do. When people who are unhappy with us try to shame us, our fury increases exponentially.

We’re angry at our own weaknesses. We know intellectually what we need to do: Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, pay more attention to our relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating intellectual knowledge into action. We can’t seem to quit our bad habits or stick to a healthy eating plan. We should be doing more in our communities, but who has the time? We feel like the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7, “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” 

We’re angry because we’re overwhelmed. We’re constantly pulled in 20 different directions by our overloaded and chaotic schedules. We cross items off endless to-do lists: our to-do list for work, our to-do list for household chores, our to-do list of personal self-care routines, our to-do list of urgent matters, even a master list to keep track of all the to-do lists. We juggle so many balls in the air, we’re convinced we have to keep these multiple to-do lists or we won’t remember to do simple things like brush our teeth. Despite all the to-do lists designed to help us hold ourselves accountable for how we spend our time, we can’t keep up with all the demands. 

We’re angry because we’re anxious and afraid. Each day, the news presents another potential catastrophe for us to worry about. What can we do about climate change, or have we already passed the point of no return? Is there anything these days that doesn’t cause cancer? Will technology replace our jobs with robots? Will Social Security still be around when we’re 90? How do we keep criminals from breaking into our homes, our credit card accounts and our retirement funds? If the wrong political party gets into power, will we be forced to live according to a value system we abhor? Will we still have a country in four years? Will we get through this pandemic alive? Will our loved ones?

We’re angry because we’re lonely. The social distancing prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our ties with family, friends, colleagues and members of our faith communities. However, even before the pandemic, people were becoming increasingly isolated. Technology keeps us focused on our screens rather than our relationships. Time spent climbing the career ladder equals time spent away from people who matter to us. Frequent career moves also uproot us from our communities and this loss of connection leads to a loss of our support systems. 

We’re angry because we’re grieving. We have lost 500,000 people to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone – that’s a half million parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, neighbors and valued colleagues. Worldwide we’ve lost two million human beings and counting. We’ve lost jobs and businesses. We’ve lost our family gatherings, our concerts, our church services and our vacation trips. We’ve lost our freedom to come and go as we please. We’ve lost our sense of safety, our sense of security and our sense of control over our own lives. We’ve suffered so many losses we’ve run out of tears, and still the losses escalate.

We’re angry because we’re exhausted. Cumulative, unrelenting crises generate fatigue and despair. Each week, we hear about yet another terrorist attack, another mass shooting, another natural disaster. War rages endlessly in hot spots around the world. Political scandals persist unabated. People around us won’t stop fighting at work, on Facebook, on the streets or even at church and their constant bickering wears us out. 

We’re angry because we feel powerless. We know what policies would resolve our problems if only our leaders would summon the political courage to implement them, but we’re not in charge, and they won’t listen to us. We write to our elected officials, who respond with a form letter that makes it clear they (or their assistants) failed to read past the first paragraph. We march for life, for peace, for justice or for other noble causes, and for a brief moment it appears we might see change. But then the public gets distracted, the media chases after the next shiny object and we’re back to the status quo. We sense that nothing we do matters. Our efforts seem like a cosmic joke.

We’re angry because we repress our true feelings. The Psalms brim with poetry about anguish, pain, fear and grief. The Bible offers an entire book titled Lamentations. Jesus wept. Yet our modern culture discourages overt expressions of strong emotions. “Suck it up, buttercup,” we’re lectured. “Stop the pity party.” With few acceptable outlets for the legitimate expression of painful emotions, we simply “stuff it” until we erupt. In some circles, even positive emotions such as passion and joy are suspect. “Curb your enthusiasm,” we’re told. Outrage, on the other hand, is not only accepted but encouraged and celebrated.

We’re angry because questions are forbidden. When confronted with inquiring minds, religious and secular ideologues alike discourage too much probing. “You mustn’t question God’s will,” some folks sternly warn us if we dare to question their interpretation of Biblical truth. Not that the “nones” are any better in this regard. Heaven forbid we question one tiny iota of an identity group’s dogma. That’s a good way to wind up cancelled like a credit card.

We’re angry because we’ve lost our sense of meaning. In a society that worships Mammon rather than God, success means having a fancier job title than our neighbor, and “enough” gets defined as whatever the neighbor has – plus one. If our neighbors define “success” and “enough” the same way, we become trapped in a competition we can’t win. Our homes runneth over with stuff, but material goods fail to satisfy. The brass ring turns out not to be so shiny once we’ve grabbed it. People in 12 Step groups often speak of “spiritual bankruptcy” – a state of psychic numbing or sleepwalking in which our lives lose all meaning beyond getting our needed fixes. We want our lives to amount to more than eating and sleeping, acquiring the latest toys, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off to-do lists, but we don’t know where to start. 

Experts agree that emotions are complex and often intertwined. Fear, anxiety, grief, frustration and feelings of futility can masquerade as anger. Fighting against whatever we perceive to be the source of our anger helps us feel more powerful and promises to give our lives meaning. Sadly, at the moment, rage seems to be what connects and unites us.

The good news: If we’re angry, we’re not alone. We can rest assured we have a lot of company. Given everything that’s going on, our anger is understandable, reasonable and legitimate. In other words, we’re “normal.”

The bad news: If we’re angry, we’re not alone. Unfortunately, anger is often contagious. When people around us lash out at the rest of the world, this tacitly gives us permission to do the same. When not channeled in a constructive way, our collective anger can become our collective insanity. And a long line of folks stands ready to exploit our personal and collective anger for their own ends.

Questions for readers: How do you see our anger being exploited, and by whom? How can we channel our anger constructively? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).