Finding Good People on the Other Side of the Ideological Fence

By michael clarke stuff (AP97 ice floes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By michael clarke stuff (AP97 ice floes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

© 2017 Robert Osburn

Ever since the 1960s when confident, brassy Baby Boomers rejected what I often call the Christian cultural consensus, we have been struggling to find what unites Americans.  Sports?  Ephemeral and fleeting. Freedom?  A treasured ideal twisted into a license to speed past all the traditional sexual stop signs. Flag?  A valuable symbol that, apart from our armed forces, inspires far less sacrifice than it ought.

It seems as if we are so brittle that we break into cultural and political ice floes, our separate groups adrift on rolling, turbulent seas. Thanks especially to digital and traditional media and some highly irresponsible leaders, we shout and abuse each other like tribal warriors.  It almost seems as if our only real commonality at this national moment are the bipartisan sexual abuse and harassment that daily surfaces like so much flotsam and jetsam.

Enter Ken Stern, author of Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right (2017).  His concern was to find out if there was any hope of bridging the divide between the secular, progressive Left and the more traditional, religious, and friendly-to-capitalism Right.  He had noted that we Americans have become so polarized that we even “sort” ourselves into separate communities and zip codes (thus, for example, urban areas generally vote Democratic and rural and suburban areas generally Republican). Thanks to extensive interviews in 2016, he discovered that we behave much better when we are neighbors, cultural informants, and tour guides for one another.  In other words, even in the midst of growing divisions, we are less like ice floes and more like the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at their confluence: sometimes dirty, roiled, and turbulent, but ultimately harnessed together for the final watery trek to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ironically, Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, an unabashed liberal, and a secular Jew, made this discovery by simply following the New Testament precept: “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19b).  He went out, for example, amongst campus evangelicals at the big triennial Urbana conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  He listened, asked questions, and came away with a more empathetic understanding of what makes followers of Jesus tick.  He found friendship, common ground, and an earnest desire to make our world a place for human flourishing. “I can’t think of a better hope for our nation,” he wrote. 

Stern also did this with Second Amendment gun lovers, Trump populists, and others who inhabit the fragmented conservative political coalition called the Republican Party.  He closed his mouth and listened, and came away liking and loving people he thought he would never tolerate.

We ought all to show such grace as Stern.

Sadly, the grace to listen, learn, and eventually love his ideological enemies is uncommon for most liberals like Stern.  Jonathan Haidt, one of America’s great social psychologists, a political moderate, and author of the 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, discovered in his research that American conservatives can usually imagine what it is to be an American liberal, or progressive. However, the reverse is not the case: Liberals usually cannot imagine how someone could be a conservative, that is, they cannot imagine what it’s like to think conservative.  So, the fact that Stern stepped out of his comfort zone and actually encountered conservatives in their familiar territories makes you want to invite him for dinner.

What Stern has done is remarkably biblical, for three reasons.  The first we have already alluded to: To be a virtuous human being is to be an exceptionally good listener who tries to genuinely understand others’ perspectives, even while, if necessary, disagreeing with them.  Recently, I met with a Minnesota government employee (who also happens to be a believer).  As an advocate of government unions, he has a very different policy perspective from me.  Nevertheless, as I listened to his brief argument for government unions, I had to admit to him that I learned some things that I never learned before.  Ears open, mouth shut, because we often learn more truth by listening well than by spouting more.

This leads to the second reason that one ought to try to enter and understand another’s perspective. As the Apostle Paul wrote so frantically, “we see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12).  In other words, sin has seriously diminished our capacities to know reality as it really is.  We call this, in technical terms, epistemic humility. To know another’s religious, philosophical, cultural and political perspective on reality is to develop an appreciation, even if it does not generate agreement.  As if channeling this very point of theology, Stern writes that his book “is about the belief that no one has a monopoly on wisdom and that we would all be far better off doing a little less finger-pointing and a little more listening to the other side.”

In my 32 years of work amongst international students, I have had thousands of opportunities to invite students to help me see reality through their eyes as Kenyans, Nepalis, Chinese, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. When we engage in perspective-taking, as this is known, we develop sympathy and appreciation, though we may never have agreement.   

Finally, a third reason to enter another’s experience and way of seeing reality is because that’s what Jesus did: By virtue of the Incarnation (God becoming a human), Jesus entered our reality and, as it were, “saw” and experienced life from our sinful, rugged side of the fence.  Had he not been willing to walk in our skin and think like us, then He would not have been credibly able to be our sacrifice for sin.  Nor would He have been able to credibly “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). 

The basis for evangelism is the incarnation, just as it is also the basis for understanding our ideological enemies, opposites, and others in a pluralistic society.

Christians ought to be providing the model for principled disagreement in a society degraded by fake news, raging tweets, screaming Facebook posts, and online yelling about who knows what. Our dysfunctional public discourse begs for the church to model gracious appreciation in a pluralistic society where liberals and conservatives seem to have little in common.

I have a dream: We need to develop a long-term project where secular professors (the large majority at the University of Minnesota) and orthodox church leaders (evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox) meet together regularly to explore each other’s ways of thinking and living.  These two groups (profoundly liberal academics and highly conservative Christian believers) deserve to listen to each other, humbly admit they don’t know everything about reality, and together consider the profound difference that the Incarnation has made in human history.

And they both ought to read Ken Stern’s wonderful book (and, for good measure, Jonathan Haidt’s as well).