This post is about understanding the psychological causes of polarization in our culture and how the Gospel can transform us to overcome these tendencies.
A few weeks ago, debates raged about Donald Trump’s recent tweets to four congresswomen, known as ‘the Squad’.
A recent survey found 91% of Americans believed the country was divided over politics. But these problems, are not limited to the US.
Three years after the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union, we are now onto our third Prime Minister. Until recently, Britain leaving the European Union without a deal was unthinkable. Now it looks the most likely option.
Polarization: issues or identities?
Issue position polarization
The West is becoming more partisan. For example, Democrats are shifting their views further to the left and Republicans to the right.
Political scientists have traditionally considered polarization as an increasing divergence between the left and right. The political scientist, Lilliana Mason, calls this ‘issue position’ polarization.
Many saw Trump’s election as a victory for extremism. But this is too simplistic. His campaign manager described his policies as ‘post-ideological’. Also, political views remain moderate across the US.
Why does a country, like the US, of political moderates increasingly dislike one another?Lilliana Mason distinguishes ‘behavioural’ polarization from ‘issue position’ polarization.
Political science research on behavioural polarization is rooted in social identity theory. This theory proposes that people need to see their group as more positive, rational and praiseworthy than others. These biases function to bolster self-esteem.
Social psychologists have for several decades investigated the least requirements needed for groups to discriminate against each other. These experiments are called the minimal group paradigm. Participants never see members of the in-group (the group they belong to) or out-group (the group they don’t belong to) face-to-face.
These experiments show it doesn’t matter how arbitrary the basis for forming groups (e.g. what colour T-shirt they were wearing). People tended to favour their group at the expense of others. They were even willing to sacrifice absolute gain for their in-group to maximise differences between groups.
Mason’s research has investigated the conflict between Democrats and Republicans. She found that conflict over identities rather than issues explained most of the dislike between these groups of voters. Her research on the political left and the right found similar results.
Why are we getting more polarized?
Political and social identities increasingly aligned
Mason identifies an increasing overlap between our views on political issues and our other social identities. Voting Republican or Democrat now reflects more about a person than it once did.
Political voting has become aligned with key drivers of identity like age, race, and religion. The controversy about Joe Biden’s earlier pro-life views is a recent example.
Research by Marilynn Brewer has found that people with political views less aligned with their other group identities tend to be less biased. These “cross-pressures” between different identities challenge negative biases.
Less aligned individuals show less dislike for those with different political views and are less likely to dehumanise people different from them.
People spend more time within their own tribes
The Brexit referendum result was a shock. Particularly in prosperous areas of London. Large sections of the country were angry and wanted to give the establishment a good kicking.
The middle classes were oblivious to this anger. I remember more than 10 years ago, we went out for dinner with one of our distant relatives, Roger and his wife Phyllis.
After a few drinks, my dad got onto his usual topics of conversation: “England isn’t what it was. Immigration has changed the country. Globalisation has made some rich but left people like me feeling a stranger in my own land.”
Phyllis was a lecturer at Oxford and had rarely met someone like my dad socially. She was stunned: “Are you… are you…. a… racist?”
They inhabited two different worlds that seldom collided. For my dad, his views were uncontroversial and shared by all his friends. For Phyllis, he was the kind of person her friends would mock in their sophisticated dinner parties.
I disagreed with my dad’s views on immigration. But I also knew him too well to write him off the way Phyllis did. I knew how he worked long hours to provide for his family and his generosity to anyone in need.
Mass and social media
Our consumption of news media is increasingly prepackaged to fit our own particular political biases. We no longer get to hear the best counter-arguments to the viewpoints we hold.
Social media has intensified the tribal nature of news and current affairs. More and more we become aware of articles or news stories from our friends and followers on social media.
Anything that challenges our assumptions is screened out never to appear on our news feeds.
How the Gospel helps us overcome polarization
The Bible is neither politically left nor right
The increasing alignment between our social identities and our politics creates a key battleground for the Christian life. Our culture pressures us to divide along political lines.
As Christians, we ought to passionately care about politics. But the Bible draws the line through in-group and out-group differently to how our culture does.
If we identify as a progressive we’ll be tempted to see our conservative brothers and sisters as belonging to those bigoted people we oppose. Or if we identify as a conservative, we’ll be tempted to see our progressive brothers and sisters as ‘social justice warriors’ or ‘cultural Marxists’.
But the Bible challenges these identity biases:
For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.
Tim Keller, New York Times, Sep 29, 2018
The Bible’s teaching provides cross-pressures between our different social identities and challenges our biases against people who don’t fit our political views.
Churches need to include people beyond our tribe
The implications of the events at Pentecost took time to understand:
Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Acts 2:7-12, NIV
The Gospel message is beginning to overflow from it’s source in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. This was going to be far from smooth.
Gentiles from messy pagan backgrounds were going to worship YHWH the God of Israel. Gentile converts to Judaism were not new. But the radical news of the Gospel was that Gentiles could worship YHWH without taking on the cultural requirements of being a Jew.
This becomes a central struggle for many churches springing up in the multi-cultural Roman Empire. Even Peter struggles to recognise Gentiles as true brothers:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
The Gospel message was a wonderful message of freedom. But, for respectable religious Jews, there was temptation to stay within their tribe. It was hard to give up their special status and treat Gentiles as one of their own.
The challenge of tribalism was not only about ethnicity. Social status, gender and any other factor that people use to divide and dominate one another is a threat to church unity:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:28-29, NIV
We need to share the good news beyond our tribe
Evangelism is sharing the good news that God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance is freely available to anyone who turns to Christ in faith.
This good news stands in contrast to the divisive and tribal nature of our polarized politics. It’s very difficult to share this message of love and acceptance whilst writing caustic responses to those who disagree with our politics on social media.
Paul knew if he wanted to reach the world he had to find his identity in the Gospel rather than get sucked into the tribal debates of the day between Jew and Gentile. Only then was he free to share that God’s message was for all people, backgrounds and cultures:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:20-22
Apologetics with gentleness and respect
We know our natural tendency to dislike people who don’t belong to our group. We roll up our sleeves ready to crush our enemy. The rhetoric of the culture wars can make these natural tendencies seem noble.
Don’t misunderstand me. I know Christians are called to challenge the wrong in our society, to proclaim the Gospel and defend our faith in an often hostile world.
But we need to do that in a way that honours God. The classic text for apologetics provides helpful guidance:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV
These verses have two main applications when engaging in apologetics:
- We should respond to critics out of reverence for Christ, rather than to defeat our out-group
- We should declare the Gospel with gentleness and respect, not giving any ammunition to those who speak maliciously against us
How do we apply these truths to our times? For conservatives, it might mean being careful with our language. We may gain pleasure from offending the political correctness of liberals. But in doing so we guarantee they will have no interest in hearing about the Gospel from us.
Similarly, for progressives, we may enjoy exposing what we see as the bigotry of conservatives. But in the process, we make our opponents even more closed to the Gospel.
Polarization is a natural consequence of our sinful human condition. But we are to demonstrate how the Gospel unites a divided world. Paul called this the ‘mystery of Christ’:
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ…This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.