Michael Gerson Lectures on Polarization, Confirmation Bias, and Dehumanization

Michael Gerson Lectures on Polarization, Confirmation Bias, and Dehumanization


– Good afternoon. My name is Craig Barnes. I have the privilege of serving as the president of
this wonderful seminary. This afternoon, we are honored to welcome Michael Gerson to our seminary. We are here this afternoon in the midst of an election week, in a season of deep
polarization in our democracy. And as a people of faith who are part of a seminary community that is dedicated to scholarship and leadership, we need to think about
how our faith tradition can serve as a force
for good and for healing within our society. Today we have a thought-provoking
conversation partner in Michael Gerson. Michael Gerson is a columnist
for the Washington Post and a regular commentator on PBS NewsHour, Face the Nation and other programs. Mr. Gerson served as a top aide
to President George W. Bush, as Assistant to the President for Policy and Strategic Planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of
Presidential Speechwriting. He is the senior advisor at One, a bipartisan organization founded by Bono, which is dedicated to the
fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Michael Gerson is an astute commentator of public and political life and he’s deeply informed by
his Christian commitments. If you’ve read any of his recent columns, I think you will detect
an urgency in his voice for moral vision that might
inform our common life. It is Michael Gerson’s conviction that faith commitments might provide an antidote to the
divisions that plague us. He has written, We need a journalism
that vividly describes worlds that are not our own and invite us to enter
them in positive ways. We need a politic that
calls us to the common good and not the triumph of our tribe. The cause of moral
leadership is not hopeless because words have the power of life and not just death. They can allow us for a moment to enter the experiences of others and widen just a bit the aperture of our understanding. And our nation is in desperate need of that kind of leadership again. It’s my hope through our time this day we can enlarge the aperture
of our understanding and think together about the
nature of moral leadership. Please join me in
welcoming Michael Gerson. (audience applauding) – Thank you very much. I’m honored to be at this great center of learning and spirituality. And I’m so grateful to Craig
for a kind introduction. When I asked my friend, Pete Wayner, how I should think about Craig Barnes, he sent me an email saying, Craig is a man who has
received grace in his life and has spent much of his
life extending it to others. It is hard to imagine higher praise. And I thank all of you
for your kind welcome. That said, as an evangelical, I would probably have been
more theologically comfortable here in the 70s. (audience laughing) The 1870s. (audience laughing) That’s when the great
Princeton evangelical, Charles Hodge explained, quote, I am not afraid to say that a new idea never originated from this seminary. (audience laughing) That’s true. Those of you on the faculty have probably thought the same
while grading student papers. (audience laughing) In this sense, the natural successor to the
old school Princeton Seminary may well be the Republican party. Republicans suffered a
major defeat two days ago, or as President Trump calls it, A major victory. (audience laughing) For the first time in my life, I voted a straight Democratic ticket. That is either a natural
political response to an unprecedented electoral situation, or a sign of the end times. Take your pick. There is much to say about
the midterm election, which returned a measure of accountability to the Executive Branch while revealing a series
of social cleavages that seemed to render a
consensus politics impossible. But my purpose this evening is not to talk directly about politics. Specifically I am not gonna
talk much about President Trump. Some think I have become obsessed with him and are tired of it. My wife, Dawn, gets the worst of it so she has imposed a strict rule. For every mention of Trump,
she collects a $20 fine. (audience laughing) And she’s close to buying her Range Rover. (audience laughing) This evening I’ll talk
about some deeper trends, not a red wave or a blue wave but the cultural waves that
political figures fight or ride. These currents ultimately
have causes and implications in the realm of ideas and I want to talk about that. But let me start by telling you just a little about myself. A few of you may have
vaguely recognized me. The most common thing I hear in airports after I made an appearance
on Meet the Press or the PBS NewsHour, Oh, you’re that guy who
is not David Brooks. (audience laughing) That has actually happened to me. I didn’t take the
traditional Washington path. I was a Theology major at
Wheaton College in Illinois. As most of you know, it’s a pretty religiously
conservative place. The joke on campus when I went there was that the administration
had banned premarital sex because it might lead to dancing. (audience laughing) But my driving interest was political. I spent some time as some speechwriter and policy advisor on Capitol Hill. I spent some time in political journalism. Then I got a call from then
governor George W. Bush of Texas who wanted to
meet me at a D.C. hotel. The first thing he said was, This isn’t an interview. I’ve read your stuff. I want you to write my
announcement speech, my convention speech
and my inaugural address and I want you to move
to Austin immediately. That point he wasn’t
even a declared candidate but I packed up my family and went. From the beginning, we were
a bit of an odd couple. He is outgoing, social, athletic, likable and I’m actually none of those things. (audience laughing) He has a pension for locker room humor that makes me uncomfortable. I remember after one policy session at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, everyone had gone but me and the governor had some time
before his next appointment. He asked me, Do you want to hang out a little while? With a rudeness that now seemed crazed, I replied, Not really. (audience laughing) Which is not the way to
treat a future president. (audience laughing) But I came to respect Bush
as a politician and a person. He is above all a man without a mask. Interest, frustration, boredom, sadness come unfiltered to his face. He is kind and loyal to
the people around him and he can occasionally be sharp-tongued. Every year on the day of
the State of the Union, the president sits down
with all the network anchors for a time of question and answer. At one of these sessions, the
late Peter Jennings asked him, What does it feel like
to go before the nation and read someone else’s words? The president immediately replied, You do it every night. (audience laughing) My life changed direction on September 11, 2001 like the lives of many people. I was working at home. The president was in
Florida when my deputy, who was Pete Wayner at the time, was watching events in New York and said that I needed
to come in immediately. I was headed into work on a clear morning down Interstate 395 when I saw a plane flying
low over the highway, headed toward the Pentagon, so low that I could see
the windows clearly. Days later, I sat in
the National Cathedral for the memorial service. I saw how, in a few historical moments, the words, the rhetoric can
actually matter to the country. The president said, This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and
hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn. It is one of the nice things about being a former White House speechwriter. You can quote the President
of the United States and really be quoting yourself. (audience laughing) The pace of those years including 9/11, war and natural disaster
was at times exhausting. It has a cost to your health. In December of 2004, while
working on the president’s second inaugural address,
I had a heart attack. The president’s doctor had
me checked into the hospital under an assumed name to avoid all the press calls. Adding insult to incapacity, there wasn’t a single call. (audience laughing) And it has a cost to your family. During the heat of the
2004 presidential election, my little boy, Nicholas, then six years old, announced to me in the car that he wanted John Kerry for president. When I asked him why, he said, So you can be
home on the weekends. My nine year old was a little
more practical then said, But how would we eat? (audience laughing) I told them I think I can get a job. I might go to a think tank. And he said, of course,
what is a think tank? So I told him, Well, it’s people who read and speak and have meetings and things. And Bucky, and this is true, said, You mean they don’t do anything? (audience laughing) After the 2004 election, my
job at the White House changed. I became a policy advisor
focused on global health and development and genocide prevention, areas where my interests
had been leading me for many years. And I saw something very hopeful. In one of the most bitter
times of partisanship in modern history, I also found a number of issues where members of both parties
and people of every ideology have come together. It’s a part of my job at the White House. I worked with conservative
and liberal groups to fight global AIDS
and to confront malaria and to oppose global sex trafficking. And I’ve seen some odd alliances grow. I’ve gotten to know Bono of U2 a bit. Several years ago, he invited
me to the first rock concert I had ever attended and it was loud. (audience laughing) Soon afterwards, my wife
and I had dinner with Bono, who is a very idealistic
and principled man. After dinner, my wife told me, You may be idealistic and principled, but it would also be nice if you were rich and cool. (audience laughing) I’ve also met Angelina Jolie. My wife was there too, I think. (audience laughing) Or so she tells me. (audience laughing) (laughs) Now I’m a columnist
for the Washington Post living under the tyranny
of two columns a week and I’m an advisor at One, an international grassroots organization founded by Bono and dedicated to fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease. I’ll get started with
a bit of a confession. I actually like most politicians and I know quite a few of them. They often make tremendous sacrifices of time and money and
peace and reputation. But almost uniformly, when I talk to serious public servants, they complain of a political atmosphere more toxic than any they can remember. They complain of forces that seem to make our divisions deeper and they feel deeply frustrated by their inability to
serve the common good. So let me begin by
highlighting three trends, three challenges that
damage our public life and undermine our best
intentions as a people. The first is polarization. We live in a landslide country just with different outcomes
in different places. In 2016 election, 80%
of counties in America gave either Trump or
Clinton a landslide victory. In the 1970s, that
figure was more like 25%. Remember when Pauline Kael, actually I think the quote is fake, supposedly said, I
can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him. We live in increasingly similar political communities in silos of the mind, with people that think just like us and often act just like us. This polarization is not just a function of Washington dysfunction. Americans are self-segregating
in a variety of ways, politically, geographically, culturally and our views of the opposing camp have become progressively more negative. Here is the conclusion
of one recent Pew study. Quote, These days
Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing
with each other’s ideas. Many in each party now
deny each other’s facts, disprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources and bring different value systems to such core institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It is as if they belong
not to rival parties but to alien tribes, end quote. There are many reasons
for this state of affairs, which would take a
lecture series to explore. The ideological sorting of the
parties is a powerful factor. Conservative Democrats
and liberal Republicans are increasingly endangered species and this ideological
divide between parties tends to turn every issue
into a cultural war battle. There are other factors. The growth of partisan media, including cable TV and talk radio, outlets that provide not
information but ammunition. There’s the power of
technology to mobilize factional interests and allows people to live in filtered bubbles. There’s gerrymandering,
leading to the constant fear of politicians that they will be primaried if they lack political purity. The result is a careful
weaving of cocoons. One story illustrates this for me. David Wasserman of the
Cook Political Report tells of meeting with a
group of young Democrats in a wealthy suburban
part of northern Virginia. In the course of his presentation, he made reference to, quote, Cracker Barrel voters. Those voters in counties with
Cracker Barrel restaurants. Donald Trump won 75% of such counties. Excuse me, interrupted
one of the young liberals, you must have it wrong. Do you mean Crate and Barrel? (audience laughing) This is an extreme form
of a cultural bubble, a life arranged by faith and choice, so that other ways of
life are unimaginable. When Americans start seeing
their fellow citizens as fundamentally different and dangerous, a line is crossed. Our democratic institutions
are designed for disagreement. They are undermined by mutual contempt. Unfortunately the incitement of contempt can work politically, at
least in the short term. We’ve seen the kind of leadership that fans frustration into fury. This kind of divisive politics
has the chemical advantage of lighting up the limbic system, the powerful emotional
center of the brain. If I remember my Psych 101 correctly, this portion of the brain
includes the hypothalamus, which regulates the four F’s, fighting, fleeing, feeding and mating. (audience laughing) The politics of polarization
can carry an election and wreck a democracy. The largest problem with
political tribalism is simple. When the other side is viewed as evil, then collaboration is not
only hard, it is wrong. Compromise and comedy
become not virtues but vices and sand is thrown at
the gears of government. It’s hard for people to care
deeply about public events. It’s hard for me to resist polarization, but it starts with an
adjustment in attitude. I want to borrow an idea from the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. He says that the prophetic stance is to live, quote, On the edge of the inside. Prophets fully belong to a community but have just enough distance
to see it with clear eyes. To live on the edge of
the inside, Rohr says, is different than being an insider, a company man or a dues-paying member. Yes, you have learned the rules and you understand and honor the system as far as it goes, but you do not need to
protect it, defend it or promote it. It has served its initial
and helpful function. You have learned the rules well enough to know how to break the rules without really breaking them at all. Not to abolish the law but to complete it as Jesus rightly puts it. A doorkeeper must love both
the inside and the outside of his or her group and know how to move
between those two loves. So we should strive to be doorkeepers of our ideological traditions, committed but not blind in our commitment, knowing both the inside
and outside of our group and finding sympathy for both. So polarization’s the first trend. The second, confirmation bias, is related. No matter how good we think our case, we are probably not going
to argue our way to unity. Social science has revealed
something I find unsettling. The more knowledge that
partisans have, it turns out, the more stubborn they
become in their beliefs. The largest problem is not so-called low information voters. It is people who use their brain power to support the views of their tribe. So Republicans, if for example, who have a higher level
of scientific knowledge are actually more
skeptical of global warming even though the evidence
for climate disruption by any objective standard is compelling. Consider one example. When social scientists
showed aerial pictures of Donald Trump’s inaugural crowd and Barack Obama’s inaugural crowd, which was clearly larger to voters, many who supported Trump
thought his crowd was bigger. They were not lying. They were demonstrating
that group commitments often have more power than reason itself. Confirmation bias cannot only
be absurd but destructive. In a 2006 survey, a
majority of Democrats agreed that it was likely or somewhat likely that George W. Bush was
complicit in the 9/11 attacks. In a 2015 poll, 43% of Republicans believed that Barack Obama is a Muslim. One gets the impression in both cases that partisans would have agreed with any polling description
they perceived as negative. People seem eager to use
whatever stick comes to hand. How do we begin to confront
this deep human tendency? I think it begins by being willing to call out your own side
to make a fair judgment no matter who benefits. Calling out the other side
really doesn’t work very well. When Obama criticizes conservatives or when Trump criticizes liberals, views are only entrenched. But it is different and
powerful to police your own. Be an advocate, even a partisan, but show some intellectual honesty. It has never been more important. I’ve met some politicians
willing to do that. Senator Flake has often
played that role in the GOP and Senator Chris Coons
has often played that role in the Democratic Party and politicians like
former senator Bob Dole have a habit of calling it like it is. In 1996, I remember then
speaker Newt Gingrich had a 16% approval rating in the polls. At one event, he turned to Dole and asked, Bob, why is it that people take such an instant dislike to me? Dole replied, Newt,
because it saves them time. (audience laughing) At least that’s the way Dole tells it, who I worked for during that his 1996 presidential run. He has a famously sharp tongue as well. I remember him saying
that Al Gore was so stiff, his Secret Service code name was Al Gore. (audience laughing) The hardest thing is to confront confirmation bias in ourselves. It would be very difficult
for me, to be honest, to praise good and important things accomplished by Donald Trump. I’ll tell you when it happens. All of us have the
tendency to see an enemy when we really need a mirror. We also see an enemy when we
need a certain kind of friend. For me, it has been
important to have friends with very different views than my own. It shows me that deep disagreements can also be honest disagreements. And it helps expose when
I’m guilty of group think. Here I’ll borrow an idea from C.S. Lewis that Pete Wayner pointed out to me. Lewis talked of the need for what he calls first friends and second friends. Quote, The first friend, he said, is the altar ego, the man
who first reveals to you that you are not alone in the world by turning out beyond hope, to share all your most secret delights. But the second friend is the man who disagrees with you about everything. Of course, he shares your interests. Otherwise you would not
become a friend at all but he has approached them
all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has gotten the wrong things
out of every one of them. And then you go at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night, night after night, each learning the weight
of each other’s punches. Actually, though it never
seems so at the time, you modify one another’s thought. Out of this perpetual dog fight, a community of mind and deep
affection emerges, end quote. In this time of division, mistrust and motivated reasoning all of us could use more second friends. My third point has some
added urgency because of recent political events. The destination of our divided politics, unless we turn aside, is dehumanization. There is life and death,
as the scriptures say in the power of the tongue. Words can provide
permission for prejudice. I have a friend at the
University of Pennsylvania, a researcher named Emile Bruneau, who has been studying politics
in the country of Hungary. Emile has devised a disturbing scale to measure blatant dehumanization. In September of 2014,
a sample of Hungarians was asked to place Muslim migrants somewhere on the familiar Ascent of Man scientific illustration, the one showing the gradual development
from ape to Homo sapien. Not long afterwards, the
right wing populist government stepped up its anti-immigrant rhetoric and built a barbed wire
fence along the border to keep refugees out of the country. After this controversy, the
same survey was conducted. The level of dehumanization in Hungary had doubled in one year. He concluded, Violent and
dehumanizing political rhetoric can increase support for
violence against people already predisposed towards aggression. And here I can’t avoid the current moment and I can’t avoid being blunt. In our recent election, the president’s final political appeal was literally to warn that brown people were invading the country. Then he promised to have them shot. It was racism unadulterated. His base of support, millions of people, skewed white and male, found this message
acceptable or compelling. There is no denying that dehumanization has become explicit in
our public discourse. Refugees are referred to as animals. Mexican migrants are called
rapists and murderers. Muslims are treated as threats. Jews are tagged with ancient stereotypes. This type of language, as sociologist David Livington
Smith has said, quote, Acts as a sociological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would under normal circumstances be unthinkable, end quote. As I have mentioned before, great words can heal and inspire. But the corollary of that is that an ethic of bigotry can encourage acts of violence by people unbalanced by bigotry. And I think the evidence was recently on full
display in Pittsburgh. Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a
whole race or ethnicity by its worst members. It moves on to enforce
generally applicable laws and rules that especially
hurt a target group. Then as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled
out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss. It is not often that a nation is presented with a choice about its
most basic founding beliefs. At one blessed moment in our history, the answer was that all are created equal and endowed with rights by our Creator. It is a belief that
judged our social practice in many ways, but haltingly, eventually, the ideal invaded our
laws and our conscience and changed us for the better. This is my honest fear that a new and lesser
ideal will take hold, that the strong matter more than the weak, that the winners are
superior to the losers, that human dignity
stops at certain borders and certain groups and certain religions. I’m afraid this ideal will
invade our laws and our hearts and change us. All these trends, polarization, confirmation bias, dehumanization existed before our current president but they seem to have
culminated in our time. It led to disagreements
that are so much deeper than normal politics can repair. Americans have not just different party homes
and different policy views, but different values. A political scientist named Rob Wilder calls this moral polarization. There are many structural
reasons for political division, but I don’t have any structural answers for moral polarization. The response here can
only gather life by life and choice by choice. The answer will be spiritual, not in the sense of piety, but
in the sense of mutual grace. There is really only one force that can overcome moral polarization. It is empathy. It is the ability to put
ourselves in the shoes of another, of a different party,
of a different faith, of a different class. The failure of empathy is ultimately a moral and spiritual matter. Our nation is in deep need of healing, truth and humanization and religion has
traditionally been one source of these commitments. Here on my own theory
of calling out your own, I’ll focus for a moment on
my own theological tradition. My alma mater, Wheaton, was founded by abolitionist evangelicals
in the mid 19th century. It’s first president, Jonathan Blanchard, was an anti-slavery organizer and founder of radical newspapers. The college was a station
on the Underground Railroad. Many northern evangelical
Christian leaders of the time were malcontents
in the cause of human dignity. Who could possibly describe
the evangelical movement in those terms today? The predominant narrative
of white evangelicalism is tribal rather than universal. Christians who once set America’s
moral and political terms, are under legal and cultural siege by the forces of secularism. Now in this view, they
must find political allies and fight back before they
are thrown to the lions. Here’s a recent revealing quote from Tony Perkins of the
Family Research Council. Conservatives, he said, quote, were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists and I think they are finally glad that they’re somebody on the playground that is willing to punch
the bully, end quote. In this explanation, Trump’s approach to public discourse is actually his main selling point. His bullying, his cruelty, crudity and personal insults are admired because they are directed at enemies of our enemies from the evangelical perspective. This attitude is perhaps politically and psychologically understandable for many group that has
lost cultural standing over the years, but it has nothing to do
with the Sermon on the Mount. Nothing to do with any
recognizable version of Christian ethics. The very thing that
should repel evangelicals and other Christians, Trump’s dehumanization of others is what seems to fascinate and attract some conservative Christians. It is the worst kind of
discrediting hypocrisy. Trump evangelicals are best understood as conservative political operatives seeking benefits for their interest group from politicians who are
most likely to provide them. This provides, this involves
a certain view of power, belief in power as political clout used to serve your own. So how good is the quality
of their political judgment? I don’t think its particularly good. Identifying evangelism
with ethno-nationalism may have some short term benefits particularly when it
comes to judicial nominees but public influence eventually depends on the persuasiveness of public arguments and close ties to Trump will eventually be disastrous to causes that
evangelicals care about. Pro-life arguments are discredited by an association with misogyny. Arguments for religious
liberty are discredited by association with anti-Muslim bias. Arguments for family
values are discredited by nativist disdain for migrant families. And the ultimate harm is the
reputation of faith itself. The identification of
evangelical Christianity with white grievance is a grave matter. Evangelical Christians
hardly distinguish themselves during the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s. Some used Christian academies as cover for the continued segregation. Getting this issue wrong again in our time would be particularly damning in a nation and in Christian churches growing inexorably more diverse. According to recent Pew Research poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American
responsibility to accept refugees. The least likely. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing
to follow biblical norms and yet when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they do not merely ignore this mandate, they lead the nation in opposing it. How can this possibly be? This state of affairs represents a failure of Christian political leadership. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church
in the moral formation of its members who
remain largely untutored in the most important
teachings of their own faith. Where is the moral formation of many religious Americans taking place? On social media, that has increased the velocity of lies
and conspiracy theories. On cable stations that make
money through incitement. On talk radio that paints every opponent as an enemy of the country. On internet sites that trade
in racism and anti-Semitism. I don’t have answers for all this but I will make one claim. It would be helpful for
Christian political engagement to have some root in Christian ideas. This is a matter of getting our
theological principles right and teaching them boldly and clearly to people in the pews. To stand for something better and higher than our degraded discourse, something better and deeper than our tired, angry ideologies. Something better, just better. A distinctly Christian approach to public engagement begins
with a certain anthropology. There are many elements
of the Christian faith that have no political
significance at all. Christian soteriology and
Christian ecclesiology are hugely important but
they have no proper place in public life. Yet a Christian anthropology, a transcendent vision of
human rights and dignity has grabbed reformers and activists in every generation by the collar and never let them go. They all carry the same
message of human worth, a message that all of
us have significance, not because of what we know but because we are known. Not because of what we achieve, but because we are loved. Known by God, loved by God, valued and welcomed by God, across every race, across every border, across every division in our common life. This is not just a private, moral matter. It is what the political
scientist, Glenn Tinder calls, quote, The major premise of all Christian political
and social thinking, the concept of the exalted
individual, end quote. It is rooted in the universality
of God’s agape love. It means there is a spiritual destiny for every human soul
carried into limitless time. It involves the
recognition that all of us, even you, even me, even everyone share a
legacy of dignity and worth. The Christian universe, says Tinder, is peopled exclusively with royalty. It also imposes that
the humility of knowing that this legacy is fully shared in every way that matters to God, human beings are completely
equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to
ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper
than their failures. They matter more than any cause. They are the cause. The opposite of
dehumanization is humanization and that can be reflected
in a number of callings as was mentioned in
journalism and politics and religious leaders. But let me address the
religious issue very quickly because I know there’s
some pastors in the room. Priests and pastors are
generally not experts on public policy and
should not pretend to be. Many of the debates surrounding, say, the issue of immigration are prudential rather than moral. I don’t think there’s a
specifically Christian position on, say, building a border wall. It may be stupid and wasteful but it is not inherently unethical to make a partially-walled border and a fully-walled border. But religious leaders
have a solemn moral duty to oppose the dehumanization of migrants in the course of that discussion, something that violates
the vision of human dignity and equality at the heart
of the Christian faith and other faiths as well. Human beings in this view are not merely arrogant hominids programmed
for sex and death. They bear God’s image and
in the Christian view, their flesh somehow once
clothed God Himself. This means that cruelty, bullying and oppression are cosmic crimes. This leads to another
theological principle, a distinctly Christian
approach to social engagement requires a commitment to the common good. Pope John Paul II defined this as quote, The good of all and of each individual because we are really responsible for all. It is the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish. At one level, Christianity
is deeply individualistic, promising a personal
relationship to the Creator and imposing a set of individual,
moral responsibilities. But Christianity is also
inherently communitarian. What my friend, Jim Wallis,
describes as, quote, The call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. The Golden Rule and the
mandate to love your neighbor challenge social systems based on tribe, class or race. Christian ethics has been
the halting inconsistent but continuing struggle to draw out the full implication of
God’s image in every life. Against Libertarianism, the
common good is not identical to the triumph of market forces. Constructing it is the shared duty of communities,
corporations and government. Against some forms of modern liberalism, the common good is not identical to the triumph of autonomy and choice. Humans flourish in a context
of binding moral commitments such as family and marriage and the most vulnerable
members of the human community deserve special concern and protection. And against secularism, the common good is not achieved by banishing religion from the public square. Religious institutions
perform works of mercy, carry ideals of justice and should be sheltered
by a generous application of religious liberty. John Chrysostom said, This is the rule of the
most perfect Christianity. Its most exact definition,
its highest point, namely the seeking of the common good, for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors. In the political era of rights talk and special interest pleading, a greater emphasis on the common good would make American politics more civil, admirable and humane and would make clear that
Christians do not constitute one pressure group among many. Instead, they seek the good of the whole. A distinctly Christian
approach to social engagement must take seriously the
idea of the kingdom of God. How believers understand this concept determines much about the nature of their political engagement, which determines much about the quality of American politics. If you look at His words,
Jesus did not preach a new religion. He announced the arrival of a kingdom. The kingdom of God has come near, He said. It was intended to be a message of dawning hope and liberation. Quote, The Spirit of the Lord is on Me because He anointed Me to
preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. This kingdom against the
Messianic expectations of some of Jesus’ followers did not involve a revolt
against the Romans. It is, Jesus said, not of this world. He said that the rule or reign of God has broken into human history
in some new and different way and the evidence is provided by people who will live by the values
of this defined kingdom in the midst of every earthly kingdom. Believers are essentially called to be emissaries or
ambassadors, every believer. The nature of this kingdom determines how it is properly advanced. You can’t advance a vision of liberation by oppressing the conscience of others. You can’t advance a
vision of human dignity by dehumanizing others. You can’t advance a vision of peace with violent and demeaning language. This involves an entirely
different view of power, power for the sake of the powerless. It involves a different
definition of influence, bringing a modicum of grace and justice into the world around us, including the political world. The proper role of Christians in politics is not to Christianize America. It is to demonstrate Christian values in the public realm. And this brings a kind of influence that does not depend on a
welcome at the White House. And finally a distinctive
Christian approach to public engagement requires
us to remember our history and recover our heroes. It is my theory that people
cannot be the leaders they need to be until they remember who they once were. And this is also the theory, by the way, of my new book contract
with Simon & Schuster. I’ve less than a year to
write a series of profiles of American and British men
and women who have modeled Christian social engagement
over the last few hundred years. So far it is my experience
that most religious people are almost entirely ignorant
of their own history. It is also my experience
in starting my research that this history is rich beyond measure. There are great heroes of 19th century evangelical social reform who stood up to slavery
and confronted the squaller and exploitation of the
Industrial Revolution. They’re the voices of African
American prophetic tradition who are the instruments by which a hypocritical nation was
called to its own ideals. They’re men and women influenced
by Catholic social thought, the defenders of immigrants
and of solidarity with the poor and weak. And they are representatives
of the social gospel who embrace both sacrificial
service and progressive reform. I’ve no idea who will
actually read such a book or more importantly buy such a book. (audience laughing) But hopefully there is some value in giving people back their history. Without the influence of
these religious traditions, America would have been
a colder and crueler and less just place. And without recalling these examples, I don’t think we will find the
inspiration to move forward. Those taking their
instruction from Fox News are eating mud pies while a great banquet of
idealism and purpose awaits. I want to close on one
point of inspiration. In the face of division,
anger and verbal violence, faith calls attention to
a hopeful alternative. One of the greatest lessons of life and one of the deepest
lessons of cultural change is the ability of
compassion and generosity to break down even
thick walls of contempt. When I met the Dalai Lama a few years ago, he talked about the power of, quote, the undiplomatic smile
to melt human barriers. There is the power of the kind word, the unexpected favor,
the genuine compliment. This is the strange alchemy of empathy. We serve our principles best by loving people even
more than our principles. This is not flabby or passive, at least it wasn’t for
Martin Luther King Jr. Quote, Love has within it
redemptive power, he said. And there is power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person, just keep loving them and
they can’t stand it too long. Well, they react in many
ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings and sometimes they’ll
hate you a little more in the transition period, but just keep loving them and by the power of your love, they will break down under the load. Here is the redeeming value of our moment. Viruses create their own antibodies. We value more dearly what might be lost. We’ve had a taste of nihilism and chaos. We’ve looked into the abyss and we know this cannot
be our destination. I’m confident in the long run that people will choose decency and shared progress over the cruel pleasures
of blame and spite, or so I try to believe. The best recent example of
this took place in Charleston, following the racist church shooting that took nine lives at the Emanuel African
American Episcopal Church. The killer chose a historic
African American church for a reason. For centuries, black
churches have been a place of refuge, a voice for social justice and a target of racist violence. The gunman drove two hours
to Charleston, South Carolina because he wanted a symbol and he got one. Against all his intentions, it is now the symbol of a living faith. The killer set out to
defile a sacred place and ended up showing why it is sacred. When many relatives of
those cruelly murdered in Charleston publicly
offered their forgiveness, it was stunning and
admirable in many ways, not least of which it provided a contrast to our political culture. So many are engaged in
a search for evidence of their own victimization in
order to justify their anger. Here genuine victims of a
horrible crime responded with love and mercy. At the heart of the Christian
faith is an impossible demand to love your neighbors, to do
good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. This teaching was
demonstrated by its author. Novelist George MacDonald wrote, Father, forgive them for
they know not what they do, said the divine, making
excuses for His murderers, not after it was all over but at the very moment when
He was dying at their hands. When we see this type of
extreme grace reenacted as in Charleston, it has tremendous power. At some level, it is simple. Christians gain influence,
real lasting influence when we act like Jesus. When people, including
modern cynical people, see the image of Jesus
even partially reflected in another human being, it appeals across to every distinction, every division, every boundary. It stirs the deepest
longings of the human heart. When the representatives
of Christ act like Jesus, true influence returns, the only kind in the end
that is worth having. Thank you so much. (audience applauding)

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