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Beyond Confirmation Bias

Given the egregious nature of both video segments, I found little in Dr. Jeff VanDerWerff’s (JVW’s) response with which to disagree. Below you will find me elaborating on several of his comments and questioning one of them.

Confirmation Bias on Steroids

For years we have heard about confirmation bias: our mind’s tendency to absorb only that which confirms our preconceptions. For example, we pick out the statistics that support what we already believe to be true. This process has gotten easier because, as JVW pointed out, “[T]he two sides aren’t even talking to each other.” Many of us aren’t even exposed to opposing political ideas because our biased cable news channels and our targeted social media just keep our home fires burning, stoking them with news and perspectives we will like. Perhaps we can call this familiar feed confirmation bias on steroids.

In fact, when we are actually faced with disagreement to our stated positions, we are sometimes shocked or offended. Especially in certain sub-communities, we may assume that everyone agrees with our positions (e.g. on abortion, immigration, gun control). For example, it may be assumed that public school teachers are Democrats or that doctors are Republicans.

During the Obama era campaign for healthcare reform, a Facebook friend of mine posted an article circulating on Facebook about government “death panels” and “killing grandma.” This much-forwarded piece claimed that the government would make decisions about when old people could receive IV nutrition and when they would die. This “government-encouraged euthanasia” was one of several myths circulating about the proposed healthcare reform bill.

I (what I thought was respectfully) replied to my friend’s post with the actual words in the proposed bill: the legislation would require Medicare to pay doctors for end-of-life consultations, conversations that would be optional and would lay out options for end-of-life care. Such conversations might lead to the establishment of advance directives, legal documents that express the patient’s end-of-life wishes and could lead not only to more peaceful final days but also to millions of dollars saved in Medicare spending. But these consultations in no way dictated to patients when or how they would die.

To put it gently, my Facebook response was not appreciated. My friend’s fingers ripped back, “If you don’t agree, then don’t say anything at all.”

Her response was telling and probably not atypical. Even though she made a very public claim by posting on Facebook, she did not find it appropriate for anyone to disagree, even if facts clearly discredited her claim. She may have felt as if my correction shamed her. On Facebook we can disagree about football team alliances and what animals make the best pets, but it doesn’t seem generally acceptable to question claims about politics or religion.

Well, I learned my lesson with that friend. But what I have noticed is that when you can’t safely talk about disagreements with family and friends, the intimacy of that relationship, the closeness, is limited. I have heard people talk about this wall (an ironic choice of words, I know) that has come up between them and some friends and relatives in the wake of President Trump’s election. These stories include young adults who didn’t go home for Christmas for the first time in their lives because they didn’t feel welcomed due to differences of opinion about the Trump presidency between them and their parents. These schisms seem to be rawer than past family impasses between Republicans and Democrats.

Fortunately, I also have friends who not only tolerate disagreement but even welcome it, even on Facebook. These mature friends possess intellectual humility, realizing that they see through a glass darkly. They appreciate hearing other points of view when those positions are expressed respectfully. They don’t cover their ears and start chanting nonsense to avoid exposure to an opinion that might challenge their own.

From my perspective as a reformed Christian, I am called to speak out when false information is presented as true. We are called to be agents of knowledge. The kicker is that I too need to accept the truth whether or not it bolsters my position.

In the 2016 elections, I chose to remain mute about my presidential candidate choice so that I could properly carry out my role as Democratic county chair, especially in executing the caucus. (I am in Iowa, remember, so the caucus is a sacred event.) I did not join a preference group at the caucus. It was important to me that Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, and everyone else felt welcome under the umbrella of the Democratic Party.

Therefore, it scurged me to hear of leaked DNC (Democratic National Committee) emails suggesting that top staffers strategized against Sanders in favor of Clinton, resulting in the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. There was no denying the facts or dismissing the problem. The shortage of neutrality at the national level needed to be faced. This news fed the ongoing charge of Clinton corruption.

In today’s political climate, to concede a point is not in the list of rhetorical options. Noting the value of an opponent’s claim could be fatal—like dealing a death blow to one’s self. Should this be our mentality? Isn’t part of growth and the pursuit of truth acknowledging when you haven’t considered a point or may need to alter your perspective?

Growth of the Apolitical Party

One very sad result of today’s political discourse is that some people are saying, “I can’t even listen to the news.” Or, “the state of things has made me so depressed that I am staying out of politics.” In a developed country where an embarrassing low percent of registered people vote (See Pew study) and where less than half can name their congressional representatives, choosing to be uninformed is not progress.

But I get it. We are bombarded with headlines: phone notifications (most of which I turn off), airport TVs, even news screens at the gas pump. (Seriously! Too much already!) So, people are taking breaks from the news or even becoming apolitical (in the sense of becoming disconnected from political issues).

And yet we can’t. Politics affects every part of our lives: our access to public transportation, the salary paid to our child’s teacher, the price of our gas, our accessibility to healthcare insurance, the quality of our water.

Not only is politics unavoidable, but I agree with JVW when he writes that “[e]ngaging democracy is part and parcel of living responsibly in the world.” But I do have issues with the rest of the sentence: “while still not being part of it.” At face value, JFW seems to suggest that Christians are not really part of the world. That suggestion concerns me. Of course, part of the confusion is that when our English Bible translations use “world,” sometimes it means the cosmos and sometimes it refers to powers of evil. And different passages seem to advise different ways of responding to the world.

In JFW’s last line, he writes, “Christians are saved for, not from, a wary world that is closely watching us.” If, as he says, we are saved for the world, then we better see ourselves as a part of it. If we do not see ourselves as citizens here (if we are just sojourners passing through until we get to a better place), then we really have no place on a decision-making team. We don’t have the right to vote, to weigh in, and certainly not to reform. 

It is quite possible that I am misreading JFW. But I hear a disturbing otherworldliness in the talk and lyrics of some Christians. In response to the question, “Why are you a Christian?”, a woman I know said, “So that I know where I am going after I die. So that I can have eternal life with Jesus.” I can understand that as a reason, but as the reason for being a Christian?

A classic hymn sung in churches continues to be, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” I can’t sing that song. Because the Jesus I know from the Bible seemed to care deeply about the things of this world, especially how we respond to our enemies, the poor, the sick, those in prison.

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our . . .

Christians in America are often not known for the Good News Jesus practiced and commissioned his disciples to do (e.g. Matthew 4:23). Jeff raises an important question about evangelicals: “Are we known by our love or have we let the world press us into its political mold?” I am afraid that political discourse from some American Christians has left a very bad taste in the mouth of “the world” (those who don’t share our faith tradition).

My friend Jaci was a marketing director for a software solution company. She had worked with the same business people for several years, individuals of diverse backgrounds and faiths. Over dinner one evening, it came out that Jaci was a Christian. Her comrades couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe that someone who was respectful, reasonable, professional and fun was part of that demographic of “American Christian.” Instead, they associated the label Christian with someone who was bigoted, sexist, homophobic, and judgmental. Fair or not, Christians have developed this reputation, partly due to our political discourse.

Maybe this negative association with Christianity is one reason that fewer Americans call themselves Christians, especially Protestant Christians, than 10 years ago (see Gallup poll). A study released last week by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) indicated that “[t]here are 20 states in which no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated.” I wonder if this exodus from Christianity and faith in general has to do with JFW’s question, “Are [evangelical Christians] more concerned about claiming our rights” than defending those of others?

President Trump must not have felt much criticism from his evangelical base when his immigration policies targeted Muslim majority nations despite statistics showing that foreign-born terrorist in America came much more often from countries not on Trump's list (e.g. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon). Why weren’t Christians standing up for freedom of religion and screaming discrimination? Some Christians did object, but others were more worried about their rights to refuse service to a same-sex couple wanting a wedding cake. Others were instead holding anti-Shariah rallies, worried about the “threat” of Muslims imposing their religion’s laws in pluralistic America (the pot calling the kettle black?).

Race and Political Discourse

Equally disturbing is that due to the strong support of evangelicals for Trump, Christians are also increasingly associated with racism. Does that mean that all Trump voters are racists? No, of course not. But there is considerable evidence that our president is and that his campaign both drew on racism and emboldened it.

Just hitting the web is Ta Nehesi Coates’s essay in the Atlantic: “The First White President: The Foundation of Donald Trump’s Presidency Is the Negation of Barack Obama’s Legacy.” He believes that someone like Trump was elected because the first Black president had been elected—that the Trump campaign took full advantage of racism among whites. With no holds barred, Coates argues that since the beginning of this country, poor whites in particular have been pitted against people of color. But whites at all income levels voted for Trump at a higher percentage than persons of color.

One has to wonder if the following would have occurred if Barack Obama had not been president: This month a Republican mayoral candidate in Charlotte, NC highlighted that she was white on her Facebook page:

 

Vote for me!

Kimberley Paige Barnette

Mayor of Charlotte 2017

Republican and smart, white, traditional

 

Fortunately, the chair of the state’s Republican party quickly condemned the use of skin color as a qualification for a political position. The fact that a candidate would even think of advertising herself in that way is highly disturbing.

Racist comments and accusations of racist comments have become part of our political discourse. This problem is not surprising since our country’s racist foundation will continue to underlie our societal structures and distribution of wealth well into our future.

I continue to look for candidates and commentators who strive for civil discourse even in these times of civic discord. 

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