I'm Angry! We're Persecuted! Read This Column!
As we draw toward the end of this two-year experiment called Faithful Citizenship with the November election, I'm reflecting on a lot of the things I've learned in the process of trying week by week to do fresh theology about faith and politics. (Don't worry—I'm also preparing some final columns on current issues, recent books, and sex in America. Honest!) In the process of researching issues, I have spent hundreds of hours reading articles, essays, blogs, books, tweets, and Facebook posts, and I can only conclude that our discourse about policy and about faith is often as badly broken as the political process I talked about last week.
Those of us communicating don't seem to know how to hold our beliefs sincerely and express them gently, and audiences seem to prefer fire and vitriol, not measured responses.
I've known this for a while—one can't watch cable news, listen to radio talk shows, read opinion pieces, or open Facebook without noticing—but it truly came to a head for me a few weeks back over Chik-Fil-A and gay marriage. Even some of my colleagues at Patheos—"hosting the discussion on religion," remember—seemed to find it impossible to discuss this civilly, and in strongly expressing their faithfully-held opinions, they got angry.
They offended each other.
And I thought, if even we at Patheos find it difficult to have discourse on these issues, who can?
I've observed that inhabitants of both sides of issues often play the victim card—or the offense card. But when I am angry, offended, or feel victimized, where is the possibility for dialogue?
When one side or the other is or perceives itself as being persecuted and circles the wagons, who is going to talk across the divide?
I can't pretend that this is my original insight. When I began the book Faithful Citizenship, I started the process by asking my Facebook friends what they perceived as the most unchristian thing in American politics today, and the answer that came back more often than any other was this very thing—the lack of civil discourse, the inability to communicate with each other, not the advocacy of any particular policy.
And yet our writers and broadcasters—secular, liberal, conservative, and religious—often encourage this circle-the-wagons mentality about particular policies because it appeals to their audiences. Why wouldn't it? They aren't forced to think outside their convenient categories, aren't asked to lose their righteous anger, and aren't encouraged to be anything but the victims of the Others Who Have Got It All Wrong.
Colin Cowherd, a sportscaster on ESPN, likes to say that people don't want information; they want affirmation. Although he says this in the context of sports, I believe this to be true across the board. I observe it daily, and I also know that as an audience member, I am guilty of seeking only affirmation of my views when I'm not conscious of my duty to examine questions fully.
I also know it because as a writer and speaker, I have been trying to inform and to open dialogue, not to pretend that I and other progressive Christians have seized the moral high ground.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.