The following are excerpts from a talk given at Plymouth United Church of Christ on Sunday, September 16th, 2012.
A House Divided:
Political Polarization as a Faith and Brain Problem
We Have to Overcome
“Political scientists have taken note of the gradually increasing polarization in American politics over the past few decades. Many Americans consider this divisiveness a destructive force for our democratic republic, one resulting in a political stalemate that inhibits us from solving our problems. Ironically, a little more than 50 years ago, political scientists believed the U.S. was too homogenous in its politics and called for more distinctions between the two-party system.
While some political scientists believe today’s polarization has motivated more citizens to get involved in the political process, others think the increased passion in the electorate has come at too high a price, moving the nation in 50 years from a problem solving bi-partisanship to a deadlocked hyperpartisanship. Clearly, the past few years have shown our elected officials are increasingly no longer able to solve the nation’s problems. Unfortunately, the 2012 presidential election cycle is unlikely to lead to substantive change in the situation. It is shaping up to become the mud-slinging dual of a generation, making solution-focused politics unlikely in the near future. Meanwhile, some of our national problems have become ticking time bombs threatening the future of the nation, if not the world. The direness of the situation is seen most clearly in the attitudes of many in the next generation who are becoming increasingly cynical about both their future and the future of the nation.
How did the U.S. make this this profound transition from bi-partisan to hyperpartisan? There is lots of blame to go around and for this reason it is important to explore some of those forces, including the complicity of religion in the deterioration process. More specifically, from progressive “mainstream” Christianity to conservative evangelical Christianity, religion and religious leaders have played a role in this cultural shift, both intentionally and unintentionally. But, the real culprit is the human brain and how it processes information, stores memories and builds worldviews that make room for others and their opinions – or, at our time in history, more likely does not.
As humans we are designed to build protective biases around our belief systems. We have lots of tricks, conscious but mostly unconscious, for protecting the “sacred” turf of the principles we like to believe guide our lives. This perceptual screen and self-deluding dimension of human consciousness is both our salvation and our curse. In the past few decades, the United States has “sorted” itself increasingly into like-minded hives that has aided and abetted these tricks. But, we can catch on to these tricks and transcend them. This is essential to achieve spiritual wisdom, and true religious community. It is also important to living in a democratic society. The good news is that we can catch on to these biases, integrate divergent insights, and learn to see purple in a red and blue world.”