Alright, I’m back (some may say by popular demand? Huh. Maybe, maybe not :)). In the first part of this series, I laid the groundwork for discussing the various, often conflicting “distastes” and “disgusts” with politics in my youth–“political moralities,” as it were. I did so by talking about the neurobiology of morality. I also talked about a few of the implications of this insight for understanding the political divisions between groups such as the “Religious Right” and “The Christian Left” in the US today.
These concepts can of course be applied much more broadly to different scenarios. But in this article, I plan to explain some of the nuances of how I came to discern the need in my own life to make the switch from the former political perspective to the latter. I say the below not out of some sort of desire to hurt those I grew up with. I say it out of a sense of contrition for my part in what I describe, and a desire to help others better understand what I see now. Especially why I now support different policies and am more politically engaged.
NOTE: This article once again expanded. So thanks for hanging in there for the messiness of me trying to articulate these things in nuance in hopes of all of us understanding them more clearly. (If only the world of relationships and politics was easy enough to resolve through something as brief and clear as a meme or a Tweet, eh? ;))
FURTHER NOTES on the RECENT “SOCIAL JUSTICE STATEMENT”: I had already written up the current article before this horrendous statement came out. I really don’t have enough rants in me to properly rant about this steaming pile of sh*t statement, it being the end of the week and having used a lot of them up on other political matters that hurt vulnerable groups. Nonetheless, if this piece of crap statement had to come out, it’s great timing for what I wrote below. Which is to say you might find it useful to look for the ways those awful complete bunk attitudes align with and are somewhat explained by some of the below socializations.
I can’t imagine that any but the most extreme of the more conservative peops I know personally would actually sign such a document (except maybe under a funny name as a sign of resistance to its rhetoric). But I do think that many of them would enable this rhetoric to continue through their silence on the subject. And some would likely defend the rhetoric without realizing quite how much it adds trauma to vulnerable groups that have already experienced more than their fair share. This is why the rhetoric I grew up with, that I describe below, is so insidious. I think everyone who has ears to ear and eyes to see how bad this is needs to stand up against it! Sigh. <end rant>
Political Moralities of My Upbringing
But back to the varied and conflicting political distastes and disgusts I was socialized into in my youth. Let’s start what political engagement was considered moral with the people I grew up with.
With my peops, staying informed and voting in presidential elections after thoughtfully considering the options was a required moral act. These same ideas weren’t ever applied to local or midterm elections, mind you–only the presidential ones. But some of my peops would find it really distasteful NOT to vote for president in a presidential election year, even if they seriously hated both options in a deep and abiding way.
Dealing with Limitation
In many ways, this pattern makes so much sense to me as a pastor’s kid. After all, so many of the people I grew up around were involved in the messy work of persuading people about religious stuff regularly as their job. And others were already pretty involved in their jobs, and in non-governmental charity work.
So this resistance against getting more involved in civic action was likely rooted in a healthy instinctual boundary in many ways. It would have been wonderful if that was all there was to it. Unfortunately, as I’ve come to realize, the particular form of coping some of my peops have expanded out into has had some negative effects: for me, for the peops holding this coping mechanism, and for the most vulnerable.
Toxic Sides of Coping Mechanisms
See, my community’s coping mechanism ultimately developed into a broader “political distaste” for further engagement in politics beyond voting in presidential elections—and, as I’m about to discuss, certain kinds of political discussions, and even certain kinds of parties and policies.
The problem was this way of associating all but the narrowest forms of political action with distaste caused relational issues between us, and between us and those with different views about political engagement.
Conflict Avoidance and Political Moralities
Staying only so engaged in the “right kind” of politics become a sort of unconscious morality marker that became part of the unfortunate sanctification of conflict avoidance that came with “Christian Nice.” And that seeped into those things that were seen to be “political” closer to home–including “church politics.”
I can see now how labeling anything related to attempts to deal with conflict, emotion, or unwelcome persuasion as “political” has become a form of tone-policing from the more conservative aspects of my home community.
Political Moralities of My Upbringing: Rules for Political Discussions
But back to the “moral political actions” of my peops. You were supposed to think through who was the best option for president, sure. So political discussions were considered moral and good, to an extent. There was a big caveat, though: We weren’t supposed to take politics personally. To invoke a phrase from Monty Python, that meant pathos-based or emotional discussions of politics were right out.
Again, I see now that this was a boundary created as a coping mechanism. Again, this was a natural reaction—there are plenty of studies that show that emotional contagion is a big problem in the helping professions. So it makes sense that growing up in ministry contexts would socialize me into a fear of taking on more emotion than could be handled.
Sigh: Tone Policing as a Sign of Disgust
Once again, the distastes and disgusts made by the particular form these coping mechanisms took had toxic sides. I see now how they led to dehumanizations of those with different kinds of politics as well as those who might be at risk from policies my peops supported.
Discounting those who were seen to be “angry” about politics (to be fair, at least somewhat those “on both sides”) also meant we never really were able to get to the roots of our visceral disgusts regarding most forms of politics, including and especially issues regarding “identity politics.”
Ah, Cognitive Dissonance!
All of this led to a situation with a lot of cognitive dissonance for me and many of my peops with these biases. See, on the theological side of things, we talked about about our human limitations, but also how we were supposed to live our our faith in our lives, and read all of sorts of biblical commands to take care of the poor and the oppressed, and talked about how good it was that God came in messy flesh.
Simultaneously, I see now that my community’s natural (and in many cases, trauma-based) coping mechanisms that led to these political moralities were subtly embodying distastes and disgusts for many forms of all of the above.
Ultimately, this combination of factors led to a lot of what communication scholars call “incongruous disconfirming communication,” which is a term that is very close to what the Bible calls “hypocrisy.” This concept describes the way that people may say they believe one thing, but actually communicate an alternate message at the same time.
Exploring Relational Consequences of Incongruous Messaging
I love this incongruous messaging term so much because in communication studies, this term is used to highlight the damaging relational consequences of such messaging. Thinking through this term helps me realize that people often use the term “hypocrite” to communicate moral distaste for such incongruous messaging. But they also use it to speak the truth about the relational consequences that come from incongruity–which can provide a means to make things right.
Thinking about all this also helps me get how those who know they are guilty of it may defensively evade such truth-speaking because they don’t want to be branded as immoral–i.e., distasteful or disgusting.
So how does incongruous disconfirming communication get communicated? It can come through subtly, through tonal aspects such as sarcastic overtones. But it can also come through in larger ways, such as actions, beliefs, or even other words that undercut the message. And, importantly, all of these incarnations can undermine relational trust.
Trying to Practice What We Preached—to an Extent
This kind of incongruous messaging lies at the root of many major trust issues with relationships with others. It is most definitely at the root of many relational issues between those who attend church and those who are outside of it. My family and community were aware of this: there were many many sermons exhorting us to “walk the walk” and “practice what we preached.”
And to be fair, there was much effort in my home community put toward aligning “faith and works.” My community had a lot of volunteers. Those people did get into the messiness on the local interpersonal level.
Keeping Ourselves Cordoned Off from “Messy Politics”
But at the same time, again, as a coping mechanism, this messy charity was kept within very specific bounds. Much rhetoric about “grace alone” gave us an out from truly walking the walk. As a bonus, it simultaneously gave us a reason to view those more social-justice-oriented Christians (such as Catholics) with distaste. (Not so much because of the rightful concerns with abuse scandals in the RCC, mind you. More because we still hadn’t gotten over the issues behind the Reformation from several hundred years ago.)
Again, I see this now as an instinctual form of coping mechanism. We weren’t good at handling the felt expectation that the individuals involved needed to fix everything in the world. The problem was that we didn’t trust a lot of others, especially those outside carefully vetted faith-based organizations, to have enough of the same moralities to change the world in what was seen as the “right way.”
Our flight from “politics” and attendant, if unwitting, demonization of those who were “outside the fold” who were engaged more in civic action became a way to make ourselves feel better about what we were doing. I know I didn’t realize it was at others’ expense—though I always had that cognitive dissonance deep down about the ways we weren’t adequately “walking the talk” about the poor and the oppressed.
…While Wanting to Take Over?
It was bad enough that we were enacting an avoidant response to the responsibilities of taking care of the oppressed. But it wasn’t only a flight stress response involved in this dissonant form of political disgust. We also lashed out.
See, I was from a denomination on the progressive edge of the group known as Evangelicals—those who were supposed to take it seriously that we were to take the message to others. We had so much talk about grace and unconditional love and knowing that those who were saved were saved for good. But underneath that, I can see that we also had a lot of underlying anxiety that everything—and everyone—outside these perceived boundaries were dirty and immoral. This got communicated in a lot of ways.
Poor Management of Rejection?
I think now that it bothered us, in the Evangelical part of our identity, that people were rejecting our message because of incongruous messaging, even while our progressive sides felt guilty about not doing more about social engagement with the big problems of the world.
Since many of us weren’t taught to be good with dealing with our emotions, we weren’t good at dealing with the world’s feedback about our incongruous messaging messing with their trust. See, they didn’t buy our flight from the “political.” They especially didn’t buy the alignment many had with political groups and policies that demonized their own attempts to look out for vulnerable marginalized groups.
Poor Coping Mechanisms Create Redefined, Strict Moral Standards
In short, I can see how the more conservative “Evangelical” side of our group didn’t do well with accepting the “it’s not us, it’s you” message from the world.
Lots of my peops weren’t–and still aren’t–quite ready to hear about how our behavior had damaged those inside and outside our walls. So some of us at least lashed out defensively against the bearers of this potentially helpful information toward making things right.
And to make ourselves feel righteous, my peops’ instinctual way to defend our territory was to mark around our communities and those things we felt we could do well. (Or deluded ourselves into thinking we were doing well.) It was convenient to see these things as the only things that were important in morality.
As it turned out, I can see now how all of this left many of our community vulnerable to really unhealthy messaging from the outside, and damaged our relationships with many people groups. (Deep sigh.)
Perhaps you can already begin to glimpse why the rhetoric of the Republican party was so attractive to some of my peops.
I’ll continue to discuss the messy incarnational moralities of “getting political” in the next installment of this series.
That won’t come for a little while, though. Next week I’m planning to share an excerpt of my latest book review of Kathy Khang’s Raise Your Voice, which is appearing in the fall print magazine put out by Englewood Review of Books. I’m only going to share it in the email newsletter, though–so sign up in the top bar of this site if you want to get in on that content! There may be something on this site as an article, but I haven’t gotten that far in figuring things out. In light of the complete crap statement I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it may contain or be primarily or totally comprised of excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr. or other prophetic voices calling us to social justice.
The ILA’s “International Day of Listening” is also coming up on September 20, so also stay tuned for an online Assertive Spirituality Facebook event I’m putting together related to that.