Sep  2017 25
Who Isn’t Preaching Just to the Choir?

Someone commented on last week’s blog, “I concur, but you’re preaching to the choir.” That comment prompted two related thoughts:

  • Who isn’t preaching only to the choir these days?
  • When is that last time you persuaded anyone, or you were persuaded, about a value-laden matter?

I am becoming skeptical of the efficacy of the art of persuasion among deeply divided publics.

In recent years, brain research has revealed how emotionally-driven human beings are, even those of us who consider ourselves highly rational.

The emotional nature of thinking often dampens or deletes data that doesn’t fit the emotion-based narratives in which we live. We all have heard that we live in a post-fact culture.

For some years, researchers such as Drew Westin have been telling us that Republicans do a much better job than Democrats appealing to constituents’ emotional narratives, with Al Gore v. George W Bush debates being a primary example (Gore relied too heavily on facts to defeat an opponent who could quip in a winsome way). Westin would certainly add the outcome of the Clinton-Trump election to his examples.

Seth Godin recently reflected on issues of science that have become matters of values trumping science, as in evolution, climate change, and vaccines. After making clear what humankind gains if science wins out in these matters, he muses: “What’s a mystery is what the anti-science confusors get if they prevail. What happens when we don't raise the next generation of scientists, when vaccines become politically and economically untenable, when we close our eyes and simply rebuild houses on the floodplain again? Gravity doesn’t care if you believe in it, neither does lung cancer.”

Facts don’t matter, or must be discounted, if they don’t confirm one’s narrative.

In the U.S., religions are pervasive but religious institutions are disestablished, there is no state-sponsored religion. (Yes, the freedoms of the First Amendment are under attack, especially by those who still want a United Faith of America which looks a lot like an imperial version of Christianity, without the compassionate teachings of Jesus.)

Religions live in the realm of persuasion, not coercion. About 45 years ago, ethicist James Gustafson wrote an influential essay, “Political Images of the Ministry,” in which he argued that, in a free-market of religions, a pastor’s authority is akin to a politician’s: both must woo and massage a constituency.

Today, it seems that politicians massage but don’t woo. With bi-partisanship among politicians at a low point, with the practice of civil discourse little understood or employed, with the opportunities for self-righteous grenade-throwing and intense shaming that social media provide, and with the assumption that most big issues will be decided by the Supremes rather than legislatively, I really worry about the ability of anyone to persuade anyone else, including the ability of religious leaders to do anything but preach to the choir.

Call it civil discourse. Call it holy conferencing. Call it seeking understanding. Call it achieving disagreement. Call it searching for common ground. Call it humankind’s only real alternative to violence.

But the ability to deal with difference and conflict through using words, through taking responsibility for self-understanding, for remaining curious about rather than captive to one’s own moral emotions, for distinguishing between a situation that is unsafe and one that is uncomfortable, for owning one’s errors and sins in judgment and action, and for changing one’s mind—who is teaching this? Who is practicing this?

There are some people and institutions which care about these matters:

But how about religious institutions, congregations in particular? I fear that we religious folks have done more to fuel our host society’s under-developed capacity to persuade and be persuaded than we have to engage and understand anyone who thinks, values, and behaves differently from “us.”

The Christian Right is the prime, but not only example, of trading persuasion for coercion: settle religious and moral issues by law.

Where does all the above leave religious leaders? Preaching to the choir.

Choirs need to hear preaching, for sure, but when we preach only to the choir, all we do is harden boundaries and contribute to a disassociated collectivity of self-righteous bubbles rather than the possibility of civil society or genuine community.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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