"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” So wrote historian Richard Hofstadter in 1964; it is the first line of his now-famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He continued: “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
The paranoid style is as familiar as a postage stamp: it is one species of demonization, of casting your opponents as not only wrong, but evil.
This theme has remained latent in American political discourse even during seasons of bipartisan agreement and fellow feeling. Fast-forward a half-century from Hofstadter’s essay to 2014, to the waning days of Obama’s presidency and the anarchic ferment of new media, Alex Jones, and Twitter, and one finds the paranoid style not latent but ascendant. It only needed a catalyst to envelop American politics entirely. In 2015, a catalyst arrived by way of a Manhattan escalator in the form of a man who is now president of the United States.
The stakes seem to have only gotten higher since President Donald Trump took office in early 2017. As studies by Pew Research Center and other organizations attest, generalized outrage and accelerating polarization are two of the new stable features of our politics. Other studies show they have increasingly become features of life in the American church, as well.
“This is the way politics has now developed in full bloom in the United States,” Dr. David Fitch ’77 says. “We are a culture that runs on antagonisms,” and “the church has lost who it is and has entered into conflicts on the terms given to us by the world.”
Fitch is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance, which offers guidance for pastors navigating ministry in a post-Christendom era. He sees our moment as the product of antagonism, a concept he describes as “the making of an enemy by turning someone into an ‘other.’” In his book The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith that Feeds on Making Enemies (Brazos, 2019), Fitch characterizes antagonism as “a social dynamic in which we are always forced to take sides,” and calls the social phenomenon of antagonism “the enemy-making machine.”
Why did the church succumb to this dynamic so easily? In Fitch’s analysis, for most of American history, the church has enjoyed a position of cultural preeminence and power, a condition he calls “Christendom.” In recent decades, as American culture has opened to receive more diverse presences and voices and has become a less monolithic entity, white Protestants in particular have lost the comforts of their former implicit hegemony. Defensive reactions such as the “Moral Majority” of the 1980s demonstrated a longing for the old status quo—and the power and cultural dominance that went along with it.
With that power and dominance came an ability to determine the shape of the American historical narrative. An example is the Civil Rights era, which some prefer to remember as a time during which racism was finally scoured from American society.
However, the tensions and injustices that many Americans considered dealt with in the Civil Rights era were not actually resolved but instead suppressed or hidden, as the recent uptick in hate crimes and racist rhetoric since 2015 makes clear. Dr. Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, sees the triumphalist narrative as willfully myopic.
“You think 300-plus years of racial hierarchy can be undone by 50 years?” Bacote asks. “We’re still waiting for that revival.” Though the accounting is painful, “the complexity and difficulty of all that is being unveiled” when it comes to race and violence in American culture at least does away with a convenient falsehood that would prevent the truth from being visible at all.
Unsurprisingly, the reappearance of the founding American sin has done its own part to fuel outrage and mutual suspicion across ideological divides.
Dr. Ed Stetzer, Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism and executive director of the Billy Graham Center, says social media is another major driver of the kinds of social fragmentation that have helped to amp up our culture of outrage. He compares new communication platforms and technology to lead pipes, which were once considered a major technological innovation adopted without reservation until their consequences for public health began to emerge.
Though social media affects secular and believing Americans alike, according to research by the Billy Graham Center collected in an appendix in Stetzer’s book Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst (Tyndale, 2018), evangelicals actually spend more time on social media than their nonevangelical compatriots. In digital spaces, they also prioritize associating with people who share their beliefs at a higher rate. These trends may contribute to the development, even in the church, of online echo chambers that reinforce polarization and tribalism, rendering ideological opponents not only wrong, but evil.
Stetzer says it is becoming urgent for American Christians to develop practices of social media discipleship.
“We don’t have any discipleship practices around it,” he says, even though there are “thousands of people on the other side of [that] screen” tasked with the job of making every part of the digital experience more difficult to pull away from.
Outrage is becoming a reliable generator of engagement for social media companies. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that Facebook users selected “angry” responses more often than “love” responses to posts by members of Congress, with the “angry” response rate increasing more than threefold after the 2016 presidential election. Reporters and editors at major national media companies judge the newsworthiness of each of Trump’s tweets as it comes in, and the president’s short messages are a regular feature of broadcasts on Fox News and CNN. The president’s tweets are often “ratio’d,” which means the replies outnumber the “likes”—a situation that normally comes about when more people respond with anger than passively mark a tweet with their approval.
Professor of Political Science Dr. Amy Black notes that “We’ve never had a president basically patrol social media content so directly himself,” adding, “Trump is really our first Twitter president.” With the loss of unspoken cues and the nonverbal means by which people communicate during face-to-face interaction, social media can alienate users from one another and suppress the sense that there are people on the receiving end of their posts—people with no less inherent worth or dignity than the person living next door.
Alienation, growing tribalism, and latent anger provided key vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit during the 2016 election, which they did by encouraging division and dissent among people at both ends of the political spectrum. “Fake news” played on the fears and antipathies of Americans who were losing trust in legacy media institutions.
“Declining trust data goes right along with polarization data,” Black says, and there is likely a causal relationship between declining trust and the changing nature of the media environment.
“Trust is really at the center of democratic government,” Black says. “It’s difficult to sustain a healthy democracy when you lose trust.”
When one adds natural sinful proclivities to the mix of shifting cultural power, resurgent racial anxieties, a technological environment engineered to provoke omnidirectional outrage, the manipulations of hostile agents of foreign powers, and a generalized loss of mutual trust, it seems all but inevitable that the church would give in to the moment and embrace the angry spirit of the present age.
But hope remains a necessary Christian virtue. In addition to studying the underlying reasons for our culture’s darkening mood, Fitch, Stetzer, Bacote, Black, and others are also attentive to the places where the light gets in.
A guiding theme for much of the research these scholars are doing is the notion of the common good. “For me, ultimately, the question is: ‘Can we live together?’” Stetzer says. “My desire is that men and women might not burn down bridges with their neighbors, but would instead build bridges with their neighbors.”
Against the “enemy-making machine” and in the context of an open horizon of possibilities for the church to re-approach the American cultural conversation without directing it or setting its terms, Fitch recommends a stance for Christians that sets limits around the value of temporal power.
“I’m pushing for a renewed practice of reading Scripture, doing evangelism, and engaging culture that renews our presence as the witnesses to the reign of Jesus Christ as Lord in our culture,” Fitch says. As he writes in The Church of Us vs. Them, “It is Christ’s supernatural presence that breaks the hold of the antagonistic frame.”
Wariness about the ways power militates against this vision has led Fitch to prioritize politics with a local instead of a national emphasis. He hopes Christians engaged in politics would prioritize “healing and restoring and understanding the struggles and pains and antagonisms” that are part of life in their own neighborhoods and cities, and to build a national movement only on top of one that is primarily directed at the problems found down the street.
One of those problems is a lack of civic education. Black’s book Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason (Moody, 2012) was a response in part to an experience she had while teaching an adult education class at her church. When she asked the group what they wanted to talk about, many of the participants mentioned wanting a primer on American government. For some, it had simply been too long since high school civics for them to remember how a bill becomes a law or what part of government oversees what areas of public life.
Black sees this as an important part of her own work: by building her principles for Christian political witness on the foundation of an explanation of basic civics, she hopes to equip her readers and students for the sort of political engagement that prioritizes the common good, an approach that embodies “an aspect of the command to live out our love for neighbor.”
Black’s colleague, Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Kristin Darr Garrett ’07, uses empirical tools and methodologies such as survey experiments and even physiological measures in lab studies to conduct research into the question of how people engage one another in the political sphere. Related to the issues of declining trust, growing outrage, and accelerating polarization, her most recent research question is: “How does virtue help citizens navigate political differences in pluralist democracies?”
This question is at the heart of a forthcoming study on the effects of humility and social identity on the hostility and stress that arise over political differences. The study is part of the Self, Virtue and Public Life Project, which is funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.
Garrett’s study will make use of a uniquely multidisciplinary approach. She will work with professors from the Wheaton College Departments of Biology, Philosophy, Mathematics, and Psychology to develop a multifaceted perspective on the ways the virtue of humility might provide a source of mollification in encounters between people who hold conflicting views.
“I think the project has important real-world implications for reducing the partisan division and hostility we see in our current political climate,” Garrett says. “Because we have experts on virtue ethics, character development, relationship conflict, morality and politics, political polarization, democratic theory, statistics, and the neurobiology of stress, we can properly theorize about and evaluate how virtue mitigates hostility and stress across political differences.”
Dr. Bryan McGraw, dean of the Social Sciences at Wheaton, characterizes Garrett’s work as being in the line of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, with whom she shares an interest in the way unconsciously held moral presuppositions shape an individual’s outlook. The pre-reflective responses that emerge from these hidden assumptions can be very powerful, and one of the practical questions of the study is whether those responses can be redirected or mitigated in a way that might cool our heated public debates.
The conversation about race, for example, is an area where hidden assumptions exert a tremendous amount of power. Although racism in American society has proven to be an unvanquished enemy, Bacote finds that a more open and honest conversation about the issues creates reason for hope. “Yes, the times are fraught, but they’re also one of the greatest opportunities for Christians to show another way,” he says. A scholar of the work of Dutch Reformed statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper and author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life (Zondervan, 2015), Bacote hopes Christians may grow more willing to “let Jesus interrogate their political commitments,” a process made easier when one remembers that politics is a limited sphere in the scheme of things: “no political party can deliver the eschaton.”
Before Christ’s return, a politics that seeks the common good while upholding the dignity and humanity of one’s opponent could help bring a robust Christian political witness back to life in the public square.
“Disagreeing with people while humanizing them in the process—the lane is wide open for someone to operate that way,” Bacote says.
Humanizing can also mean understanding and sharing in lament for causes of outrage.
Dr. Noah Toly ’99, M.A. ’12 is the executive director of the Center for Urban Engagement and professor of both urban studies and politics and international relations at Wheaton. Through Wheaton’s urban engagement programs, Toly observes students placing themselves in proximity with neighbors who have been victims of oppression. “One of the things our students have to learn is how to share in the grief and the lament and to share in the righteous outrage, but in a way that is loving toward their neighbors and transforms the conversation,” Toly says. “And they actually see that modeled by [the College’s] community partners.”
It is hard to say how far this empathetic engagement can go toward changing the tone of our larger cultural conversations, just as it is difficult to tell whether an old virtue could help a person navigate political differences, or whether a model of social media discipleship might help Christians to be less vulnerable to political deception and exploitation. Who knows, too, if anyone will notice if Christians consciously allow their political commitments to be interrogated by the teachings of Jesus, or if a Sunday school class with a civics component helps revitalize a congregation’s sense for the common good, or if a church’s putting limits on the value it ascribes to temporal power helps bolster a local community’s mutual trust. But certainty is inimical to faith. Sometimes the important thing is to try.