Monday, December 21, 2020
Over the weekend, Franklin Graham tweeted that, because President Trump has been proven right in the past, if he claims that the election was rigged or stolen, Graham believes him. This tweet was an insightful but troubling distillation of the cultural cognition work that Dan Kahan has been doing for years. Kahan explains that our debate over climate change, for example, “isn’t about what you know . . . it’s about who you are.” On many of our hot-button issues, people aren’t “thinking about the arguments,” they’re “thinking about which side they’re on.”
The journey of the white evangelicals who look to Graham for leadership has been remarkable over the past four years, moving – in very broad terms – from a “we have to vote for Trump because he’s not Hillary,” to more enthusiastic support that looks beyond character issues because of Trump's policy positions, to a wholehearted reliance on Trump's character (trustworthiness) even when there is no evidence to support his claims. This trajectory – tribe over facts – is not limited to white evangelicals, of course. I recently asked a circle of friends, all of whom are full-throated opponents of President Trump, if they could cite one positive policy or practice that had been implemented by this administration. Total silence, followed by protestation of my question’s premise. The sides have been chosen, and that’s the choice that matters.
This is not going to end on January 20. President Trump is a powerful accelerant, but not the source. I believe that this is the most pressing challenge we face as a nation, not only because our tribalism is preventing the flourishing of human relationships near and far, but because it makes political collaboration on the many other challenges we face exceedingly difficult. What does Catholic social teaching have to offer at this time? Yes, CST offends both tribes because of the substance of the Church's truth claims. But what does it have to say about our rapid retreat from the world of factual analysis into a cultish tribalism? The social scientists have plenty to say, but what about the Church? If the bishops’ contributions to our national political discourse over the next four years does not include the dangers of tribalism as a focal point, that will be an opportunity lost. Let’s start at a very practical level: if a pastor were to recognize the problem and decide to preach on growing American tribalism, what should he say?