Tag Archives: 2020

The Religious Language of Republicans and Democrats

Note: It’s my honor and joy that my former student, Whitney Harper, guest authored the post below. Whitney was a student of mine when I taught in Scotland in 2009, and we have remained close ever since. She now is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

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In the United States we like to claim separation of church and state, but the reality is much more complicated. Although our minds may automatically be drawn to the Religious Right as the main violator of this separation, research has shown Democratic candidates have taken note, and are also making use of religious language to frame their stances.

In contrast to Republican candidates’ overt use of religious language to frame debates surrounding abortion, Christianity’s role in the public sphere, and “family values,” Democratic candidates tend to take a more subtle approach, being careful not to alienate non-Christian voters, but also making sure to use phrases that will perk up the ears of Christians. They tend to use religious language to frame care for the poor, healthcare reform, and concern for racism, sexism, and the environment; often centering their religious rhetoric on Jesus’ petition to care for “the least of these.” Although these references aren’t as explicit as Republicans,’ they have started to persuade more Christian voters to the Democratic Party, building up the more recently established “Religious Left.”

How has religious language been so successful not only in the Republican Party, but also in a party that has largely taken a more “secular” stance? Recent research can be especially helpful in answering this question.

A body of psychological research consistently shows that voters make their decisions primarily based on a “gut” feeling, and that religious language is especially helpful for speaking to this intuitive sense. For example, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines moral intuitions in relation to religion and politics in the United States. He argues that, when it comes to religion and politics – and really any of our decision-making – “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (italics in the original). By this, Haidt means that as much as people want to believe they make decisions rationally and consciously, the reality is that almost all of our reasoning is unconscious and driven by instinct and emotion. He elaborates:

“The central metaphor . . . is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior” (italics in the original).

In other words, most of the choices we make – including how religious we are, who we vote for, and how we make moral decisions – are driven by emotion. We then create reasons and justifications after the fact. We feel to our very core our beliefs are the correct ones – to the point that words can’t fully explain why, as much as we may try – and this strong urge makes it easier to dismiss other views. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias: the act of ignoring information that contradicts what we already think and seeking out information that reaffirms what we already believe.

This strong emotional gut-level reaction is what makes the coupling of religious and political language so powerful in a voter’s decision making. For example, for several decades the pro-life stance has been drilled into the majority of conservative Christians’ minds as the stance for Christians to look for when voting. Over time, this has strengthened Christian voters’ instinctive responses to “pro-life” language. Haidt continues:

Unsplash | Brad Dodson
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The Need for Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

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The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

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It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

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What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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Self-Fulfilling Pandemic

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a process by which expectations elicit behaviors that ultimately confirm those expectations. For instance, many psychologists discuss how stock market trading can be influenced by a self-fulfilling prophecy. When individuals believe the stock market is going to rise, they buy, and the stock market does rise; when people believe the market is going to fall, they sell, and the market does fall.

The COVID-19 pandemic may demonstrate many more examples of the self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, many individuals believe there’s nothing that can be done to prevent the spread of the virus and that everyone’s going to become infected at some point no matter what. Such people may argue that lockdowns, social distancing, and masks don’t make any significant difference, and this may lead them to argue for re-opening, go to bars, and not wear masks. And, when enough individuals demonstrate this pattern, the virus does spread, as it has in many regions of the United States.

How will similar self-fulfilling prophecies impact what happens this academic year as elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students return to school? Some say that elementary school children can’t possibly wear masks during an entire school day. Many argue that middle-school and high-school kids can’t possibly control their bodies and remain physically distant from their peers. Others are convinced that college and university students will, of course, go to bars and party. Across these levels of school, many believe that the quality of education will definitely be lacking. We may be in for a very difficult fall and winter if these are the assumptions that guide us.

There actually is a great deal of controversy and debate among researchers who study the self-fulfilling prophecy: maybe self-fulfilling prophecies elicit certain outcomes because people’s expectations are accurate in the first place. For instance, it’s true that students experience certain struggles conforming to public health guidelines because of developmental needs and that following these guidelines is particularly difficult for some due to various underlying conditions. There definitely are unique obstacles for education during a pandemic.

This raises a key question about people’s mindsets, with potentially critical consequences for this pandemic: do we emphasize limitations and obstacles in our thinking and assume that behavior cannot change, or do we emphasize possibilities and assume that behavior can change through effort, persistence, and accurate information? In some ways, the answer surely depends on the individual and situation. We need to be real. At the same time, what if we lean optimistic this academic year and assume that young people are capable of social responsibility and that schools can be a spark for transformation?

Pexels | Gustavo Fring

Pexels | Gustavo Fring

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