How to Think about your Political Opponents

by Oct 25, 2017Culture, Epistemology

Alan Jacobs is interviewed by his now-unbelieving former Wheaton student, Emma Green, who nonetheless provides insightful journalistic coverage of evangelicals. They discuss his new book How to Think.

And Jacobs says this:

Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.

But sometimes we get things wrong, because politics is hard. Knowing the right policy in any case is difficult, because you’re having to predict the future and the variables are astronomically complex. But we want to believe that it’s obvious what to do to fix our social problems.

Okay, so there’s a lot of wisdom here, as always with Jacobs. In particular, that last paragraph ought to be memorized by all American schoolchildren and recited daily as accepted wisdom. The variables are so complex that people almost universally take refuge in ideological responses; they are all our brains can handle.

I also like the complaint that people appeal to “vast subterranean forces”—we psychologize our opponents and enlist them in imaginary cabals.

But… knowledge in Scripture is an ethical category, so wicked evil malice is a possible explanation for someone’s inability to see the truth.

You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. (Eph 4:17–18)

Hard hearts have a direct impact on cognitive faculties.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom 1:18)

I think I’d want to leave room for people to culpably but sincerely believe a lie. The suppression of the truth happens at a level of one’s knowledge below conscious thought. I don’t think Richard Dawkins consciously thinks to himself, “I know there’s a being of eternal power and divine nature, but I just can’t admit it publicly or I’ll lose all my income.” And even if he does think this way, it isn’t healthy for me to think that he thinks this way! The Bible speaks of God sending wicked people—people who “refuse to love the truth”—a “delusion” so that “they believe a lie” (2 Ths 2:11) They really do believe it, in other words.

There may not be vast subterranean forces affected people’s cognition, but there are vast supernatural ones.

Nonetheless, despite these caveats, views on the wisest, most efficient way to raise the standard of living for working class people are based on such “astronomically complex” factors that our first recourse should not be to spiritual blindness and delusive belief in a lie on the part of our political opponents. Instead of resorting to fallenness, first try finiteness: we can’t even understand the present well enough to make exhaustively accurate descriptions of our economic situation; far less can we predict the future. And I say this no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on. I recently took the Political Compass test and scored as pretty nearly a centrist, so just about everybody out there is to my right or my left. It is certain that through God’s common grace there are “contemptuously smug liberals” who have valid political insights about how to achieve common goals. There are “wrathful conservatives” out there, too, who see parts of the truth that their opponents don’t.

Policies have to be chosen, and someone’s party is going to be disappointed. I’m not saying all parties have an equal lock on political truths. I’m saying that careful Christian theology provides a basis for humility—because the same fallenness and finiteness that affects the other party affects ours. We must judge others’ policies, but we must be willing to be judged by the same measure we mete out (Matt 7:1). Jumping right to demonization is a sure way to elicit the same from the other side. And as one of the comparatively few educated people who actually believes in demons and their power to influence mankind, I still say that “demonization” of one’s political opponents should not be one’s first—or even fifth—recourse.

UPDATE: I just read this article in the New York Times about Boko Haram’s practice of forcing young girls to be suicide bombers. The article was deeply disturbing and sad. Boko Haram terrorists offer a religious rationalization to the young ladies: you’ll only be killing wicked people, and you’ll go straight to heaven. Whether they sincerely believe what they themselves are saying or not, I don’t know. It seems to me, however, that they are morally obligated—given what the Bible says about conscience in Romans 2 and elsewhere—to know that any appeals to religion to justify murder of innocents are at best cynical and in actuality evil. In other words, Boko Haram is not just wrong to send 13-year-olds to their deaths; they’re malicious and wicked. I have little doubt that learning the fighters’ life stories could increase my sympathy for them; who as a kid aspires to be a sadistic murderer? Surely some are victims of subterranean forces. But “I was only following orders” is not a suitable defense because knowledge is an ethical category: all people have God’s law written on their hearts and ought to know better. I hope my empathy could never extend to absolving murderers of their guilt, or I’d violate my own God-given conscience.

The upshot of this little blog post: I want to accede to Jacobs’ wisdom while preserving my ability to pull out the “wicked” card when needed.

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