What Psychology Offers Christians Amid Political Polarization

Scholars describe the difficulties and benefits of humility, but Christ offers an example.
What Psychology Offers Christians Amid Political Polarization
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Getty

Unprepared for all the political drama after the 2016 election, a number of churches split up over disagreements on whether Christians should support President Trump or not. As we face the 2020 election, the pressure to choose a side remains intense. Recent Democratic candidates have called for the establishment of a “religious left” to defeat the “religious right.” Groups like the Red Letter Christians vehemently denounce anyone who supports President Trump as “abandoning Jesus” and part of a “toxic Christianity.”

Yet the church’s tension is also part of a national tension: The growing rift between the two political parties has hit an all-time high, with 97 percent of Democrats polling more liberal in viewpoints than the average Republican, and likewise, 95 percent of Republicans polling more conservative than the average Democrat.

Psychology explains this political polarization as an effect of groupthink: Put in a position of “us versus them,” people will strongly side with those who think and act like themselves and want nothing to do with the other side. This creates a spiraling effect which further widens the “us versus them” gap.

A key mitigator to this hostility between groups is intellectual humility, a term psychologists broadly define as “recognizing that one’s beliefs and opinions might be incorrect.” The lead-up to the 2020 election has combined religion and politics in a way that is destined for social conflict. As the election cycle begins with this week’s primary debates, we can learn from this study.

While this kind of humility may be particularly applicable to this contemporary moment, humility has always been integral to the Christian faith. We believe in a God who humbled himself “to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus taught us to think of others before ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

Despite the infancy of studying this concept formally, psychology has already pointed to the importance of intellectual humility in social interactions around hot-button topics. One study suggested that participants with greater intellectual humility spent more time trying to understand views with which they disagreed and also were more likely to accurately assess their own knowledge on obscure topics. Another study pointed to intellectual humility as an important factor in reducing strong emotional reactions to those who disagreed with them, even leading to more moderate beliefs in general. Furthermore, intellectual humility had strong correlations with openness to alternative views and prosocial values such as empathy, gratitude, altruism, benevolence, social desirability, and honesty.

Unfortunately, the research on intellectual humility also suggests that Christians lag behind the curve. Numerous studies have correlated low intellectual humility with extreme views on religion both in support and opposition. One study found specifically that intellectual humility is difficult to practice among religious leaders. Since religion, especially Christianity, purports to be the only answer to the seemingly unanswerable questions about life and the afterlife, when such questions are challenged it can shake the foundations of a believer’s worldview. Thus, confidence in one’s faith in the face of threats is preached and encouraged in the church, which unfortunately can breed a lack of intellectual humility. Instances of low intellectual humility mixed with misuse of the Bible as a weapon can result in the acts of violence and evil and disunity within the church. This April, we witnessed this when a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian church opened fire and killed a woman at a Jewish synagogue.

While evangelicals believe that Christ is the only true way to salvation, we also believe in the transcendence of God and our own fallibility. His thoughts are greater than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8–9), and what we know and understand is only a part of the complete knowledge that comes in heaven (1 Cor. 13:9–12).

True, the Bible commands us to care for the poor and oppressed and to welcome the stranger from another land. Also true, the Bible commands us to defend the value of life and sanctity of marriage. Also important, though, Christians are commanded to demonstrate God’s love in their love for one another, so that in our unity, the world would know God. How are we doing this as we mediate between opposing political parties? Are we loving each other despite who we’re voting for or what party we’re a part of? Are we debating issues respectfully and with full consideration of each other’s ideas, rather than resorting to name-calling and personal insults?

In 2016, 13 percent of people surveyed by Public Religion Research Institute unfriended people on Facebook because of what they posted about politics. Have we been part of that 13 percent? How do our actions on social media demonstrate God’s love?

While intellectual humility can be pursued as a means of setting an example of love, fellowship, and humility in the face of heated divisiveness in our country, it is not an excuse to be lackadaisical or feeble in one’s faith. It does not mean accepting a postmodern view that claims there is no real truth and everything is relative.

Research on intellectual humility suggests that it is not an unchanging personality trait; it can vary in specific situations. In other words, we can grow to manifest more intellectual humility through positive interactions and fruitful discussions with disagreeing individuals.

Peter set the example for us in Acts 10. Despite his strong convictions about staying away from “unclean” individuals such as the Gentiles, he was eventually convinced by God that the gospel is now made available for all peoples. He subsequently arranged for the baptism of Cornelius, a Gentile, as a new follower in Christ. Like Peter, we should be open to the possibility that our convictions may be incorrect and ready to learn from the work of the Holy Spirit in other Christians.

Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary, calls Christians to “convicted civility,” where we must stand for truth but engage openly and respectfully in conversations and debates with opposing viewpoints. Mouw offers a few suggestions for how to do this. First, be sure you have a clear and unbiased understanding of the opposing viewpoint. “This means asking people what they believe rather than telling them what they believe. It’s saying, ‘Is this a good way to describe your view? Can you help me understand what you believe?’” he said.

Second, he suggested looking in the mirror, examining not only the truthfulness of our beliefs—in this case, before we write that political comment on social media—but also our own motives. It’s easy to accidentally turn our preferences, cultural upbringing, and personal comfort zone into moral stances. Are we ready to answer the question, “Why do you believe that?”

Finally, Mouw suggested remembering what we have in common and staying away from artificial demarcations. Recent data suggests that Americans’ religious views are increasingly shaped by their political party. However, we are Christians, first and foremost. Pastor Tim Keller reminds believers that we were never supposed to fit into a two-party social mold. He rightly points out that we must stay away from the “package-deal” model of ethics where one must subscribe to the entire party’s platform. Instead, Christians ought to approach their stances on social issues from a Christian basis, rather than a Democratic or Republican platform.

When it comes to whom we should vote for in the 2020 election, the recent surge in intellectual humility research echoes a resounding biblical call to humility. If we transcend partisanship in the upcoming election in service of loving one another, we will ultimately demonstrate God’s love (John 13:34–35).

Steven Zhou is an incoming PhD student in organizational psychology at George Mason, with an MA in religion from Pepperdine. He has served in college student ministry and leadership development, and his research background is in the intersection of faith and psychology, specifically in leadership and motivation studies.

July/August
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These Next
close