Election Season 2020: The Foundations of Our Ideologies
The struggle is real: the US election this year includes voting for president, the Senate, the House of Representatives, plus every local kind of election that we can imagine. I wanted to write several posts about the election and perhaps find a different way to talk about elections than we may experience in many other parts of life or ministry.
During political election seasons, candidates present themselves well and champion an ideology to win people’s votes. So, what is an ideology? Simply put, ideology is “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how that order can be achieved” (Jost et al., “Political Ideology”). In short, politicians (who want to effectively share their beliefs) will say both what they want to happen AND how they want it to happen. Youth are going to hear a lot of terms that have to do with “left-wing” or “right-wing” language as the news cycle reports on candidates and their beliefs about what is important to them and how they will deal with issues if elected into office.
(As a slightly nerdy history-aside, why have the terms “left” and “right” come to mean “progressive” or “conservative?” Well, at the French National Assembly of 1789, which took place during the earliest stages of the French Revolution, a very basic question of ideology came up. Do we preserve the present order of our society, or do we change it? People who favored keeping the present order of French society and government sat on the right side of the meeting room, while those who preferred changes sat on the left. Since that time, the terms “right” and “left” in politics, have been used to signal if an idea or candidate tends to be more conservative or more liberal.)
The ideas presented below come largely from Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and modified for use in discussion with youth in a faith setting. Terms and quotes used from Haidt’s original work will appear in blue, while discussion suggestions and framing thoughts will appear in standard font. The basic concept is this: (1) We all care about how the society and the community around us function. (2) We have different preferences for what should be done and how it should be done to create the best society/community possible. (3) Our preferences are based upon tastes that we develop as individuals through life experience, education, and interactions with mentors. (4) Understanding why we have the preferences that we have can help us be in better Christian Conferencing with one another (a Wesleyan term also called ‘holy conferencing’) where we can have honest and direct conversations that are led by the Holy Spirit.
Creating Your Own Discussion with Youth
You know the youth in your group and you can use your wisdom, reason, and experience to introduce these ideas as a way to discuss topics that come up in politics by getting beneath the surface of those arguments, and helping young people begin to understand why they react and make judgements based upon their underlying values.
Please read through the rest of this article, and decide how you could use this information and set of discussion prompts to create meaningful dialogue with your group.
Introduction to Tastes
Haidt introduces the metaphor of “taste buds” for ideology on pages 132-133 of The Righteous Mind. Just as people have different preferences for food based upon their palates (and their tongues, which have different taste buds attuned to different flavors), our minds have different preferences for big ideas and grand concepts, how we should treat one another, academic subjects, and even morals and political beliefs.
If discussing this idea with youth in person, introduce the idea along with a buffet of foods that have strong and distinct flavors, as well as foods usually preferred by older and younger taste buds. (pickles, cheese, pineapple, Flamin’ hot Cheetos, sour warheads, black licorice, and so on. You could even include baby foods, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to highlight that needs and tastes change as we age!) If you are discussing this idea online, consider having foods that you could hold up to the screen or pictures that you could share.
For each food item, show the food and ask how many youth have had this food before. Then, ask for a show of hands if they like this food or not. Have them respond yes or no; nothing in between. As each food is eaten/tasted, make sure to ask why a food is liked or not liked; you could include time for fun debates about what makes the food good or bad, especially if someone feels really strongly about a particular food.
Close this portion of the conversation by saying something like, “I’m glad that you all recognize that we have different tastes. A pickle is just a pickle, but some people like pickles and some people don’t. Our preferences about politics and morality (morality meaning what is good behavior versus wrong behavior) happen because our minds have different tastes too.”
Continue, saying something like, “As Christians, we are all called to care about one another and God…after all, the Great Commandment is for us to love God and to love our neighbors. So, I know that we all should want the best for ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and our world – but sometimes we will disagree about what actually is best for all those things…plus we may disagree about how we should act together to make the best possible version of things happen. So today, we are going to explore the ‘taste buds of our mind’ and learn a little bit about why we have the preferences that we do.”
The Taste Buds of the Mind (pages 178-179 of The Righteous Mind)
The Righteous Mind identifies several concepts that act like taste buds for our mind, recognizing that there is more to morality and the decision-making process of teens (and adults for that matter) than simply considering if something causes harm or seems fair. Here, we will explore these concepts and offer suggestions to explore and discuss them with youth.
You may select a single scripture or Bible story and ask youth to “taste the story,” using the six different tastes outlined below; or you could choose familiar stories or scriptures that go with each taste and introduce the concept that way. For each taste, we have attempted to list example scriptures that you could use as a starting place. Please feel free to add other scriptures or external stories if those are more helpful for your youth.
A few caveats for these observations and question suggestions:
1. Everyone could rely on each of these “tastes” while making political or moral decisions, but people tend to lean more heavily (or emphasize) on one or two of these tastes when making judgements and decisions.
2. Each of the tastes is true and valid to the individual doing the tasting. Discussion and comparison of an issue, a topic, or a person can be productive as long as people can describe the taste in the same way (use the same words).
3. Choices and decisions that make sense to one person may not make sense to another person because the individual is using (and prioritizing) different tastes as he or she makes judgements. Again, there may not be clear “yes or no” or “correct or incorrect” choices to be made in these conversations. The point is to begin to build empathy and understand that the point of view of another person can be valid. even if we disagree. This is because we rely on different tastes.
4. With empathy and understanding comes the willingness to compromise. Compromise in this sense means combining tastes and preferences to work together toward the best outcome for society and the community. Compromise does not mean that anyone is compromising morals by changing their mind. They are simply recognizing that there is more than one way to address an issue.
5. Religion and politics are team sports, plus we are both players and fans! (Remember, the word “fan” is short for “fanatic” someone with excessive enthusiasm or intense devotion.) We tend to defend our own team no matter what. We gain identity from our team, and are willing to wear our team’s merchandise. It may take lots of work (and time) to consider (and actually!) switching teams. Teams can be tough to build and maintain. Team can also feel attacked or undermined by outside influences. Together, we can build communities built on common understanding and respect, but we have to recognize our team is the larger than a political or religious label…it is all of humanity.
6. For any given topic where judgement is required, people can use each of these tastes…but they may choose not to. They can also place more importance or be more sensitive to a certain taste and use that taste to drive most of their decisions and opinions. Very few people use all six tastes equally all the time. Again, it is not bad to have taste preferences, but it is something to be aware of—especially in conversations related to policy, politics, and religion.
Taste Bud Group 1: Care/Harm – We become sensitive to signs of suffering and need. This taste makes us want to care for those who are suffering and despise the causes of suffering. This set of tastes seems central to the Christian life, especially considering teachings like Rueben Job’s classic line from Three Simple Rules “Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in Love with God.” Introducing this taste bud group to youth should come naturally as part of regular conversations at church. There are so many scriptures than address the concept of care/harm – from stories about stewardship of our world and our siblings (Genesis) through any number of relationships and stories in the Old and New Testaments. (The Good Samaritan, or The Healing of the Man Blind from Birth, or Naaman are possible examples)
To help explore this taste bud group as a part of lessons or conversations, ask questions such as the following:
- Where is the suffering in this story?
- What choices are made by people, or actions taken by God, that increase or decrease that suffering?
- Did anything in the scripture make you want to jump in and do anything to prevent or stop the suffering?
- What is happening in our world right now that reminds us of the same kinds of harm or care that we see in this scripture?
- Have you ever felt as though you were harmed and then received care? Have you ever witnessed harm or suffering and tried to provide care?
Taste Bud Group 2: Fairness/Cheating – As we recognize the rewards of cooperation without being exploited in the process, we become sensitive to things that indicate if another person is likely to be a good or bad partner for collaboration. This taste often makes us want to shun or punish cheaters. From early in scripture there are stories of people cheating or not treating others fairly. In fact many of the early laws had to do with our to treat others fairly. (In fact, look at how many of the Ten Commandments have to do with fairness or cheating!) Stories about the nature of what people think is fair and just versus what God thinks is fair and just dominate the relationship between people and the divine. The Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ parables, and some of Paul’s letters are great places to explore this taste. (Examples: Good Samaritan, Saul’s conversion and other’s reactions in Acts 9 & 10, The Jerusalem Council Decision in Acts 15, The Day of Reconciliation from Leviticus 16, Parable of the Lost Sheep)
To help explore this taste as a part of lessons or conversations, ask questions such as the ones below:
- Where was (the idea of or actual) fairness or cheating in this scripture?
- Who acted in a fair or unfair way? Were they confronted about that behavior? How did they react if they were confronted?
- Do people’s ideas of what is fair or just differ from God’s idea of fairness or justice based on this story?
- Have you ever personally been cheated or treated unfairly? How did it make you feel?
- Have you ever witnessed someone else being treated unfairly and tried to help?
- If we were to try to act more fairly, or pursue God’s kind of justice, would we act different?
- Does fairness have more to do with equality (everyone having an equal chance or being guaranteed of an equal outcome) or equity (everyone gets more out if they put more in)?
Taste Bud Group 3: Loyalty/Betrayal – As humanity grew into larger societies and social groups, we recognized the power of developing and maintaining coalitions, making us sensitive to signs that another person is or is not a team player. This taste encourages us to trust and reward team players while also making us perhaps want to hurt or ostracize (alienate or kick out) those who betray our team or group. Just look at the way that nations treat one another throughout scripture and how heroes of Old and New Testament stories are often loyal to their tribe, their nation, or their God in the face of challenges. Look at the early disciples and how their loyalty to Jesus in the crucifixion and Resurrection story is tested. Look at the outcasts in biblical stories, and even the nickname given to Judas, “the Betrayer,” to see just how strongly this taste is expressed in scripture. (Examples: Peter’s betrayal vs Judas’ betrayal in Luke 22; Peter’s confession and Jesus’ rebuke; Luke 4 when Nazareth wants to throw Jesus off a cliff)
To help explore this taste as a part of lessons or conversations, ask questions like the ones below:
- What groups do you feel loyal to? What does loyalty mean from the point of view of those groups?
- Have you had positive and negative experiences in group projects (at school, on mission trips, in clubs, etc.)? Have those experiences had anything to do with loyalty or betrayal?
- What kinds of behaviors would you consider important for someone to act loyally?
- What usually happens when someone is disloyal or betrays a group? What does God call us to do with those who are not loyal or betray a group? Is there ever forgiveness?
Taste Bud Group 4: Authority/Subversion – On our teams, we recognize that building strong relationships will benefit us as individuals within the social hierarchy of our team. This taste makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status and identify official and unofficial leaders on our team. We can sometimes tell when others seem to behave (or not) properly according to their status on the team. The disciples have several laughable exchanges about who among them will be Jesus’ second in command (picture James and John arguing about where they get to sit at the table to prove their importance) followed by arguments about authority and purpose between James, Peter and even Paul discussing Jews and Gentiles, when they’re all trying to figure out what to do after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The stories of occupation from Babylon to Rome and everyone in between adds layers of political and leadership authority that get very mixed up with leadership of Jewish and Christian leaders throughout the Bible. In fact, so much of Jesus’ life story has to do with subverting the authority of religious leaders in his time, embodying the ultimate authority of God, that this taste is easy to locate throughout scripture. There can also be positive aspects to authority, such as David recognizing Saul’s authority or Jesus’ recognizing God’s authority
To help explore this taste as a part of lessons or conversations, ask questions like the following:
- Are there people or organizations who have authority over you? What did they do to establish that authority?
- Why do you respect or disrespect authority? How?
- How can you determine who a leader is? How were leaders identified throughout scripture?
- Have you ever been part of a team (or band or ensemble cast) where it seemed like someone kept trying to take more authority than that person should have? Describe what happened, how people felt, and if the situation was ever resolved.
- Is it important to question authority? Why or why not?
- Is it important to submit to those who express healthy authority? Who might that be for you?
Taste Bud Group 5: Sanctity/Degradation – As our understanding of what was safe to eat, touch, and do became more clear (think about learning what foods are safe to eat, that boiling water before we drink it kills bacteria, and our knowledge of parasites and causes of illness increasing over time), humanity developed a taste that made us sensitive to what seemed clean and what seemed dirty. Over time, our tastes for what was life-giving became sacred and those things that caused harm became dangerous. This taste applies to behaviors and institutions, as well as objects. “Sacrosanct” is a word that gets used to describe a principle, place, or routine that is just too important or valuable to even consider interfering with or changing. In the US something like the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or the idea that “all men [people] are created equal” could be considered sacrosanct. In scripture, there are things considered so holy that people didn’t mess around with them, like; the Ark of the Covenant, holidays like Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and routines in the Temple especially) plus, there were plenty of laws to help people distinguish what is “religiously clean” versus “unclean”! If you have ever had a tough time getting into Leviticus or Deuteronomy with youth, dive into the rules that get laid down there with the idea that these are people trying to keep things clean and avoid disease outbreaks, and you can see how patterns of living can become sacred over time. In the Gospels, we come to understand that being “religiously clean” is not equal to avoiding “unclean things,” rather healing and “clean-ness” come through interactions with Jesus. For example, Jesus does not become unclean because he touches a paralyzed man, or heals the bleeding woman, or eats with sinners, or even fails to wash his hands before eating!
To help explore this taste as a part of lessons or conversations, ask questions like the following:
- In your life, what is something that is considered absolutely sacred in the sense that it would take something incredible to knock it out of your life? (Doing homework? Family game night? Youth group time? Sports? Others?)
- In your community (at school or in church or in your neighborhood), are there ideas or patterns that are held up as sacred and important? (the way we treat people, picking up after ourselves, putting trash where it belongs, Friday night football, and so on)
- Are there things that could degrade, dirty, or take away the sanctity (the feeling of someone or something being sacred) of anything that you just listed? If yes, what are things that you, or your community does, to limit those things?
- Are there places or things in your life that you clean, or keep clean, to show respect to a person or that place?
- Would you consider your church a sacred place or not? Why or why not?
- If something is sacred to one person (or group of people) but not to another person (or group of people), how should we treat that something?
- How might we discuss our differences on what is sacred or not?
Taste Bud Group 6: Liberty/Oppression – As some people settled and became agriculturally based as opposed to nomadic, social structures and networks within the community became more complicated. Leadership hierarchies developed, as did different forms of government. These leadership structures tended to create a ruling class and affected how wealth was divided within a society, often creating significant gaps in wealth. People developed a taste, especially in Western societies, that made us sensitive to leaders and whether their choices seemed to increase our personal freedom or oppress our individual freedoms and rights. Particularly in Western Democracies, the idea of freedom is close to sacrosanct. People in these societies expect their government to ensure and protect freedom, sometimes within the community and sometimes externally. When people are oppressed, revolutions can happen. In liberation theology (which has its roots in the faith of Africans and others becoming enslaved in the Americas), we can read scripture and find God always on the side of the oppressed – promising freedom in this life or afterward. There are times when Israel is the oppressed, and other times when they are the oppressor – so this is a dynamic that affects nations as well as individuals in scripture. (Examples of Oppression: Romans in charge at the start of the Christmas story, the oppression of Babylon on Jeremiah personally [Chapters 36, 37, 38] as well as the nation in other chapters of Jeremiah [and other prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel], during the time of Judges, when all people did what was right in their own eyes [negative freedom] or in Amos when captivity is listed as a punishment for Israel failing its people. Examples of Freedom: In James, where true religion/devotion means caring for widow and orphan or in Luke, where Jesus reads from Isaiah’s writings about liberation)
To help explore this taste as a part of lessons or conversations, ask questions like the following:
- What stories of freedom and oppression are you familiar with, either real life or fiction?
- Does being a person of faith offer a greater sense of freedom?
- Do you have any experiences of being oppressed? Do you see any oppression in your community?
- Do the choices you make create more opportunities for freedom or more opportunities for oppression?
- Does a democracy offer greater freedoms than other forms of government?
- What does freedom mean to you? What does oppression mean to you?
- what are the different ways in which we use freedom? (politically, religiously, legally, economically)
Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Pantheon, 2012).
John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, Jaime L. Napier. “Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 60, 01.2009, p. 307-337, https://nyuscholars.nyu.edu/en/publications/political-ideology-its-structure-functions-and-elective-affinitie.
All scripture links use the Common English Bible translation.