I started the 2016 Presidential election cycle hopeful.
I was going to watch all of the debates. I was going to vote in the primary. I was going to respectfully and intellectually discuss issues with my peers. My Facebook posts were going to be persuasive, tasteful, and occasionally a little edgy (but not too edgy). I wasn’t going to yell. I wasn’t going to think any of my friends were idiots. I believed that engaging in the discussion of political ideas would give me fresh, hopeful optimism about the future.
But after a few months, I realized that following the Presidential election is more like Keeping Up With The Kardashians than Hellenic debates at the Acropolis. Rather than being filled with hope for the democratic process, I am filled with a desire to see the candidates fight to the death in a cage match. (My money’s on Hilary because her pant suits give her increased mobility.)
With all that to say, after a year of fairly immersive political engagement, I’m done with politics. And here’s why I think you should be, too.
Three Components of a Belief
Philosopher JP Moreland has a helpful framework for thinking about beliefs. He likes to break down a belief into three components: Content, Strength, and Centrality.
The content of a belief is its substance. It can be written on a piece of paper. It can (and should) be subjected to scrutiny and criticism. The content of a belief can be supported by evidence. Its logic can be refuted. It can be reasonable or unreasonable. It can be true or untrue.
The strength of a belief is the level to which you, personally, believe the content of your belief to be true. Moreland would say that if you are more than 50% sure a belief is true, then you “believe it.” You don’t have to be at 100% to believe something. Uncertainty is totally normal and necessary for building a healthy and true belief system. The strength of your belief is not a matter of logic, but of conviction. It’s possible to have total confidence in a belief that is completely untrue.
The centrality of a belief is the level to which you allow a belief to impact your life. For example, I can 100% believe that avocados are a source of healthy fats and should be a part of my regular diet, but if I never eat an avocado, that belief is has little to no centrality. Centrality is the degree to which I allow a belief to inform and impact my decisions. Centrality is not a matter of conviction, but of application. It is the least intellectual and most fickle of the three components.
These three distinctions are helpful in diagnosing America’s unhealthy attitude toward political engagement and why I think it’s wise to primarily disengage (rather than engage) in political discourse. As in, let me explain why I think we should all stop talking about politics.
The Content Of A Political Belief
OK, this first point actually doesn’t help my argument at all. When it comes to the content of our political beliefs, I encourage everyone to learn as much as possible (if you want). Far be it from me to discourage anyone from developing nuanced, well-informed opinions. May I never hinder anyone from the pursuit of truth. By all means, clarify the content of your beliefs through careful study and reflective thinking.
The pursuit of truth is an inherently Christian discipline. We believe in objective truth. We believe that philosophy and science all find their chief fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. The pursuit of truth in any discipline leads people closer to Christ. So yes, seek truth and clarify and refine your political beliefs. It’ll make you a better disciple of Christ.
But let’s also be honest about the effort you and I (and the rest of America) have invested in refining our political opinions. How many books have you read about macroeconomics and foreign policy? What did Aristotle, Lincoln, or Jesus have to say about war? How does our government compare to other forms of government in the world today? What is a Republic? What are positive and negative rights? Quote any line from the American Constitution.
In the dozens of political conversations I’ve had in the last year, not a single one has addressed the above topics. But for some reason, everyone has an opinion about Ted Cruz’s funny-looking face.
Overwhelmingly, the content of America’s political beliefs is shallow and informed by propaganda and rhetoric, not truth.
Where is the content of your political beliefs being informed? Are you reading books? Are you listening to experts? Are you reading 3,000-word articles? Are you doing your best to understand the political ideology of the other side of the aisle? Have you taken any notes? Have you scratched the surface of subjects like history, philosophy, or ethics?
Like I said, this first point actually doesn’t help my argument. The pursuit of truth and the refining of the content of your beliefs is something you should care about. But if you’re going to care about politics, care about politics. Don’t think that following a few people on Twitter, putting a sticker on your laptop, and reading a few articles in the Times is transforming your mind in any substantial way.
The Strength of A Political Belief
The strength of a belief should be proportional to the level of intellectual rigor given to the content of the belief. The beliefs we believe most strongly should be accompanied by the strongest explanations and evidence. To have any level of confidence in a belief, due diligence is required.
And this is the heart of our problem with “caring about politics.” What is intended as well-meaning advice about one’s civic duty is too often mis-applied as manufactured confidence. If I’m told over and over to care about politics but have not done any work to refine my political opinions, I will respond with a hollow confidence in a belief that I have little to no basis for believing. Somehow, “caring” has become strongly correlated with believing something strongly and confidently, usually at the expense of evidence or reason. But the strength of one’s belief should flow from its content. If not, our most strongly-held beliefs will be hollow.
This is why our nation is in political gridlock. How can one be swayed by logic and reason to believe the truth when that person didn’t use logic or reason to arrive at their current belief (that is held with a death-grip)? How can we make any sort of progress when most of our sentences start with the phrase “I feel…” and not “I have carefully considered…”? How can we believe something so strongly, yet understand it so poorly?
Because of Obama!
Just kidding. It’s because being wrong is uncomfortable and embarrassing (at least, it feels that way)! It’s easier to be misinformed or illogical around people who agree with you than it is to be corrected. That’s why we naturally form communities that function as echo-chambers. In these communities, our beliefs are never challenged, just echoed-back. Who will tell us we’re right, even if we’re misinformed? No one. Echo-chambers bolster our false confidence in our hollow beliefs. Echo-chambers feed the strength of our beliefs but do little to refine the truthfulness of their content.
So is the solution to this problem simply to not care about politics? Yes and no. In the sense that I described, please stop caring about politics; manufactured confidence is the worst. But humble confidence that flows from the thoughtful refinement of one’s belief would be quite welcome.
We live in a world where everyone’s opinion is considered valuable. That’s dumb. Your opinion is as valuable as the degree to which it can withstand criticism. Only a humble person will be willing to subject his beliefs to that gauntlet. Therefore, never let the strength of your beliefs exceed the level of intellectual rigor given to their content.
The Centrality of A Political Belief
The gravitational pull of the human heart is to centralize the unimportant and decentralize the important.
I am not here to diagram an ideal hierarchy for your beliefs, but rather draw attention to it. The unexamined life is rarely ordered properly (nor is it worth living, according to Socrates). The question before us is, therefore: How central to the core of your being are politics? And do you want it that way? Even if you have well-researched political beliefs, what is the appropriate amount of influence to give them? How much of your identity are you willing to build around them? How much good will your beliefs do for you or others, especially on the national/federal level?
While initiatives like “Rock The Vote” have done a good job of encouraging voters to exercise their right to vote, they have done so by placing the emphasis on the centrality of a political belief, not its content. This idea has spread to the point where it is considered highly irresponsible to not vote for President. Our culture cultivates an environment where highly-central political beliefs are encouraged. But should they be?
I think no.
I see the national political stage more like a soap opera than anything. Until now, I have never given soap operas a central place in my life (except for in middle school when I watched an incredible amount of professional wrestling). And even if it wasn’t a soap opera, I can’t imagine a situation where my political beliefs need to hold a central place in my life. There are more important beliefs fighting for supremacy in my heart. What kind of life am I living if my identity is more defined by my political affiliation than my attitude toward Scripture and obedience to God?
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Is a single vote for the office of President really what my country needs from me? Has my concept of civic duty been diluted to the point where I consider voting the epitome of political engagement? Is “caring about politics” how the Church obeys Christ’s command to be an engaged, preservative force in the world (Matthew 5:13-16)?
However you answer, I hope that this matrix for deconstructing the components of your political beliefs has been valuable. While I have arrived at the conclusion that my political beliefs are not (yet?) central enough to strongly influence my actions, that may not be your story. Cool. Care about politics. My charge to you is not necessarily to care less about politics, but to care about how much you care about politics.
And whether it’s politics or something else, I urge you to refine the content of your beliefs through careful study, to be humble about the strength with which you accept those beliefs, and—most of all—to be wary of their centrality.
Be careful what you believe,
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