Thursday, June 30, 2016

With Trust and Understanding

According to The Atlantic
Many, many Christians believe they are subject to religious discrimination in the United States. A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings offers evidence: Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants...

If religious people believe their institutions are declining—which, demographically speaking, they are—they may feel more threatened by what they perceive as the growing numbers of people in the country who have a different kind of faith [or none].

Religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote a book called The Battle for God, in which she laid out the thesis that religious fundamentalism in the West—in Muslims, Jews and Christians—was in large part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and modernization. Skimming over an unfathomable amount of historical detail that she used and I won’t copy here, she wrote that everyone was so horrified by the advent of modern industry and the corresponding social upheavals—mass migration to the cities, horrible working conditions, plagues, despoiling of the environment, smog that killed people, increasingly bloody wars—that there was a huge wave of religious and philosophical questioning about religion. This new world is awful! How did that happen? How could God have let this happen?

Some people (Nietzsche among them) concluded that God had no relevance in the world anymore, and it was time to go full atheism. Some, probably most people, fit the new world into their existing beliefs without too much trouble and went on as before. And some people did a very human thing: when challenged, instead of backing down, they went “No. Fuck you. You know what? We believe it TWICE as hard as we did before”. These people became fundamentalists.

I was just watching "Policing the Police", a Frontline documentary about policing in Newark, which contained interviews with citizens who had been maltreated by the cops, as well as cops themselves. Neither side appeared to be putting up an artifice; both genuinely believed what they were saying. But what struck me was the attitude of the cops. Rank-and-file officers talked about how they were aggressive towards people they stopped on the street—in one case caught on Frontline’s cameras, roughing up a guy walking down the street under the slightest of pretexts—because everyone could be dangerous, and their priority was to go home at the end of the day. The head of the police union in Newark talked about popular hatred of the police, and how his officers felt like THEY were the ones under attack.

What does any of that have to do with this article? Those officers weren’t roughing up an innocent man, or disproportionately stopping black and Hispanic youth, because they’re straight-up evil and want those people to be punished. They were doing it because they’re scared. They genuinely believe that their job is dangerous, because it is, and that every citizen they encounter on a night out on patrol is a danger to them—which is, in the loosest possible sense, true. Whether their reaction was justified isn’t the point. As long as they feel like that’s true, they’re gonna do what they feel they need to do to protect themselves.

Now re-frame it. The fundamentalist Christians surveyed in this story, with the usual caveats about the reliability of polls, believe that the rest of the world is out to get them. They see the relentless march of what you and I call progress, on issues like gay, bi, and trans rights, as radical leftists trampling over centuries-old beliefs about what is right and what is sinful. They see the teaching of evolution as repudiating and attacking the Bible, as seeking to disprove their core values. And they see their own privileges eroding. Being a white, Christian, heterosexual man is still the best job in America if you can get it, but as institutions and classes bend by design or force to let in women and minorities, inevitably people who now have to share power resent the loss of a time when they had near-exclusive claims to it. They feel, for these reasons and many more, like they’re the ones under attack.

And they are. In a sense. Activists have made tremendous strides in the last half-century in tearing down barriers and lifting up whole populations closer to real equality. But no matter how much activists say “We want us AND you, not us INSTEAD OF you”, it is really, really hard to hear that when you’re the one being asked to give something up. It’s hard to be the cop and trust that the guy in front of you won’t knife you the second you relax your guard. It’s hard to be the fundamentalist Christian and believe that these activists—who they may never have had a real conversation with—want to be equal to you, not replace you.

I write in this space every so often about the values of the loyal opposition. How it’s important, not to cater to them, but to recognize that they exist and that they have reasons for what they believe. How they may even have ideas that are better than yours, or valid objections to your own ideas that need to be settled. And how the only way to get anything done is to talk to those people, to trust them, and to come to understand them—because that’s the only way they’re going to trust and understand you.

I’m not some naïve hippie who thinks that trust and understanding are practical solutions to all the world’s problems. But I am just naïve enough to believe that they’re the only way you start to bridge these gaps. Mandatory training on how to better talk to citizens is a start at getting cops to be less shitty. If fundamentalist Christians really are passing anti-gay laws and taking up anti-trans activism because they’re scared—not because they’re evil, not even because they hate gay or trans people, but because they’re genuinely afraid that their right to live how they want is being taken away—we have to keep reaching out as much as we can. To say, in so many words, we don’t want to bring you down; we want to be up there with you. There’s no guarantee that they’ll listen. But I think we have to try.