Faith and Politics: A Pre-Election Primer – The Transcript

Last week I spoke publicly on the topic of Faith and Politics. These are generally two things people silently agree to not bring up, but given that I’m a political candidate with a background in Christian theology and ministry, I thought it might be best to simply get it out of the way. These things are important, and deserve to be addressed. But my interest in this came before I was a political candidate: originally I had wanted to give this talk at my church, or for the churches of Brighton, as a private citizen deeply concerned about the ways that religious language is used to manipulate Christian voters (and voters of other faiths too!). But given that by the time the event was happening I had already been acclaimed as the Green candidate, church leaders felt it would be best not to host an event that might appear to be partisan (and thereby endanger their status as charities); but also felt that it might seem shifty if I gave the talk without acknowledging that I was the Green Party candidate. So it ended up becoming a public event at the local arena, advertised by posters that included Green Party of Ontario logos in acknowledgement of my status as a candidate but with a disclaimer explaining that it is not about my party or candidacy; and advertised by another set of posters without any GPO logos so they could be posted in churches. Advertising the event online led to some trolling by people who assumed that I was promoting religion in my political party, and I’ve since found out that there have been complaints that I am organizing Green Party prayer meetings! (That rumour is definitely not true, and proof that whoever complained didn’t come to the event.)

I knew that it would be difficult to organize the talk, just as I know that it’s difficult for many people to talk about these two things in the same sentence. We feel strongly about the way that politics and religion interact, and many people wish they wouldn’t at all. But they do, and in some sense they must, and so I spoke about how the way that they interact is actually part of a greater threat to democracy and a healthy society. The hostile reaction I received from some based on faulty assumptions is exactly what the talk is about: how pre-rational moral judgments cause us to ignore information and stir up outrage that erodes our ability to even talk to each other. Or have an event on the subject.

I hope you enjoy the talk. I’m happy to hear your concerns personally; my address is on the poster below.


The damning poster. My mistake.

Faith and Politics: A Pre-Election Primer

We often hear about faith and politics, or church and state, or some variation. We have strong opinions on whether, or how, these things go together. The reality is, they have to go together somehow: they are too intertwined to be separated without destroying what they are in their essences. But figuring out how they go together needs to start with a clear understanding of what religion and politics are, and this will lead us to better understand how they interact with each other as well as how they perhaps should – or shouldn’t.

Let’s begin with what they are. Politics and religion are social institutions that serve to bring order to our lives, and they’re both centred on values.

Religion of any kind (and I should point out that while I am a Christian, this applies to all religions and even atheism) provides a structure for our life that is based on our values and reinforcing those values: we build our lives and communities around patterns of worship, ethical and moral norms, and a particular way of seeing the world. This creates our sense of community, but also of self: it becomes core to our identity.

Politics is also a social institution that structures our lives, but it’s more of an expression of those values rather than a source of them. We all bring our values to the table when we vote or otherwise participate in public life, and our laws and government are what result from that engagement, setting basic rules that help us to live together, and help us to accomplish more together than any of us could on our own. Because it is also so values-centric, politics also has a big impact on our sense of personal identity: the ad line “My name is Joe, and I AM CANADIAN” sold a lot of beer.

So if religion and politics are both structures or containers for our values, where does the content of those values come from, and what do we do with it?

Theology is the content of religion: it’s what we believe about God, the universe, and everything. It’s the basis for our worship, our morals and ethics, and our entire worldview. We get our theology from sacred writings such as the Bible, but also from the theological conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years. I first went to Bible college because I had grown up in the church feeling very passionate about what I believed but not, as I discovered, knowing very much about it! So I did a one-year discipleship program that had a handful of Bible courses and a whole lot of service and ministry experience, and got hooked. I went back for three more years, learned some Hebrew and Greek, studied the science of interpretation and a whole lot of Bible, eventually finishing a Bachelor of Arts in Religion with a major in Biblical Theology. If all that study taught me anything it was how little I knew, so I went to seminary for another few years and did a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology. I took some more Hebrew and Greek and Bible courses, but also Systematic Theology courses, learning to follow that theological conversation through the millennia. Along the way I picked up a much greater understanding of the physical and social sciences, and found that they not only didn’t conflict with my Christian worldview, they enhanced it. I wanted to take all of my knowledge out of the classroom and live out its implications in the world, so I chose to focus on Christian ethics, and wrote my thesis on social institutions and how to live as Christians in a just and healthy society. I realized that, in looking to heaven, my gaze was redirected back to earth: that a life of service to God is a life of service to my community, a life of integrity in the way that I live and serve and do business, a life of identifying with and giving myself up for those who suffer and struggle most. That led me to get involved in politics, and I chose to work with a party that fit with my values, which themselves are shaped by my theology. I’ve been pleased to see that there are several seminarians in the Green Party, including Elizabeth May herself, who was halfway through seminary before she decided, like me, that politics was the way she could minister to others.

So, all of that to say that our theology is what shapes our understanding of the world and how we live in it. It forms our values, and gives us a framework to live those values out. It shapes our personal ethics, and those govern how we engage with others.

When we engage with others on a scale larger than one to one, it begins to become something larger than personal ethics. As soon as we talk about how anything might affect more than just me and my family or my particular organization, we’re talking about politics. Given how interdependent we all are today, there is no such thing as being non-political: even trying to stay out of politics is a political act!

When our values shape our actions, those values begin to take up space in the world. Taking up space in the world makes them political, and our political institutions seek to provide a framework for the way that we live out our values and engage with other people and their values. The outcome of this is laws and policies, programs and grants.

In an election campaign, politicians try to gain your support from both ends of this: they want to engage with your values, but they also want your support for their policies. Since the late 1960’s, major political parties have actually been doing market research to find out what the values of Canadians are and what policies they might support, and then using that information to write their policy platform – so it’s not as much that they try to get your support for their policies so much as they try to write policies to fit your values and needs. I joined the only major party that doesn’t do this.

So we should see a clear progression: our theology defines our religion, which shapes our values and ethics, which shape our politics, which shape our policies.

Sometimes there is a bit of a feedback loop: sometimes values expressed in politics can influence our worldview. This can be fine: often we come across ideas from outside of our faith background that are true and good. Sometimes they can provide some corrective to ideas that we’ve held that maybe aren’t true, or weren’t well understood. We might look at the political stance of a Christian from another background and wonder how a Christian could possibly support that particular policy, and then discover where our theologies differ and why. We might also see someone from a completely different religion, or none, express a value that resonates in us for some reason and we discover that it fits very well with our theology and worldview but we’ve never thought of it before. And of course, we should always incorporate all knowledge, especially from the sciences and social sciences, into our worldview. Our worldview, including our theology, is not set in stone and always has multiple sources (whether we like it or not!).

What we need to be cautious of is the possibility that these other values and ideas might influence our worldview without us even noticing. If we are used to getting our worldview from our theology, it can carry a powerful sense of authority: it’s not just my idea, it’s from the Bible! For me, a lot of what I learned in Bible college is just how much of my worldview wasn’t from the Bible at all, even though I thought that it was. And this is where politicians come in.

The Righteous Mind

Have you ever noticed that almost every successful politician anywhere in North America is, or at least claims to be, a Christian? This says a lot about the demographics of our nation and our political history, but it also says a lot about the way we think about politics. When we’re talking about our values, we have greater respect for someone who shares them, and we want to see policies that reflect those values – all totally understandable, but it does create an incentive for all politicians, no matter their walk of life, to claim some affinity with Christians as the largest religious voting block.

You may also have noticed that Conservatives tend to do this more than Liberals. There is a psychological explanation for this.

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes what he calls Moral Foundation Theory. The general idea is that we make moral judgments all the time, and these judgments are pre-rational: that is, they happen before we’ve even had a chance to think something through, and when we do think it through, we tend to rationalize our judgment rather than question it. For example, we are all predisposed to care for a baby, and we don’t need to think it through to decide that harming a baby is wrong. These kinds of judgments are more or less hard-wired into us, difficult to change, and have a huge impact on how we see the world.

Through a lot of experiments, interviews, and surveys, they’ve been able to come up with 5 or so categories of these judgments, which they call Moral Foundations. The one I just described is the care/harm foundation, which is why we would all be outraged if someone hurt a baby, and also why we’re all suckers for cute cat videos on the internet. Other categories include: liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, and purity/degradation or sacred/profane. There may be other foundations, but these are the basic ones that are fairly universal.

What’s particularly interesting about this is not just that these moral foundations are the root of the way we see the world, or even that we have little control over them and that they’re more or less hard-wired into us; what’s particularly interesting is that people who self-identify as either conservatives, liberals, or libertarians have fairly predictable responses to these moral foundations. By getting survey respondents to identify their political leanings before taking the survey on moral foundations, they found that people who identify as libertarians really only put a high emphasis on the liberty/oppression foundation, and don’t really care about any of the other things. Those who self-identify as liberals tend to put a high emphasis on care/harm and fairness/cheating in addition to liberty/oppression, but put much less emphasis on loyalty/betrayal and purity/degradation (and may even have negative views of those kinds of moral judgments). People who self-identify as conservatives, though, value all five categories more or less equally, but put the highest emphasis on loyalty and purity. (I should point out before I continue that these are generalizations: nobody is a perfect liberal or conservative when it comes to our worldviews – thank goodness!)

This framework makes so much sense of political differences, particularly when you consider how the different moral foundations can affect each other. For example, the high value that conservatives generally put on loyalty leads them to focus on their own group over outsiders, whereas liberals are much more likely to universalize a value. We’ve seen this recently in debates over refugees: liberals tended to be more generally in favour of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada, while some conservatives responded by drawing attention to poor and elderly Canadians and veterans instead. Both were responding to their care/harm reflex, but while liberals focused on the most acute harms in the world, conservatives focused on addressing the harms within our nation first. Both were very good impulses, but they ended up having very different – and even opposing – results.

Conservative and Religious Politics

So we’ve seen that we all make pre-rational moral judgments, that the kind of judgments we make tend to decide our political leanings, and that conservatives actually have more of these moral foundations than liberals. We’ve also seen that one of the moral foundations that conservatives tend to have that liberals tend not to have is sanctity or purity vs degradation or defilement. This moral foundation is the one most closely related to religion, and it underpins a lot of our moral codes. When combined with the loyalty foundation, which is also much much stronger in conservatives than liberals, it has a tendency to make us suspicious of other religions or religious practices: because we are prone to hold up our own practices and views as sacred, and are also prone to trust our own group over others, we tend to almost automatically see outside views as competing and defiling. These themes and attitudes show up in the Bible as well, reinforcing those moral foundations for Christians.

A good modern political example of this is the concern about Sharia Law, which ranges from a quite rational opposition to some radical versions of Sharia that oppress women and sanction violence, to wild conspiracy theories suggesting that Liberals are conspiring with Muslim immigrants to overthrow Canadian society and replace our law with Sharia. The reality is that Sharia is a Muslim term for law, and in many ways is quite analogous to Christians supporting laws that are rooted in the 10 Commandments or other Old Testament laws. When I lived in Manitoba I was a member of a credit union in Winnipeg that was considering a merger with another credit union to the southwest in an area heavily populated by conservative Christians – folks who were quite comfortable with the idea of laws based on the 10 Commandments. Those members voted against the merger, almost entirely because our credit union offered what was called a “Sharia mortgage.” Under Sharia, the practice of usury or charging interest is forbidden; our credit union offered a mortgage framework that accommodated this. Even though the Bible also takes a pretty hard stance against usury, and for centuries the church outlawed the practice, there was nonetheless a major Christian campaign against this merger that can only be explained by the use of the term “Sharia”. There is nothing lacking in the mental abilities of these people, and being ill-informed can only account for a little bit of what actually occurred; rather, the anti-merger campaign was led by people who had a deep suspicion of Islam and were able to leverage pre-rational moral judgments into a staunch opposition movement that was actually based on little more than a single word in another language. Once we’ve made a judgment, it gets harder and harder for new or contrary information to get through; the judgment matters so much more than the facts, at least when it comes to how we make decisions.

Similarly, there is a lot of opposition in Ontario among some Christian groups to federal Motion M-103, a motion from the House of Commons to study Islamophobia in Canada. I want to stress that having a predisposition toward loyalty to your own community does NOT make anyone a bigot, and skepticism about claims we’re unfamiliar with can be a good thing. But there’s a difference between skepticism about rates of anti-Muslim prejudice and suspicion that it is entirely fabricated as part of a Liberal plot to help Muslims enact Sharia Law in Canada – and yet, there are Christian groups who insist that that’s what it is. Obviously it is not, but I think we do people a tremendous disservice if we just dismiss them as racists, bigots, or Islamophobes without examining why people are able to come to such strange conclusions.

For one final example, and the only provincial example I’ll offer, we could say almost the exact same things about the Ontario sex ed curriculum. There are plenty of things in the curriculum that people may quite rationally disagree with in terms of content and delivery, and there are valid discussions to be had about values in relation to sexuality and sex ed. But I’ve seen far too many Christians vehemently reject the sex ed curriculum as an anti-Christian conspiracy by Kathleen Wynne to make our children gay, and there are political organizations who encourage such views; there was even a PC leadership contestant who made that her only issue, and since her supporters overwhelmingly chose Doug Ford as their second choice they are widely reported as being the “Christian vote” that won the leadership for Ford.

And this is why politicians – and particularly conservative politicians – reach for the so-called “Christian vote”: because conservatives, and particularly conservative-minded religious folks, have more moral foundations, more triggers for those pre-rational moral judgments. Liberal-minded folks, religious or not, tend not to have the same loyalty triggers, and that tends to make them more open to outsiders and outside ideas, for good or ill. And while liberal-minded religious folks can often have a very high appreciation for the sacred, it often does not have the same moral triggers attached; they tend to appreciate sacredness, but have less concern about degradation or defilement. So a campaign aimed at stirring outrage among religious people can be spectacularly successful among religious conservatives, but almost completely miss religious liberals. As a result of this we almost never even hear about religious liberals, and this reinforces the notion that liberalism is anti-religious and conservatism is highly religious, which is not at all the case! If I had a vote for every time a fellow Christian told me that they have to vote conservative because the conservatives are Christians, I’d do quite well at the polls; that I too am a Christian too doesn’t always even register, because there’s such a strong association between religion and conservatism and this connection is not rational. People feel in their gut that conservatives are religious and religious people are conservatives, regardless of the facts.

The Demise of Policy and Ideology

In 2015 I was approached to run as a federal Liberal candidate, and as I was thinking it over I was invited to one of their canvassing workshops. In it, we were taught that every canvassing stop should take 2-3 minutes max, and that we should NOT talk about policies and issues. Issues, they said, leave people feeling upset; our job as canvassers was to create a very positive feeling, associate that feeling with Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party, and the local candidate (in that order), and then get out. On election day those people would see “Liberal” on the ballot, associate it with that good feeling, and vote for it. Before anyone feels smug: the Conservatives have the best voter information database used to target their messages to specific groups of people for the purposes of knowing how best to create that positive feeling – or worse, to create a negative feeling about their competition. All of the big parties do this, positively or negatively or both. And this is a huge problem for politics.

Our political system is supposed to lead to our governance system: the values discussion of politics is supposed to lead to policies and programs and laws, things to address the issues we face. But what happens when political campaigning works to inflame the values conversation and suppress most talk of issues and policies?

First of all, political discourse is lowered to the level of mud-slinging and constant outrage, fake news and alternative facts, race-baiting and dog-whistling and virtue signalling. This divides the public, polarizing us into extreme positions in the constant competition to find greater fault in our opponents. We quite naturally divide into little tribes, each convinced of our righteousness and ready to make war on the others. I actually saw someone online the other day identify herself as an NDP supporter and say “I consider conservatives my enemies.” This kind of tribalism is built into our psychology just as strongly as our moral foundations, and it takes constant self-criticism to avoid falling into it; and when our moral judgments are more important than the facts, and we can’t tell facts from alternative facts, and we’re all stuck in our social media bubbles where everyone on our friends lists thinks like we do, self-criticism becomes almost impossible. Those who aren’t constantly outraged and polarized are exhausted or apathetic and have chosen to disengage to save themselves. Cynicism reigns, voter turnout declines, “strategic voting” distorts election results, and nothing in our system works the way it’s supposed to.

But second, and this is maybe even more important: the skills needed to get elected and the skills needed to govern well have never been so different. It is rare to find someone who is adept at rallying people around their banner AND thinking rationally and carefully about complex issues of policy and management. There is a reason we’re seeing a populist surge in politics: it’s simply easier to win when you avoid talking about policy altogether, and those who can’t talk about policy can rarely think about it either. Rather than politics producing policy, we end up with politics that is endless campaigning and very little good policy. It’s almost as if policy and governance, which are supposed to be the purpose of politics, have been usurped by politics itself. Campaigns go on forever, and nothing gets done.

So on the side of both citizens and leaders, the political system is deeply dysfunctional.

The Threat to Religion

But religions also suffer from this. As the political value discussion gets more and more polarized, it feeds back into our religious values more and more. Values are identity issues, and when our political or religious values are challenged we tend to dig deeper and hunker down in our positions, and fire back at those who challenge us. This is a normal response, but as I said at the beginning of this talk, we need to be cautious about values and ideas from the political sphere feeding back into our religious worldview without us noticing. And when our political discourse is a war zone as it is these days, we tend not to notice!

What can happen, then, is that rather than our participation in society flowing from theology to religious values to ethics to political values to policy, we can end up instead with a closed loop between religion and politics. Instead of religion being informed by theology, we see political values and arguments dominating our worldviews; and instead of politics culminating in solving problems and writing policy it continues to focus on winning over the hearts of voters by playing on their values. The ethics that are supposed to be in between religion and politics become “whataboutism”, which is a new term that describes how we answer any charges against our team by saying “yeah, but what about when your team did _____”.

This is catastrophic for religion.

By subjugating morals to politics and distorting ethics into whataboutism, we end up with situations like in America where the same Christians who summoned tremendous outrage to impeach Bill Clinton over adultery openly support alleged paedophile Roy Moore, saying “even if it’s true, I’d still vote for him over a Democrat.” The self-titled Moral Majority, also called the “religious right”, includes such figures as Dr. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, a Christian family values organization; Dobson wholeheartedly endorses and supports Donald Trump in spite of over twenty allegations of sexual assault against him, blatant disregard for truth or ethics, bullying behaviour, charges approaching treason, and most recently, blackmailing a porn star he was allegedly sleeping with while his third wife was nursing their newborn child. Proof of any of this is irrelevant with an ethic of whataboutism, and the so-called Moral Majority brushes it off by saying “he’s a baby Christian who needs to be shown grace”, pushing the loyalty button once again. Christian ethics become absolutely meaningless in such a context, even where they aren’t just forgotten entirely, because tribe loyalty is a pre-rational knee-jerk reaction and ethics takes careful thought and self-control.

And this is how theology is banished entirely. If the ethics have become meaningless, what use are the texts and beliefs that demand those ethics? The content of our religion becomes political values, and the subject of our religion becomes our party, our tribe. We end up with religious nationalism, the deification of the state. We worship our leaders, who can do no wrong, and the nation and its symbols become sacred. Think about recent issues surrounding the American flag and national anthem, the constitution, the second amendment, and the kind of visceral, violent reactions they bring. While religious leaders surround and support the political leader, the state surrounds the church, taking on its language and repurposing it to support the state. This happened most notably in the last century: in the time leading up World War Two and the Holocaust, German psychoanalyst Carl Jung described what he saw in his patients as “mass possession”, and German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison that ethics was the only form Christianity could take that was not already co-opted by the state. The Bible was modified, and Mein Kampf was placed beside it on the altar.

Canada is not nearly so far down this road toward religious nationalism. Rather than replacing theology with political values as the primary source for our religion, we simply do away with theology and hold to a generic “faith.” I see this all the time, whenever a politician claims to stand up for religion. They tend not to say the word “religion”, even, usually just “faith” without any content. Even those who explicitly claim Christianity and openly cite it as a reason they oppose abortion or gay marriage – always popular issues to talk about, but never to legislate about – don’t actually ever talk about Jesus Christ. Rather than religious nationalism, then, we get a boring secularism that guts all religions of their content but nonetheless fights valiantly for our right to have such empty faith. While some on the left present secularism as the absence of all religion, the right defends the presence of religion, but nonetheless makes it tolerable by making it completely bland and contentless. The real purpose of secularism is not to delete religion, which is impossible, or to delete its content, which is faithlessness; instead, the goal of secularism is to allow religions to exist side by side without the state enforcing any of them. Politicians should feel free to express their real beliefs to show where their values come from, without giving up their role as a representative of constituents who may not share those beliefs and values and whose best interests may not be served by them. Instead we tend to suppress any specifics of our faith, which just frees up that part of our identity to be subsumed by political tribalism in the endless campaign.

So What Do We Do?

There are ways out of this trap, for both politics and religion. If we can fix one, it will help fix the other.

For politics, a lot of the problem – and the solution – is found in our electoral system. First Past the Post elections are winner-take-all, and as such they offer no reward for things like compromise, collegiality, or coalition; you know, the things that make for a functional parliament and good governance. With a system like Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, not only does the election result in representatives that look more like the overall vote result, but ridings would have more than one representative, which would reward candidates who are able to work together across party lines to serve their constituents. That would not only reduce partisan bickering, it would put a greater emphasis on regional representation, which is actually core to our system of governance. What is not core to it is political parties, which do not appear in our constitution, and it wasn’t until 1970 that party names even appeared on the ballot. Reducing the ability of political parties to “discipline” or “whip” their members would also be a huge benefit: it is an MPP’s job to represent the people of their riding, but if the party leader can compel them to vote a certain way, their ability to do their real job becomes very limited; their role in the riding is reduced to representing their party to the people rather than representing the people in parliament. One of the reasons I joined the Green Party is that Green candidates take a Candidate’s Pledge to always put constituents first; we don’t believe in whipped votes. Reducing spending limits and contribution limits would also help keep elections focused: right now an election largely comes down to who can raise the most money to broadcast the most moral triggers. A per-vote subsidy or some other way of supporting smaller political parties helps them to get their ideas out there, but isn’t enough for them to engage in the mass marketing and messaging that currently wins elections, so we should push to level the playing field by reducing rather than increasing the amount of money richer political parties have to work with.

But you and I don’t have a lot of ability to change the way the system works. We can do something to make politics better though. First is to recognize that most of these systemic issues are not set in stone; they are this way because we all treat them this way. “Strategic voting”, or the practice of holding one’s nose and voting for someone who doesn’t really represent our values or principles in order to try to keep someone we dislike even more from winning an election, is a widespread practice that we can simply choose to stop doing. It amounts to trying to determine the outcome of the election based on predictions of the outcome of the election – about as effective as a crap shoot, and it completely distorts the electoral system. The way this is supposed to work is that every vote represents the values and ideals of the citizen casting it, and those who win not only know that they have the confidence of the people but they also know what other major interests exist that they should pay close attention to. With strategic and negative voting we end up with people getting elected who didn’t even campaign, or MPPs who really don’t know for sure if their values and priorities are actually shared by their constituents. If we stopped casting our vote based on who we think will win, and instead just voted based on the issues and policies and values we care about, we don’t have to take the false choice of voting for one person we distrust in order to avoid someone who disgusts us.

And of course, come out to all-candidates forums to ask your candidates questions about real issues. Then watch for slogans and canned lines designed to push your moral buttons. Vote for the person with the best answers, not just the one who claims your religion or has the best jabs against your least favourite party. Don’t reward MPPs or candidates who stir up outrage without offering real solutions. Tell your MPP you expect them to be civilized and proactive in parliament, not combative and partisan. Even if we can’t change our voting system to something that does less to encourage this kind of barbaric partisanship, we can choose to participate in an election the way it was supposed to be; we don’t need to be fatalists who concede to the collapse of our democracy ahead of time.

For religious people: know your faith. Really know it. Christians: know Jesus so well, so intimately, so humbly, that nobody can lure you to bad imitations. Restore theology to its position at the head of the flow chart, and when ideas feed back from politics into your worldview, hold them up to Christ and see if they look like him – especially if they claim to. If a politician claims to be a Christian, ask them what that really means to them, how it affects their decision-making process, how it affects they way they represent their constituents. If they don’t have a good answer, tell them you’ll check in with them again in a month to give them a chance to think it through.

Most people who play on our values don’t do it deliberately: it comes naturally to some people, and the kind of political environment we live in these days trains us in how to do it even if we don’t know what it is. And the people who react with pre-rational moral judgments aren’t really out to get us. So offer grace to one another. But also know that there are some people, senior-level strategists in political parties and fringe “news” sites, who know all of this political psychology very well and plan campaigns around it. As Jesus said, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves: offer grace and peace to others, but be conscious of your vulnerability to manipulation.

And don’t be intimidated. As much as these moral foundations and tribalistic tendencies are hard-wired into us, the amazing thing is that the Gospel, the good news, is that we can and must change it. The New Testament describes this with phrases like “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” and with parables about serving our enemies, and with stories about how Jesus challenged purity laws, and with commands that violated traditional loyalties, and with communities that upended traditional authorities and hierarchies. The Christian life, and I understand this is very similar for Muslims and Sikhs and Buddhists and Stoics and many other faiths and philosophies, is largely about overcoming our inborn, ingrained, pre-rational judgments and actions and replacing them with virtues. This is extremely difficult, but it’s nothing new; I only hope that this new knowledge of your psychology will help you in your personal formation. Know that putting your faith ahead of your politics doesn’t mean picking a particular tribe in the political battle, it means making sure you remain faithful to your faith in the midst of it, in such a way that your response to such a battle of values reflects a depth of values that is not easily triggered by moral hot-buttons. Be the first to turn the political battle back into a conversation that leads to discussing real issues. Think carefully about what it means for your values to contribute to the rest of society without demanding that the rest of society submit to them.


For either our religion or our politics to truly succeed, it must be distinct from but in real relationship to the other. Religion that isn’t informed by theology and doesn’t result in a distinctive ethic isn’t religion at all, it’s just tribalism with religious language. And politics that isn’t truly informed by deeply held values and ethics, that doesn’t result in good governance, is just team sports with less contact. If either of these institutions overcomes the other, they both break down and the results are terrifying. We ARE seeing these institutions break down, and it’s at least in part because politicians and politically active people are able to play on the ways our minds work, deliberately or not, in order to take our focus off of real issues and win our support through divisive rhetoric.

But we are not helpless! Go into this election with your eyes open, and look inward as much as you examine the parties and candidates. I hope to win your vote, but it’s even more important to me that we save democracy. Don’t let divisive politics tear us apart. Love your neighbour, love your enemy (if you have any real enemies), and vote your values, whatever faith informs them.

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  1. My wife was at your talk this week and told me how much she learned from it.
    I just finished reading your post and I really appreciate the thoughtfulness you put into explaining our biases and how they can really feed entrenched tribes. The one thing that you didn’t address is that the very reactive patterns that we get caught in lead us to dehumanize people who think differently than we do. It allows us to think in very broad categories and to reject broad groups of people as sub-human. (ie: the person who hates conservatives)
    Some days watching politics makes me think that the movie “Idiocracy” was prophetic ( a really bad movie). Reading your thoughts was a breath of fresh air.

    • Thanks Mark, I really appreciate it!

      A very good point. When we are able to dehumanize people, we are more able to feel contempt and disgust toward them; and when we feel contempt and disgust toward someone, it is easy to dehumanize them. Once we’ve dehumanized them, we can easily dismiss anything they have to say. This is why playing off of value judgments is so powerful and polarizing!

      More than anything, I hope that this will empower you to approach elections – and people – differently. Blessings as you do so!

  2. Good article Jeff. The tribal mentality is a big obstacle. I know there are people who vote a certain way because they always have or because their parents did. Before the start of any campaigns they already know who they will vote for.
    Regarding some thought of a ‘Liberal plot’ to enact Sharia law…… I personally don’t believe that but I can see how people would. And I blame the media; the VERY Liberal media. The bias in MSM is so sickening to me that I sometimes I can’t watch it. Why the refusal to report on the recent murder of a young girl by a recently arrived refugee? The PM grand standed publicly he would take responsibility for any harm to Canadians from refugees. Yet on this….. crickets. The Danforth shooting – was it a case of mental health? There is evidence of an ISIS connection. Maybe it isn’t true but isn’t that what journalism is for? Where is this reporting? I personally welcome refugees and am pleased Canada is helping. But JT is making a mess out of it. Anyway, my point is that Trudeau and the media are a big reason why people may be wary of any talk of Islam. I have a big issue with the use of the word ‘Islamaphobia’ as well. It’s nothing more than a tool for manipulation but I won’t go on about that now. When people express concern over Sharia law, I think there concerns are based on public behaviour and comments of Justin Trudeau and the medial who so quickly insulates him with selective reporting. Also selective word usage. For instance when there is a negative report you will hear MSM use the phrase ‘the federal government’. When it’s positive they like to say ‘the Trudeau government’. As if we are all stupid and brainwashed.
    Lastly, the use of the ‘whip’ by a leader to control the way MP’s vote is grossly abused by Justin Trudeau. I personally believe that is part of the reason an MP crossed the floor today. Not the only reason but it played a part I really believe.
    Thank you for your article. Just so you know Jeff, voting my conscience instead of voting against someone else is the reason I voted for you last election.
    Keep up the good work Fight the good fight. And blessings to you and you loved ones.

    • Thanks Steve, I really appreciate your willingness to engage like this! Sorry for the delayed reply.

      I do want to push back a little bit about some of the “liberal” media stuff. The media also reported on The Harper Government in the same way they comment on the Trudeau government, and the editorial endorsements in the last several elections have overwhelmingly gone to the Conservatives with the exception of 2015. I agree that the media has a lot of improvement to do in the way they choose what to report and how to report it, but in regard to supposed ties to Sharia or ISIS I think they have it right: there’s no point in mentioning it until it’s proven, and any speculation about it in the media can cause real harm. The media doesn’t report on suicides because publicizing them can cause copycats; likewise they shouldn’t speculate about terrorism or things that might fuel racial or cultural bias or violence. When those things are proven, they absolutely publish them; but not all papers are hesitant to speculate, even in headlines. Consider when the mosque shooting in Quebec City happened two years ago: Rebel Media reported that it was an inter-mosque rivalry, with Muslims shooting Muslims. It was actually a single white supremacist who killed all of those people, but The Rebel refused to back down on their story, and continued to fuel speculation about Muslim violence that was completely unfounded. People who get their news from The Rebel are constantly fed a narrative about the MSM censoring things that show Muslims in a bad light as part of some conspiracy to bring in Sharia or press some Liberal agenda, and their readers are fed a steady stream of news that’s written to provoke fear and outrage. I know that’s not what you’re about, but some of the things you’ve said here sound like the narrative that The Rebel and The Sun push, so I wanted to point it out as a dangerous line to walk. IMO the true test of a good media source is: a) do they clearly differentiate between the news and opinion/editorial sections? and b) do they issue prominent retractions when they get something wrong? My third criteria is: do they publish stories that are racy, macabre, or outrageous that attract the curiosity of people, or do they publish stories that might actually affect the lives of people in their distribution areas?

      Your vote means a lot to me, for the same reason your friendship does: it’s an endorsement of my character. I really appreciate your character too, and your ability to engage with me on these things even when we disagree. Thanks friend 🙂

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