- Location: Online Webinar
- Date: February 19, 2021
- Tags: #2021 Videos #Jonathan Haidt #Online Conversation #Peter Wehner
Online Conversation | Hope and Healing for a Hurting Culture
with Jonathan Haidt and Peter Wehner
On February 19th we were delighted to welcome social psychologist and bestselling author, Jonathan Haidt, along with widely published speechwriter and author, Peter Wehner. Wehner is a New York Times columnist, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow with a deep interest in healing our divided nation. Haidt has done extensive research examining the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures. His books address these topics as well as provide insights into how to cultivate meaningful, moral conversations across cultural divides.
We hope you enjoy this conversation on the impact of hyper-politicization and polarization, the temptations of illiberalism, the natural tendency towards bias and blind spots in our thinking, and the role of faith in bringing healing and hope to a hurting culture. Especially in our ongoing season of isolation and social restrictions we hope this will inspire you to reach out and connect with those around you and think about how you can grow culture-shaping friendships and communities.
The song is “Goin’ Home” by Antonín Dvořák, played by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott.
This painting is Sundown by George Inness, 1884.
Special thanks to our sponsors:
The Praxis Circle, Doug & Beth Heimburger, and Quinn & Nancy Fox.
Transcript of “Hope and Healing for a Hurting Culture” with Jonathan Haidt and Peter Wehner
Cherie Harder: If you are new to the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, to offer programs like this online conversation to do so, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. One of the questions it seems that we all have to wrestle with is how to understand and respond to the deep divisions that have so poisoned relationships, split families, fractured our society, and even undermined the practices of our democracy such that the secretary of state recently called domestic division our greatest national security vulnerability. So how do we contend with the fear and the anger that we encounter both in our personal relationships and in the public square? And how do we envision and encourage means of bringing hope and healing to a hurting culture? Obviously, these are thorny issues and there’s no easy answers to them, but it’s hard to imagine two people who have wrestled with those questions with more intellectual rigor, insight, or grace than our guests today.
Cherie Harder: Both of our guests are public intellectuals who hold very different religious and political convictions. They’ve both written prolifically, and sometimes provocatively, on controversial issues, and they’ve also developed a friendship over a shared commitment to the topic before us. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. In addition to his many scholarly publications, he is the author of three major books, two of which are New York Times best sellers, including The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He’s been named a Top 100 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine, one of the sixty-five world thinkers of the year by Prospect magazine, and his four TED talks have been viewed more than seven million times.
Joining him is Pete Wehner. Pete is a vice president and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, as well as a columnist for the New York Times, and a contributing editor to The Atlantic magazine. He previously served both as a presidential speechwriter and as the director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for President Bush. He is a widely published author whose writing has appeared not only regularly in the New York Times, but also in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, Time magazine, National Affairs, and Christianity Today, among many others. His several books include City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, and his most recent work, The Death of Politics. He is also, I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. So, Jonathan and Pete, welcome.
Jonathan Haidt: Thank you, Cherie.
Pete Wehner: Thanks, Cherie. It’s great to be with you. Thanks for hosting this.
Deep Divisions and Social Media
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you both here, and we will just dive right in. Jon, as you know, there have always been divisions in the country. But you have argued that there is something different going on now: that the cleavages are not only deep but different in nature — more ideologically extreme but less coherent, and perhaps arising less out of a loyalty to a group or idea than simply an aversion to the other side. What’s going on?
Jonathan Haidt: I’ve been concerned about political polarization and how nasty things were getting, and my original research was on how morality varies across cultures or nations. Around 2004, I switched over to looking at the Left and the Right, which were becoming like different nations that lived in different worlds. Now, of course, if we could go back to those days when things worked so much better than they do today, I think I would. But things have gotten a lot worse since then. There are many reasons, but I think the number one reason why things just got so weird in the 2010s — and not just for America, but for a lot of Western democracies — I believe is changes in the ecosystem of media where for a brief period of time we had broadcasting. We have to all remember, the late 20th century was the anomaly. Before then, newspapers were partisan and nasty and had low standards. So the mid-to-late 20th century is the anomaly: broadcasting. And then you get narrowcasting with cable TV, and Fox News in particular has a big impact on the Republicans. And then you get the Internet. And now have a situation where anybody can find “evidence” for any conspiracy they want to confirm. You just Google it, and you’ll find evidence.
Then you get social media, and the key thing that I’ve been focusing on is the way that social media changed between 2009 and 2011. Before then, it wasn’t very polarizing. It was just, “here are my friends, and here are the bands that I like.” But then Facebook puts on the Like button, Twitter puts on the Retweet button, and they copy each other’s innovations. Now, suddenly, both platforms are really engaging, and they use algorithms based on that engagement to optimize the news feeds for engagement, which is typically anger. And so everything gets weird in the 2010s because social media connects us up a lot, which you’d think is good. Historically, it’s good to be connected, but it connects us in a bizarre way that has never happened before, which is, whatever we say is being rated by strangers. Now we are not just talking to each other, we’re also talking to the strangers who are rating us. And so this is like, changing the gravitational force of the universe. Everything got weird after 2012. So that’s why this time is different from any other time.
The Epistemic Crisis
Cherie Harder: Yes. So we definitely want to get into social media soon, but Pete, one of the things I wanted to ask you is that it seems like now, along with our polarization, we’re not only divided over what is right or wrong, but increasingly over what is true or false. Why are we having such a hard time sorting out what has actually happened? And what happens when we the people can’t figure out true or false?
Pete Wehner: Yeah, to answer your last question first, a lot of bad stuff happens. I think, in the end if you have an epistemic crisis, if you can’t agree on what’s true and false, if you don’t have a common set of facts, a common understanding of reality, then self-government gets very, very difficult because persuasion becomes impossible. Let me comment very quickly on what Jon said because I completely agree with him. I should say that I probably learned more from Jon on a variety of issues over the last 10 years than anybody, both in terms of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, but also how human psychology works. And that has really helped me both in politics and, honestly, in my conversations and faith as well.
In addition to the social media, which I think has added a kind of jet fuel to all of these issues, the soil was, in a sense, prepared for some of this bad stuff to happen. So a lot of these trends, polarization, have been in motion for many decades. We’ve had geographic sorting. We’ve had the two party sorting. When I was growing up in the 1980s and was being formed politically, you had liberal Republicans like Chuck Percy, Bob Packwood, and Mark Hatfield, and you had conservative Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Southern Democrats. You don’t have that anymore. So the two parties began to polarize, and that was a problem. And then you have an alienation, a loss of authority, an isolation, which I think has deep, philosophical currents that explain that.
And so, in a way, the soil was ready for some of these more pernicious seeds to take root. About the epistemic crisis — and I’ve had these political conversations with people today that are just different than they were 15 or 20 years ago when we worked together at Empower America in the 1990s — I would say some of it is really located in what Jon had mentioned, which is that conspiracy theories have always existed, as you alluded to earlier, but there is now the capacity for people to link to different sources and create a community online which lives in a different epistemic universe. And so you can have conversations with people on any number of issues and they will send you links to things, and there are conspiracy websites that may link to it. But they feel like they have the force of authority. The other thing I would say is there is this phenomenon called affective polarization, which is, what now binds people to their political tribes or religious tribes is not necessarily or primarily a feeling of affirmation for their side as much as a distrust, alienation, and hatred for the other side. So there’s a demonization that goes on, and a dehumanization that goes on. In the past, there would be a sense of, “look, we disagree on issues,” but it wasn’t an indictment of a person in terms of their character. That has happened, and we now have the kind of instruments to fortify those impressions. It’s a complicated issue.
Cherie Harder: Jon, you’ve written a lot about affective polarization. What is driving the demonization over disagreement?
Jonathan Haidt: Yes, so it’s important to note that Americans are not getting more polarized in terms of their attitudes about issues. We’re not really further apart. The polarization is called affective, or emotional. It’s the degree to which we hate each other, as Pete was saying. And that’s really important to keep your eye on, because when you really hate someone, you will believe anything that casts them in a bad light and you don’t want to check sources. And this has made us uniquely vulnerable to Russian manipulation, or anybody else, because it turns out the Russians, you know, they put some fake stuff in, but they didn’t have to put fake stuff in. And it turns out they didn’t need the bots. A big study at MIT showed that basically Americans hated each other so much by 2016 that they used whatever ammunition they had. And let’s remember the power of video. That’s also new. The fact that, as Pete said, it’s not just a mimeographed sheet, but it’s a video of a person explaining the conspiracy theory. So the affective polarization, the hatred, is way up and that drives everything else.
There are a couple of additional reasons for this increase in hatred, in addition to the media changes that we were talking about. There’s so many of them, it’s actually a really fun time to be a social scientist and a scary time to be an American. Many people point to the loss of a common enemy, that the best way to unify people is to have Pearl Harbor be attacked, or a 9/11. But, you know, throughout the 20th century we had very clear enemies, and in the 90s, thank God, that ended. But without a common enemy, things kind of come apart. Believe it or not, rising education levels is one of the causes, political scientists say, because people with a college degree are much more involved in symbolic issues. Working class people are more concerned about bread and butter issues. They’re not going to get all involved in the nuclear freeze, or in things that don’t directly concern their interests. So we have a more educated public on a more outrage-inducing media platform, without any common enemy. We’re always going to do the good-evil game, but we do it against each other rather than aimed externally. There’s also rising diversity. We had very low diversity and very low immigration for much of the 20th century. And while diversity is great for the economy and for the creativity of industry, it does reduce social capital and trust unless managed very, very well. And we have not often managed it very, very well. So there are all these reasons. There’s a historical trend towards mutual dislike, but it’s really amplified by so many other features, and again, they all come to a head in the 2010s.
Foundations of Identity
Cherie Harder: Ok, so it seems like our politics are growing much more extreme, and our identities are growing more political. I think it was a colleague of Jonathan’s who did a study recently that found that what used to be the foundations of our identity — the “unmoved movers,” — were our religion, ethnicity, and gender identity — and these shaped our politics. And those are changing, actually kind of giving way, such that politics is what moves identity now. What has thinned out our non-political identities such that they are now increasingly subsumed by the political?
Pete Wehner: Yeah, it’s a great question, and you expressed it well. I mean, I do believe that there has been an attenuation of these other, identity-forming institutions in people’s lives. There are a lot of them. Faith is one of them although it’s not the only one. I think part of that is a broader trend of mistrust toward institutions and a movement towards radical, extreme individualism. And that’s a philosophical current that’s been in motion really in the middle part of the 20th century and gained a lot of momentum, particularly in the mid and late 60s. But it went beyond that. It wasn’t a trend, by the way, that was without benefits. There was some tremendous progress and some tremendous injustices that were corrected by this movement. But I think it went too far. People became isolated, and institutions don’t have the force, the shaping influence, that they used to have. You also have the fact that a lot of the people that run institutions, whether they’re political, faith, or other, view them, as our friend Yuval Levin has talked about, as performative rather than formative. So you have people who are becoming part of institutions and they don’t see their task as soul shaping. They see it as platforms from which they perform.
So I think that is happening, and at the same time, politics has come in and it has become much more attached to people’s identity. Both of you may have had this experience, but my wife Cindy and I were talking the other day about how these political debates or conversations are. When you have differences today on political issues, they are not debates simply on issues. You get a sense very early with a lot of people that they feel their identity is under attack, that if you have a difference with them on any number of issues, it’s not the issues: there’s a lot that’s going on underneath that. And that’s very tricky because if you as an individual feel like your core identity is being attacked by somebody or challenged by somebody, the armor goes up. The figurative swords are drawn and it’s not going to end well unless one of the people involved in that conversation has the capacity to steer it in a more constructive way.
A God-Shaped Hole
Jonathan Haidt: So, yeah, I agree with everything Pete said, and that is another feature that political scientists have called attention to in the 2010s, which is the increase to which politics is identity and performance. Keep those two in mind I think that’s very, very important. Ezra Klein in his book, Why We’re Polarized, spoke to a lot of political scientists, and that’s really the theme of the book, that politics has become identity. OK, now I want to add on to what Pete was saying with some more about the psychology of religion. The subtitle of my book is “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” because I trace both back to our original human nature and the evolutionary processes that made us good at being in groups and competing with other groups. And that’s true for both politics and religion. I’m very pleased that even though I’m a Jewish atheist, and I say so in the book, I’ve been invited to speak at a lot of Christian colleges and organizations. It was in preparing to speak at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities that I finally looked up that quote I’d heard from Pascal, “there is a God-shaped hole in the heart of each man.” But, having written a book on great truths, I know you can’t take the quote that you’ve heard, especially if it’s from a foreign language, since it’s probably not exactly right. So here’s what Pascal actually wrote, which is even more helpful. He said, “there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, though none can help since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object, in other words, by God himself.”
So substantively, it’s the same thing, but it gives you a much bigger or richer feeling of people like, hungry, of people trying to pull something in. They have an emptiness, and I think that’s what we’re seeing as Christianity has receded from not just public life, but churchgoing. You know, the numbers for religion in America are down for most things, and by far the fastest rising one is “spiritual, but not religious.” Well, if you’re spiritual but not religious, you’re probably going to get involved with all kinds of political campaigns to fight injustice, or whatever you think [is important]. But as religion has receded from people’s lives, they’re hungrier and as I see it, politics has really taken that place. We can see that in the cultish nature on the Right. I mean, a cult of personality in the United States? I mean, this is really not appropriate, the way that I think Donald Trump played that sort of role on the right. And in my world, in universities and on the Left, we have wokeness or intersectionality or other things. Jon McWhorter and many others have been writing about how this new political movement on the Left has all the signs not just of religion, but of Christianity specifically: of Christian worship and of original sin. So anyway, I think that to understand politics, we need to understand religion, and to understand the changes in American Christianity, we need to understand politics.
Conspiracies, Christianity, and Politics
Cherie Harder: So, Pete, I’m curious about that. This is something you and I have talked about before, that one of the things that is so perplexing is that there seems to be among many Christians a particular susceptibility to conspiracy theory. There was a recent study that came out that said that evangelicals were the most susceptible group to the Q conspiracy. So why is it that Christians, who presumably have that God-shaped vacuum in their heart filled, would be susceptible to conspiracies in ways that others would not be, or at least not to the same degree?
Pete Wehner: Yeah, it’s a puzzling question. It is troubling as a person of the Christian faith, as I am, to see that. You know, I was on a recent conversation with a scholar who was talking about how conspiracy theories have existed throughout Christianity. And really, conspiracy theories are a part of human life, really since its beginning, but within Christianity, too. You saw manifestations of it in the 20th century with the various biblical prophecy books that came out, and a sense that, for people of the Christian faith, there’s something beyond and behind what we see before us. Because as a person of the Christian faith, there’s this life in this world, but there are principalities and powers, to use a Christian term. And I think part of what’s happened is that that idea of principalities and powers has gotten co-opted and hijacked in political causes. It’s quite troubling. I mean, a good friend of mine, Francis Collins, at the National Institutes of Health (and Francis, who helped decode and map the human genome, is one of the great scientific minds alive today) — as a person of the Christian faith, he has publicly spoken about this concern that he has among Christians in the context of COVID-19 and in vaccines.
I’ll just say a broader point too, Cherie, which is that the degree to which, in my estimation, faith has been subordinated to politics, is a very troubling thing. We all struggle with this, and I do, too, but I thought when I began my Christian journey that, however imperfectly, faith would become the prism through which we would interpret life in human relationships. And again, we’re fallen, it’s a broken world, and we all struggle with that, but there’s a degree to which it’s flipped and that the identity of Christians is political. And people then use faith as a kind of weapon in that political war. They begin to proof-text the Bible, and even justify a certain kind of savagery in politics. It’s a really, really troubling thing. I think one of the negative ramifications is that you’re seeing a huge generational disaster with younger Christians who are seeing what I refer to as a kind of moral freak show that’s unfolding. And this has caused them to move away, not simply from their elders, but often from the church itself. The irony here is that, of course as a person of the Christian faith, Jesus says you’ll know the truth and the truth shall set you free, and the Holy Spirit is supposed to lead you into all truth. So you would think of all the people out there it would be Christians above all that would care most for truth. Now, and we may get into this, this raises the question how you ascertain truth. But as a concept — that is, the notion of what is really and truly the way things are and how do you apprehend it and how do you come to know it — that is an issue that should be at the forefront for Christians. And I’m afraid we’ve gotten the reverse.
Christianity Under Attack?
Jonathan Haidt: So I didn’t know that evangelicals right now are the most prone to the Q’anon conspiracy. It makes sense. But I think we can actually understand that using just the tools we’ve already brought up in this conversation. So we’ve already established that politics has become much more about identity and that Christianity is fading out of the prime position that it had throughout the 20th century. You know, my parents and kind of the goal of Jews, was to assimilate to sort of the WASP world. And my wife’s parents are from Korea. And they too, the Korean immigrants, also aspired — now, most of them were Protestant — but they aspired to this American WASP ideal. As that has been declining, I think many Christians feel as though it’s not just like they’re being replaced, but they feel actively attacked. It began with like, no, you can’t have prayer in school. You can’t have a Christmas tree or a creche on the town green. So those were symbolic things that go back to the 60s, and that wave of liberalism with the Supreme Court in the 1960s. I think the rise of this new Left, especially in the last ten years, has been very aggressive on a lot of issues, and they often see Christians as the enemy, largely over LGBQT policies. But I think that we are entering a period in which Christians, at least those who are drawn to the Q’anon, feel that they are actually being attacked.
And just this morning — I have a number of conservative friends who send me things, I think, in the hope of converting me over to their their view about politics and Trump — one of them just sent me an essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in the Journal of American Greatness. And here’s the key line. He says, “when I look out at the landscape of America today and look at the problems that conceivably could be addressed by policy, here’s what I see: A blood sucking, parasitic elite that despises its fellow countrymen, despises its nation, despises itself, and is either passively destroying America by sucking the economic life out of it or actively destroying it by undermining every single value that once made America great.” So there’s this sense, and this is almost the definition of populism, that the elites are the problem, those damned elites. This is a Right populist view. And he goes on to say that this includes the university professors and the journalists, the liberal elite. And of course, if you talk to the Bernie Sanders Left, it would be the corporate elites. So everybody’s got these elites that are a problem. But I think that could help us understand why evangelical Christians in particular feel attacked, feel that their identity is attacked, and therefore are drawn to a conspiracy theory that explains who the bad guys are and shows them how to fight back.
Slivers of Truth
Cherie Harder: Let’s talk about truth-telling. One of the things you have both written about is something you’ve called epistemological modesty or epistemic humility. And I wanted to ask you about that. It sounds a little bit like squishiness or relativism, like: who’s to say what is true, how can you know? And yet both of you are well known for at times rather fiercely articulating a point of view you believe to be true. So what is epistemological modesty? And Pete, how in your mind does it relate to faithful ways of knowing?
Pete Wehner: Let me refer to a person who was a very close friend of mine, Steve Hayner. Steve was a very key figure in my Christian pilgrimage. He was a youth pastor, a minister at University Presbyterian Church as I was beginning my Christian journey. And Steve, really at every key moment in my life, was there for me –in important moments, and through periods of hardship and grief, too. He became president of InterVarsity, was there for 13 years and then became the president of Columbia Seminary. Steve died in 2015 of pancreatic cancer, and in the last conversation — this was a wonderful conversation; I have 11 pages of notes from it with him and Cindy — Steve said that he believed in objective truth, but he held lightly to his ability to perceive truth. Cindy said that she had grown up in a period in which there was a sense that being right was what mattered most and that we had to be open to being wrong. And Steve said we need to make room for other perspectives; we need to make room for others at the table. So the way I understand this is that there is an objective truth, but there’s a subjective means to that pursuit of truth. And none of us — and I think this is a biblical concept, by the way. Paul writes in Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face, and indeed, Christian theology would say that every part of us as human beings has been touched by some degree of corruption — So none of us can see truth as it completely and fully is. The best we can do is to see slivers of truth or part of truth.
But what’s essential is to have people in your life that can help you to see what you would otherwise not see. We all have blind spots and we all have a certain life experience, family of origin, countries that we come from, race, gender, and all of those things shape us, and they shape the way we perceive things. I think our problem is, and again I struggle with this as much as anybody, it’s the notion that the way I perceive things is the way they are and the way other people perceive them is not. Now you’re right, taken to its extreme this can become Nietzsche’s perspectivism. In the crude version it would be this notion that there’s no objective truth. Everything depends on perspective. You can basically create whatever script you want. I’m certainly not there. But this is really where Jon has helped me over the last decade or so, which is to have people in your life, and they have to be people that have standing in your life that you trust, that can help you to see things you wouldn’t otherwise see.
And the last thing I’ll say about this, Cherie, is part of this is just how do you view the enterprise itself, right? Take C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy about the friendship, and Lewis referred to “first” and “second” friends. For him, Arthur Greeves was the first friend. That’s your alter ego where you start the sentence and your friend can complete it. Owen Barfield was a very different person, a second friend, and Lewis described it as a person where this person is the alter ego. You read all the same books, but they draw all the wrong conclusions from the books. They had a deep 40 year friendship and actually, I think one of his earliest dedications in a book was to Owen Barfield, who he said was my first and greatest teacher. And Lewis describes the conversations they had. He said we would “go at it hammer and tongs” late into the night. You could feel the weight of the power of the blows of the other person. But over time, they developed this mutual admiration and affection, and Barfield said that Lewis and he, through all of those debates, never debated for victory. They debated for truth. Right? That’s a huge difference. We debate most of the time for victory. We think, “I’ve got to defend my position, and I’m going to go at anybody who’s against it,” rather than thinking, what does that person see that maybe I need to hear? Maybe they won’t fundamentally change my view, but maybe I’ll understand them differently. Maybe their hierarchy of values is different than mine, and that’s why they end up at a different position. But Jon knows more about this stuff than I do.
Arguments for the Sake of Heaven
Jonathan Haidt: That’s fascinating because there’s a concept in the Jewish tradition which is based very much on argumentation. The Talmudic tradition is scholars arguing. And they have a phrase, I forget what it is in Hebrew, but it translates to “arguments for the sake of heaven.” So they recognize that through argumentation — in the right circumstances and by religious scholars who are bound together and their daughters probably married into each other’s families and all of that stuff — if you have the right relationships, then arguments get you closer to divine truth. But they’re certainly cognizant that most arguments are not like that. And I forget what the other term is, but arguments for the sake of heaven, I think, is a good, really useful term here. So I think that the key psychology here that is now widely talked about is, as Pete mentioned, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning. And once you recognize that we all do it, that we all do it automatically and passionately, then you realize, OK, what’s the cure for that? And nobody has ever found a kind of training that makes people stop doing that. The only cure for it is other people who have a different confirmation bias. And if you’re in the right relationship with them, and Pete was describing those relationships, then you make progress towards heaven, as it were.
And so thinking this way has really helped me understand what it means to be a centrist. I consider myself a centrist, a centrist Democrat, I would say. You know, people think, oh, centrist, so we’re going to, you know, half condemn Nazis or we’re going to be in the middle on everything? No, it’s that I’m in the middle of the two things. It’s a realization that when you are a member of a team that’s passionate, you’re almost guaranteed to not find truth. Those epistemic correction mechanisms are not working in your passionate team. And David Brooks, really a mutual friend and inspiration for both me and Pete, he had a great column. This was years ago, but he was being interviewed, and the person called him a moderate, in the moderate middle. And he said he wanted to take issue with that. He said, “I’m a moderate, but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era, we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about the balance.” Anyway, this is a modern restatement of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty,, where you have to have that competition of perspectives. It doesn’t mean you always come out in the middle, but you’ve got to consider multiple perspectives.
Surviving the “Outrage Machine”
Cherie Harder: Jon, earlier you talked a little bit about social media. I think at one point in a talk somewhere, you said that if you were to try to develop a system to destroy democracy you really could not do better than Twitter. But both of you are on Twitter, and in the social media world. So I wanted to ask you both about the effects of social media, but also more practically how you both manage to swim in the waters without being poisoned, and what those of us listening might be able to learn from that.
Jonathan Haidt: OK, I guess I’ll start this time as I’ve been writing about this recently. So what I meant by that is I’ve long been looking at American democracy or any country, especially any multi-ethnic democracy with a lot of diversity. Again, there are benefits to it, but it’s harder to cohere. So you have to look at the centripetal forces pulling you in, and the centrifugal forces blowing you out. And when you have three television networks, and only three, that’s a really strong centripetal force, as is having a common enemy. But when you have micro casting and all that stuff, then those are centrifugal forces. And I came to see that Twitter and Facebook, after 2012, built what Tobias Rose-Stockwell calls an outrage machine, an outrage platform. They were huge enhancers of centrifugal forces, so that’s what I meant by that. Now of course, it does a lot of good, too. Let’s never forget Facebook creates enormous value for small businesses, for people, for people who love cat videos, whatever. And Twitter is enormously effective as a way to find information quickly. I mean, Twitter really does do a lot of good things, but it’s one of the nastier platforms. So I don’t know, I try to be very positive. I try to be helpful. I mostly tweet about things that I think will be helpful to people, especially understanding the other side. And when people attack you or criticize you, for the most part, just don’t do anything because it’ll go away in a few days. Pete, what are your thoughts, and how do you stay sane or whatever?
Staying Sane on Social Media
Pete Wehner: Yeah, well, I think the first thing I’d say is that I think some people would say that I have been poisoned by social media and the politics of this age. I mean, just to get my cards on the table, I’ve been a critic of Donald Trump really for five years — actually, ten years if you go back to the birther controversy. And my criticisms have been quite tough, and I have a lot of friends, people in the Republican Party, who feel like I’ve been unfair and haven’t shown grace or understanding. And I take those criticisms, those critiques, seriously. You know, looking back at what I’ve said about President Trump, I’m not sure I would change that right now. And I’d say probably events, in my estimation, have confirmed what my concerns were. But I’m sure I’ve gone over the line on Twitter and elsewhere. So I’m not immune to it for sure.
To the degree that I’ve kept from going further into it, and I have tried, I’d say that there are several things. One is just a very simple, I guess, tactical issue, which is, if I wonder about whether I should send a tweet, I try and tell myself I want to wait five minutes. I think every time I’ve done that I’ve deleted the tweet. Maybe there were one or two occasions where I have not. But again — Jon, being the social psychologist, knows this better than I — everybody knows experientially if you’re on Twitter and you’re human, you read certain things and you get angry or something is triggered in you. And so cortisol may go through, and your first reaction is to strike back. You just have to be aware that that’s happening, and you just have to try and self-monitor. The second thing is I do try and think — and I do this in my writings too, again, not nearly as well as I should — I try and think about people whom I admire and think, what would they think about what I’m saying? You know, my wife, Cindy is one of them, Steve was one, somebody like Jon is, or Mark Labberton. I mean, there are different people in different areas of my life that I think, “I admire these people, and what would they think about what I said?” And that can be a corrective as well.
But it’s easy to get pulled into this. You know, I’ll just tell an anecdote with Joe Klein. And you’ll remember, Cherie, Joe was a friend of mine in the 1990s. Joe was at that time a journalist for Newsweek, and we were close friends and had mutual affection. A long story short, when I went into the Bush administration, Joe thought I went over to the dark side. He was a critic of the Bush administration, and I thought he was extremely unfair in his criticisms of Bush and the administration. When I got out, he and I had our debates publicly, and you can just Google “Joel Klein and Pete Wehner” and you can see how it went. I justified my back and forth with Joe, as in my estimation he threw the first punch and you have to defend yourself. I’m not going to be a patsy here, and I’m not going to be passive. I’ve got an argument to make and I’m going to make it. But it didn’t sit quite right with me. And I think Cindy, because she knows me best, knew that. Anyway, I made an overture to Joe; it didn’t go anywhere. But then in 2015, I reached out to him on Twitter, I mean on email, to try and get together. And we had a nice conversation, actually a very nice back and forth. So the timing turned out to be right. Remember, this is years after the Bush administration had left. So we had breakfast at the Jefferson, and I guess fittingly, Joe and I came to the hotel from different sides of the street. And almost before a word was said, we embraced, and we had this really lovely breakfast and we reconnected. The reason I tell that story is for a couple of reasons. One is that I’m not immune to these feelings, and how political conflict can cause you to have strong reactions. And secondly, to reconnect with people or to stay connected with people in a political environment like this is hard work. It requires intentionality, and it requires a longing to want to connect. It also requires some degree of grace and understanding and a sense of what my role is in this, not just, you know, these are my bill of indictments against the other person and what they’ve done against me.
Hope and Healing
Cherie Harder: We’ve talked a lot about some of the centrifugal forces pulling us apart. There are a lot of people hurting, a lot of people who have experienced eroded or broken relationships as a result of conflict and difference. I would love to hear from both of you, and Jon, maybe we can start with you, about how we both individually, but also within the institutions and communities that we are in, can be agents of hope and healing.
Jonathan Haidt: Sure, I’d be very glad to talk about that. One of the insights that I got from reading conservative writers is the emphasis on low and mid-level institutions. People on the left tend to focus just on like, there’s the federal government and then there are individual activists. And, you know, the French Revolution, where they tried to wipe out everything in between. But those are the things that make for a good civil society. So I think right now this culture war, the politics that have so invaded college campuses — they’ve been there all along, but they really blew up in 2015, and I wrote an essay, The Coddling of the American Mind with Greg Lukianoff in 2015 about these things — they’ve now flooded into companies, into high schools, even middle schools. I think all of these institutions used to be and can be again, places where people have a job to do. They’re there for a purpose and they can do that alongside people who have a different political identity. But then we make everything be about political identity, as is now happening in a lot of schools. Schools commit to anti-racism. Now, it’s great to be against racism, but they mean the particular ideology of Ibram Kendi, in which everything is focused on conflict between groups. So I think we need to find ways to address racism that don’t polarize people. We need to find ways in which employees can have a voice in their companies, but yet they don’t bring in all of their personal political agendas and demand that the leadership acknowledge their values. We have to realize we are in danger of really blowing apart here. And, you know, Congress is almost unfixable. Well, no, there are some important things we can do for Congress, especially changing primary elections — that’s the most important single thing, I think. But outside of congressional reform, most of us can take action in our places of work or our schools, in our churches or synagogues.
And, you know, I think Pete’s story was really enlightening in that it was a spontaneous thing that you guys felt like embracing. And that often happens. There’s a conflict with someone, but part of us wants to make up or will readily accept an overture. So the best piece of advice I can give is to be the first one to make that overture. In every argument, the other person is right about something. They might not be right about the thing that you’re centrally focused on, but we’re always centrally focused on slightly different things. So if you can acknowledge, you know, “I was pretty harsh with you and I think when you said “X” you’re actually right about that.” It’s amazing what happens when you acknowledge that the person is partially right. By the power of reciprocity, they will often come right back and say, “yeah, you know, I reacted. It was just spur of the moment, or I was angry and I’m sorry, and you were right about Y.” So humans are tribal. We are easily provoked into conflict, but part of being tribal is also being really good at reconciliation, at burying the hatchet. Be the first one to make the first move.
Understand the Other
Pete Wehner: I would echo what Jon said. I mean, there are different arenas that I suppose one has to think about. Leadership matters, including political leadership, and Richard Reeves at Brookings Institution said something a couple of weeks ago to me and some others, which is, “positive norms trickle down and so do negative ones.” So I think that matters and I think there are some policies that can matter. Jon has this talk about National Service, which I think is a very useful way to try and get people together. But let me focus in on what your question was, which is just in individual lives and how that can happen. One is, I would say, asking questions to other people with whom you have disagreements, and just try and understand where they’re coming from. And the second thing is the ability to try and describe why people have different views.
Let me give an illustration with a story. There’s a conservative national talk show host that I’ve known for several years, and we were at odds because of my position on Trump versus his. And I had written a piece in the New York Times he wasn’t happy with, and we started an email exchange. You probably have had this experience where you’re like, in the third email exchange and the temperature’s going up and you can just feel the energy. So at this point, he was starting to make kind of personal accusations against me, and probably 15 years ago, I would have written a 10-page point-by-point rebuttal — Cherie will remember from those days, that I’m capable of doing that — and I decided not to do it. Instead, one of the things I did is I said, “So-and-so, I’m not going to answer these charges unless you really want me to. Let me try and explain to you how I think you’re seeing the world and let me explain how I’m seeing it.” And I did the best job that I could to give a fair-minded appraisal of what he was feeling and what I was feeling and the values that he was putting on certain things. For him, it was a loyalty, and for me it was intellectual honesty. And I said, “I think that explains why we’re sort of ships passing in the night.” But the interesting thing was when he wrote me back he said, “I read your note a couple of times, and it was like a light bulb going on.” Then he said — I remember this line — he said, “you’re right. I’m not interested in objectivity. I’m an advocate.” So we had a very good exchange.
Now fast forward. This must have been a year later, and I was driving down the G.W. Parkway here in the D.C. area, going to work. On his show he was talking about the Parkland shooting, and you’ll remember that there were some high school students that lead gun control initiatives. And this person has a very right wing audience. While I was driving in, I heard him say to his audience, “look, I completely agree with you on the Second Amendment, and I absolutely put forward those arguments, but don’t go after those high school students. They’ve been through a trauma.” And I remember the line he used. He said: “ have socks as old as some of these students.” So when I got to the office, I wrote him a note and said, “I just happened to catch your show, and I just wanted to express my gratitude for you to try and tell your audience they can believe what they want but to back off from the personal attacks.” He wrote me back a nice note and he said essentially, “I just want you to know that that voice you were listening to on the radio wasn’t just my voice, it was yours, too.” That was an illustration to me of how we were able to stay in relationship. It had the capacity to go off the rails, and it’s not just that he’s able to hear my voice, it’s that I’m able to hear his voice. So I understand his views much better than I would otherwise. These take time, but I think they’re worth the time. The question as a country is, how do you scale that up? There are organizations like Braver Angels that David Blankenhorn runs, which is a superb organization which teaches people how to have conversation with disagreements, but the personal is really where this stuff happens most.
Thinking in Community
Cherie Harder: So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. I see that we have quite a few, over one hundred, that have already come in, so we won’t be able to get to them all. One of the first questions I’ll ask comes from Jonathan Canary, and he says Alan Jacobs writes in his book, How to Think, that it is impossible to think for oneself, and if it were possible, it would not be desirable. We always think in relationship and community with others. Do you believe this is true? If so, are there specific choices we can make as persons or leaders to promote better thinking with others? Jonathan, I’ll toss that one to you first.
Jonathan Haidt: I don’t think it’s literally true. We are capable of thinking by ourselves. But I think the idea is that that’s not where we do our best thinking or our deepest thinking or the thinking that’s most likely to lead to growth. And, you know, Pete and I both told stories about that, about how we grew from such encounters. There’s a lot of interesting work in psychology on how like, human reasoning is really bad at syllogisms. We get a lot of things wrong. You know, evolution didn’t do a very good job of giving us reasoning, it seems, unless you see reasoning and language as having evolved to basically help us manipulate others and interact with others while guarding our reputation and doing impression management. So Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are two that have what they call the argumentative theory of reasoning, that we evolved reasoning in order to argue and do social manipulation. And if you think about it that way, then, yes, you’d better pick a good community like we’ve already said, if you have a community of religious scholars or something. Something I’ve always been impressed with when I go to Washington, D.C., is there’s a whole community of people Left and Right. They all know each other. They respect each other. So I love that about Washington. I think there’s a healthy policy community there. Even if Congress is not healthy, I think the intellectuals often are. So I think the Alan Jacobs quote is right in that way. Find a good community, find a place with good norms. This is why, again, Twitter and other things are so damaging. They actually bring out the worst of our interactions with each other rather than helping us be better than we otherwise would be.
Meaningful Relationships: Steve Hayner
Cherie Harder: Pete, feel free to comment on that, but I’m also going to toss another question out which sort of pertains to your last answer. This comes from Michael Murray. He asks, what’s involved in building relationships that are strong enough to deal with intense differences?
Pete Wehner: That’s a great question. Just to pick up on the first question, I’ll only say I’m a huge fan of Alan Jacobs and How to Think, which is a thin book but is a really good one. He has his book, The Narnian, which talks about the Inklings and some of what we’re talking about here. Obviously, I mentioned Owen Barfield and Lewis, who were part of the Inklings. There’s a lot to learn from that community. What about building relationships that can survive intense disagreements? I guess I would say several things. One is sometimes you find out in intense political times just how deep those relationships go. And, in my experience, if the relationship is built primarily or almost exclusively on politics, then it’s just harder. But then I’m not quite sure what the relationship is. I don’t mean to imply that those relationships aren’t important or meaningful, but if that’s all that it’s built on, then it’s kind of on shifting sand. I would guess in both of your experiences, they are just relationships with people who have traveled the journey with you, who have been with you in times of joy, times of sorrow, and times of grief, and who have a vested interest in you because they care for you and love you.
Back to a story about Steve Hayner — somebody who was a big loss, for sure. At one point, Steve and I had what I thought was going to be a difference on a political matter. And I wrote Steve because I was worried about it, and he wrote me back and he said, “Pete, I can’t imagine there’s any issue I would ever not love you over.” And he said, “my relationship with you is not based on those other things, it’s based on something else.” So if you have a relationship like that, it’ll survive political differences.
We’ve learned from Adam Kinzinger a very poignant story about members of his extended family, sort of disowning him because of his position on Donald Trump. When that happens, you know, there are different ways to deal with it. One is you can try and listen to the other people and engage them. And as Jon was saying, ask what do you think I have wrong? Or maybe I made a mistake here. Or it may be that you just have to bracket it and say, look, relationships have seasons just like people and this is just not the season to deal with that. But in some of the relationships that I’ve had, where there have been political differences, the thing underneath, often — several that I’m thinking of — is they’re based in common faith. And I, as a Christian, believe my faith is more important than my politics; I think they’re both very important. But look, even when you have strong relationships and you’re in an intense time and you care passionately about certain issues, it puts pressure on it. And there are times in which I’m sure I had friends, very close friends, that looked at me and probably literally or at least figuratively wanted to shake me and say, “don’t you see what you’re missing? Don’t you see that you’re aiding the enemy? Why do you have to say what you’re saying?” And I understand that. They care about these issues and they’re important. They want me to see it, too, because they think I’m wrong. So it’s a complicated matter.
Cherie Harder: I’m combining questions from Randall Paul and Deborah Christiansen, who ask: how do we debate the most important issues of the day, especially issues on which there are irreconcilable ideals that can’t honestly be compromised, involved? How do we do it with civility in the midst of such a highly polarized and hyperbolic environment? Jon, you want to take the first crack at that?
Jonathan Haidt: I would just say that the older ideal of “let’s all get together and talk” or, you know, a lot of companies have an all-hands meeting where you all talk and encourage people to speak up. I think that’s no longer really possible or advisable because people come to anything thinking, “what are they going to tweet or post?” And that line between what we’re doing here in our company or our school and my life on social media, well, there’s no longer a lot of a wall between them. I think that Pete used the phrase “performative politics.” Especially for young people who grew up with social media, everything is performance, and so there’s really no point in having a debate or discussion with a lot of people because it’s going to turn into this performance and people can’t be honest. So you have to have very small groups and a commitment that nobody’s going to record this or nobody’s going to report it out. It’s very hard. The more we are tied together, the harder it is to talk, unfortunately.
Pete Wehner: I was just going to say: before the debates what’s required is that each person who’s debating has to express the view of the other person in a sufficiently fair minded way that that other person says, yes, you got my views. So that’s a very good exercise. The second is simply to be able to identify what the differences are and name them, not necessarily reconcile them, but say this is where our points of departure are. And the third is that there has to be some kind of explicit or more implicit understanding that you can hold a different view and still be a good person. And often the debates don’t really send that signal to others.
A Question from Middlebury
Cherie Harder: So the next question comes from Maggie Connelly. Maggie says, “I am a student currently at Middlebury University and I’m also in the middle of your book, Jonathan, The Coddling of The American Mind, in which you discuss an incident that took place at my school. I find your book to be extremely insightful to my current environment. What is your best advice for a student like me, in the heat of it, who seeks to find truth and fight against extremism, but also fears social alienation?”
Jonathan Haidt: Yes, that is exactly what the Coddling of the American Mind is about. I gave a talk at Middlebury. Middlebury had one of the major blow ups that was widely reported, but the mood is very similar at a lot of America’s top liberal arts colleges. What I would say is, if you are not part of the dominant political group or even if you are, but you see that there are issues or difficulties, I would say don’t just keep your head down and say nothing. I heard one student who said her motto is silence is safer; just don’t say anything. Don’t let that be your motto. But if you speak to people privately — once again, be careful about a public setting where everyone else is performing, or you could be strung up as a witch — but speak to people privately and you’ll find that people are actually much more open and nuanced in their thinking one-on-one than they are when they’re performing. Be very wary of that and seek out — well, if you’re on the Right, you can’t avoid talking to lots of people on the Left. But if you’re on the Left, seek out the smaller number of people on the Right because they’re the ones that are going to help you grow. It’s those differences that help you grow.
Christians in the Public Square
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Jon. So there’s quite a few questions about the underlying issues behind hate on social media. I’ll choose one from Brad Edwards as kind of a rough representative. Brad says it’s very popular to beat up on social media as the cause of polarization, but it also seems to amplify what’s already there. Could you talk about the specific dynamics or causes behind whether that may or may not be the case, or how the church or Christians can mitigate those effects in the public square? Pete, would you take a first crack?
Pete Wehner: Sure, and I agree with that; I think I alluded to it. So many of these problems predate this moment, or the last five years. I think I identified some of them, which was the polarization, “the big sort” as a journalist, geographic sorting, the political parties becoming more polarized, and the lack of or the fracturing of information and social media. In terms of what Christians can do about it, I mean, it’s a great question. I think the first thing I would say is, for my part, I would be grateful if Christians first stop making things worse, which has largely been happening for too many years, and not being an accelerant to these worse tendencies. What can be done to actually heal the breach? Paul uses the phrase “ministry of reconciliation,” and Christ is referred to as breaking down the dividing walls. Then there’s this concept of grace, and I would say that grace is one concept in my understanding of faith that is specific to, and maybe sui generis to, Christianity. I think if more of us demonstrated grace in how we conducted ourselves — Philip Yancey is a friend of mine and we were exchanging notes the other day and he referred to a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., “weapons of grace.” And I think if we were able to do that — that’s one thing, Cherie, that when a watching world sees people of Christian faith manifest grace, it is the thing that most breaks through. Even if they themselves aren’t Christians or don’t become Christians, they see it and they will say there’s something to that that’s important. That involves having one’s affections and hearts, won over, here I’ll speak as a Christian, to Christ. And that’s its own set of issues.
Jonathan Haidt: Well, if everybody on social media were to radiate grace, I do agree that it would be a lot better. But short of that, I think that major structural reforms are probably what we need. I think the questioner is right that people love to beat up on social media, and I’m one of those people. I’m just putting in the chat right now, an article that I wrote in The Atlantic on social media. I listen to a podcast with Sinan Aral, who has a book out now on social media, I forget the title, but I’ve learned from listening to him. As I said before, always note that social media does a lot of good things, it creates a lot of value for others. So I’m not saying, oh, it’s terrible, we’ve got to go back to the 1990s before there was social media. But I think that we are wired up now in a way that is radically different from how it was even in 2007 or 2008. It really changed between 2009 and 2012. And that’s what I show in the article. The optimistic view is that this is like when they invented the printing press and we had a couple hundred years of religious war, but ultimately we learned to deal with information flowing all around, including propaganda. So odds are that in ten or twenty years, things will be better in most ways, as Steve Pinker has shown. And odds are social media, I think, will be more constructive. But I think we could be in, we have been in, for a rough ride these last five to eight years, and I think that could go for the rest of the 2020s. It remains to be seen. So for now, I will continue beating up on, while also praising, social media.
The American Elite and the Populace
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one last question, and this is from Patrick Wilson. And Patrick asks: “ The great moral historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I know you both know, made much of the Victorian elite’s desire to reform themselves and re-moralize themselves. She argued that this effort, much marginalized today, was actually a really healthy revulsion by learned Christian people and oriented towards the idea that the poor man was actually more moral and good. What do you think of this as applied to what you were just saying?” Jon, let’s start with you.
Jonathan Haidt: I really appreciate the question because I wrote an article in 2014 with Sam Abrams, a political scientist, listing 10 reasons we’re getting more polarized. And that’s what I’ve always been drawing from. But just in the last month or two, I’ve decided, whoa, one of the biggest ones that I missed was the elites, be they corrupt elites or incompetent elites. The reason I say this is now there’s three great thinkers that have really been pointing to elites as part of the problem. Peter Turchin, with his mathematical analysis of history, says that you get these periods of dislocation and conflict when you get these three conditions, and one of them is you get a surplus of elites. Too many college grads and not enough places of prestige for them, and so they try to get their followers, and they try to make a name for themselves. Michael Lind, a really brilliant political commentator, is really savage on the current elites and how they’ve left working people behind. And then Martin Gurri, the new person that I’m really enjoying reading. And he has a book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority, something like that. The elites in the Victorian times, you can say well, they were elite because of their heritage and who their father was, and isn’t that undemocratic. But I’ve heard a couple of people point out that in America and the UK and other countries since the 80s or 90s, the elite are the people who did really well on exams. We sort people beginning in high school on how well do you do on this exam? So by the time you get to the top, you think you earned it, that you deserved it, that you are smarter and worked harder. Today’s elites really have a sense that they earned it. They can go off to their gated communities or their islands to wait out COVID. So, yes, I think it would be great to look back to previous periods where the elites took responsibility and took some blame upon themselves and stopped having so much contempt for the masses.
Pete Wehner: Yeah, I agree with that. First thing I’d say is that anything Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, I would recommend. Look, I think the elites have a lot of responsibility in this, and I think elites have gotten a lot wrong. I think some of the social divisions and some of the issues we’ve been talking about during this conversation are because there have been failures of elites, including in the political class, and that created a lot of problems and a big counter reaction. I’d also say that there is an attitude of the elites toward the populace — and particularly conservatives and often people of faith — which can be patronizing and contemptuous. I was at an event in November 2016 with Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who had gone to the bayou country in Louisiana and then wrote a book called Strangers in Their Own Land. She was struck by how kind they were to her personally, but they also feel so dishonored and disrespected. And she said Donald Trump for them is an antidote to that kind of depression that they feel. So there is undoubtedly an attitude of elites toward others which has contributed to this.
There’s a tendency to sort of pick sides here. It’s elites or it’s the masses. The masses have a lot to answer for, too. I’m a conservative, not a populist. And if you go back from Burke to the founding, to Madison, Burke, and Lincoln’s Lyceum speech in 1838, all of them warned about the danger of mob mentality and the masses. The reason we’re a republic and not a democracy is the whole idea that you would filter, enlarge, and refine, in the words of Madison, the public view. I think there’s a tendency sometimes on the right to excuse some inexcusable behavior among the masses and say, well, they’re angry or they have grievances and they’re legit. Well, yes and no. In the end, people are responsible for their actions, and I think some of this has just gotten out of control. Everybody has a part of the problem and has a piece of the action, which means everybody has to be a part of the solution.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Pete and Jonathan. I’d like to give each of you a last word to close out our conversation. Jonathan, the floor is yours.
Jonathan Haidt: Thank you, Cherie, and thanks for hosting this discussion. It’s wonderful to be together with you and Pete and reflecting at this time in our history. So, given that one of the themes here is the best of Christian thought and the best of religious thought, I could certainly end with the quote that I’ve used throughout my career studying moral psychology, which is, “why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but you did not notice the log in your own?” And that is such a deep piece of wisdom. But I think it’s important to note that this is a great truth that we get from many of the world’s religions: we are too judgmental, too quick to attack each other. We need to slow down and be more forgiving. So I’ll end with this wonderful quote from a Chinese Zen master, Sengsan, in the 8th century. He wrote, “The perfect way is only difficult for those who pick and choose. Do not like, do not dislike. All will then be clear. Make a hairbreadth difference and heaven and earth are set apart. If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never before or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease.”
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Jonathan. And Pete, the last word is yours.
Pete Wehner: First, Cherie, thanks for hosting this, and thanks, Jon, for participating. I just want to reinforce and say publicly again what I have said before, which is that the Trinity Forum is doing a terrific job. In an era in which institutions are failing, the Trinity Forum is a beacon. I really appreciate what you’re doing and it’s been a real honor to be with you and with Jon. My quote is from a poet, Christian Wiman, who wrote a book called, My Bright Abyss, which is a book that really had an impact on me. There is a quote of his in it that I thought was apposite what we’ve been talking about. Wiman says, “The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play. If two people meet and disagree fiercely about theological matters, but agree, silently or otherwise, that God’s love creates and sustains human love and whatever else may be said of God is subsidiary to this truth, then even out of what seems great friction, there may emerge a peace that though it may not end the dispute, though neither party may be convinced of the other’s position, nevertheless enters and nourishes one’s notion of a relationship with God. With this radical openness, all arguments about God are not simply pointless, but pernicious, for each person is in thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth, and asserts not love, but less, and not God, but himself.”
Cherie Harder: Pete, Jonathan, thank you. It’s been great to be with you. And for all those watching us, thank you so much for joining us. Have a great weekend.