Wall Street Journal Essay: Can Evangelicals and Academics Talk to Each Other?, by Alan Jacobs (Baylor):
Last year, as the fire and fury of the presidential election were intensifying and people all around me were growing more and more hostile to one another, I was struck by the familiarity of the situation. For all my adult life, I’ve been dealing with the kinds of hostilities and misunderstandings that now dominate American politics, because I belong to two very different and mutually suspicious groups. I am an academic, but I am also an evangelical Christian.
When I hear academics talk about Christians, I typically think, “That’s not quite right. I don’t believe you understand the people you think you’re disagreeing with.” And when I listen to Christians talk about academics, I have precisely the same reaction.
I have spent decades trying to figure out how these pervasive misunderstandings arise and looking for ways to correct them. But they are very hard to combat, because academics and Christians (like the rest of us) treasure their enmities. And where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Thirty years ago, when the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding began doing field research on American fundamentalist Christianity—resulting, eventually, in her remarkable book, “The Book of Jerry Falwell : Fundamentalist Language and Politics”—she discovered that her colleagues were deeply suspicious of her interests. Why would someone want to investigate such weird and obviously unpleasant people? “In effect,” Dr. Harding wrote in an essay about her experience, “I am perpetually asked: Are you now or have you ever been a born-again Christian?”—an echo of the question posed to hundreds of suspected communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.
But, Dr. Harding wondered, aren’t anthropologists supposed to be interested in cultural structures and practices that are different from their own? Why would they be repelled by the idea of studying such differences right next door, among people who vote in the same elections they do? The title of her essay is “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” and the phrase “repugnant cultural other” (RCO) neatly describes one of the most common impediments to thinking rationally about those with whom we disagree. ...
For many academics, evangelical Christians are the RCO; for many evangelical Christians, academics play that role. And having an RCO is one of the best ways to form and maintain group identity. Recent research by the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood indicate that, in terms of social belonging, “outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.” That is, it’s more important to hate the RCO than to affirm and support the people who agree with you. How do I know you’re One of Us? Because you hate the right people. ...
Many years ago C.S. Lewis gave a talk to university students called “The Inner Ring.” In it he said, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” The era of social media has amply confirmed Lewis’s argument and has taught us that the most effective way to stay “inside the local Ring” is to police its boundaries and thrust others outside. ...
[T]he path before us, if we wish to understand our neighbors better and have more compassion for them, is not obvious. But there is a first step that all of us can take in resisting the hold of our Inner Rings and the reflex to push away our “repugnant cultural others.”
Some years ago the entrepreneur Jason Fried wrote of attending a lecture and not liking what he heard. With every passing minute his disagreements piled up, and as soon as he could talk to the speaker he rushed in with his refutation. The speaker listened to him for a little while and then said, “Man, give it five minutes.”
Mr. Fried was stopped in his tracks—and then so taken by the speaker’s request that he adopted “Give it five minutes” as a kind of personal watchword. It ought to be one for the rest of us too. But before that can happen, we need to reflect on the ways that our informational habits—the means (mostly online) by which we acquire and pass on and respond to information—strongly discourage us from taking even that much time.
Am I exaggerating the problem or just casting easy blame on social media? Could be. Maybe you’re confident that you’re not driven by the desire to belong to the Inner Ring, that you are indeed that shining exception. That too could be. But before you dismiss the possibility, why don’t you just give it five minutes? You have nothing to lose but your RCO.