Tag: Stephen Colbert

Trying to Make Sense of Making Sense: Christians, Cognitive Consistency, and Colbert

I’m having a cognitive crisis.

Not because I spent three days in marathon grading mode wrapping up the fall semester. Not because of the incongruity of Christmas shopping and the season of Advent preparation.

My crisis arises because I’m an academic. More specifically a social psychologist who studies contemporary American religion. I have long held to a core principle is social psychology: that human beings strive for consistency in their attitudes and behaviors. That lack of consistency or coherence is an uncomfortable situation that motivates people to change in order to alleviate the inconsistency.

I keep running across data that is hard to reconcile with a cognitive consistency approach. It would appear from some of the data that people just aren’t very reflective about the positions they hold. In short, they don’t think deeply about contrasts between Christian theology and support for torture by the American government according a survey by the Washington Post. If they’re aware of the inconsistency, it seems fairly easy to ignore.

Academics and journalists have a much higher commitment to cognitive consistency and strive to uncover the linkages that will explain the responses on the surveys. Perhaps, theologians argue, that belief in the efficacy of torture is naturally congruent with the assumptions of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (the theory that God had to punish the innocent Jesus who was voluntarily taking the punishment for our sins).

Perhaps, a sociologist might argue (disclaimer — it was me Monday on Facebook), people maintain a mythic structure that supports belief in the basic Linus Van Pelt version of Christmas story regardless of their actual Christian commitments in response to this year’s Pew Survey about the Christmas story (I wrote about this last December.)

Or maybe they just aren’t into cognitive consistency. Maybe after twenty-plus years of talking points and litmus tests, we respond in predictable ways as we think we’re supposed to without cognitively reflecting on how these responses align with other positions we hold, especially those that define us as Christians. But the social psychologist in me says that this isn’t normal and needs to be repaired.

That, in summary, is the source of my crisis. Let me now try to expand my struggle.

The Theoretical Perspective

I distinctly remember learning the dominant views of cognitive consistency in my first social psych class. In fact, I decided to share this mini-lecture with my wife on our first date (she still remembers).

Fritz Heider’s Balance Theory attempted to show how we can be placed in a position of inconsistency and feel great pressure to adjust. He used interpersonal relationship as an example. Balance TheoryIn his telling (shown on the right), a Person P has an attitude toward some object X. P also has attitudes toward another person O. If P doesn’t like X and O does, then P should not like O. If P likes O and finds out that they have different ideas toward X, P feels pressure to either change his attitude toward X or find another friend. Heider explains that this is overly simplified. Nobody does this with a single X — but if you imagine large numbers of Os and Xs, you can see how balance is maintained. Fritz would have absolutely loved Facebook and Twitter. It’s his theory in daily practice.

Osgood and Tannenbaum had a slightly more nuanced version of Balance Theory that they called Congruity Theory. It also focused on both attitudes toward people and objects but it added a more refined measure: the salience of the position held. They suggested that some attitudes are stronger than others and therefore more impervious to change. But incongruity is still a difficult condition and must be resolved. But both attitudes affected will shift toward some common position. It’s reminiscent of the old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me for a member”. CongruityHere’s how it works. Attitudes toward things or people are scaled from negative to positive and from 0 to 3. So +3 and -3 have equivalent salience but in opposite directions. For the sake of example, let’s suppose someone has a mildly negative attitude toward President Obama (-1) and an off-the-charts positive attitude toward A Charlie Brown Christmas (+3).  Then Obama tells everyone that Charlie Brown Christmas is the most important part of the family Christmas celebration. Charlie Brown Christmas can’t be that great anymore because the Obama family likes it. Obama can’t be as awful because he likes Charlie Brown Christmas. Notice that the more weakly held position moves further as congruence is restored.

Then there’s Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. As most people know, when there is a conflict between two attitudes or an attitude and a behavior it creates dissonance that must be resolved by shifting one of the elements. The nice thing about dissonance theory is that it adds the possibility of eliminating the dissonance by adding a new element to the system (the way dissonant chords in music resolve when the right tone is added).

The Crisis

Issues of the last several years — politics, media, religion — seem impervious to cognitive reshuffling. People on all sides hold to their pre-existing positions without any regard to new information. What factors contribute to this?

One possibility is that there isn’t really a problem at all, but the inconsistent/incongruent/dissonant patterns are really methodological artifacts. For example, it’s possible that the evangelical-torture connection isn’t a rational linkage but a spurious correlation with party identification (especially in the south). If people in southern red states are more likely to vote Republican and more likely to hold to evangelical self-identifications, then their support of government policy on enhanced interrogation may have more to do with pro-nationalism related to party than with theological stance. Relatedly, what we’re seeing might be an artifact of the questions asked.  A friend recently examined some data on gun control and showed how the framing of the question creates differential outcomes. It’s quite likely that similar things are happening when Pew asks people if they believe the Christmas story. More nuanced questions might come closer to the mental constructs people actually possess.

Another possibility is that we’ve overplayed the monolithic nature of religion. Perhaps there are such diverse views present among American Christians that their different views cancel each other out. This recent piece by Cathy Grossman of Religion News Service tries to give voice to the diversity of religious thought.  She quotes David Kinnaman from the Barna Group that no more than 7% of Americans are “theologically by-the-book evangelicals”. (I’ve written Kinnaman looking for the source data but haven’t heard back yet.) If this is legitimate, then a lack of congruence between theology and politics is not surprising. In fact, finding congruence or consonance would be the unusual thing.

A third possibility, and the one that troubles me most, is that after decades of talking point arguments in our political and religious spheres, we have come to place less importance on holding complex yet coherent positions. That somehow, it’s important to maintain our univocal positions despite disagreement, to talk in our closed networks on social media, and to see any equivocation as a sign of weakness. Yesterday, Ed Stetzer shared summaries from the Time to Speak conference on racial reconciliation. He included this quotation:

Albert Tate, pastor of Fellowship Monrovia in Monrovia, Calif., also called on Christians to think biblically rather than politically: “Our disciples sound more like the disciples of Fox News and CNN than they do the disciples of Jesus Christ.”

This becomes surprising when we consider how much Worldview language shows up in Christian rhetoric. For example, this week the folks behind YouVersion of the Bible released their most shared verses for the 2014.  This year’s winner is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.

But renewing the mind requires work and change. It makes us think and reorganize our mental processes.

Unless we don’t.

Last night marked the end of The Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert satirized the talking point world by taking it to its natural extremes. In his opening spot last night in his classic segment The Word, he argued that he’d gone nine years without changing.

And while I’ve always reminded you to be afraid, folks, I don’t want you to worry. You see, on my very first show I told you truth doesn’t come from your head, it comes from your gut. And back then, my gut made you a promise. “I know some of you might not trust your gut yet, but with my help, you will.” And you did.

Maybe Colbert come on the scene with an awareness that something had shifted in American society. That we didn’t rely on logic and coherence. The irony is that the devoutly Christian Colbert (the man not the character) probably has the most cognitively consistent view of the world one can find. Hopefully, he will continue to teach us much.

Truthiness, Belief, and Story: Reflections on Hobby Lobby Decision

I wanted to wait to comment on the Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) until I had a chance to review the actual decision after returning from my weekend in Chicago (a delightful Choral Festival at Fourth Presbyterian). In many ways, the outcome was fairly predictable given the Court’s prior position in Citizens United. Having granted bill of rights protections to corporations, it was likely that the conservative majority would be consistent. [In spite of some of what I’ve read, this wasn’t a First Amendment case on free expression but relied instead on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.]

Supreme CourtWhen I saw tweets that Justice Alito had written for the majority, it was also clear how the argument would be structured. Others have observed the sharp distinctions between the arguments of the majority and the dissent. It was almost as if they heard two different cases since their rhetorical focus seemed so different. As I did a summary read on the decision yesterday, I came away with three critical reflections.

 1. The Central Claim was one of Truthiness

Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of “truthiness” the night he launched his satirical news show. His point was the facts didn’t matter because he depended on his gut to tell him what was true. It was the Merriam Webster “word of the year” for 2006, beating out the word “google”. If something feels a certain way, then that’s what matters.

At the heart of the dispute over the contraceptive mandate is a concern over four forms of contraceptives that the plaintiffs “believed” caused abortions. The mandate is actually in implementation language written by the HHS in response to amendment to the Affordable Care Act dealing with women’s preventative health. [The dissent makes clear than a religious exemption amendment failed during the ACA debate.] As the case was moving its way through the courts, I kept waiting for someone to address the central belief. There are many news reports that attempt to explore the claim that the four types (mainly IUDs and “morning after pills”) cause abortion rather than preventing ovulation. While not conclusive, my reading of the science leans toward the ovulation argument, but I’m not a definitive source. It seemed to me that someone would need to address this along the way.

I was quietly stunned in reading the oral arguments that both sides emphasized that the plaintiffs “sincerely believed” that the methods caused abortions which was a violation of their religious beliefs. But nobody addressed the scientific claim. I remember reading that social science data on young girls and dolls was an important part of the Brown v. Board deliberation, so it seemed appropriate.

This is important because Justice Alito based part of his support on the idea that there were less restrictive options available. The federal government could pay for those disputed contraceptive methods. But one can’t do so without addressing the science. If it turns out that these methods are, in fact, abortifacients, the Hyde Amendment and the Stupak amendment to the ACA would preclude any federal funds being used.  It’s stunning that Alito would suggest such a strategy unless he believed the science was on the ovulation side. [He does argue that the government has a legitimate interest in providing all 20 forms of contraception.]

2. The Nature of Belief

There are volumes written in theology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy on the nature of belief. The RFRA was written to protect a religious group from laws that infringe on their first amendment protections. The Wikipedia description quotes the act as follows: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The Hobby Lobby argument is that their belief that “life begins at conception” is a religious belief and that the mandate infringes on that belief with regard to the four contested contraception methods. Personally, I struggle with the application of language on “free exercise” of religion with a particular moral belief. There is a big difference between Native American peyote practice (the case behind the RFRA) and a specific belief.

There are Christians firmly committed to Young Earth Creationism or that women should not have authority over men. Do these positions constitute the central place of religious belief? It’s not the same as being at risk for believing that Christ is the Son of God and Redeemer. For a society that seems to adopt a smorgasbord approach to religious belief [the Catholic Bishops just accepted the fact that 95% of Catholics disagree with the official position on birth control], how do we navigate if every set of beliefs is privileged by law?

3. Whose Story?

The Court determined that “closely held corporations” were protected by the RFRA. In other words, corporations that form around family enterprises (but not publicly traded companies) could have religious positions that must be considered. But as many have observed, Hobby Lobby as a company doesn’t appear to be organized around religious ends (except for being closed on Sunday). Many have pointed out that there are practices the company engages in that are hard to characterize as “Christian” (e.g., Jonathan Merritt’s piece in The Week).

But the court’s argument seems to be that the values of the Green family extend to the rest of the corporation. This strikes me as problematic on a number of levels. We often attempt to distinguish one’s personal commitments from one’s corporate stance. This was the argument made around the Chick-fil-a CEO last year. But if one’s beliefs and story extend over all else, then how do we make decisions?

This struck me the other night when I was watching Rising Star on ABC. I don’t normally watch these music competition shows, butRising Star a choir member’s niece was on when I was in Chicago so we all watched it together. What struck me was that the judges seemed less focused on musical ability or technique as on the back story. So the baseball pitcher who was blinded by a hit ball could now try to sing. The focus was on how much he’d overcome and what dedication he showed. People were commended on how they “brought it”, overcame nerves, or how their stories touched the judges.

There’s a parallel in a focus on stories that show dedication, sincerity, and Christian commitment within the political sphere. The argument becomes about the ways in which the Greens live out their commitments of faith. But our stories are part of what got us to the current point of discussion not the be-all-and-end-all. And we need to figure out how our stories intersect with the stories of others.

All of the justices were privileging story but they were privileging different stories. The majority focused on the Greens and the dissent focused on female employees of Hobby Lobby.

At the end of the day, I can affirm Hobby Lobby’s interest in pursuing legal remedies available to them but I keep thinking that there was a stronger opportunity for a faith witness in not insisting on their way.

These reflections can no doubt be challenged and I may modify my own thinking over time. For now, it seems like a decision that left a lot unexplored. We will no doubt be revisiting this case and others like it in the future.

Easy for Me to Dream: Fifty years after MLK’s speech

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If you’ve been distracted by Miley-gate and rumors of war, it’s possible (but  unlikely) that you missed the fact that tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall as part of the Poor People’s March on Washington.

It’s a remarkable speech. You can take a moment and read the full text from the national archives. There are a few things I notice when I read it. First, the speech is only 5 1/2 pages long but is full of significant content. Second, the phrase “I have a dream” doesn’t appear until near the bottom of page four. He opens that section with the hope that “one day this nation…will live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal“. He speaks of the table of brotherhood, And, of course, he has that beautiful line about his children being “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” From there on, he’s streaming toward the finish — My Country Tis of Thee, Let Freedom Ring, the Mountains of Georgia and Tennessee and Mississippi. and the big finish with all of God’s Children singing Free at Last.

As a nation, we like those last two pages. They remind us of a dream we all share. It fits with the kind of colorblindness that Stephen Colbert looks for (he doesn’t see color but thinks he’s white). It’s a dream that Glenn Beck likes. It’s a dream that I can embrace (although I have to guiltily admit that far too often I don’t look for content of character soon enough!).

It’s a good dream. It’s an aspiration for us as a society. That’s why 45% of Americans polled think we’ve made “a lot” of progress toward racial equality. Of course, that same polling shows that 32% of black respondents think the same. Perhaps even more telling is to look at the percentage saying that we’ve made only a little progress. Just over 1 in 10 whites report little progress but over 1 in 4 blacks say the same.

It’s not hard to understand that discrepancy when we look at the first four pages of MLK’s speech. He opens with the recognition that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives in an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity“. The nation’s promises, he said, had been given as a promissory note that came back marked “insufficient funds” — an image much too familiar to his listeners. In the middle of page 2, he suggests that “this is the time to make real the promises of democracy“. It is not enough, if mobility involves moving from  “a smaller ghetto to a larger one“. At the top of page 4, he offers a critique that is prophetic in light of changing voting laws: “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

The blog By Their Strange Fruit had a brilliant post Sunday pointing out that too many of the statistics King looked at in 1963 we could find today. The black unemployment rate still runs about twice the white unemployment rate. The black infant mortality rate is twice that of the white rate. Add to that data, the differences in incarceration rates and crime victimization rates, and the difference is still stark 50 years later. Right before he gets to his dream of a better future, MLK speaks to people jailed, beaten, and what he calls “creative suffering”.

it is because of all these injustices that the Dream has such power. Take away the suffering and the Dream becomes a vague hope.

I can make this more personal. I don’t get the first four pages of the speech. I haven’t suffered systemic injustice. I don’t know persecution. I’ve made my share of mistakes in life (like flunking out of college after my freshman year) but that wasn’t a deal breaker. Because i was a white middle class kid with lots of options, getting back to school and eventually earning a PhD was not just possible but likely.

My world makes it hard to celebrate the Dream speech. This was make clear by a remarkable piece on The Daily Show about Race in America. Jessica Williams (who is black) did a focus group with a group of white New Yorkers. Samantha Bee (who is white) interviewed a similar group of blacks. While both interviewers made great light of their situation, the contrast between the two groups was amazing. The vast majority of the black group had been stopped by authorities on the streets of New York. There was one woman in Jessica’s group who thought she’d been frisked — by the TSA. Like those folks talking to Jessica, my life can make me think that life is fair and based on hard work and good intentions.

At the rhetorical turning point of the speech, King recognizes the white citizens on the mall and encouraged his listeners that our freedoms are intricately tied up in each other’s freedom. This sounds like the Kingdom of God to me.

As long as I want to think about some happy time in the future without dealing with the reality of now, nothing much is accomplished. I can dream of sweetness and light and be cut off from the realities that others face. But my true calling is to identify with those for whom life is not fair. I have to enter into the suffering of others to really understand my place in the world. I have to see their fortunes increase, even if mine suffer some, to see the Kingdom Come.

In short, I can’t start my celebration of Dr King’s speech two-thirds of the way through and think I got it. I have to enter into the sufferings of the first four pages and work toward their resolution if I’m ever hoping to “join in that old Negro spiritual and sing Free at Last“.