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The Hope and the Horror: Reflections for an Election Year

If you’re like me, an election year stirs up emotions of both horror and hope. Hope, because I can get a bit romantic about democracy. Every election we hope that our collective participation might create a meaningful difference and lasting change in the world. There are people and issues we care deeply about, and elections give us a chance to have an impact. Or at least, that’s our hope.

And the horror?

For me, the horror is experienced in our increasing polarization. How we’ve lost the capacity to talk to each other. That during an election year we find ourselves blocking friends, coworkers, relatives, and people from church on social media. The anger, the irrationality, the vitriol. It’s so wearying. Politics has become a blood sport, and we all carry the scars. So the prospect of an election year fills us with dread.

What’s happened to us as a nation? And how can people of faith shine as lights during these troubled political times? 

A New Type of Polarization

Over the last few election cycles, social scientists have been tracking the rise of what is called “affective polarization” within the American electorate. Affective polarization is different from issue polarization, which speaks to the degree of agreement or disagreement among Americans across a variety of issues. In other words, how much “common ground” exists between us on the challenges we face, from climate change, to health care, to immigration, to responding to a global pandemic. While issue polarization has increased over the last few decades, this change hasn’t been as seismic as you might have guessed from watching people argue on social media. There’s still a great deal of shared territory where broad consensus can be forged. In a 2018 survey, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” conducted by the group More in Common, the researchers described 67 percent of the American electorate as “the Exhausted Majority.”1 Features of those falling into this, the largest group within the American electorate, included being ideologically flexible and supportive of finding political compromises. Clearly, a pragmatic spirit still exists in America.

But while issue polarization isn’t as bad as we might have suspected, at least among the 67 percent in the Exhausted Majority, what has been increasing over the years is affective polarization. Affective polarization concerns the feelings we have about the people on the other side of the political aisle—it describes the feelings Democrats have about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats. As we’ve all observed, affective polarization has been steadily increasing. The authors of a 2019 study of affective polarization2 summarize, “Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party. Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.” We’ve seen the effects of this on Facebook and over Thanksgiving dinners; we’ve witnessed firsthand how affective polarization poisons the political well. Affective polarization explains why political conversations are so difficult, tense, and unproductive: we’re demonizing our conversation partners. The possibility of compromise evaporates when seeking common ground is experienced as a moral failure, caving in to the forces of evil. Bright ideological lines dividing the agents of light from the agents of darkness are patrolled with vigilance. No ground can be ceded in this struggle. To fraternize with the enemy is betrayal.

Tribalization and Politics as Holy War

Affective polarization is one force behind the great tribalization of American politics. In this tribal landscape, political issues aren’t debated to seek common ground or solutions. Issues become identity markers, social tools we use to figure out which political team you’re on. We’ve all witnessed this moral sorting on social media. An event crashes into our collective consciousness and we watch the two tribes predictably array themselves on either side of the emerging debate. This moral sorting explains why our political debates, whether at the family reunion or on social media, have become so unproductive. We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances.

In fact, our political tribes have become more important than traditional demographic markers of group identity, like race and ethnicity. In a fascinating study done in 2015,3 participants were asked to select a candidate for a college scholarship. The candidates were identical in their qualifications, except for race and political affiliation. Interestingly, White participants were slightly more likely (55.8 percent) to award the scholarship to the Black student. But when it came to political affiliation, 79.2 percent of Democrats picked the Democratic student for the scholarship and 80 percent of Republicans picked the Republican student.

Politics is increasingly becoming a marker of group identity in America. Consequently, affective polarization is simply the manifestation of some well-known social dynamics you learned about in Psychology 101. Specifically, group identity is often achieved through two related mental and emotional biases: in-group favoritism and out-group denigration. We see the biases at work everywhere in our lives, from the positive feelings we have toward the people in our “tribe” to the suspicions we harbor about “those people.”

But it’s not just that humans are wary of difference. It goes deeper than that. Group identity is a large part of how we achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance. Make a list of the things that give you a sense of meaning and belonging and much of that list will involve group membership. You’re an American, a Christian, a Fuller alumnus. You belong to a church, a family, and a place of work. We are members of groups and organizations that represent our deepest values and concerns, declaring these allegiances with Facebook groups and bumper stickers. Gather up all these groups and you have an identity, a location where you stand in the world.

But not all groups are created equal. Being a Republican or a Democrat is different from being a Star Wars fan. (Though it might be hard to tell the difference if you’ve ever debated The Rise of Skywalker with a hardcore fan.) Politics has always generated strong, even violent, emotions because of how politics enshrines deeply held values. Rising polarization suggests that political affiliation is assuming an ever-increasing significance in our lives, an outsized role in defining our self-perceptions and worldview. In an increasingly post-Christian nation, politics is becoming our new religion: the repository of our values, the focus of our concerns, the arena of our action, and our hope for a better future. As a consequence, election years feel more and more like holy wars.

Hero Systems and the Search for Significance

The work of the psychologist Ernest Becker is wonderfully illuminating and timely in helping us untangle the psychological dynamics at work in an election year, the tight knot of self-esteem, group identity, and social hostility. Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death in 1973,4 and his insights on what is called Terror Management Theory have generated thousands of studies. Terror Management Theory is preoccupied with two vital questions: First, why are people so concerned and invested in self-esteem? Second, why do we have so much trouble getting along with people who are different from ourselves? According to Becker, these two questions are intimately related, and they explain why politics has become so tribal and angry.

We’re interested in self-esteem, according to Becker, because of existential anxiety—in other words, our fear of meaninglessness in the face of death. This is the cry of Ecclesiastes, how death renders life “vain” and “meaningless,” our life work “a chasing after the wind.” Given the prospect of death, we want our lives to have a lasting, durable impact upon the world. A meaningful life is a life that makes a dent in the universe, a life that makes a difference. At each graduation ceremony at Abilene Christian University, where I am faculty, we give an award to an outstanding alumnus, someone who has made a significant contribution to the world. It’s called the “Outlive Your Life Award.” While few of us will win awards from our alma maters, we’re all trying to win some version of the Outlive Your Life Award. We are all trying, according to Ernest Becker, to live a “heroic” life.

Our cultures help us in this pursuit by providing a path toward significance and meaning, what Becker calls “a hero system.” These hero systems are everywhere, from the stories we pass down in our families to the metrics of success in our workplaces to the American dream. Listen to any commencement address and you’ll hear some version of the American hero system, the speaker’s take on what constitutes a meaningful life.

We achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance by performing within these hero systems. This answers the question of why self-esteem is so important to us. Self-esteem is the emotional voice informing us that we’re winning the Outlive Your Life Award, that we’re making a meaningful difference in the world.

However, there’s a dark side to the hero system. In Ernest Becker’s book Escape from Evil,5 his sequel to The Denial of Death, he describes how our hero systems go on to become a source of social conflict. Specifically, we live in a diverse, pluralistic world. Not everyone agrees on how to win the Outlive Your Life Award. Our world is full of rival hero systems, competing beliefs and values about what matters in life. And all this diversity makes us uneasy. Rival hero systems threaten the legitimacy of my own, calling into question the values and beliefs by which I define a significant, meaningful life. If no single hero system is the ultimate truth, given all the options before us, why would any of them be a reliable and durable answer to the threat of death? In the face of that question, we’re thrust back into the lament of Ecclesiastes. If no hero system can be ultimately trusted, it seems every attempt to outlive your life is “vanity of vanities.”

Facing this fearful prospect, we engage in what Terror Management Theory calls “worldview defense.” It’s too anxiety inducing to allow others to place question marks next to the values and beliefs that make our life meaningful. Here we come to how self-
esteem becomes implicated in group conflict and hostility. People who hold different values threaten the legitimacy of our hero project, calling into question the worldview that gives our lives meaning and significance. In the face of that threat, we attack.

The work of Ernest Becker is a powerful tool in explaining the tribalism and hostility at work in our current political landscape. As mentioned, as we move into a post-Christian future, politics will increasingly become the repository of our most deeply held values, the arena in which we will pursue the Outlive Your Life Award. Politics will become our hero system, the place where we strive for ultimate purpose and meaning. And as politics becomes increasingly fused with our self-image and self-esteem, it will, of course, become increasingly tribal. Politics will be characterized by worldview defense, with our attacks on political opponents exhibiting greater levels of religious zealotry.

Leavening Our Politics Like Our Faith

Now, the reflective reader will quickly ask an important question: isn’t religious conviction vulnerable to these very same tendencies? The answer is yes, of course. Religious history is filled with depressing and horrific examples of worldview defense. Reflecting on the dark shadows of Christian history, mature followers of Jesus are alert to these temptations and work to vigorously resist them. When Satan offered Jesus rule over “all the kingdoms of the world,” Jesus refused. Rejecting the path of political power, Jesus chose the cross. It makes me wonder what our choice would be if Satan offered us a modern spin on his offer to Jesus: “Would you worship me, if you could win this next election?” I think a lot of us, if we’re honest, would be tempted.

This poses both a challenge and a way forward for Christians during an election year. Mature Christians have always recognized that we must be perpetually vigilant and exert enormous energy to excise all traces of bias, hostility, prejudice, intolerance, and hate from our faith. This is a hard, ongoing labor. It raises the question: can we claim we’ve done this same work with our politics? Affective polarization requires a spiritual and moral response.

Let me be the first to confess: I have not done this work. As a lifelong follower of Jesus, I have worked very hard to espouse a Christianity that is loving, tolerant, hospitable, and generous. I have not devoted the same amount of emotional and spiritual work to my politics. I have a beautiful faith but an ugly politics, a politics characterized by tribalism, affective polarization, and worldview defense. That contrast makes me wonder. What do my emotions, all that affective polarization, reveal about my deepest allegiances? Where is my hero system truly located? Have I, unconsciously, said yes to the Devil’s offer?

Those questions haunt me during election years.

And so, brothers and sisters, let me call us to some spiritual reflection and labor this election season. Our political holy wars are a sign that something dark is at work in our hearts and nation. I fear that, in our post-Christian world, worldview defense, affective polarization, and tribalism will become our new normal and constant temptations demanding of us an energetic spiritual response. As followers of Jesus, we know what to do. This is a struggle we are familiar with. Our weapons in this battle are the ones we learned in Sunday school. Mercy, self-control, kindness, joy, hope, peacemaking, forgiveness, humility, and love. We fight to leaven our faith with these virtues.

Let us leaven our politics as well.

Written By

Richard Beck is professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and is an adjunct professor in Fuller’s DMin program. He is an award-winning author of seven books, his most recent being Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash (Fortress Press, 2019). He is a sought-after speaker and writes at the blog Experimental  Theology.

If you’re like me, an election year stirs up emotions of both horror and hope. Hope, because I can get a bit romantic about democracy. Every election we hope that our collective participation might create a meaningful difference and lasting change in the world. There are people and issues we care deeply about, and elections give us a chance to have an impact. Or at least, that’s our hope.

And the horror?

For me, the horror is experienced in our increasing polarization. How we’ve lost the capacity to talk to each other. That during an election year we find ourselves blocking friends, coworkers, relatives, and people from church on social media. The anger, the irrationality, the vitriol. It’s so wearying. Politics has become a blood sport, and we all carry the scars. So the prospect of an election year fills us with dread.

What’s happened to us as a nation? And how can people of faith shine as lights during these troubled political times? 

A New Type of Polarization

Over the last few election cycles, social scientists have been tracking the rise of what is called “affective polarization” within the American electorate. Affective polarization is different from issue polarization, which speaks to the degree of agreement or disagreement among Americans across a variety of issues. In other words, how much “common ground” exists between us on the challenges we face, from climate change, to health care, to immigration, to responding to a global pandemic. While issue polarization has increased over the last few decades, this change hasn’t been as seismic as you might have guessed from watching people argue on social media. There’s still a great deal of shared territory where broad consensus can be forged. In a 2018 survey, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” conducted by the group More in Common, the researchers described 67 percent of the American electorate as “the Exhausted Majority.”1 Features of those falling into this, the largest group within the American electorate, included being ideologically flexible and supportive of finding political compromises. Clearly, a pragmatic spirit still exists in America.

But while issue polarization isn’t as bad as we might have suspected, at least among the 67 percent in the Exhausted Majority, what has been increasing over the years is affective polarization. Affective polarization concerns the feelings we have about the people on the other side of the political aisle—it describes the feelings Democrats have about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats. As we’ve all observed, affective polarization has been steadily increasing. The authors of a 2019 study of affective polarization2 summarize, “Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party. Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.” We’ve seen the effects of this on Facebook and over Thanksgiving dinners; we’ve witnessed firsthand how affective polarization poisons the political well. Affective polarization explains why political conversations are so difficult, tense, and unproductive: we’re demonizing our conversation partners. The possibility of compromise evaporates when seeking common ground is experienced as a moral failure, caving in to the forces of evil. Bright ideological lines dividing the agents of light from the agents of darkness are patrolled with vigilance. No ground can be ceded in this struggle. To fraternize with the enemy is betrayal.

Tribalization and Politics as Holy War

Affective polarization is one force behind the great tribalization of American politics. In this tribal landscape, political issues aren’t debated to seek common ground or solutions. Issues become identity markers, social tools we use to figure out which political team you’re on. We’ve all witnessed this moral sorting on social media. An event crashes into our collective consciousness and we watch the two tribes predictably array themselves on either side of the emerging debate. This moral sorting explains why our political debates, whether at the family reunion or on social media, have become so unproductive. We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances.

In fact, our political tribes have become more important than traditional demographic markers of group identity, like race and ethnicity. In a fascinating study done in 2015,3 participants were asked to select a candidate for a college scholarship. The candidates were identical in their qualifications, except for race and political affiliation. Interestingly, White participants were slightly more likely (55.8 percent) to award the scholarship to the Black student. But when it came to political affiliation, 79.2 percent of Democrats picked the Democratic student for the scholarship and 80 percent of Republicans picked the Republican student.

Politics is increasingly becoming a marker of group identity in America. Consequently, affective polarization is simply the manifestation of some well-known social dynamics you learned about in Psychology 101. Specifically, group identity is often achieved through two related mental and emotional biases: in-group favoritism and out-group denigration. We see the biases at work everywhere in our lives, from the positive feelings we have toward the people in our “tribe” to the suspicions we harbor about “those people.”

But it’s not just that humans are wary of difference. It goes deeper than that. Group identity is a large part of how we achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance. Make a list of the things that give you a sense of meaning and belonging and much of that list will involve group membership. You’re an American, a Christian, a Fuller alumnus. You belong to a church, a family, and a place of work. We are members of groups and organizations that represent our deepest values and concerns, declaring these allegiances with Facebook groups and bumper stickers. Gather up all these groups and you have an identity, a location where you stand in the world.

But not all groups are created equal. Being a Republican or a Democrat is different from being a Star Wars fan. (Though it might be hard to tell the difference if you’ve ever debated The Rise of Skywalker with a hardcore fan.) Politics has always generated strong, even violent, emotions because of how politics enshrines deeply held values. Rising polarization suggests that political affiliation is assuming an ever-increasing significance in our lives, an outsized role in defining our self-perceptions and worldview. In an increasingly post-Christian nation, politics is becoming our new religion: the repository of our values, the focus of our concerns, the arena of our action, and our hope for a better future. As a consequence, election years feel more and more like holy wars.

Hero Systems and the Search for Significance

The work of the psychologist Ernest Becker is wonderfully illuminating and timely in helping us untangle the psychological dynamics at work in an election year, the tight knot of self-esteem, group identity, and social hostility. Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death in 1973,4 and his insights on what is called Terror Management Theory have generated thousands of studies. Terror Management Theory is preoccupied with two vital questions: First, why are people so concerned and invested in self-esteem? Second, why do we have so much trouble getting along with people who are different from ourselves? According to Becker, these two questions are intimately related, and they explain why politics has become so tribal and angry.

We’re interested in self-esteem, according to Becker, because of existential anxiety—in other words, our fear of meaninglessness in the face of death. This is the cry of Ecclesiastes, how death renders life “vain” and “meaningless,” our life work “a chasing after the wind.” Given the prospect of death, we want our lives to have a lasting, durable impact upon the world. A meaningful life is a life that makes a dent in the universe, a life that makes a difference. At each graduation ceremony at Abilene Christian University, where I am faculty, we give an award to an outstanding alumnus, someone who has made a significant contribution to the world. It’s called the “Outlive Your Life Award.” While few of us will win awards from our alma maters, we’re all trying to win some version of the Outlive Your Life Award. We are all trying, according to Ernest Becker, to live a “heroic” life.

Our cultures help us in this pursuit by providing a path toward significance and meaning, what Becker calls “a hero system.” These hero systems are everywhere, from the stories we pass down in our families to the metrics of success in our workplaces to the American dream. Listen to any commencement address and you’ll hear some version of the American hero system, the speaker’s take on what constitutes a meaningful life.

We achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance by performing within these hero systems. This answers the question of why self-esteem is so important to us. Self-esteem is the emotional voice informing us that we’re winning the Outlive Your Life Award, that we’re making a meaningful difference in the world.

However, there’s a dark side to the hero system. In Ernest Becker’s book Escape from Evil,5 his sequel to The Denial of Death, he describes how our hero systems go on to become a source of social conflict. Specifically, we live in a diverse, pluralistic world. Not everyone agrees on how to win the Outlive Your Life Award. Our world is full of rival hero systems, competing beliefs and values about what matters in life. And all this diversity makes us uneasy. Rival hero systems threaten the legitimacy of my own, calling into question the values and beliefs by which I define a significant, meaningful life. If no single hero system is the ultimate truth, given all the options before us, why would any of them be a reliable and durable answer to the threat of death? In the face of that question, we’re thrust back into the lament of Ecclesiastes. If no hero system can be ultimately trusted, it seems every attempt to outlive your life is “vanity of vanities.”

Facing this fearful prospect, we engage in what Terror Management Theory calls “worldview defense.” It’s too anxiety inducing to allow others to place question marks next to the values and beliefs that make our life meaningful. Here we come to how self-
esteem becomes implicated in group conflict and hostility. People who hold different values threaten the legitimacy of our hero project, calling into question the worldview that gives our lives meaning and significance. In the face of that threat, we attack.

The work of Ernest Becker is a powerful tool in explaining the tribalism and hostility at work in our current political landscape. As mentioned, as we move into a post-Christian future, politics will increasingly become the repository of our most deeply held values, the arena in which we will pursue the Outlive Your Life Award. Politics will become our hero system, the place where we strive for ultimate purpose and meaning. And as politics becomes increasingly fused with our self-image and self-esteem, it will, of course, become increasingly tribal. Politics will be characterized by worldview defense, with our attacks on political opponents exhibiting greater levels of religious zealotry.

Leavening Our Politics Like Our Faith

Now, the reflective reader will quickly ask an important question: isn’t religious conviction vulnerable to these very same tendencies? The answer is yes, of course. Religious history is filled with depressing and horrific examples of worldview defense. Reflecting on the dark shadows of Christian history, mature followers of Jesus are alert to these temptations and work to vigorously resist them. When Satan offered Jesus rule over “all the kingdoms of the world,” Jesus refused. Rejecting the path of political power, Jesus chose the cross. It makes me wonder what our choice would be if Satan offered us a modern spin on his offer to Jesus: “Would you worship me, if you could win this next election?” I think a lot of us, if we’re honest, would be tempted.

This poses both a challenge and a way forward for Christians during an election year. Mature Christians have always recognized that we must be perpetually vigilant and exert enormous energy to excise all traces of bias, hostility, prejudice, intolerance, and hate from our faith. This is a hard, ongoing labor. It raises the question: can we claim we’ve done this same work with our politics? Affective polarization requires a spiritual and moral response.

Let me be the first to confess: I have not done this work. As a lifelong follower of Jesus, I have worked very hard to espouse a Christianity that is loving, tolerant, hospitable, and generous. I have not devoted the same amount of emotional and spiritual work to my politics. I have a beautiful faith but an ugly politics, a politics characterized by tribalism, affective polarization, and worldview defense. That contrast makes me wonder. What do my emotions, all that affective polarization, reveal about my deepest allegiances? Where is my hero system truly located? Have I, unconsciously, said yes to the Devil’s offer?

Those questions haunt me during election years.

And so, brothers and sisters, let me call us to some spiritual reflection and labor this election season. Our political holy wars are a sign that something dark is at work in our hearts and nation. I fear that, in our post-Christian world, worldview defense, affective polarization, and tribalism will become our new normal and constant temptations demanding of us an energetic spiritual response. As followers of Jesus, we know what to do. This is a struggle we are familiar with. Our weapons in this battle are the ones we learned in Sunday school. Mercy, self-control, kindness, joy, hope, peacemaking, forgiveness, humility, and love. We fight to leaven our faith with these virtues.

Let us leaven our politics as well.

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Richard Beck is professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and is an adjunct professor in Fuller’s DMin program. He is an award-winning author of seven books, his most recent being Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash (Fortress Press, 2019). He is a sought-after speaker and writes at the blog Experimental  Theology.

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