This photo shows a bronze statue called “Raise Up” as part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, on April 23, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama. The national memorial aims to teach about America’s past in hope of promoting understanding and healing. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
The first of Frederick Douglass’ three autobiographies, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” gained a wide American and trans-Atlantic audience when it was published in 1845, and served as a spark to the growing abolitionist movement and to Douglass’ prominence as a leader.
But one aspect of the work has not received the treatment it deserves. Tucked into the back of the book is an appendix that contains a scathing description of his experience of American Christianity:
The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
In its 2018 American Values Survey, PRRI, the research firm that I lead, confirmed a disturbing pattern: While the overt connections between slavery and Christianity have long since been abandoned, the connections between white supremacy and Christianity continue to exist today. Not only among white evangelicals in the South but among white mainline Protestants in the Midwest and white Catholics in the Northeast, survey after survey shows that holding more racist attitudes is independently associated with a higher probability of identifying as a white Christian; and conversely, adding Christianity to the average white person’s identity moves him or her toward more, not less, affinity for white supremacy.
White supremacy lives on today not just in explicitly or consciously held attitudes among white Christians; it has become, down through the generations, deeply integrated into the cultural DNA of white Christianity itself.
That last statement, standing alone, sounds shocking. But an honest look at the historical arc of white Christianity in America suggests that we should be astonished if it were otherwise. For centuries, through Colonial America and into the latter part of the 20th century, white Christians literally built — architecturally, culturally and theologically — a version of Christianity that held an a priori commitment to white supremacy.
At key potential turning point moments — slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and the policing and criminal justice crisis among African Americans — white Christians, for the most part, did not just fail to evict this sinister presence, they continued to aid and abet it.
Demonstrators gather at a rally to peacefully protest and demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality on June 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
As the country is once again facing a reckoning on racial justice, perhaps the biggest obstacle to white Christians’ full participation in the movement for racial equality is an unshakable commitment to our own innocence. As I conducted the research for my new book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” I came to the conclusion that white Christians must find the courage to begin a long journey that starts with the simple act of telling the truth.
In religious terms, it means giving an unflinching testimony about ourselves, about our history and about how a commitment to white supremacy — both past and present, conscious and unconscious — has disfigured our faith.
This journey of confession and self-realization isn’t a simple one, but it begins with bearing witness to a more complete, and truer, story. Here’s what the beginning of mine looks like.
In my house I have a family Bible that belonged to my fifth great-grandfather on my mother’s side, printed in 1815. On the front inside cover it is inscribed, “Presented by Nathaniel Ellis to his friend Pleasant Moon, July 17th, 1825.”
Pleasant Moon was among the first generation of my mother’s family to be born in Georgia, where five generations of my family have lived in either Twiggs County or Bibb County. Pleasant’s father, William H. Moon, my sixth great-grandfather, had been born in 1740 in Albemarle County, Virginia, and served in the Revolutionary army. Sometime after 1790, he moved his family to the Georgia frontier, on land that was being seized by the Georgia government from its Indigenous inhabitants, the Creek and Cherokee Indians, and distributed via rolling lotteries to white settlers.
Although I have not been able to locate a will for my fifth great-grandfather, I’ve been able to locate one for his father’s brother and namesake, Pleasant Moon Sr. At his death in 1818, the county recorded both his will and an “Inventory of the Goods and Chattles [sic] of Pleasant Moon, Deceased.” The inventory was thorough, including items like “1 young bay mare @ $60;” “1 feather bed and furniture @ $90;” and “1 shot gun @ $11.” Not counting the land, my sixth great-uncle’s estate was fairly modest, totaling $2,293.22, or approximately $46,000 in 2019 dollars.
Most shocking, though, were two listings near the top of the household inventory: “1 negro woman named Naomi @ $800, & 1 named Susan @ $450,” totaling $1,250; and on the line below that, “1 named Eliza at $275, & 1 named Bird, a boy @ $150,” totaling $425. To put this into perspective, there is no other single line in the entire page-long household inventory that registers more than $100. Taken together, these two lines of human slave property totaled $1,675, accounting for an astonishing 73% of the assets of the estate.
In other words, even among my barely-above-subsistence-farming ancestors, their way of life and economic well-being were thoroughly dependent on owning slaves.
An art installation of slaves at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo in Montgomery, Alabama. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
With the exception of the few preschool years in Wichita Falls, Texas, I have never lived in a county that is free from a history of lynching. The place in which I spent most of my formative years, from the time I was 7 to 21, particularly stands out. At 22 lynchings, Hinds County, Mississippi, is the county with the fourth-highest number of lynchings in the state and is tied for 15th as the county with the most lynchings nationwide.
Even this awful tally understates the case. My home state, which lauds itself as “the hospitality state,” contains such a density of counties with legacies of lynching that they drive the total to 654, giving Mississippi the dishonor of having the highest number of recorded lynchings of any state.
But this legacy of white supremacy in my life was not all in the distant past. My high school and college experiences reenacted the history of white oppression of both African Americans and Native Americans. In my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, my public, integrated high school’s nickname was the Rebels, and the band played “Dixie” as a cheerleader ran down the sidelines with a large Confederate battle flag each time our football team scored a touchdown.
My college experience wasn’t much better. My Southern Baptist-affiliated school, Mississippi College, were the Choctaws. To rouse the crowd at sporting events, the band played stereotyped, minor-key music (think bad early westerns) while the crowds, including me, made an up-and-down tomahawk motion in unison with our right arms bent at the elbow, chanting, “Scalp ’em, Choctaws, scalp ’em!”
My story is unremarkable among my fellow white Christians. My ancestors weren’t large plantation owners, Confederate generals or, as far as I know, active members of the KKK. My ancestors were more carried along by the shapers of the great currents of history. Somehow I had a sense that this more modest history provided some inoculation against white supremacy’s potency.
As I’ve moved through the process of retelling my own story, however, I’ve been astonished at how ubiquitous the claims of white supremacy have been on my life. I grew up knowing that my parents had made a conscious decision to shield me and my siblings from the worst of the racism that was ubiquitous in our grandparents’ generation and before. But even with that protection, the ways in which white supremacy crept into my worldview, my faith and even my body are overwhelming.
I’d wager that many — maybe even most — white Christians, with little effort, could uncover a very similar narrative about their own family and experience, and the ways in which white supremacy, like kudzu, has crept its way forward through the family tree and into their churches.
The only way to save ourselves, and our country, from the stranglehold of this invasive parasite, is, at long last, to bear witness to the truth. Only then will we have the perspective to distinguish between it and the healthy branches straining under its weight. And even then, we will need to find the resolve not just to prune the parasite back for a season but finally to kill it, root to stem.
Black Lives Matters (BLM) has been portrayed by its detractors as many things: Marxist, radical, anti-American. Added to this growing list of charges is that it is either irreligious or doing religion wrong.
In late July, for instance, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan tweeted that BLM was “incompatible” with Christianity.
He isn’t alone in that belief. Despite receiving the backing of diverse faith leaders and groups, BLM has been attacked by sections of the religious right. One evangelical institution felt compelled to issue a statement warning Christians about the movement’s “Godless agenda.” Other evangelicals have gone further, accusing BLM founders of being “witches” and “operating in the demonic realm.”
Joining conservative Christians are some self-proclaimed liberals and atheists who have also denounced BLM as a social movement that functions like a
“cult” or “pseudo” religion.
As scholars of religion, we believe such views fail to acknowledge – let alone engage with – the rich spiritual and religious pluralism of Black Lives Matter. For the past few years, we have been observing the way the movement and affiliated organizations express faith and spirituality.
Since 2015 we have interviewed BLM leaders and organizers as well as Buddhist leaders inspired by the movement. What we found was that BLM was not only a movement seeking radical political reform, but a spiritual movement seeking to heal and empower while
inspiring other religious allies seeking inclusivity.
A love letter
Black Lives Matter was born from a love letter.
On July 13, 2013 – the day of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had killed an unarmed black teenage named Trayvon Martin – soon-to-be BLM co-founder Alicia Garza, posted “A Love Letter to Black People” on Facebook. She declared:
“We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where black lives matter. Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.”
Since its inception, BLM organizers have expressed their founding spirit of love through an emphasis on spiritual healing, principles, and practices in their racial justice work.
BLM leaders, such as co-founder Patrisse Cullors, are deeply committed to incorporating spiritual leadership. Cullors grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and later became ordained in Ifà, a west African Yoruba religion. Drawing on Native American, Buddhist and mindfulness traditions, her syncretic spiritual practice is fundamental to her work. As Cullors explained to us, “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.”
Theologian Tricia Hersey, known as the “Nap Bishop,” a nod to her Divinity degree and her work advocating for rest as a form of resistance, founded the BLM affiliated organization, The Nap Ministry in 2016.
In an interview with Cullors, Hersey said she considers human bodies as “sites of liberation” that connect Black Americans to the “creator, ancestors, and universe.” She describes rest as a spiritual practice for community healing and resistance and naps as “healing portals.” Hersey connects this belief to her upbringing in the Black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, where, she explained, “I was able to see the body being a vehicle for spirit.”
The movement is committed to spiritual principles, such as “healing justice” – which uses a range of holistic approaches to address trauma and oppression by centering emotional and spiritual well-being – and “transformative justice” which assists with creating processes to repair harm without violence.
BLM affiliated organizer Cara Page, who coined the term “healing justice,” did so in response to watching decades of activists commit themselves completely to social justice causes to the detriment of their physical and mental health. She advocates that “movements themselves have to be healing, or there’s no point to them.”
‘Without healing, no justice’
BLM-affiliated organizations utilize spiritual tools such as meditation, reiki, acupuncture, plant medicine, chanting, and prayer, along with other African and Indigenous spiritualities to connect and care for those directly impacted by state violence and white supremacy.
For instance, Dignity and Power Now or DPN, an organization founded by Cullors in Los Angeles in 2012, hosts almost weekly wellness clinics on Sundays, often referred to as “church” by attendees.
On July 26, 2020, they held a virtual event called Calm-Unity, to remind people that “without healing there is no justice.” Classes included yoga, meditation, African dance, Chinese medicine, and altar making.
In interviews, movement leaders described honoring their body, mind and soul as an act of resilience. They see themselves as inheritors of the spiritual duty to fight for racial justice, following in the footsteps of freedom fighters like abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
BLM leaders often invoke the names of abolitionist ancestors in a ceremony used at the beginning of protests. In fact, protests often contain many spiritual purification, protection and healing practices including the burning of sage, the practice of wearing white and the creation of sacred sites and altars at locations of mourning.
‘More religion, not less’
BLM’s rich spiritual expressions have also inspired and transformed many American faith leaders. Black evangelical leader Barbara Salter McNeil credits BLM activists in Ferguson as changing the Christian church by showing racism must be tackled structurally and not just as individual sin.
U.S. Buddhist leaders presented a statement on racial justice to the White House in which they shared they were “inspired by the courage and leadership” of Black Lives Matter. Jewish, Muslim and many other religious organizations, have incorporated BLM principles to make their communities more inclusive and justice oriented.
As University of Arizona scholar Erika Gault observes, “The Black church is not the only religious well from which Black movements have historically drawn,” and with Black Lives Matter, “We are actually seeing more religion, not less.”
Attempts to erase the rich religious landscape of Black Lives Matter by both conservative and liberal voices continues a long history of denouncing Black spirituality as inauthentic and threatening.
As Cullors said to us in response to current attacks against BLM as demonic, “For centuries, the way we are allowed to commune with the divine has been policed; in the movement for Black lives, we believe that all connections to the creator are sacred and essential.”
Some anti-maskers have claimed that being forced to wear a face covering violates their religious rights. Back in May, Ohio State Rep. Nino Vitale, a Republican, publicly rejected mask-wearing on the grounds that covering one’s face dishonors God. This view is echoed by some individual faith leaders, with churches flouting requirements that congregants wear masks. Meanwhile, media-savvy pastors have put anti-mask posts on Facebook that have been viewed millions of times.
And a recent study revealed that the rejection of masks is higher in populations that associate with conservative politics and the idea that the United States is a divinely chosen nation.
Is it that masks are a religious matter, or is religion being used to suit people’s political agendas? Socially speaking, both things can be true.
Using religion to support one’s political interests is generally viewed as a negative thing that represents the hijacking or twisting of religion. Such a view is echoed in the words of preacher and activist Rev. William Barber, who said Donald Trump’s alliance with evangelical Christians was a “misuse of religion.”
From a scholarly perspective, though, all forms of religion affect society in some way – even if those outcomes are deemed undesirable or unethical by certain groups. Examining how religion operates in society can help us understand why the conversation over masks has recently turned religious.
In his landmark analysis of the social impact of religion, scholar Bruce Lincoln argued that there is no realm of life that cannot somehow be made religious. This is not because there are topics that are specific or unique to religion, but because of what happens to the authority of a claim when religious language is used. In other words, when people use religious speech, their authority is often perceived to be heightened.
For example, if someone plans to marry a partner they don’t appear to like very much, their claim that “we’ve been together a long time” may not come across as a convincing argument for a wedding. But what if that same person says that “God has brought this other person into my life”? That reason may be more readily accepted if the public hearing these words is already open to religious ideas.
Taking this approach to religion doesn’t mean that all religious claims are factually true or ethical. It also doesn’t mean that the people who use religious language are insincere or even wrong. Rather, the function of religious speech is to amplify the authority of an idea through appeals to seemingly unquestionable authorities, like deities and “ultimate truths.” If a statement does this, Lincoln concludes, then it is religious.
These are important considerations for the debate over masks. Using religious language to justify an anti-mask position is a move intended to amplify the voices of those who make this claim. And public health issues have long been a concern of American religious groups.
Consider also that Americans generally accept the circumcision of infant boys on religious grounds. This is true despite the fact that some medical authorities and activists have questioned both the ethics and health impact of performing this specific surgery, which is otherwise elective and cosmetic, on a newborn.
This does not mean, however, that if religion is involved, then anything goes. As recently as 2014, a faith-healing couple was sentenced to jail time after the preventable deaths of two of their children. The couple claimed that seeking medical care was against their religion.
These examples provide some clarity on when religious rhetoric is successful and when it is not. Groups, beliefs or practices that are already popular or commonplace often appear to get a boost of authority when religious language is used to describe them. If the claim is unpopular or the group is not considered mainstream, then religious language may have little impact.
Barometer of public opinion
Masks are a religious issue because some people have described them that way. But this does not mean that such religious claims have successfully granted them authority. Despite an existing partisan divide on the matter, there is still no widespread sentiment among Americans that a government mask mandate is religiously problematic.
This means that those who rail against masks for religious reasons may not gain a lot of traction right now among the wider American public, when more than 6 million Americans have so far been infected with the virus. There is simply too much fear presently to make that a popular line of reasoning.
When I first started studying the influence of pornography use on Americans’ lives six years ago, I found that people who watch porn more frequently tend to have poorer sense of personal well-being and more troubles in their relationships. But soon I noticed something that surprised me: The negative outcomes are strongest, and sometimes only, among those who are more religiously committed, and especially committed Christians.
In the below chart on personal and marital satisfaction, based on the massive opinion research operation known as the General Social Surveys, I compare the church attendance habits of Americans who did and did not use porn in the previous year.
Look at those who never attend. Whether or not they viewed pornography makes nearly no difference in their life or marital satisfaction. But look at the “happiness gap” for frequent churchgoers. Among those who attend more than once a week, there is a more substantial drop in both personal and relational happiness if they watch porn.
Predicted Probability of Americans Being “Very Happy” with Life or Marriage by Porn Use and Church Attendance. Graphic courtesy of Samuel L. Perry
Before I explain why, let’s look at a more specific indicator of personal and relational happiness, like sexual satisfaction, and a better measure of pornography use.
In the chart below I predict how satisfied Americans are with their sex lives using data from the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey. I focus on how frequently Americans watched internet porn and compare the sexual satisfaction of those who never attend religious services and those who attend most frequently.
Predicted Values of Americans’ Satisfaction with Their Sex Life by Frequency of Porn Use and Church Attendance. Graphic courtesy of Samuel L. Perry
Look again at those who never attend church. Whether they “never” view porn or view it “several times a day,” their sexual satisfaction doesn’t change. For frequent churchgoers who watch porn, it’s a different picture entirely: Though their sexual satisfaction starts off slightly higher, as their porn use increases, their sexual satisfaction declines in a linear fashion.
What’s going on here?
My frequent co-author, Bowling Green State University psychology professor Joshua Grubbs, and I have identified what we call “moral incongruence”: the experience of intentionally violating one’s deeply held moral values. Moral incongruence results in depressive symptoms and spiritual discouragement often due to shame and isolation. In other words, whatever the negative effects of porn alone, they are consistently far worse for those who seem to be violating their own moral values in watching it.
In subsequent studies (still under peer-review), we’ve found that these “moral incongruence effects” extend not just to pornography but homosexual behavior and non-marital sex as well.
When it comes to porn, studies show that, despite their beliefs, deeply religious Americans view porn only slightly less often than other Americans. They are choosing to experience psychological and relational turmoil, and not necessarily because of what pornography does to their brains, but because of what pornography means to their social group.
But beyond internal conflict, devout Americans who watch porn are also more likely than others to experience relational troubles because of their spouse’s rejection of pornography. Data from the Portraits of American Life Study show that if Americans have deeply religious spouses, the more frequently they view pornography the less satisfied they are in their marriage. Why? Because their spouses are more likely to view pornography as a betrayal, adultery, and an extreme moral failure.
Thus again, the consequences of pornography use for deeply religious Americans is more severe than for others.
The religious stigma against porn is apparently so strong that many committed Christians consider themselves addicted to pornography even when they rarely or never look at it. Let me say that again. They’ve never viewed porn but think they’re addicted to it.
The chart below shows the percentage of Americans who say they’ve never in their lives viewed pornography, but when asked about whether they were addicted to porn agreed that they were. Notice the stark difference between monthly churchgoers and born-again Christians versus other Americans.
Percent of Americans Who Say They’ve “Never” Viewed Pornography but Agree They Are “Addicted” to Porn. Graphic courtesy of Samuel L. Perry
This phenomenon may well be influencing public policy. Since 2016, at least 29 (mostly red) states have sought to pass resolutions declaring pornography a “public health crisis,” often citing pornography’s detrimental effects on marital relationships as well as on its ability to “addict” viewers.
Do my findings mean that, to paraphrase Hamlet, “pornography is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”? I wouldn’t go that far. But if habitual porn use is bad, a certain kind of thinking undeniably makes it worse. Any assessment of pornography’s supposed “harms,” certainly, should recognize that these ill effects are often not universal but dependent on a community’s sanctions against it.
(Samuel L. Perry is an associate professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants” and a co-author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
I was three months pregnant and working as a Web editor in New York City at iVillage.com when tragedy struck at the World Trade Center buildings. That particular morning, I had scheduled a prenatal appointment before going in to work. A mere few minutes after hearing my son’s heartbeat for the first time, a nurse burst into the room and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The doctor and I were puzzled, but we figured it was some random accident by a confused pilot in a small private plane.
But not after I left the doctor’s office, I realized what happened was no accident. When I first arrived at work, I learned that another plane had hit a second building. And these planes didn’t hit just any buildings — they made the World Trade Center buildings burn down in the most depressingly spectacular way. The entire staff was crowded around a small TV and quickly became very emotional. No one knew all the details, and my coworkers were telling fantastic stories, such as eight hijacked planes were circling all across the country. When I heard a plane hit the Pentagon, it became personal. My brother-in-law worked across from the Pentagon at the time. I couldn’t help it; the tears started to flow. The fear and sadness were overwhelming.
Fortunately for my coworkers and me, our company had a corporate apartment in the city. Most of us lived in Burroughs outside of Manhattan, and all the trains and busses were shut down. Around 15-20 of us squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment, but at least we had a place to go. That said, we still had to get there, which required a long, sad 17-block walk from upper Manhattan towards downtown and the direction of “Ground Zero,” which was the destroyed World Trade Center site’s former name. As we walked, we passed by several first responders, all covered in ash. Everything was covered in ash. Once in the apartment, we saw a hospital right outside the window. Several medical workers were clearly on high alert outside, waiting to take in survivors — but the slew of patients in need was far lower than expected. I called my husband. He never left Brooklyn, where we lived. He started work later than me and was standing on the train station platform waiting to board when he saw one of the buildings go down. A lady on the platform with him fainted.
The next day, I was so afraid to take in the air, fearful of its effect on my unborn son. It took me more than a year before I braved going down there, still afraid of what was in the air and how it might affect my breastmilk. It turns out that it was a smart move. We all know about the many 9/11 heroes who suffered from complications due to the poor air quality. When I was finally able to catch the train home, I saw flyers posted by loved ones desperately seeking information asking about missing people. The entire city was in mourning.
My son is now an 18-years-old son and grown into a young man. I’ve made sure to tell him about that day and those who we lost. I know that I am Blessed. For so many people, that painful day stole their children, parents, and loved ones. I saw firsthand the devastation and the deep wound inside the hearts of New Yorkers. I realize that 9/11 affected all Americans differently, but even amidst this ongoing and insufferable pandemic, we owe the victims and their families a moment of recognition and remembrance. I’m heartened by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Tomorrow is not promised. We must #NeverForget.
Amid two crises – the pandemic and the national reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd – there have been anguished calls for Americans to come together across lines of race and partisanship. Change would come, a USA Today contributor wrote, only “when we become sensitized to the distress of our neighbors.”
Empathy born of intimacy was the prepandemic solution to the nation’s fractured political landscape. If Americans could simply get to know one another, to share stories and appreciate each other’s struggles, civic leaders argued, we would develop a sense of understanding and empathy that would extend beyond the single encounter.
Science bears out the idea that intimacy can make people more understanding of others.
A venerable tradition of social psychological research shows that people who interact with members of a stigmatized group may change their opinion of the whole group. The original research by Gordon Allport suggested that contact between members of different groups worked by giving people knowledge of the other group. But later studies found instead that it increased their empathy and willingness to take the other’s perspective.
That’s why a growing industry of professional facilitators champion carefully structured conversations as key to solving workplace conflicts, community development disputes, Americans’ political disengagement and racial division.
As partisan political divides became vitriolic, civic leaders brought ordinary people together to talk. You could join people from the left and right at a Make America Dinner Again event or a Better Angels workshop, where “you can actually become friends and colleagues with people you don’t agree with.”
Joan Blades, who created the online political advocacy group MoveOn.Org in 1997, seemed to have her finger on the pulse again when she launched Living Room Conversations in 2011. Small groups would host conversations across partisan lines.
“By the time you get to the topic you’ve chosen to discuss, you’re thinking, ‘I like this person or these people,’” Blades promised.
By the end of the 2010s, these were the terms for building unity: personal conversations in intimate settings that would produce friendship across gulfs of difference.
Commonalities and differences
The pandemic made the idea of living room conversations with anyone outside one’s household sadly unrealistic. But it may not have been the solution people were looking for in the first place.
Initiatives that bring together members of different groups, researchers have shown, are less effective in reducing prejudice when the groups participating are unequal in power and status – say, Black Americans and white ones.
Dominant group members tend to insist on talking about their commonalities with members of the disadvantaged group. That’s frustrating for the latter, who more often want to talk about their differences and, indeed, their inequalities.
Taking the perspective of someone different, moreover, works to diminish the prejudices of members of dominant groups but not those of members of disadvantaged groups. Research also shows that when people are asked to take the perspective of a person who fits a stereotype, they negatively stereotype that person even more than if they had not been asked to do so. Asking a Democrat to put herself in the shoes of a MAGA hat-wearing Republican, in other words, may backfire.
Nor does empathy always overcome political beliefs.
A recent study from the University of Houston found that people who are naturally empathetic are more likely to feel anger toward those in the opposite party and feel pleasure when they suffer. Empathy tends to be biased toward one’s own group, so it may fuel political polarization rather than counter it.
Naturally empathetic people are also more likely to suppress their feelings of compassion when those feelings conflict with their ideological views, becoming less compassionate as a result. In one study, subjects who had individualistic beliefs opposed government welfare programs even after reading a story about a man in financial need, but individualists who were naturally empathetic opposed welfare even more strongly after reading the story.
Friendship isn’t necessary
Since dialogue initiatives are voluntary, they probably attract people who are already predisposed to wanting to find connection across difference. And no one has figured out how a friendly meeting between Democratic and Republican voters, or even a hundred such meetings, can have a discernible effect on political polarization that is national in scope.
Certainly, participants who change their minds may share their new opinions with others in their circle, creating a ripple effect of goodwill. But dialogue initiatives may also crowd out ways of tackling political divisions that are likely to have wider impact.
Americans committed to living in a functioning democracy could demand that national political representatives, not ordinary citizens, sit down together to find common ground across difference. Or they could work to bring back some version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy once endorsed both by both the conservative National Rifle Association and the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, that required television channels to air diverse points of view. Or people could rally to demand that Congress pass legislation like gun control that overwhelming majorities of Americans across the political spectrum want – working across party lines to win policy, not become friends.
Treating friendship as a prerequisite to cooperation also misses the fact that people have long worked together for the common good on the basis of relationships that do not resemble the intimacy of friends.
The protests after George Floyd’s death, for example, introduced many white Americans to the idea of allyship. Allies – whether white anti-racists and/or straight people or men – commit to listening more than talking and to taking direction from people without the privilege they enjoy. Allies don’t require intimate connection as the price for their involvement. They recognize that intimacy has often served to keep relationships unequal, and that is exactly what they want to change.
It is not just movement activists who expose the limits of intimacy for building unity. Black participants in the interracial dialogues political scientist Katherine Cramer studied were frustrated when they described what it was like to be discriminated against and white participants responded with their own stories about how they had never treated their Black friends any differently than their white ones.
But when participants ignored their facilitator’s plea to “dialogue, not debate,” and challenged each other on the evidence for their claims, the white participants, in particular, were stopped from sliding by with bromides about how “under the skin, we’re all the same.” It was the confrontational exchanges that led participants to recognize their real differences while still building a relationship.