Studies in moral and political psychology increasingly shed light on both the positive and negative political consequences of moral conviction. While people’s convictions engender courage to stand up for their beliefs despite the cost, they also trigger more negative emotions, polarized attitudes, and hostile responses. At a time when our political climate appears increasingly divided and moralized, it is important for Christians to consider how we might express our convictions in ways that winsomely represent Christ. Building on insights from moral and political psychology, theology, and Scripture, I suggest five strategies for this task: 1) consider which moral convictions we prioritize and which we disregard, 2) pause to allow our automatic visceral response to opposing views to subside, 3) reframe our moral values in ways that those who do not share them might better understand, 4) resist problematic group dynamics that can drive our moral perceptions and responses, and 5) rest in Christ’s righteousness as we work to pursue good policy. Kristen Garrett is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College.
A quick glance at the headlines, a few moments perusing social media, and even conversations among friends and family point to the deep political divisions in our society. Research shows that Democrats and Republicans have come to dislike and distrust each other increasingly in recent decades, a distinct trend often labeled affective polarization.1 The heightened hostility among average citizens is evidenced by more punitive emotions, negative stereotyping, social distance, and discrimination aimed at opposing partisans. We see the negative effects of affective polarization play out as partisans engage in uncivil political discourse online, avoid social interactions with opponents, reject bipartisan cooperation and compromise, and experience dissonance at the prospect of even listening to opposing political views.2
Sadly, these dynamics also characterize the church today. Congregants bicker, defriend each other, and leave their churches over politics. Public Christian leaders are decried from both sides when they so much as pray for a political leader.3Pastors minister in the midst of this rancor and division, trying to call their congregations to a perspective that transcends political parties and campaigns.
One of the factors driving the increasing division in public, and arguably religious, arenas is the moralization of politics, particularly the growing tendency to view opposing sides and positions as iniquitous.4 Illustrating this trend, a recent study revealed that 42% of both Democrats and Republicans deem partisan opponents not only detrimental, but also “downright evil.”5 This tendency to view political cleavages through a moral lens heightens political division and hostility, making it harder for us to listen to opposing arguments, respect political rivals, and accept prudent compromises. At the same time, however, our moral beliefs often engender courage, commitment, and perseverance to pursue good policy that contributes to human flourishing.6
The Challenge of Political Convictions
Rising levels of political hostility, division, and moralization have prompted a multitude of research projects in many academic disciplines. One important line of research in moral and political psychology has explored the nature and political effects of moral conviction, defined as a person’s metacognition, perception, or belief that an attitude is grounded in his or her core beliefs about fundamental right and wrong.7 Substantial evidence suggests that conviction is a unique construct, distinct from other strong but nonmoral attitudes, beliefs, preferences and conventions.8 Morally convicted attitudes, or attitudes held with strong moral conviction, share defining characteristics: people experience them as objectively true, universally applicable, inherently motivating, emotionally charged, and uniquely independent of peer and authority influences.9 Finally, moral conviction varies substantially from person to person, and it characterizes both sides of the political aisle.10 This means, for example, that one person might view immigration as a pressing moral concern, and another person might not. On the other hand, two people who both view immigration as a moral concern might hold completely different convictions about whether a pathway to citizenship is morally right or wrong.
Differing convictions often lead to heated conflicts that have divisive effects on our social fabric. Research shows that moral convictions elicit more hostile opinions, negative emotions, and punitive actions than attitudes based on strong preferences or conventions alone.11 They motivate greater social distance from, intolerance toward, and willingness to discriminate against opponents, as well as increased acceptance of punitive responses like retribution, vigilantism, and violence to achieve morally preferred outcomes.12 In addition, moralized attitudes heighten partisan bias, hostility, and division,13 and they evoke particularly strong reactions of anger, disgust and blame.14 They often induce citizens to oppose the type of prudent compromise necessary to govern.15
While studies shed light on the negative political consequences of moral conviction, they also reveal important positive effects. Moralized attitudes motivate higher levels of political participation, collective action to advance various causes, and courage to stand against injustice despite pressures to conform.16 As a result, moral convictions have helped to drive pivotal advances in our country’s history, such as the abolition of slavery, establishment of women’s suffrage, and pro-life movement.
Moreover, as Christians, we are called to live out our convictions in all areas of life, including our public engagement. We are summoned to be the salt and light of the world and to advance Kingdom principles of righteousness and justice.17 We are told to seek the welfare of the city where God has placed us.18 In order to be salt and light, to advance righteousness and justice, and to serve the common good in our society, we must winsomely live out our convictions in the public square.
Clearly, moral conviction in politics is a double-edged sword. This raises the question, then, how do we boldly advance our convictions in public life and yet do so in a winsome, gracious way that honors Christ and maintains unity in the Church? Building on insights from moral and political psychology, theology, and Scripture, I propose five strategies for addressing this question: 1) consider – which moral convictions we prioritize and which we disregard, 2) pause – to allow our automatic visceral reactions to opposing convictions to subside, 3) reframe – our moral values in ways that those who do not share them might better understand our position, 4) resist – problematic group dynamics that can drive our moral perceptions and responses, and 5) rest – in Christ’s righteousness as we work to pursue good policy.19
As Christians, we must evaluate our moral convictions, considering the ones we hold and the ones we might lack. While multiple factors are important to weigh, the following considerations are particularly significant in our current political climate. First, we need strong convictions about the means of our political engagement, not just the ends. Studies show that moral conviction can encourage a winner-take-all and an end-justifies-the-means mentality.20 Psychologist Eli Finkel recently discussed how a person’s motivation to defend their convictions and the fear of their convictions being violated can become so strong that they willingly “sacrifice a little bit of democracy” to ensure the opposing side loses, or they freely “support a little bit of violence” to achieve their political goals.21 This pattern occurs because the conviction to achieve what is considered the right goal is deemed more important than the conviction to use the right means.
As Christians, however, we need convictions about how we fight for our beliefs that extend beyond ensuring our beliefs are realized in policy. Even as we “fight the good fight of faith” and “stand firm … to withstand in the evil day,” we are commanded to fight as “a good soldier of Christ Jesus … who competes according to the rules.”22
This leads to a second point: we need as much conviction about our character as we do about our politics. We need to be as morally committed to living out Kingdom principles and representing the character of Christ as we are to supporting certain political issues, parties, and leaders. An overview of Scripture reveals a range of Kingdom-oriented values that should shape the means and ends of our political engagement. For example, we are called to love our neighbors, and even our enemies, actively working for their good;23 to respect everyone we encounter as a creature made in God’s image;24 and to exemplify humility in our political engagement, acknowledging that our perspective is limited.25 We are instructed to pursue kindness, compassion, patience, and gentleness in all our interactions.26 Ultimately, we are exhorted to conduct ourselves as “ambassadors for Christ” and in a “manner worthy of the gospel” as we engage in public life and advocate for issues.27 This type of character and commitment to biblical principles will help ensure that the means of our political engagement are morally upright, even as we seek to pursue moral ends.
Third, the encouragement to focus on means and character does not equate to abandoning our political convictions. It is important that we hold biblically grounded convictions that motivate bold, winsome civic engagement. Multiple factors in our current political climate, however, push us to curb or abandon our convictions, prompting political apathy and disengagement from public life.28 We can also become so focused on love and kindness, falsely defined as the absence of disagreement, that we dilute our convictions to avoid confrontation.
As Christians, however, we are called to stand for truth, expressed in love and grace.29 British politician William Wilberforce offers a compelling example of tirelessly championing his convictions in public life in ways that profoundly transformed society for the better.30 After his conversion to Christianity, he headed the parliamentary campaign to end slavery in Britain. During his political career, he prudently worked toward partial prohibitions of slavery when full emancipation was impossible, and he partnered with other political leaders and diverse coalitions to build support for abolition. Ultimately, he persevered through numerous obstacles during his relentless forty-year crusade against slavery, finally achieving passage of the Slavery Abolition Act three days before he died. While Wilberforce passionately worked and forcefully argued for abolition, he also displayed a gracious manner and respect for his opponents, leading one biographer to write, “[H]e was that rare being, a man of strong convictions who could embrace those who differed.”31
Professional basketball player Maya Moore also offers a powerful example of standing for one’s convictions in public life. In 2019, Moore stepped away from the WNBA at the height of her career to advocate for criminal justice reform—motivated in large part by her faith.32 She pursued justice on a personal level, helping to free a man from prison who she believed was wrongly convicted, and continues to advocate for more widespread prosecutorial reforms through her social action campaign, Win with Justice. By leaving her Hall of Fame career, Moore demonstrated her willingness to translate talk into action and to engage in costly personal sacrifice to advance just policy.33 We would do well to follow Wilberforce’s and Moore’s examples of winsome, persevering, and sacrificial commitment to living out their convictions.
In order to advance our convictions in public life, we must make peace with the disagreements, loneliness, and opposition that might result. As theologian and apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Truth carries with it confrontation… loving confrontation, but confrontation nevertheless. If our reflex action is always accommodation regardless of the centrality of the truth involved, there is something wrong.”34 Confrontation is often uncomfortable, particularly when it occurs between fellow Christians, but differences should not threaten our personal identity, ruin our relationships in the body of Christ, nor lead us to dilute our convictions.
As part of the process of checking our political convictions, we need to evaluate the source of those convictions. In our current political climate, our convictions might easily become shaped by external factors in ways that depart from God’s Word, without us even realizing it. While politics is an important arena for moral arguments and political leaders should seek to influence their constituents’ convictions in support of good policy, we should also be cautious of elite efforts to shape our convictions that stem from the desire for re-election or partisan victory more than the desire for good policy, that target our underlying psychology without our conscious awareness, or that draw us away from Scripture.
Without being cynical and without negating the importance of moral persuasion in public life, it is important to note that morality is a potent tool to advance political agendas and gain electoral support, so political elites of every stripe often work to shape the public’s convictions for their own political gain. Studies show that political leaders can increase the perceived legitimacy of their preferred political issues, boost voter turnout, and increase support for themselves and their issue positions by strategically painting their preferred issues as moral concerns that resonate with people’s values.35 Political elites can also spread their messages more widely on social media by describing their platforms using emotional moral language.36
There are relatively easy ways for political leaders and groups to moralize issues, and these efforts often target our underlying psychology, manipulating our convictions at a subliminal level. Leveraging the right language to appeal to moral values, triggering moral emotions of anger and disgust, and in some cases simply labeling an issue as moral can encourage the development of moral convictions about issues and candidates.37 Though strong moral conviction and discussion are necessary in the political arena, we should be cautious of efforts that are intentionally aimed at influencing our convictions in subconscious and, possibly, even calculating or deceptive ways. Rather than negating the place of moral arguments in politics, we should pause amid the political ads, speeches, tweets, and headlines that bombard us and deliberately evaluate politicians’ and organizations’ implicit moral messages according to God’s Word.
We should also be cognizant of the powerful group dynamics that often influence our moral convictions. Our social groups and political affiliations play an important role in shaping our judgments about right and wrong.38 As a result, our moral conceptions might be more deeply rooted in our groups and less distinctly rooted in Scripture than we might think. In our two-party system, we are particularly susceptible to adopting what British author and ethicist James Mumford deems “package-deal ethics,” where positions and values on important cultural, moral, and political issues get bundled together and assigned to the political left or right.39 Then, we often unthinkingly adopt the bundle of convictions endorsed by our political side. For example, pro-life and pro-gun positions are often linked together for the political right, while pro-environment and pro-LGBTQ stances are often tied together for the political left. These views may be ideologically aligned and reflected in candidate platforms, but questions emerge whether they are philosophically and theologically consistent.
The challenge posed by package-deal ethics is that biblically faithful and historically Christian positions on political issues often defy current political alignments, and the process of accepting an entire set of pre-packaged beliefs wholesale can distort our ethics.40 Once our groups’ values begin to shape our own beliefs, then social pressure, groupthink, habit, and even laziness can make it challenging to adjust our perspective and hold our groups accountable for positions that contradict Scripture. Moreover, a particularly powerful form of motivated reasoning, tied to the desire to reach certain moral conclusions, might lead us to process information in ways that defend our own, and our group’s, existing convictions.41 This automatic and unconscious tendency makes it difficult for us to weigh our convictions objectively in light of Scripture.
For Christians, however, the Word of God is the absolute standard for truth and morality, forming and equipping His people to do His good work.42 As a light to our path, it should guide our moral convictions.43 Therefore, we must seek to truthfully evaluate our own personal convictions, as well as our political party’s convictions, verify that they align with Scripture, and call out or adjust those convictions that do not.
It is important, however, to do this in a humble way, recognizing that even with Scripture serving as an objective guiding framework, believers will still hold varying and even conflicting convictions. This stems in part from the challenge of translating broad confessional beliefs and spiritual mandates, about which there is little disagreement, to more specific core values and policy guidelines, where disagreement increases.44 Further complicating the picture, on some political issues, there is a straight-line from God’s Word to policy applications, while on other issues, it takes more work and wisdom to translate biblical principles to policy stances.45 Whereas the path from Scripture to opposing abortion is clear, the path from biblical principles to say, the best education policy, requires more sagacity, discussion, and context. Still, in both scenarios, biblical principles should guide how we think about and pursue policy in ways that promote justice and human flourishing and that best reflect God’s nature and character. Navigating the many complex layers of politics requires knowing the depth and breadth of the Word and having the wisdom, rooted in the fear of the Lord, to apply it well.46
Insights from moral and political psychology also suggest the next two practical steps, which improve listening, deliberation, and persuasion when facing differing moral convictions. These principles, which apply to how we engage with believers and nonbelievers alike, are important to consider, because the way we communicate reveals our hearts and affects our witness.47 Moreover, Scripture calls us to avoid corrupting talk and to pursue gracious speech, reminding us to practice wisdom and winsomeness in all our discussions, including those with political opponents.48
The most basic step we can take when communicating our convictions is to pause when we feel the automatic visceral responses that are triggered by moral conviction begin to rise, allowing time and space for the responses to subside. To pause and think before we speak might appear common knowledge, encouraged by Scripture and parents alike,49 but research on the underlying psychology of moral conviction helps to explain why we should pause. Moral convictions are tightly linked to strong, reflexive responses that stem from a distinctive form of mental processing that is rapid, visceral, and affectively charged,50 automatically triggering heightened emotions, including contempt, anger, and disgust toward those perceived to violate moral codes.51 Mere exposure to political issues and leaders that people moralize is enough to elicit a stronger “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system response than exposure to other issues and leaders that people view as important, but not linked to moral concerns.52
These reflexive emotional and physiological responses often make it hard for us to deliberate issues rationally, consider reason-based arguments, weigh potential trade-offs, or engage in cooperation and compromise. As a result, attempts to talk with people, reason with them about the merits of compromise, or sell them on procedural solutions face an uphill battle once our convictions are threatened or provoked.
Pausing when someone disagrees with our moral convictions or triggers our sense of righteous indignation allows the automatic affective and physiological reactions to die down. This allows us to listen well, actually hear, and better understand what our opponents are saying—all important tools to communicate and engage across political differences. Pausing also allows us to better contemplate and deliberately respond to opposing views.53 Taking a moment to calm ourselves and think about our responses is important because research suggests that our conscious, deliberate responses take more time to process than our instinctive, emotional ones.54
Scripture also exhorts us to pause in the midst of strong emotions and challenging circumstances in order for us to reappraise our emotions, correctly orient our perspective, and deliberately engage with others. Ecclesiastes 7:9 warns against being “quickly provoked … for anger resides in the lap of fools.” James 1:19-20 reminds us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” We would do well to pause and reflect before responding to someone who violates our convictions.
ReframeAnother practical strategy to improve dialogue is to prudently reframe our arguments in ways that are less antagonistic and possibly more appealing to those who hold opposing convictions. Not only does reframing our arguments afford better chances for productive dialogue, it also affords more potential opportunities to persuade those with whom we disagree. As Christians, the goal of persuasion is not to manipulate people’s political beliefs for personal gain, but to facilitate healthy discourse, wise and honest consideration of issues, gracious interactions across differences, and unity despite diverse opinions. The literature suggests two ways that we can strategically reposition our arguments to resonate with our audiences.
The first approach is to reframe our arguments to appeal to people’s intuitions first, before trying to engage their reason. According to the social intuitionist model, a person’s moral perceptions and judgments initially stem from automatic, reflexive responses, rather than controlled, conscious reasoning.55 Then, they justify their positions based on deliberative reasoning post hoc when asked to do so. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that when it comes to morality, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”56 This aligns with research in cognitive science showing that intuitive, emotion-laden ways of thinking literally take place faster in our brains than deliberate, reasoned ways of thinking.57 As a result, our emotions and affections often influence our thinking by guiding what we pay attention to, what we care about, and what we remember.
This research suggests that we would be wise to communicate our convictions in ways that resonate with people at a gut level. As theology professor Scott Burson puts it, “most humans live their day-to-day lives at the intuitive level. So, if we are interested in persuading people, we need to connect with their intuitions.”58 Perhaps this is one way we can heed the Apostle Paul’s instruction: “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”59 We can gently and respectfully build intuitive inroads before appealing to reason. Former President Ronald Reagan, nicknamed the Great Communicator, exemplified this principle well. Even those who disagreed with his policies were encouraged to listen to and consider his ideas because of the way he told stories, conveyed honesty and sincerity, appealed to people’s emotions, expressed concern for others, and displayed gentle repartee with friends and opponents.
While there are multiple ways to appeal to opponents’ intuitions, one evidence-based strategy is to use stories and personal testimonies that might resonate with people at an affective level, even if they disagree with the content of our argument.60 Research suggests that stories of personal experience, which evoke emotion and empathy, foster more respect for political opponents who hold conflicting moral views and are more persuasive than facts alone.61
A second key method of reframing our moral arguments to appeal better to opponents is to use language that resonates with their moral foundations. A substantial body of work, building on research by Haidt and colleagues, suggests that individuals have intuitive psychological systems, or foundations, which give rise to the perception of morality and make certain moral arguments instinctively more or less appealing.62 According to moral foundations theory (MFT), there are five (possibly six) moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.63 Each individual relies more heavily on certain foundations and less heavily on others when making moral judgments. Political conservatives tend to lean on all five moral foundations more or less equally, while political liberals tend to rely more heavily on care and fairness in their moral judgments.64
Building on the MFT paradigm, scholars show that arguments reframed to appeal to people’s moral foundations can both strengthen people’s existing political attitudes and persuade them to adopt new ones.65 For example, reframing pro-environmental rhetoric in terms of purity increases support for pro-environmental legislation among conservatives, while reframing military spending in terms of fairness increases support for high levels of military spending among liberals.66 The researchers posit that these reframing strategies work by increasing recipients’ perception that the political arguments they are presented align with their own moral values. This largely occurs at an instinctive level, where morally reframed messages are particularly likely to trigger positive intuitions about the message.
While this research suggests promise for engaging and persuading opponents, the challenge is that when given the opportunity to reframe arguments, most people have a hard time getting outside their own perspective to position their claims in ways that opponents might understand. Even when specifically instructed to craft arguments that would persuade political opponents, most liberals and conservatives compose moral arguments that would resonate with their own side, but not with their rivals.67 This research suggests that to reframe our arguments effectively, we must fully grasp the meaning and grounds of our own convictions and then, listen to and actually understand our opponents. The process of translating across differences also requires humility, patience, and tolerance, as law professor John Inazu suggests.68
Some might question whether it is manipulative to reframe our claims so thatthey might be better received at an intuitive, emotional level. Scripture, however, affirms the value of persuasion, strategic messaging, and wisely presenting truth in ways that others might best understand. In Colossians 4:5-6, Paul writes, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders … Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” In this passage, Paul reminds us to engage others wisely by speaking in gracious and well-flavored ways that are effectively tailored to the specific individuals we are addressing.
Moreover, Paul frequently reframes his arguments for the gospel to appeal to a particular audience, adjusting his approach and even his language, as demonstrated throughout Acts. In Acts 13:17-35, Paul presents the gospel to the Jewish synagogue in Antioch using Israelite history and Messianic prophecies. In Acts 14:11-18, Paul appeals to natural revelation when speaking to Gentile peasants at Lystra. In Acts 17, Paul strategically presents a different message to his Jewish audience in Thessalonica than he does to his Gentile audience in Athens. Similarly, we can reframe our political convictions to engage better with specific audiences and contexts.
Two final strategies about how to wisely live out our convictions in public life stem from insights found in the social and individual psychology of moral conviction.
We must resist problematic group dynamics that can drive our responses to moral opponents by understanding the social identity dynamics that can become tightly linked to our sense of morality and influence how we respond to our own political party, as well as the opposing side. Research shows that group dynamics are often intertwined with perceptions of morality. As Haidt and others have pointed out, morality can bind us together into teams, which help us work toward common goals, but it can also lead us to display strong hostility toward opposing sides.69 The social identity approach in social psychology suggests that various groups can become an important part of our social identity when we begin to tie our group membership to our self-concept. Once a person identifies with a group, their self-esteem becomes linked to the status of the group, and one of the ways to maximize esteem is to maximize perceived differences between one’s in-group and the corresponding out-group. As a result, people are motivated to show favoritism toward the in-group, to respond negatively toward the out-group, and to conform to in-group norms.
For Democrats and Republicans, these tendencies frequently play out in efforts to defend their party for its handling of issues like the economy, the war in Afghanistan, and the coronavirus pandemic, while blaming the opposing party for its mismanagement of the same issues. We even see physiological effects like the activation of reward-related brain areas when their own political views are affirmed and decreased testosterone levels when their side loses an election.70 Social identity dynamics also encourage partisans to caricature opponents inaccurately, potentially leading them to assume, for example, that all Biden supporters are socialist or all Trump supporters are racist. These in-group, out-group dynamics are notably strong in the arena of morality.
Studies show that morality is particularly important for one’s group-based identity and esteem, influencing how one evaluates in-groups and responds to out-groups.71 A person tends to ascribe moral traits to his or her in-group and to feel more pride in the in-group when it is judged to be highly moral.72 People also tend to respond negatively toward out-groups when their in-group’s morality is called into question.73 Because morality is so important to group identities and positive in-group evaluations, and by extension personal esteem, we are often swayed to evaluate our own groups as morally superior. We can achieve this by uplifting our in-group as a moral exemplar or by denigrating the out-group as iniquitous.
These group dynamics play out in powerful ways in our current political climate, as partisanship becomes an increasingly important social identity for much of the public. Research shows that for many people, their party affiliation is a more important part of their group identity than their race, ethnicity, or religion.74 Moreover, partisanship is increasingly becoming a “mega-identity” that fuses party affiliation to other social identities of race, religion, gender, ideology, geography, and more. As political scientist Lilliana Mason describes, “Republicans are now solidly conservative, middle class or wealthy, rural, churchgoing, and white,” while “Democrats [are] now firmly aligned with identities such as liberal, secular, urban, low-income, Hispanic, and black.”75 When so many of our group identities get tied to our partisanship, political losses or criticisms of our party take on the form of personal threats or attacks. Consequently, partisan victories, like expanding health care, passing tax cuts, or blocking the opposing party’s legislation, can supersede the importance of real-world policy consequences and limit bipartisan cooperation. Partisans, and the groups associated with them, also shift their political views to align with their political identity.76 We saw this play out over the past year as Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural residents, and religious “nones” and evangelicals adopted different stances on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, despite vaccines not being a particularly important political issue prior to the pandemic.77 These trends exemplify the broad influence of partisan identity, which is becoming so important to some citizens that they willingly alter other identities, like their religion, class, or sexual orientation, to align with their political identity.78
Perhaps most troubling, we see the rise of political identities at a time when we see the decline of religious, community, and family ties that have traditionally provided a foundation for personal identity. The decline in religiosity has left a particularly large void that politics, in part, is filling. As one author recently described, “As Christianity’s hold… has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief.”79 Because we long for belonging in and ultimate loyalty to some community, as Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper posited, when religious and personal identities are thinned out, they can easily be subsumed by political affiliations.80
We see the confluence of partisan identity and moral psychology dynamics play out in our political system as citizens evaluate others through the lens of their political parties, deeming their own side moral and the opposing side immoral, which heightens hostility and division.81 Disagreeing quickly becomes demonizing, and we develop the explosive anger and disgust or the passive social distancing that often stem from moral indignation. Media pundits, political leaders, and social media posts seem to exacerbate this trend as they frequently attempt to lionize their causes, demonize opponents, and stir up moral outrage in public life. Moralizing then becomes an acceptable, and often successful, strategy to increase ratings, votes, and followers. Unless we are careful, we can end up dehumanizing opponents, lumping them into our most disliked categories like “Democrat” or “Republican,” “critical race theorist” or “Trump supporter,” rather than recognizing them as immortal souls in need of Christ’s redeeming work.82 The tug to demonize and defeat the opposing side can lead us to mistake our true opponents in political battles, causing us to treat men and women who disagree with us as the ultimate enemy, forgetting that our true struggle is not against flesh and blood.83
As a result, we have to develop strategies to counter the negative pull of political and moral identity dynamics that might lead us to forsake our witness and our own moral grounding. One powerful step is to remind ourselves of and live out the reality that the church is central to our social identity. Despite all our different backgrounds, callings, gifts, and convictions, we comprise the one Body of Christ.84 As such, the church should be a stronger center and source for our identity and conviction than our politics. Paul alludes to this notion when he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”85 In the same way, our faith should supersede our political affiliations.
Vibrant identification with and commitment to the church helps us address the polarizing tug of partisan identities and moralized politics in several ways. First, the church calls us to a Kingdom perspective that helps relegate politics to its proper place.86 It reminds us that seeking Christ’s eternal Kingdom supersedes our allegiance to the lesser kingdoms of earth and exhorts us that “winning” for our convictions is less important than making disciples.87
Second, the church and its liturgies help cultivate virtues that equip Christians to navigate differing convictions.88 The process of sanctification, or “putting on” Christ, that leads to the type of compassion, humility, and gentleness that we need to bear with each other across differences, is linked to our fellowship in the body of Christ.89
Finally, the reality of our common, preeminent identity in Christ should help us navigate political disagreements, reconcile competing convictions, and live out the unity to which Scripture calls us. Research shows that there is less partisan division in contexts where another broader identity, like national identity, is salient.90 The same may hold true for religious identity. Our common fellowship in Christ should serve as a bridge for engaging with Christian brothers and sisters across political differences—even in the midst our messy, vitriolic political climate.
Pursuing this type of unity is a central matter of obedience to Christ and witness to the gospel. In his letter to the divided church at Corinth, Paul calls for unity, writing “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”91 He exhorts the Ephesians to be “diligent” or “eager” to “maintain the unity of the Spirit,” words that convey intentionality and effort.92 Likewise, in his final prayer for his followers, Christ prays that we “may become perfectly one” so that our unity will testify to the world of God’s love.93 In our fragmented society, a unified church that navigates political and social differences well would stand as a powerful contrast, testifying to God’s grace and power.
The final, and arguably most important, principle is to rest in Christ’s righteousness, rather than asserting our own self-righteousness in politics. Research shows that morality is particularly important to human esteem. We care about being perceived as moral by those around us, and we also care about qualifying as a moral person at an internalized level.94 Research shows that people consider moral traits, more than other characteristics, to be the most important part of their identity.95 They also display a greater tendency to judge themselves more highly than others when they assess their own morality, in comparison to other personal traits.96
This desire to be moral can lead people to treat their moral convictions as something they must achieve and defend to maintain high esteem. It can lead them to leverage politics as a way to signal their virtue or establish their morality by fighting for moral causes. The motive to be virtuous can also lead to a sense of superiority, self-justification, and pharisaic self-righteousness when we “win” a moral victory, accompanied by disdain for those we perceive as immoral because they disagree with our convictions. Finally, the need to maintain moral esteem can lead Christians to prioritize protecting their convictions over reflecting Christ.
As Christians, however, we do not have to play moral esteem games. Christ has already achieved a secure identity for us, so we no longer have to strive for significance and superiority. He is our life and our righteousness, which defines our identity and worth.97 Our political stances, morality, and motivations should overflow from an esteem that is rooted and grounded in Christ, and not the reverse. Because Christ has accepted us and reconciled us to God, we no longer have to earn human approval or pass human judgments with our moral achievements.98 In fact, all aspects of pedigree, performance, and virtue, upon which we might be tempted to ground our esteem, are “rubbish” compared to the righteousness we gain in Christ through faith.99
This reality calls us to consider the motives we hold to advance our moral convictions. Because our convictions should stem from, not determine, our Christian identity and calling, we should seek to advance these beliefs in public life as an act of obedience and stewardship, not as a means of justifying ourselves or establishing our moral worth. Being “right” is secondary to our primary goal of serving Christ. This perspective allows us to focus on honoring the Lord with our political engagement and trusting Him with the result.
The truth that we are sinners saved by grace also frees us from self-righteousness and judgmentalism against those on the “other side of the aisle.” The reality that our righteousness is a gift of grace leaves no room for us to boast in ourselves nor to debase others to build our esteem.100 Rather, it calls us to forgiveness and humility, two virtues that have been shown to improve interactions across political differences.101
Finally, the reality of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the world frees us to engage in politics from a position of faith, hope, and love, rather than fear. Much of the anger, disgust, envy, and division we see in politics today stems from fear.102 A person might fear losing freedoms or rights, a decline in their standard of living, or a weakening of the nation’s moral fabric if their side loses or their convictions are flouted. Looking at current events and reading the headlines, some of these fears might even be well-founded, and with each new election there might be valid reasons for the losing side to feel disheartened. Yet, in many ways, our fear or confidence, hope or despair, depends on our perspective—namely on whether we are looking to current events, elections, and the security of our convictions to define our prospects, or whether we are looking to the present and future reality of Christ’s completed work.103 As Christians, we should engage public life as victors who have been given a spirit of power, love, and self-control, no matter the election outcome.104 This reality liberates us to passionately and joyfully advance our convictions in public life without fearfully demonizing, disdaining, or distancing ourselves from opponents.
The practices of considering, pausing, reframing, resisting, and resting should help us better navigate competing convictions in politics and the church. Still, they cannot solve the inherent challenges of engaging across moral differences—challenges that reflect the essential limitations of the earthly city, which is marred by sin and struggles for power.105 These limitations, however, help drive us to “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”106 In the meantime, pastor and author Andrew Murray offers wise words as we struggle to engage well across conflicting convictions in the here and now: “Live your daily life in the full consciousness of being righteous in God’s sight, an object of delight and pleasure in Christ …. This will keep you in perfect peace.”107 We as Christians should believe, internalize, and practice the truth that Christ’s righteousness equips us to pursue moral policies and navigate moral differences from a place of joy and rest—the true answer to the double-edged sword of morality in politics.
Cite this article
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- For example, Pastor David Platt angered some congregants when he prayed for former President Donald Trump from the stage of his church, and then angered others when he apologized to those he originally offended. See Greg Garrison, “David Platt: What he learned praying for Trump,” AL.com, June 10, 2019, https://www.al.com/life/2019/06/david-platt-what-he-learned-praying-for-trump.html.
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- Liberals and conservatives are equally likely to hold moral convictions about politics, as are the nonreligious and religious. These groups, however, tend to have different founda-tions for their convictions, to moralize different issues, and to hold different views about what the morally right position is on the issues they deem moral concerns. Skitka et al., “The Psychology of Moral Conviction,” 347-366.
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- A pause also allows us to actively reappraise the emotions that are evoked when our con-victions are violated, reconsidering and interpreting the situation in ways that lessen the intensity of the emotional experience. Research shows that emotion regulation strategies that help reduce emotional reactions to moral dilemmas allow people to engage in more reasoned deliberation. See Matthew Feinberg et al., “Liberating Reason from the Passions: Overriding Intuitionist Moral Judgments through Emotion Reappraisal,” Psychological Science 23.7 (2012): 788-795.
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While several peer-reviewed articles focus on five foundations, Haidt suggests in Righteous Mind that liberty/oppression might be considered a sixth moral foundation.
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