George Lakoff argues that progressives are in despair because they are trying to do 21st century politics with an 18th century mind. Progressives are clinging to an unworkable model of reason.
Another of Aristotle’s persuasion tropes is sweeping across America – pathos. Emotion, affects, feelings — these are the gold standard of American politics and religion. Conservatives know this, and they are churning out emotion.
Lakoff asks, “Why are conservatives so much better at getting their ideas across?” Once upon a time, there was a universal link between reason and democracy. Reason made us equal, and the best form of government was and is democracy.
The 18th century mind thought reason was universal, logical, unemotional, interest-based and literal. The problem is that Enlightenment reason does not account for real political behavior because it ignores emotion. In Aristotelian terms, logos has been replaced by pathos, and ethos (moral character and ethical behavior) has been sidelined in the interest of gaining power. Progressives are still stuck in this model.
Voting how they feel
Apply Lakoff’s analysis to the 2016 election. Rhetorical scholar Bonnie Dow notes that Hilary Clinton came across as a “policy wonk,” as a person lacking emotional appeal. In other words, Clinton was appealing to 18th century minds who still thought only the facts matter. She didn’t possess the notoriety, the television celebrity persona, the emotional sizzle of her opponent. Voters were not voting self-interest, but how they felt.
Roderick Hart suggests that pathos played a huge role in the election as many people said, “(Darn) it, I’m voting for Trump.”
Lakoff summarizes what happens to people who have lost the ability to speak with emotional power: “You will look and act wimpy. You will think that all you need to do is give people the facts and the figures and they will reach the right conclusion. You will think that all you need to do is point out where their interests lie, and they will act politically to maximize them. You will believe in polling and focus groups. You will not have any need to appeal to emotion — indeed to do so would be wrong! You will not need to speak of values; facts and figures will suffice. You will not have to change people’s brains; their reason should be enough. You will not have to frame the facts; they will speak for themselves. You just have to get the facts to them. …. Your opponents are not bad people; they just need to see the light. Those who won’t vote your way are mostly ignorant; they just need to be told the facts. Or they’re greedy, or corrupt, or being duped! You will be ignoring the cognitive unconscious, not stating your deepest values, suppressing legitimate emotions, accepting the other side’s frames as if they were neutral, cowering with fear at what you might be called, and refusing to frame the facts so that they can be appreciated. You will be ineffective. In a word, wimpy.”
“The intrusion of political language into Christianity has resulted in a loss of the ability of progressives to speak the language of our faith.”
Progressives, in politics and religion, have a talking problem. As we say down South, “These people can’t talk right.” The intrusion of political language into Christianity has resulted in a loss of the ability of progressives to speak the language of our faith. Our way of talking has been overly influenced by the way evangelicals speak, and the general media conclusion that the way evangelicals speak is Christian. I challenge the notion that evangelicals speak Christian, and I hope to enable progressives not to be imprisoned by the responses required by the speech of a liberal culture.
I try to teach my preaching students at the seminary how to speak the truth of the gospel — not the watered-down, individualistic, prosperity gospel, but the social gospel of Jesus. My students are not reluctant, but they are puzzled. They, at times, insist they are speaking Christian, but when they realize how little of their preaching is rooted in the prophetic tradition, the cry of the children of Israel in slavery and exile, the teachings of Jesus on behalf of the least, they begin to understand that too much preaching is Americanism or pop psychology or the preacher’s political opinions.
We need to learn from other voices, outside the Christian realm, to teach us to speak Christian.
Prophets need not apply
For example, we can’t speak Christian without speaking Hebrew. This is not an appeal for taking Hebrew language courses in seminary, but for imbibing the preaching of the Hebrew prophets. We have much to learn from the long line of moral geniuses that faced down the most powerful empires of history with “Thus says the Lord.”
We can’t speak Christian without learning how to speak with the courage of community organizers in Industrial Area Foundation groups across the country. Preachers may learn more at an IAF training session than they ever learn in the church. Cornel West says they “can teach Christians like myself very much in terms of their willingness to speak in a courageous way to the ‘least of these,’ to echo the 25th chapter of Matthew: the poor, the orphan, the widow, the exploited. They’ve done a much better job than most churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. The marketization of Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism and Islam is something to be resisted in the name of the prophetic element of those religions. But that prophetic dimension is weak. It’s pushed to the fringes. And so, you end up with those prophetic elements aligning themselves with deeply secular forces.”
Prophets are often not at home in the church, and so they find other places to hang out to keep preaching.
“There has been a concerted effort to silence the African American prophetic tradition.”
There has been a concerted effort to silence the African American prophetic tradition. “The tradition is sustained by a handful of beleaguered writers and intellectuals, including Glen Ford and his Black Agenda Report, the late James Cone, Carl Dix, Bruce Dixon, Boyce Watkins, Yvette Carnell, Robin Kelley, Margaret Kimberley, Nellie Bailey, Michael Pfleger, Maulana Karenga, Ajamu Baraka, Jeremiah Wright, and Cornell West.
In white evangelical circles, the prophetic tradition has folded into the Trump imperial project. The migration of Southern Baptist prophets after the fundamentalist takeover was a “trail of tears” as prophetic men and women went north to enrich other denominations with truth-speech. Now, the prophetic note among evangelicals is a fake one — an imaginary pointing at the future and a rapture with all its violent attractions.
Too many prophetic voices have gotten the “Amos solution” when their speaking threatened power. When Amos dared to say, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” and, “Alas for those you are at ease in Zion,” the court prophet, Amaziah, pounced on the true prophet: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” When a prophet goes one truth too far, his or her credentials are pulled, the authorities crush the rebellious one and declare heresy and blasphemy.
Learn to speak truth with emotion
Emotion is central to persuasion. Will progressive politicians and prosecutors be able to shift gears and learn how to be persuasive through powerful emotional appeals? That remains to be seen, but it is a move that must happen sooner rather than later.
Politicians and preachers of a progressive bent will “need to embrace a deep rationality that can take advantage of a mind that is largely unconscious, embodied, emotional, empathetic, metaphorical, and only partly universal.” Instead of abandoning reason, progressives need to reunite reason with emotion and character.
“People using the Enlightenment concept of reason believed everyone would be outraged by Kyle Rittenhouse killing two persons with an assault rifle.”
People using the Enlightenment concept of reason believed everyone would be outraged by Kyle Rittenhouse killing two persons with an assault rifle. Reasonable people thought all the members of Congress would be appalled at the violent images tweeted by Rep. Gosar. Neither of these statements reflects reality. A jury of his peers found Rittenhouse not guilty. Two hundred and one members of the House of Representatives thought Gosar’s tweet was harmless. Reason, like truth, is contestable in America.
Why does this matter? Savvy politicians and preachers are experts at appealing to the subconscious level of our minds. Progressives, stuck in the idea that if the facts are known, all reasonable people will agree, unaware of the hidden workings of the mind, “fail to use what is known about the mind in the service of morality and truth.”
Progressives should have an advantage here because they already have concluded that much of reality is metaphorical and symbolic. There’s irony in evangelicals being literalists and using the tropes of hyperbole, metaphor and exaggeration to win the minds of the public and progressives being metaphorical and symbolic, refusing to use this metaphorical power in emotional and uplifting, persuasive ways.
Progressives know that our experiences are structured indirectly, but they are being “schooled” by a tribe of literalists and pragmatists who are at home with emotion.
Progressives often think any thinking person will know that the earth was not created in six literal days, but that kind of thinking leaves the “talking” to the likes of Ken Ham and the Creation Museum. Progressive pastors would be surprised by how many “closet creationists” populate their pews and visit the Creation Museum. Not speaking the progressive message that Genesis 1 is a poem created by a person not present at the dawn of creation is an important speech act for progressives. Our reluctance to speak this truth puts us at a disadvantage. Progressives have a Gnostic bent — a spiritualizing of thinking on a higher plane and thinking it unnecessary to refute what appears to be lower-grade claims about creation.
“If the only message people hear comes from Ken Ham, then progressives should not be surprised how many people accept that message, as incredulous as it is.”
If the only message people hear comes from Ken Ham, then progressives should not be surprised how many people accept that message, as incredulous as it is. Progressives should “repent” — change our minds — and give up 18th century idealism about rationality and reason. Emotion is not our enemy.
Many progressives, in church and in politics, have a deep mistrust of emotion and see no need for it. We are, after all, part of the old-line establishment.
At least since Wesley was shunned by fellow Anglicans as an “enthusiast,” we have doubted the validity of emotion. We are Episcopalians, Lutherans, American Baptists, UCC, UMC and Presbyterians. We just do not do that emotional stuff. Pentecostals and some Baptists do that kind of thing. For our part, we are reticent and unlikely to raise our voices. After all, we live in fear that some will think we did not graduate from good schools. Emotional appeals make us nervous.
A media blackout problem for progressives
Progressives struggle to understand what the media has done to impact decision making. The media breeds emotional appeal. In this market, the progressive message is muted or inspires channel switching. Soren Kierkegaard once claimed the church would die from boredom. Progressives should heed the prophecy.
Progressive Christian speech has been co-opted by the media. For example, progressive preachers rarely appear on MSNBC. There are rare appearances by progressives on national television programs. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, makes periodic appearances on a national network morning show. A handful of African American progressives are interviewed occasionally.
In contrast, during the Trump administration, whenever there was a crisis that needed “biblical,” “Christian,” explaining, there was a smiling, fast-talking slick Willie on Fox News making sure evangelicals knew Trump was still a wonderful, marvelous president. When Trump used profanity, Robert Jeffress said evangelicals didn’t condone the language, but “what we love are this president’s wonderful policies.”
“’Christiansplaining’ needs to be new word in our current environment.”
“Christiansplaining” needs to be a new word in our current environment. There is no Jeffress counter on MSNBC or CNN. The Christian voice, in the media, is the evangelical one.
No progressive sits at the head of multi-million-dollar empires like Ken Ham at the Creation Museum or David Barton at Wallbuilders or Tim LaHaye of “Left Behind” or Robert Jeffress at First Baptist Church of Dallas. When there’s an issue that appears to be religious or theological, the media flocks to evangelical Christians for one basic reason: Evangelicals are the most public, most publicized, more newsworthy of all American Christians.
The media have accepted an unnoted reality: American Christianity is now defined as evangelical. The media appearances of Christian leaders are overwhelmingly skewered to evangelical preachers. Evangelicals control religious television, and evangelicals are the most often used spokespersons for American Christians. This adds up to a publicity problem for progressives.
In the beginning of religious television, mainline churches decided the best strategy was to invest in local broadcast of the traditional 11:00 worship. Savvy, market-conscious, charismatic, emotional preachers from the fringes of American Christianity invested in televangelism.
After 50 years of televangelism, we have an American Christianity embedded in emotional appeals that defy reason and rational thought. Ideas like creationism, a literal Bible, the rapture, patriotism and America as God’s chosen nation have conquered the hearts of millions. When these Bible-believing, God-fearing, gun-toting, patriotic Americans aligned with Donald Trump, progressives were in for a world of hurt.
Evangelicals speak with certainty and audacity — powerful emotional proofs in the media. Progressives speak with a cool detachment, a reticence that embraces contingencies, ambiguities, and probabilities.
It’s not just that progressive thought requires deep thinking, it’s that television doesn’t provide a market for that kind of critical thought.
Putting some feeling in the progressive message
Evangelicals have been calling progressive Christians “a bunch of socialists” for decades, and there’s been little attempt to back down this ludicrous charge on the part of progressives. But it is a strong emotional appeal, and it has stuck like Velcro to progressive Christians.
In an intense dialogue with a member of the Ohio state legislature, I made an appeal for the social gospel and the representative interrupted me to query, “Isn’t that just a liberal term for socialism?”
“Progressives need to embrace emotional appeals without resorting to demagoguery.”
Progressives need to embrace emotional appeals without resorting to demagoguery. They can accept the validity of emotion without the suspicion that all emotion is irrational. They can recover the powerful message of the social gospel and its dominant emphasis on compassion and empathy.
A compassionate message rooted in empathy applied to government would go a long way toward communicating with the American public.
Lakoff offers help for progressive preachers: “Behind every progressive policy lies a single moral value: empathy, along with the responsibility and strength to act on that empathy.” The affects of care, compassion, empathy, the ability to hear the cries of the oppressed can become the centerpiece of progressive talk. The government protects and encourages. Protection means social security, disease control and public health, safe food, disaster relief, health care, consumer and worker protection, environmental protection. When Robert Jeffress trots out the odious notion that the purpose of government according to Romans 13 is to punish evildoers, progressives can respond. The progressive Christian message could help counteract the public opinion that the left currently has a message embedded in secularism and socialism.
Using hyperbole and emotion, I accept the vocation of teaching progressives how to talk Christian as the purpose of my last years on this planet. If you call me a socialist, I will say, “You must not know me very well. I am of the family of Hebrew prophets, the genius of the African American prophetic tradition. I am brother to Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, James Cone, Cornel West. Mrs. Hamer of Mississippi was my faith grandmother. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, the lover of an economics that is good news to the poor. You are confused. I’m no socialist.”
Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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