Transcending the Blame GameJustin E. Giboney March/April 2022
Fact-blindness, unreasoning partisanship, and a fast-growing deficit of compassion. Can people of faith help forge a path through our current political morass?
Illustration by Jon Krause
More than 100,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in a 12-month period,1 overall life expectancy is falling,2 and our immigration system is, by all accounts, a catastrophe. But instead of our finding common cause and policy solutions, finger-pointing and name-calling have become the focus of American politics. In our petty game of political one-upping, solving problems has become a secondary goal at best.
The pride and contempt that often motivate our civic engagement today are dismantling American democracy. They’ve lured us away from two of the values a healthy society needs—self-examination and compassion. Regrettably, many of our partisan institutions discourage internal scrutiny and out-group empathy. And our rhetorical devices are mostly used to end conversations instead of inviting healthy debate.
On cultural and social issues, neither side is open to an intellectually honest and civil dialogue. With hardened hearts we’ve closed our ears to facts and sound logic. Our ideological tribes will not suffer disagreement. For example, nothing draws the ire of some conservatives like a piercing factual critique of American history. While America has achieved some exceptional feats, a romanticized view of the country’s past only preserves a fictional legacy and avoids a reckoning on issues like racial justice.
Likewise, nothing will get one canceled by secular progressives quicker than pointing out the contradictions in social constructs, such as gender identity. Since the public can’t be persuaded that biological men should play women’s sports, it must be compelled.
Furthermore, each group has an arsenal of scornful and dismissive labels they stick on those who step into heretical territory, such as “Marxist” or “bigot.” Surely Marxists and bigots exist, but the scope of those terms is ever-expanding, which, by design, limits the public discourse and fosters division. These groups silence dissenters and try to unilaterally enforce their will because many of their positions are indefensible.
In our contempt for one another, we’re constantly looking for examples that prove the other side is just as unintelligent or evil as we thought. We expect the worst and have trouble hiding our pleasure when we are proved right. This distracts us from addressing such issues as America’s steep fall in the international well-being index3 and prevents us from recognizing our own lapses from thoughtfulness and good faith.
For instance, in the minds of many progressives, the Big Lie about Donald Trump losing the 2020 presidential race because of election fraud seems to confirm many of the ugliest things they believe (and desperately want everyone else to believe) about conservatives. Namely, that conservative leaders are evil enough to perpetuate such a lie and the rank and file are foolish enough to believe it.
Racism was also implied, since many of the areas where fraud was alleged are heavily populated by people of color. Therefore, the storyline further conceived that conservatives were indicting majority Black communities on charges of corruption. To cap it off, the Big Lie also led to the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack, where “Jesus Saves” flags waved while law and order were disregarded, and people died. That day of delusion and chaos won’t soon be forgotten, nor should it be.
For the left, the Big Lie became a clear example through which they could triumphantly reassert so many of the condemning narratives at the core of their contempt for the political right. It’s difficult to argue that these charges of disregard for American democracy and gross incredulity are without merit. After all, the claim of mass election fraud has even been shot down by Trump-appointed judges4 and disavowed by some Republican lawmakers.5 Moreover, Trump’s lawyer was sued over the allegations, and her defense was that no reasonable person would believe what she told the American people with a straight face.6
Yet so many of the progressives who were castigating conservatives for the Big Lie fell for all the false accusations in the Steele Dossier and suggested Trump and Putin had rigged the 2016 election. The Steele Dossier, compiled by a former British Intelligence agent, embarrassingly brought some to believe Trump was a Russian agent and that his presidency was illegitimate. Outlets who promoted it had to admit the document was false, and the primary source has been charged with lying to the FBI.
Progressives spent literally years talking up and obsessing over the allegations in this fake report. Journalists and elected officials wasted tons of our time weighing in on the Russiagate story incited by the dossier and scaring Americans with creative doomsday scenarios. Many of the discredited claims were read into the Congressional Record, wasting committee time and public resources.7 The dossier was also relied on to obtain surveillance warrants from FISA courts. Mainstream media and even government agents failed to properly vet the report, further seeming to confirm conservative claims about progressive bias in their institutions (think “fake news” and “the Deep State”). Trump and his campaign team did obstruct justice and had some unsavory business dealings, but none of this justifies what’s been called “one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history.”7
If your knee-jerk reaction is focused in on some type of false equivalency between these two examples, then you’ve missed the point. The lesson here isn’t based on these instances being equally bad. Rather, this is about what makes us so susceptible to consuming detectible lies and how contempt compromises our judgment. From the Jussie Smollett hoax to QAnon, our eagerness to demonize the other side has left us hoodwinked time after time. One could make an argument that the impacts of the dossier were much less harmful than the Big Lie, but does it justify leaving that massive failure unexamined and uncorrected? No, wrongdoing is not justified in view of a greater wrong.
In fact, morality by comparison is a major part of the problem. Contrary to what partisans might have us believe, we’re not right or righteous just because our opponent is more wrong. Judging ourselves based on the worst acts of others is moral folly and results in a wicked form of self-justification. Sadly, it’s the rule, not the exception, in our sociopolitical discourse. And it’s created a bottomless pit, where our standards fall lower and lower. We should not excuse our own wrongdoing in view of what we believe is a bigger and ever-growing evil on the other side. We should not allow whataboutism8 to prevent self-examination and accountability.
Through cable news, talk radio, and social media, many Americans have been indoctrinated to believe that our political opponents’ every word and action are meant to either harm, deceive, or control us. We’ve come to believe they’re virtually incapable of sincerity and good works. They’re not just occasionally wrong; they’re always wrong. Which means what’s right is found on the opposite side of their every belief and opinion. This is the heart of what I call opposition-centered politics—forming our beliefs and selecting our positions based on a desire to disagree with or attack a certain group. Ironically, this places the people we disdain most at the center of our decision-making process.
The dynamic has been on display throughout the pandemic. It’s why conservatives and progressives took the opposite stance on almost every issue concerning COVID-19. It’s why they both continually become more extreme. Widening the divide is the point. We’re signaling our virtue by creating as much distance between us as possible. Opposition-centered politics quickly pulls us into the realm of absurdity because neither truthfulness, compassion, nor integrity is the objective. It’s no way to solve problems or build character.
It also pulls us into empty defiance, where we harm or defile ourselves trying to spite the other side. This concept was at work when some conservatives refused to follow any CDC guidance and when progressives sought to defund the police in high crime areas. In both cases, people were potentially placed in harm’s way while partisans tried to prove a very empty point. Sometimes these efforts are based on true belief, and in other cases they’re more motivated by an addiction to provocation, but empty defiance is usually somewhere near the root.
Sadly, neither side is either self-reflective or honest enough to admit that our contempt is eating us alive. We don’t recognize that we’re not only harming the country but harming ourselves. And curiously, our unwillingness to correct ourselves makes us look more like the caricatures others have created of us. It’s a self-perpetuating disaster.
A Spiritual Reckoning
Worst of all, Christians have not been an exception within this phenomenon. We’re just as partisan and divided as everyone else. When we’re not leading the charge in one of these ideological tribes, we’re silently going along for the ride. You’d think that a group of people committed to imitating Jesus would be unified in trying to guide our peers toward self-examination and compassion. But unfortunately, we generally have not played the role of peacemakers. We have not shed light on the dark arts that brought us to this point. We haven’t often enough brought facts and discernment to our tribe’s baseless conspiracy theories. And we certainly haven’t emphasized the imago Dei in the racists, criminals, and pleasure-seekers among us.
Christian convictions concerning truth, compassion, and self-examination should make our conformity with and participation in this nasty back-and-forth unthinkable. Instead, we’ve used our public witness to carve and chisel images in our own likeness. We romanticize history to glorify ourselves and our cultural history. We deify our ethnic identity to justify ourselves and place the blame on others. We’ve fooled ourselves into believing that our idols are stainless and our opponents are irredeemable villains.
The answer to this contemptuous and truth-deficient moment is moral imagination, which is the application of faith to restore clarity, purpose, and hope in the most dire situations. Moral imagination is the ability to see not just what has been historically or what is in the present. It’s the ability to see and pursue what ought to be, and what should be in the future. It’s seeing God’s will and design in the midst of all the brokenness in and around us. It replaces pride and contempt with humility and compassion.
Moral imagination decenters us and our opponents and centers God. Consequently, it makes our civic engagement about glorifying God, not settling the score. Our opponent’s redemption becomes more desirable than their punishment (without precluding necessary punishment). It reveals that human dignity isn’t scarce, so we don’t have to fight each other for it. Moral imagination makes it clear that there are no irredeemable villains or stainless idols. No one is below God’s grace, and we aren’t justified by our own constructs.
Moral imagination compels us to examine ourselves, repent, and apologize publicly even if it isn’t in our immediate self-interest. Admitting fault is no longer considered a loss because our honesty connects us to a greater victory. It cures our myopic tendency to be controlled by the moment. Our social action is guided by greater principles, not hasty reactions to our current pain or anger.
This spiritual disposition will bear fruit in our social and political context. It doesn’t blind us to the wrongdoing of others or render us unable to fight tenaciously when necessary. But it does compel us to promote moral order and social justice honorably and without turning other image bearers into political abstractions. Moral imagination is our only hope of getting past our differences and hang-ups, finding common cause, and getting to solutions.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually,” November 17, 2021, https://bit.ly/32RPS6P.
2 Laurel Wamsley, “American Life Expectancy Dropped by a Full Year in 1st Half of 2020,” National Public Radio, February 18, 2021, https://n.pr/3pUScmk.
3 Nicole Lyn Pesce, “The U.S. Dropped Majorly on the Index That Measures Well-being—Here’s Where It Ranks Now,” MarketWatch, September 11, 2020, https://on.mktw.net/3FXFo4r.
4 Aaron Blake, “The Most Remarkable Rebukes of Trump’s Legal Case: From the Judges He Hand-picked,” Washington Post, December 14, 2020.
5 Burgess Everett, “Sasse, Romney Pan Trump Campaign’s Tactics in Contesting Election,” Politico, November 19, 2020, https://politi.co/32REHev.
6 Tom McCarthy, “Pro-Trump Lawyer Says ‘No Reasonable Person’ Would Believe Her Election Lies,” The Guardian, March 23, 2021, https://bit.ly/3JJyT7h.
7 Sarah Fischer, “The Media’s Epic Fail,” Axios, November 14, 2021, https://bit.ly/32JmEqZ.
8 “Whataboutism” was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in October 2021. It’s defined as “not merely the changing of a subject . . . to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.” https://bit.ly/3EVxneY.
Article Author: Justin E. Giboney
Justin E. Giboney is an attorney, political strategist, and president of the AND Campaign, an organization that aims to educate and organize Christians for civic and cultural engagement. He is coauthor of the book Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.