Moral psychology, politics and the New Evangelization
With the recent American Presidential Election and its many attendant moral issues, one begins to reflect on the current moral and political atmosphere in which the Church must proclaim the Gospel. The New Evangelization, which our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI highlighted in his Motu Proprio Porta Fidei has become the central focus in my own home, the Archdiocese of Washington. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has continually exhorted his priests and all of the Catholic faithful to re-propose the Gospel in a way that addresses the contemporary culture and its concerns. But, how can one understand this present age? How are we to approach the current challenges and opportunities?
Politics and morality are, in fact, two sides of the same coin, since both fields concern themselves with the question of the just ordering of human affairs. Thus, many in both politics and religion are understandably curious as to why individuals hold the political and moral positions that they do. In the spring of this year, Jonathan Haidt, a professor at the New York University, published a book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which offered his own attempt at the answer to this question. While the book is not without its problems, his ideas are useful for those seeking to understand the world they intend to evangelize. After surveying tens of thousands of people from across the globe, he noticed a strong correlation between an individual's self-identified political beliefs and his or her reaction to arange of moral scenarios. In analyzing the responses, he found that most political and moral conclusions are actually comprised of predicable emotional responses, rather than purely rational arguments.
Moreover, people dispersed along the political spectrum actually process the same issue or scenario in vastly different ways. As an example, when considering the issue of fairness, some people experience moral offense at a lack of equal treatment, whereas others experience such offense at a lack of proportional treatment, leading to wildly different meanings to statements such as, "That isn't fair." This would be seen, for example, in debates over which tax policy is most fair: a flat tax in which everyone is charged the same percentage or a progressive tax in which higher incomes are taxed at a higher percentage. For most people, Haidt argues, such judgements concerning the nature fairness would likely be an emotion response conditioned by one's life experiences.
The importance of these insights for the New Evangelization are obvious. The faith and moral teach- . ings of the Catholic Church do not map easily to one place on the political spectrum, owing to the "both/and" character of much of Catholic thought. Additionally, in cultures where faith and religious practice are largely private affairs, or where a person comes to religion later in life, it is easy for a person's moral sensibilities to be shaped by influences out of conformity with Christian belief. Evangelization, therefore, is about asking those who do not share our faith to do more than simply listen to rational arguments. It is about asking themto reconsider their moral impulses and intuitions, which can be long held and deep seated. The project of the New Evangelization must consider, not only the moral conclusions of an individual, but also the reasons and experiences that have lead the individual to that point.
The good news is that even though a person's moral impulses may be long-held, they can change. The key is found in interactions that lead people to rethink their positions. Often times, these interactions are not about rational argument. But instead, they are about helping others to understand our own reasons and experiences. For many who consider themselves to be non-religious, the mention of religion triggers a number of negative emotional responses. It becomes necessary then to understand and address the sources of those emotional responses. As Catholics, our faith is more than a collection of ideas; it is also a relationship with a person, who has transformed us in some way. Haidt's moral psychology is obviously aimed at understanding, and possibly influencing electoral behavior. But, its understanding of the effects of experience on moral beliefs is just as useful for the project of the New Evangelization. Surely evangelization is about speaking to human reason, but it is also about recognizing and overcoming whatever emotional obstacles stand in the way of a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ.
*Parochial Vicar of Holy Redeemer in Kensington, Maryland, for the Archdiocese of Washington