Ezra Klein, host of The Ezra Klein Show and co-founder of Vox, has written a perceptive book on polarization in American civil life that sets out a compelling backstory and frame for understanding the current state we find ourselves in.
The emergence of deep rifts in American society and in other nations is certainly a concern for Christians who desire to love their neighbors. In order to love our neighbors, we need to understand not only our neighbors but also ourselves and our reactions. After all, the Christian’s identity in Christ moves us to “live peaceably with all” as we “aspire to live quietly,… mind [our] own affairs, and to work with [our] own hands” (Rom 12; 1 Thess 4). In our quest to carry out our calling more faithfully, we can appreciate and learn from a book which offers a robust secular diagnosis of polarization. In Why We’re Polarized, Klein assesses our political and cultural climate in light of past partisan fights and the high points and low points of American society.
This book offers pastors, teachers, and politically-minded believers a perceptive reminder that the polarizing forces at play in the public realm are a consequence of the rise of political “mega-identities” (69). Everything feels politically charged at the moment because, Klein explains, we are encouraged to make everything a matter of our core identity. We form and protect our personal and group identities in response to deeply imprinted sensors in our psyche that respond to even “weak cues and distant threats” (xx). This helps to explain why an American flag pin, a nativity scene on public lands, or a kneeling football player can become a flashpoint in the online and offline worlds we inhabit. Once people are persuaded that something is core to their identities, they will respond more fiercely to perceived or real moments of vulnerability or advancement. Political clashes are perceived as existential rather than temporal – as the precursor of destruction for your group instead of a gradual shift in direction on the part of civil government.
Klein grounds these behavioral impulses in the findings of social psychology about tribalism and our susceptibility to powerful special interests who have figured out how to weaponize political identity for gain. However, Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, discerningly describes this heightening of the temporal as one inevitable consequence of modern ‘secularization’ which “can be seen from one angle as the rejection of higher times, and the positing of time as purely profane. Events now exist only in this one dimension, in which they stand at greater and lesser temporal distance, and in relations of causality with other events of the same kind.” Charles Taylor’s insight into the world’s loss of ultimate meaning goes a long ways in explaining why the modern angst of our times ends up turning the fleeting matters of politics into central matters of identity. We can appreciate Klein’s marshaling of studies on group behavior while adding the insights from books like David Zahl’s excellent Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It and James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.
Near the end of the book, Klein writes, “Like a muscle or a neural pathway, the identities we use most grow strongest, the ones that lie fallow weaken” (262). We are led down the path of frequent usage of our partisan political identities by a “massive apparatus for defining, policing, and activating them.” Big data and bespoke media services that cater to and exert control over sub-sets of society are new super-charged aspects of this apparatus that Klein offers a clear-headed warning about to his readers. Klein encourages the practice of “identity mindfulness” in order to recognize when we are being propagandized in order to exercise greater self-control over our own responses to identity-based manipulation.
This point has serious implications for Christian communities which are at risk of seeing our central identity in Christ weakened as competing interests and identities are fed a steady diet from the alluring buffet of hot takes, fiery denunciations, and partisan affirmations found on the screens we are drawn to each day. Consequently, the calling to be faithfully (and charitably) present in the world as a counter-cultural citizen of the kingdom of heaven can lose its clarity unless we are actively reminded of our foremost identity. As members of the Church, Christians are given a biblically-reinforced identity (Heb 11:10) that inoculates us, ostensibly, from the full weight of these broader forces seeking to divide for partisan purposes.
Klein’s work serves up a timely reminder that we are not immune to the forces competing for our attention, our contributions, and our outrage. We can quickly be caught up in the storm of today’s crisis or called to the ramparts to face tomorrow’s adversary and lose sight of our deeper calling to stand as lights and beacons of peace-filled hope in this present evil age. Therefore, let us consider well how we ought to walk in a world of polarization, crude populism, and identity-based conflict. The Bible, which reminds us why we’re polarized, offers a powerful call to those who are in Christ Jesus: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jam 1:19-20).
Norman Van Eeden Petersman (MDiv) is the pastor of Vancouver Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Canada. He lives in Richmond, BC, with his wife and son.