Religion and politics are a volatile mix, and they have been since Jesus was put to death for blasphemy and sedition almost 2,000 years ago.
But both are important areas of life, grounded in convictions that are foundational for many Americans. Bring up issues such as evolution and immigration, and people are naturally going to take a stand based on their beliefs.
Is it even possible to talk about politics and religion without getting into a fight?
Larisa Heiphetz, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, has found that people do have the ability to distinguish factual beliefs from religious and political claims. But when people look at ideologies, they see them as a combination of fact and opinion. This mixture can be explosive.
Fortunately, Heiphetz has made some discoveries that can help us to navigate this minefield of facts and opinions. For starters, when you are in the middle of an ideological disagreement, resist the temptation to correct the other person’s facts. You might want to say, “Actually, scientific evidence shows that humans evolved from other primates,” or, “Actually, recent data shows that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.”
Yet this type of information alone is often insufficient to resolve disagreements. People rarely change their opinions because someone beat them in an argument.
Much better is to expose your conversation partner to another point of view.
“Hmm. I actually think something different,” is the type of statement Heiphetz recommends. “I really appreciated the way my science tutor was patient with me,” you could say, “and explained evolution in a way that made a lot of sense to me after a while.” Or “I’m going to donate money to groups helping asylum seekers. Do you want to join me?”
See the difference? Instead of correcting facts, expose the other person to another point of view. Minds are changed by exposure to new perspectives, especially if people are given time to think about and consider these other views.
In my novel City of Peace, Methodist pastor Harley Camden is devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter in a terrorist attack committed by Islamic extremists. He is sent to the small town of Occoquan, Virginia, to heal and to recover.
There, he wants nothing to do with Muslim immigrants, and assumes that two of his new neighbors will share his beliefs. This couple, Youssef and Sofia, are Coptic Christians who have suffered their own losses to Islamic violence in Egypt.
And yet, when Harley is having dinner with Youssef and Sofia, Harley learns that they are very close to a family named the Bayatis, Muslim immigrants from Iraq. “The Bayatis have become some of our closest friends here in Occoquan,” Youssef told Harley, “largely because we have shared so many meals. Back in Egypt, Christians and Muslims are getting together less and less, which has caused the animosity and violence to increase.”
“Food is important to us,” Sofia said. “Think of the many times that Jesus sat down to eat with people — even tax collectors and sinners. Christian hospitality is very important to Youssef and me.”
“I do appreciate it,” said Harley, enjoying the food Sofia had prepared. “Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other.”
What begins to change the mind of Harley Camden is not the correction of his facts. Instead, he shifts his thinking because he has been exposed to Christians and Muslims around a dinner table.
When have you been changed by a new perspective on religion or politics? How were you first exposed to this point of view, and how long did it take for your beliefs to change? Join the conversation through a comment below.