A healthy, vibrant democracy —like a healthy, vibrant church— depends on an informed public. An informed public, in turn, pays attention to facts: to “objective” data and independent reports by experts. Facts are essential to reasoned engagement in the public sphere and within churches. For example, the fact that smoking tobacco can lead to lung cancer was instrumental to public policy that banned cigarette television commercials. The fact that structural racism is deeply embedded in the United States has led to Civil Rights legislation and to other protections for communities of color. And the fact that women can lead congregations led to the reformed Christian traditions.
But what happens when facts don’t matter? What happens when the nation’s top politicians —those who are supposed to be leaders— constantly call into question facts, statistics, and scholarly (or expert) opinion that do not align with their prevailing personal or political views? Far-right and alt-right populists share much in common with Christian fundamentalists when it comes to following one’s personal emotions in lieu of facts and in trying to convert those emotions into unquestionable universal truth.
The current COVID debacle is but one recent example of the dangers of disregarding facts and expert opinion. On May 20, even as medical and public health experts warned of surges in COVID infection rates, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis declared victory over the coronavirus: “We’ve succeeded, and I think that people just don’t want to recognize it because it changes their narrative.”
By narrative, does DeSantis mean the warnings issued by epidemiologists and other medical experts? Or does he mean the logical, commonsense deduction that reopening a state too soon could lead to increased contact among people, which then leads to increased infections? Whatever DeSantis means by “narrative,” it is clear that he formed his own facts, his own narratives, based on political allegiances (to please Donald Trump and his supporters). In doing so, DeSantis has imperiled the lives of millions, especially the millions of elderly and other vulnerable populations. The state has recently seen a significant surge in cases. Will this fact matter to those who believed that reopening so soon was a good idea? Probably not.
Another example is ignoring white supremacy and its twin symptoms of structural racism and police brutality against black and brown bodies. Even with live footage of George Floyd’s death, I’ve heard people deny police wrongdoing. Even with the U.S.’s dubious historical record of indigenous genocide, slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and policies resulting in socioeconomic injustice in communities of color, dominant narratives —some even within communities of color— still present the U.S. as the land of opportunity and equality for all. If one fails to “make it” in the US, according to the American Dream story, it is solely because one is lazy, incompetent, or outright stupid (characteristics that then become racialized and applied to particular groups). Seldom does one hear discussions about the roles of white privilege, intergenerational wealth, or social capital in “making it.” Indeed, institutions of higher learning practiced affirmative action way before it became synonymous with minority admissions, as many colleges and universities only admitted white males well into the mid-20th century. Is it any wonder that white males have been the dominant presence in academia, politics, large corporations, and top financial and law firms?
How does one explain the public constantly excusing Donald Trump’s blatant racism and xenophobia, his questionable fitness of character, and his failed policies (i.e. COVID response). Failing up seems to be the norm for white males. I often ask whether the public would be so forgiving of Barack Obama had allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against him or had he made racist and xenophobic comments.
Christian fundamentalism is another example of what can wrong when a community —a public— ignores facts and expert opinions. If scholarly consensus presents Jesus as a revolutionary Jew who fought against Roman imperialism and religious elitism (the Sanhedrin), then why not envision Jesus this way in the pews? Christian fundamentalists instead choose to present Jesus as a personal savior, as a best friend that does not concern himself with social injustice. Even worse, some present Jesus as a friend of empire, placing his (white) image alongside the U.S. flag and guns.
In a similar vein, countless biblical scholars have urged the public to interpret scriptural passages by paying attention to the world behind the text (historical background), the world of the text (genre), and the world in front of the text (the reader’s context and own interpretations). Reading the bible this way prevents prooftexting (using biblical passages out of context to prove one’s point) and overall scriptural abuse. Yet fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Paul Reed, without ever referencing a scholarly commentary, consistently use scriptural passages to condemn homosexuality, non-Christians, and even political opponents. They also praise Trump as “God’s man”––as the leader of a spiritual moment in U.S. politics.
I believe an irresponsible Christianity —one not informed by scholarship— has contributed to the national ethos of ignoring or dismissing facts that do not align with far-right or alt-right views. By getting away with a “lazy” theology that consistently disregards any expert guidance or suggestion, one can conjure personal beliefs of any kind that align with one’s political views. One’s imagination is the limit––a dangerous prospect when religious views become the basis for public policy.
Reasoned discourse can temper imaginations one might consider politically incorrect, plainly offensive, or simply hateful. But in order to engage in “reasoned dialogue,” parties to the dialogue need to agree to common ground rules for conversation, and parties should possess similar information. A common starting point is thus crucial; however, when parties cannot agree on basic facts (i.e. the existence of structural racism or climate change) or even on terms (i.e. communism or socialism), reasoned dialogue becomes impossible. What remains is a battle of emotions. It becomes about how one feels about certain topics, not about whether rational dialogue can lead to some (shifting) truths. Of course, feelings are real and have always been crucial to public and private dialogues. Reason, though, should serve as a broker to not necessarily put feelings aside as much as to channel feelings into a quest for common understanding and compromise.
During these times of rising populism and religious fundamentalism, the public sphere itself should be reimaged. I find hope in public protests that seek to shake up the establishment. When words fail due to the diminished importance of facts, all that is left is action. When democracy is dying, its final gasps of air come in the form of those who are willing to take to the streets in a final —and perhaps losing— effort to not relinquish hope for a better world. Communities of color and the sexually marginalized have tried to communicate their struggles for centuries, but their words often go unheard by those in power at any level. When one is not heard, maybe the only alternative is to be seen with a bang. When facts don’t matter in the public sphere, only a shaking of societal and religious foundations will wake people up.
Revolution against oppression is as American as American pie. Even this fact will be disputed, so what’s left? The battle of emotions leads to the battle of imaginations. With our democracy fledgling, now is the time to imagine a society that never was––one perhaps animated by a spirituality that embraces the reality (and beauty) of difference.
César “CJ” Baldelomar holds two law degrees and is currently a doctoral student in Theology and Education at Boston College. His research blends critical theory and decolonial thought, exploring how knowledge production and consumption inform identity formation and ethical paradigms.