Monday, February 15, 2016

Politics, Theology, and the Destructive Power of Outcomes

To start - if you haven't read the following article from this past Sunday's NYT, I strongly recommend you go do so now:
Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me
The article is beautifully and poignantly written. It makes clear problems in both American culture and the "prosperity gospel" in particular that I could never articulate so well.

I want to use this piece as a starting-off point for a distinction I make all the time, one that explains a lot of frustration I have with the current state of both political and social relations in America. I frequently make the argument that there seem to be two sorts of people: process people and outcome people. I am a process person. What follows is what I mean by that, and why I think it matters.

This distinction, like all such distinctions, is really a matter of degree. Process people do care about outcomes, and a great many outcome people also care about processes. But in general, when I talk about process vs. outcomes what I mean is this:

• Outcome people are focused primarily on goals. How we get there is less important than that the right outcome is achieved. The most important battle for outcome folks is therefore not how we do things, but what it is we are trying to do. Success is understood when we reach the proper outcome, or fail to do so.

Process people are concerned primarily with how things happen. That can lead some folks to be extremely doctrinaire about rules and procedures, but in general this view stems from the belief that how we do things not only influences the outcome we get this time, but casts a long shadow into the future. We therefore need to be careful about how we treat each other in the midst of doing things today to try to achieve our goals, whatever they may be. To borrow a popular phrase, success for process people is a journey, not a destination.

Donald Trump is an outcome person. He knows what he wants, and doesn't care what process he has to follow to get it - he's a "get it done" kind of guy.

Ted Cruz is an outcome person when he talks about "carpet bombing" parts of Syria in order to get rid of the Daesh/Islamic State movement. It doesn't matter how many lives are lost, just so that the final outcome is the removal of the threat.

Most members of Congress, in both chambers and in both parties, are outcome people most of the time. The latest incidence of this comes from individual Senators (including Mitch McConnell) indicating that they will oppose any nominee for the Supreme Court put forward by President Obama. The only outcome that matters is that the next Supreme Court justice be nominated by someone else, presumably on the hopes that someone from a different political party will be inhabiting the White House at that point.

There has been lots of speculation about the "angry electorate" in this year, and you don't have to go far to find polling data indicating that most Americans don't think much of their government. Why is a harder thing to put our hands on, and I won't engage in speculation on that point. I only have an N of 1 - me - and so I can only explain why I find the current political situation so horribly dysfunctional. It's precisely because all politics is now about outcome, not process.

Hypocrisy in Washington has become so ubiquitous that we no longer even notice it. We expect that elected leaders will say one thing when they are in power, and then say the opposite when the other party is in charge. Why do they do this? Because all are "fighting" (I use the term with reservation, because it's a bad analogy) for the outcome they want and don't care what they have to do or say to get it.

This goes beyond lamenting the days when "compromise" was not a dirty word in politics (though I do miss the apparent ability of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill to not only get along, but actually get things done). I think that the failing is not just political, but moral and spiritual as well.

When we become fixated on outcome, it changes our whole orientation. We come to rationalize our actions and our judgments about the world in light of what we want. We engage in wishful thinking to selectively edit the facts around us to fit with what we hope to achieve. Worse still, we begin to demonize and dehumanize people who have different ideas. We move quickly from seeing such people as competitors to seeing them as the problem. Not for nothing do Roger Fisher and Bill Ury devote nearly 1/4 of their bestselling book Getting to Yes to talking people out of this particular corner.

Once we've demonized those who disagree, fear sets in. We become afraid that we might not get the outcome we now so desperately want. We channel that fear into anger and then hatred towards those who we think are standing in our way. They are "destroying America". They are evil. They must be stopped, whatever the cost.

We see all of this on display especially in Presidential election years, since fear, anger, and hatred are effective tools of political mobilization. Whether they are more or less effective tools we no longer know, because they are all we see. They are the very atmosphere we breathe. Just as the fish cannot tell that it is wet, knowing no other condition, we are rapidly losing the ability to see just how afraid and angry we are.

Although the symptoms of this disease are political, the root cause is moral and theological. The author of the article cited at the beginning carefully traces the extent to which an outcome-based theology (one focused on the accumulation of wealth and the assignment of credit or blame) distorts both the gospel of Christianity as well as individuals' behavior. Here we can bring another noted Christian writer to bear - C.S. Lewis:
"(God) wants men to be concerned with what they do; our (the Devil's) business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them". (The Screwtape Letters)
It is very difficult to hold onto basic Christian theology for long and to simultaneously believe that the worldly outcomes over which we are so highly concerned - who gets appointed to the Supreme Court, what foreign policy we should adopt, what our economic strategy should be, who gets elected President - matter all that very much. It is nearly impossible, in my view, to do so and justify behavior that we would otherwise acknowledge as sinful in the name of achieving this or that thing in the short run. As Keynes famously noted, in the long run we're all dead.

This is not to say that we don't have preferences about things, or that we don't continue to develop our ideas to make them better and to produce better outcomes. In fact, we spend far too little time talking or listening to each other about what better means in that context. So this is not an argument that all Christians should withdraw from the world, or that we shouldn't care at all about outcomes.

It is to suggest, however, that a theological point of view (one which might be shared by adherents of other faiths) demands a different perspective. Nearly all of our moral understandings - the theologies and philosophies developed and refined over millennia - have to do with how we treat each other as human beings. This is ultimately a process issue. Our moral obligations are to our own actions, our own behavior, how we treat others.

This explains why (paradoxically, given what I study) I am so repulsed by modern politics. It is almost impossible to find anyone, of any political stripe, who is not so obsessed with this or that outcome that they are not ready on a moment's notice to discard basic notions of human decency and the obvious realization that, when this round of "fighting" is over we will still have to live with each other. The reactions to Antonin Scalia's death this past weekend - the almost immediate argument at the nomination of a successor - were simply the latest tragic example.

I don't know what the solution to this problem is. I know what it isn't. Our problems will not be solved when we elect the right President, or when the right party is in power, or when the right policy is passed. All of the "solutions" on offer are illusions, snake oil designed to sell the salesman. There is no end of the rainbow where all of the "right people" have won and everything will be "great again".

The only path I see to change for the better is for people - not parties, not institutions, but individual people - to let go a little of their cherished outcomes and to pay a little more attention to process. By which I mean, to begin to consider each other as people, as humans worthy of respect and decency, and to act accordingly. When people adopt this perspective, even imperfectly (for all of us are imperfect), behavior changes. Insults cease, shouting diminishes, snark and distain are replaced with thoughtfulness and listening quiet.

Do I know how to bring this about? Of course not. All I can do is control how I treat people every day. The outcome that is our politics, or our society, or our community is beyond my fixing. But that is precisely the point. Lewis was right - all I can do is concern myself with what I do, and leave the rest to God.

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