Motivated reasoning

If I had to name only one thing I have learned in my many years of making arguments, it would be this: You cannot convince people of anything that they sense it’s in their interest not to know. I thought about this often as I was reading Alex Morris’s Rolling Stone story about American evangelicals’ love of Trump.

… It is very much in the interest of Morris’s aunt, and in the interest of millions and millions of other people, not to know that we are, through our economic choices, bringing ruin to the planet that we’re supposed to be the stewards of. And so she doesn’t know. Like so many others, she makes a point of not knowing.

But I think the problem of motivated not-knowing isn’t found only on the conservative evangelical side of things. Here’s one passage from Morris’s essay that seems to be drawing a lot of attention:

“The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance,” says [Greg] Thornbury. In Trump’s America, “‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”

In that second sentence, the clause “In Trump’s America” is a problem. What does it mean? In one sense, the entire nation is “Trump’s America” right now, whether we like it or not; but maybe Morris means something like “Americans who enthusiastically support Trump,” or “the parts of the country that are strongly supportive of Trump.” Impossible to tell. Thornbury didn’t use the phrase, but presumably he said something that led into his line about “religious liberty” as code for something else.

So the passage is unclear, but I’d like to know what Thornbury means. I’ve written a good deal about the importance of religious freedom on this blog and elsewhere — just see the tag at the bottom of this post — so does that mean that I am using that topic as “code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage”? If so: explain that to me, please.

Maybe there’s something that Greg Thornbury and Alex Morris have an interest in not knowing: that even if millions of white Americans abuse the concept of religious liberty, religious liberty could nevertheless be in some danger.

Alan Jacobs, who has much more than this to say, including ways in which fundamentalist Christian cranks are motivated to ignore environmental damage.

Seriously, read it all.

But Jacobs omits something: anyone who thinks Rolling Stone is prima facie a reliable interlocutor of Christianity, and especially of the religious right, deserves all the false certaintly and motivated ignorance he gains there. Rod Dreher kinda hits that, too.

* * * * *

Sailing on the sea of this present life, I think of the ocean of my many offenses; and not having a pilot for my thoughts, I call to Thee with the cry of Peter, save me, O Christ! Save me, O God! For Thou art the lover of mankind.

(From A Psalter for Prayer)

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.