Over the last few years, preachers have learned a great deal about the political makeup of their congregations, probably more than they ever cared to know. One of the challenges this has brought to the surface is how our preaching can connect with people of varying political stripes: Conservative, liberal, libertarian, or some combination thereof.
For this challenge, preachers can learn a great deal from an unbelieving, secular Jewish psychologist by the name of Jonathan Haidt.
Haidt, who teaches at New York University, is the author of (among other books) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. He opens the book with the infamous cry of Rodney King from thirty years ago: “Can’t we all just get along?” Haidt’s short answer is... nope. No, he says, because (...wait for it!) we are all self-righteous hypocrites. Martin Luther could hardly have put it better.
In the course of his book, though, Haidt greatly expands upon his answer and seeks to demonstrate from moral psychology why our nation is so terribly divided, especially on the subjects of politics and religion. That larger answer, at least in Haidt’s telling, has to do with taste.
Haidt compares morality to a palate. Based on his own research, he identifies five “taste buds” of human morality:
I will not get into the details of each of these areas of morality here; although, if you would like to know more, visit his website or better yet read the book, which I cannot recommend enough. Suffice it to say he is not seeking to be prescriptive (this is what morality should include) but rather descriptive (this is what morality does include). Like a good umpire, Haidt’s just calling them like he sees them.
What is fascinating is how Haidt demonstrates that progressives and conservatives emphasize different parts of the same palate. People who lean left, culturally and politically, tend to focus on the “taste buds” of care and fairness. Those who lean right, on the other hand, focus more on the taste buds of loyalty, authority, and sanctity; though Haidt, himself a man of the left, does note conservatives have an overall more balanced “palate.”
This graph from the book gives you an idea:
What is fascinating is how Haidt demonstrates that progressives and conservatives emphasize different parts of the same palate.
The upshot is people at both ends of the spectrum tend to regard the other with suspicion, if not disgust, because they do not “taste” things the same way. The progressive tends to interpret things narrowly through the care and fairness grid, whereas the conservative (though not necessarily dismissing those characteristics) gives them less weight than other concerns.
Of course, we have some issues with Haidt’s argument. We realize how the ultimate sources of our division are theological in nature rather than psychological, and (metaphors aside) we would not want to suggest morality is merely a matter of taste. But if we understand Haidt’s findings about morality in terms of the natural law (its “written-on-the-heart-ness”) then there is ample room for us to appreciate his findings. In particular, we have plenty to learn as preachers who are proclaiming God’s Word to His Body in its varied composition of reds, blues, and other hues.
Let me briefly tease out just a couple of preacherly applications from Haidt’s work.
The first one regards the topics and themes you develop in the overall oeuvre of your preaching. The content of our sermons is, of course, normed by the Word of God, first and foremost, with an added check provided by the lectionary. I do not suggest you canonize The Righteous Mind by any means, but it can be helpful as you are planning your messages over a number of weeks to look at the themes you are taking up through the lens of Haidt’s findings. Does it skew consistently in one direction or the other? Is there a preponderance of sermons about Christian liberty or the authority of Scripture, but precious little about the compassion of Christ? Bear in mind the diversity of your hearers in the topics you address, recognizing how the Bible in general and the ministry of Jesus in particular covers the whole range of Haidt’s taste buds.
A second application concerns illustrations. In a sermon last year in which I took up the topic of empathy (already more appealing to folks who lean left, per Haidt’s research), I used the illustration of a sheriff who walked alongside protestors in Flint, Michigan, that were decrying police violence. I was taken aback when afterwards one of my members (a dyed-in-the-wool conservative) was aghast I would invoke a scene that, in his view, demonstrated such disrespect for law and order. We worked it out, but with Haidt’s help I can better understand why the story was received how it was. The point is not that you should avoid using certain illustrations, although as ever discernment is required. The point is you should be cognizant of their potential reception among different “tastes,” and, to the extent you are able, balance them with countervailing anecdotes which will be more palatable to folks whose taste buds vary.
Ultimately, Christ Jesus alone perfectly captures all these aspects of morality. Only He has an unassailable palate, so to speak. Only His heart holds together in equipoise all the facets of the Father’s will, and He alone has a truly “righteous mind.” As preachers, our goal is to form our hearers in this first century Rabbi who is our Savior. How marvelous it is that we have received aid toward this end from, of all people, a twenty-first century secular Jew.