By Callid Keefe-Perry
I’ve come to think about the present political and social moment from a perspective informed by public theology. That is, though my own Christian Quaker faith is a large lens through which I see and speak of the world, it is more important than ever that what I think and say isn’t just for me and mine. In this moment — for reasons to do with in-process ecological disaster, global immigrations crises, and national structures of racism — it seems vital to engage across difference for the sake of the public good.
Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s “public philosophy,” John Rawls’ philosophical “public reason,” and Jürgen Habermas’ sociological “communicative rationality” are frequently cited in academic scholarship about public theology and all assume that we need to pay attention to making sure what we say is accessible even to those who don’t believe the same things we do. In Linell Cady’s Religion, Theology, and American Public Life, she writes that a public theology seeks to contribute to the “upbuilding of public life” in a way that “refuses to remain confined to the private sphere.” To put it simply, scholars say that for a public theology to be “public” it must be approachable and reasoned-through by any rational and reasonable person regardless of their own faith commitments (or lack thereof). But it is exactly this mandate for “reasonable-ness” that I have begun to wonder about, especially as I’ve been thinking about what our theologies suggest we actually do in the world.
An Era of Post-Truth?
While public theology has largely championed the importance of rational discourse and civil dialogue, increasing chunks of society seem to be making decisions that fly in the face of rationalism and data as traditionally understood. Oxford Dictionaries give “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” and report that in 2016 the usage of the term was up more than 2,000%. This shift as it has been related to government has been called the rise of “post-truth politics” and it is most frequently associated with the UK’s Brexit vote and the US campaign and presidential strategies of Donald Trump.
For example, during the first presidential debate on September 26, Hillary Clinton regularly chided Trump on his claims and references. Politifact, an independent journalism project, calculated that as of today, more than 65% of Trump’s public statements were either “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire false.” At one point in the debate Clinton said, “I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume” and at another, “please, fact-checkers, get to work.” In response to this, Trump supporter and CNN commentator, Jeffrey Lord, referred to fact-checking as “an out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing,” adding that “people out in America don’t care.” He might be right.
Among his supporters, Trump’s image is as a “straight shooter” who “tells it like it is.” An early CNN report focused on the perceptions of Trump supporters and characterized their collective sentiment as “he says what he means. I honestly believe he’s telling the truth.”
On Sept. 9, 2016 The New York Times ran a piece by Paul Krugman. In it he characterized Donald Trump’s approach as “the big liar technique.” He wrote,
Taken one at a time, his lies are medium-size — not trivial, but mostly not rising to the level of blood libel. But the lies are constant, coming in a steady torrent, and are never acknowledged, simply repeated. He evidently believes that this strategy will keep the news media flummoxed, unable to believe, or at least say openly, that the candidate of a major party lies that much.
What’s worse, this problem is broader than just the U.S.
In a June 3, 2016 interview, Michael Gove, the UK’s justice secretary and a leader of the pro-Brexit campaign, said that the British people “have had enough of experts.” Similar tensions have emerged in Germany with the re- popularization of the “Lügenpresse” phrase to denote what in the US has been called “fake news” by President Trump. The rise of such tensions led The Economist to publish an article posing the argument that if things continue as they have been “the power of truth as a tool for solving society’s problems could be lastingly reduced.” For me, this raises the question of how powerful a tool truth actually is in this moment— especially in the “just the facts ma’am” kind of way.
What I want to explore is that more than we’d like to admit, what counts as “accessible” and as the basis for decision-making is distinctly that which is not rational. If that’s the case, then it is futile to continue insisting on the publicly reasoned nature of shared discourse as the essential component of public discourse. Put another way, if we want to to be in conversations accessible across multiple groups and we want to be persuasive across disciplines and faith-traditions, then rationality alone is currently insufficient.
So Then What?
Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.
— Hannah Arendt
While I think it is unwise to wholly abandon fact-checking and the pursuit of truth, I also feel like it is naïve to presume that the hunt for rational public discourse will suddenly begin to yield successes. I believe that something vital is lost when attention is paid to the rational at the exclusion of the affective, storied, experiential, and embodied.
Fixation on the need to filter communication and argument so that “just the data” remains is a problematic position. As Catholic theologian Rosemary Carbine puts it, we must accept that the way in which our theology interacts with the world “has less to do with influencing debate in a not-quite-so-shared community of rational discourse and more to do with fostering an array of practices… rooted in relationality and performativity in ways that beckon us to live — and live into — our full humanity in community.” Carbine calls us, in other words, to a way of being together that communicates in a manner that is less hung up on “being objective” and far more concerned with the experience of what is, especially when that experience is of the members of our society most regularly marginalized.
Though I’ll admit it is not a particularly popular tact to argue for Donald Trump as challenging the modernist addiction to mainlining Reason, I do think there is something to it. Is he doing it on purpose? I would be wildly surprised. But it seems to have worked and — at least to some degree — is still working. What I want to suggest is that part of what has brought success to pro-Brexit advocates, the Trump presidential campaign and administration, and Germany’s AfD party is that they are refusing to play by the rules of engagement which presume the importance of rational, accessible, public debate.
One possible response to this refusal is to decry the ways in which they are flaunting tradition and failing to uphold principles of fair debate that we all thought we had agreed were important. Meanwhile, however, the flaunting and failing will continue unchecked.
Should media name lies as lies? Yes. Should journalists interrogate and push back on press secretaries? Undoubtedly. Are post-truth politicians purposely lying to suit their own agendas? Much of the time, yes, I think so. But perhaps the why of it; part of the reason it works, is not just because of the appeal of their position or policy, but because it is aesthetically different. What they are doing feels different.
I think the time has come to consider that to the extent that the rise of the post-truth era exists, it has come about at least partly because the way dominant Western society has agreed that public discourse is supposed to occur has precluded and excluded the possibility of any real positive affirmation of affective, experiential, and embodied ways of knowing. What purveyors of post-truth politics are doing is benefiting from rhetoric that sounds unlike most current systems of communication and discourse. What I’m thinking is that there are also other ways of doing that which do not disregard facts and which do not disproportionately benefit extant and traditional centers of power. Feminists, womanists, Queer theorists, and scholars and artists of many marginalized stripes have been saying this for years. Maybe now, when other tactics are working less than usual, is a time when other folks will tune in.
If we are going to engage in organizing with an eye toward Jesus we ought to remember he debated rarely and told stories often. There are many reasons to enact change, and we should be sure we know them. But it is the conversion of the heart that turns MOABs to plowshares. Combatting lies with facts just doesn’t work as well as we might wish. In this season especially, I hope we can begin to at least consider the possibility that unquestioned service to rationalism may have gotten us as far as it can go.
Callid Keefe-Perry is a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and travels in the ministry within and beyond that denomination as a teacher and consultant. He serves as the executive chairperson of the Association for Theopoetics Research and Exploration and is the author of Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer. His work is at the intersection of imaginative and creative practices and their connection to pedagogy and spiritual formation. He is on Twitter @CallidKP.