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Pastor Rob Schenck, a nationally known born-again Christian leader of the religious right, has gone through a political conversion totally different from the way most of us deal with our political world today.
On the surface, he seems the least likely kind of person to do this.
He was, in his own words, self-righteous in his belief that what he was doing, including the use of aborted fetuses as props and seeing abortion doctors as murderers, was God’s work.
For years Schenck was at the forefront of the most militant of the anti-abortion movement. He was a crucial link between the religious right and the Republican Party as well as a spiritual and political guide for many national politicians.
Then he did a rare thing in our political world. He changed his mind.
Schenck did not simply change some of his core beliefs. He also, again in his words, “began to listen with an open heart to everyone — including those I had considered my ‘enemies.’”
As he reframed his identity and changed his politics, Schenck went from being at the heart of the religious right to being isolated, even ostracized, by it. Then he wrote a book about it: “Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love.”
How’s that kind of heart opening and willingness to be isolated going in your own life?
Probably not well because, as Liliana Mason shows in her book, “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” in our polarized environment being pure means being secure.
Doing what Schenck has done makes most people emotionally uncomfortable because it threatens their group identity.
Politics is now at the center of not just our partisanship but of our overall group identity, and there are only two groups — yours and the enemy.
Some of this is Psychology 101. People search for information, ideas and social cues that support what they believe. It is in our makeup, a basic finding of political psychology. You know, cognitive dissonance.
What has changed is that social polarization now so completely reinforces political polarization. There are now far fewer things that cut across the groups and mediate this behavior.
We have sorted ourselves into two basic, very different groups.
Liberals and conservatives are polarized on the basis of their race, where they want to live, religious practices, and what they watch on TV. They are also less willing to accept someone with opposing views as part of their families.
Opening up your heart or considering other viewpoints is not a simple matter of willpower. Something pretty dramatic, even frightening, has to happen to make this feasible or desirable. It is more like a religious conversion.
Social and political merge in everyday life.
“At a dinner party today,” Mason writes, “talking about politics is increasingly also talking about religion and race.”
Each side stereotypes the other, dismisses their validity.
Your own group is pure. Your out-group is a bunch of untrustworthy moral and political polluters. No use talking to them.
It feels good to think this way. We are buoyed and encouraged by the anger and resentment that our views of our opponents create. Nailing our opponents and stigmatizing them makes us happy.
So opening up your heart or considering other viewpoints is not a simple matter of willpower. Something pretty dramatic, even frightening, has to happen to make this feasible or desirable. It is more like a religious conversion than simply changing your mind.
Today, Schenck remains a committed Christian but very different kind. He is no longer affiliated with evangelical organizations. He worships elsewhere.
Now he gets his most profound spiritual guidance from the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose ideas are anathema to the religious right but a great source of influence for another anathema, Barack Obama.
Schenk has left the Republican Party. He has become a strong public advocate of gun control.
He continues to be anti-abortion, but not longer associates with the more militant wings of that movement and no longer stigmatizes pro-choice people as “the enemy.”
What made this conversion possible? Risk, reassessment and reaffirmation.
First, the pastor was always a seeker and a religious risk-taker. Conversion was nothing new. When he was a teenager, despite his father’s strong disapproval, Schenck converted to Christianity from Judaism.
In fact, the pastor describes his life as a series of conversions.
Second, despite his commitment to political pastoring, he regularly encountered competing or cross-cutting influences.
Schenk constantly had recurring strong, private doubts about what his political activism was doing to his family.
His wife, also a committed Christian, decided that she wanted to complete a college degree, and then go to the West Coast for graduate school. Many of Schenck’s colleagues considered this un-Christian.
After much misgiving, he agreed to be in a documentary about the religious right and guns. The filmmaker, with whom he spent many hours, was a secular gun control advocate who had had an abortion.
So at various times in his life, and with much pain, he decided to consider rather than withdraw from ideas that made his life less “pure.”
Third, though his Christianity was the basis of his activism, his theology also gave him a comfortable alternative language to use to redefine his evolving life.
He began to see his politically active clergy compatriots as “belligerent warrior priests” who distorted the gospel for political purposes and cared more about short-term political gain.
“Winning political and ideological contests,” he said, “had become far more important than winning lost souls.”
He became a gun control advocate when he began to see the religious right’s fervent enthusiasm about guns as a form of “political idolatry.”
He decided to go to a graduate school of religion where he had a chance to study Bonhoeffer, whose view of grace and universal humanity gave Schenck a new religious framework as well as a new set of institutions and individuals to replace his former colleagues and supporters.
I am not trying to make Rob Schenck into any kind of hero or to excuse him for any past behavior.
And I certainly don’t want to conclude with some well-meaning kumbaya pap about tolerance and respect for others.
Schenck’s story, in my eyes, is important because it indicates just how hard it is to change what we believe and what we do — to go from a set of beliefs and relationships that are totally comforting and energizing to something different and risky in a society that is so socially polarized.
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