Why does it seem that otherwise intelligent people lose all sense of consistency when election time rolls around? How can people live by stringent core values only to apparently throw them out the window when the time comes to choose and defend a candidate? Believe it or not, it is completely predictable using basic psychology, and its effect is on full display this year.
Let me begin with a word of warning. If you aren’t careful, you could easily fall into the very trap I am describing, while you are reading this blog. Chances are, you will come across something that grates at your very core and makes you want to click the close button to quickly move on while discarding this blog as irrelevant. I challenge you to read all the way to the end and then decide if you are truly being consistent in your judgement.
Before getting to the brain science, let’s take a look at some popular examples. This year many people have expressed shock and amazement that otherwise staunch Evangelical Christians have become enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump. At no time, has this apparent discontinuity been more on display than the evidence of his inappropriate language and accusations of sexual misconduct. Many outside of the Christian camp have asked how Christians could defend such behavior.
The phenomena is not limited to Christians who lean Republican. It was also on full display with Democrat leaning Christians in 2008 and 2012. Many appeared to completely ignore Barack Obama’s stands on same-sex marriage and abortion while enthusiastically elevating him as an ideal Christian role-model – even though their beliefs in these areas were diametrically opposite. Had a Republican or Green Party candidate promoted these issues, they certainly would have been used as political fodder against that candidate.
While some might argue that other issues are more important, it is possible that this argument is more a symptom than a legitimate retort. The true cause of the apparent dichotomy may well be Cognitive Dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance is a mental stress or uneasiness that occurs when a person struggles with conflicting behaviors, beliefs or values.
Imagine Fred. Fred believes that eating fat greasy food makes you a fat greasy dude, and shortens your life. Meanwhile, Fred makes a living managing a fast-food restaurant and eats large portions of fat greasy food daily. Because Fred believes that the food he cooks and eats is bad for his health, but continues eating it anyway, he experiences mental distress from these conflicting beliefs and behaviors.
While the most obvious answer would be for Fred to change his behavior and stop eating so much fat greasy food, human behavior is seldom that simple. Instead, Fred will likely choose a different approach to alleviating his conflict:
Fred may unconsciously altar his belief system. He may tell himself that eating fat greasy food isn’t really that bad, or that he doesn’t really eat that much fat greasy food.
Fred may qualify or justify his behavior by adding a new variable into the mix. For example, he may tell himself, “Fat greasy food isn’t good for me, but I took a walk around the block and ate a salad so it all balances out.”
Fred may trivialize the inconsistency by simply telling himself, “something has to kill me,” or “I don’t really care,” or “those scientists are always getting stuff wrong.”
These same choices are in play in the mind of voters whose candidates do not live up to the voter’s value system. Most evangelical Christians have not changed their mind about the seriousness of sexual assault or slander, but they are so opposed to the policies and views of the other candidate that they feel they have to justify their support. Some may respond by saying, “It was just locker room talk. It was bad, but we are all sinners saved by grace.” Others may add to the mix, “What he did was wrong, but what Clinton did was a lot worse.” Still others trivialize the candidate’s actions and say, “It’s not really important.”
One problem with all three approaches is that they minimize the seriousness of the issues and marginalize victims. Christian sisters who have experienced the sin of sexual assault may feel abandoned by those who are intended by God to be supportive family. Another problem is that when we unconsciously succumb to any of these justifications, we are operating on auto-pilot and abandon clear-minded decision making.
The Bible provides this warning:
Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. (James 1:6-8 NLT)
So, once we understand the challenge of Cognitive Dissonance and face our mental conflicts head-on, what do we do next?
First of all, we should be honest with ourselves and others about the short-comings of the candidates, while granting Godly grace where appropriate. We should pray for all our leaders and ask God to reveal His perfect will to them.
Secondly, we should recognize that a vote for particular candidate does NOT necessitate the surrender of our values. We should choose what we believe is the best possible future based on God’s Word and our honest evaluation of where each candidate would take our nation, based on their platform and history.
Thirdly, we should continue to actively and intentionally promote the values that we believe God supports. In a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the most important voice comes from the people.
Finally, don’t limit your newfound understanding of how your brain functions to politics. Be on the lookout for other areas of your life where you may be duplicitous and honestly assess and respond to the inconsistencies.