[Published as “Divisions Based on Perceptions”]

Last November’s elections confirmed the existence of major rifts in our social and public life. Many commentators think that religious and especially moral values constitute the great divide. Some talk of a divide between the religious right and the secular left. This characterization of our cultural landscape is bothersome. It distorts and obscures much more than it clarifies.

For one thing, surveys continue to show that 95-98% of all Americans affirm belief in God, however understood. Clearly, patterns of difference exist in how people are religious (e.g., how often they attend worship services), but the split cannot possibly reflect simply whether people are religious or not. Nor are we so sharply divided over basic moral values as we are often led to believe.

The protracted public debate over abortion illustrates the pitfalls of red-blue thinking. The way this debate has been cast, one might suppose it is a conflict between those who value life and those who value choice. Could anything be more wrong? Do you know anyone who does not value life? Or anyone who does not value freedom of choice, for that matter? I cannot recall ever being anything but staunchly pro-life and pro-choice. The struggle over abortion reflects 1) disagreements over where and to what extent these values are at stake, and 2) differences over how to reconcile these (and perhaps other) sometimes competing values.

To understand our current cultural divide we must grasp that we are divided above all by our beliefs, including our beliefs about our values and where those values are at stake. How do we come by these beliefs? Are they sound or valid? Are they informed by the facts? Is there any basis for dialogue, discussion, or debate about these beliefs?

I can only speak for myself, but my basic moral values have not changed much over the course of my adult life. However, my beliefs about the world and about those values, how they matter, and where they are most at stake, have changed considerably. As a result, I have changed and my politics have also changed.

Consider my thesis: The so-called culture wars, and the deep divide in our body politic, are chiefly a manifestation of differences in what we believe about our world. We disagree about what is really going on. We are divided largely according to our differing perceptions of the truth.

How we come by these differences is a question for another occasion. If I am correct, however, there are clear implications here for anyone who holds a public trust. To address the differences that divide us, and to accomplish whatever reconciliation may be possible, public officials, the media, clergy, anyone who cares about our life together, must attend more closely to the actual facts and realities of our circumstances. Uniformity of belief on important matters is impossible, but increasingly divergent perceptions of the truth will continue to fracture our society. We need politicians and public officials who will resist the temptation to lead and legislate based on perceptions rather than facts and realities. We need news media that assume critical, informative, investigative roles in “telling it like it is” rather than simply reporting what others have to say. “Fair and balanced” is not fair if it fails to do justice to the truth. An enormous educational task confronts us all.

Did Saddam Hussein pose a threat to America? Did he have ties with Al Qaeda? Is Social Security in crisis? How can terrorism be effectively countered? Would gay marriage undermine heterosexual marriage and the family? Will permanent tax cuts benefit our economy? What harm will cuts in services do? Do budget deficits pose a threat and burden to our children? Are our civil liberties being jeopardized by the Patriot Act and other government security measures? Are we safer today that we were on September 11, 2001?

We have widely divergent beliefs about all these and many other matters. Implicit in these questions, however, are truth claims and questions--claims and questions about facts and realities. These truth claims and questions deserve our closest attention. Let’s not be falsely divided. We hold most of our values in common. But our perceptions of the truth divide us. Uncritically held beliefs, especially when rooted in political ideologies and religious dogmas, are highly resistant to change. But all perspectives are not equally valid. All opinions are not equal. Mistaken perceptions must be challenged and corrected in light of what is really happening in our world. It’s time to get real.

Copyright 2005 by Byron C. Bangert