"It Doesn't Help to Call Them Bigots"
Reflections on "12 Years a Slave" and "The Invention of Wings": The Stories We Tell About Saviors

Think the Best

As I made clear in this blog years ago, I am no fan of the signature book of Howard County's Choose Civility campaign--"Choosing Civility" by Johns Hopkins professor P. M. Forni.  In general, I don't think lists of "rules" of behavior are a helpful way to build civil community.  Rules about public behavior encourage us to supervise each other and to notice when someone around us has broken a rule.  The rules on Forni's list that are helpful are the ones that encourage us to turn a watchful eye on ourselves, monitoring some of the interior conversation that will inevitably shape our external actions.  Forni's most helpful rule, in my opinion, is #3:  Think the best.  

Forni is doing more than suggesting people should be avoid cynicism and cultivate a kind of optimism about human behavior.  This "rule" is actually a strategy for calling others to better behavior.  Forni writes, "When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that."  He continues:

Even outside the classroom I expect that everyone I meet will turn out to be good rather than bad. I have felt this way all of my life. What I find exciting in a new acquaintance is the thought: Maybe I'm making a discovery here; maybe someone entering my life who is nice. That's what gives me joy: the possibility of goodness. I appreciate exceptional intelligence, I can be changed by beauty, and I am intrigued by charisma. But I will be moved by goodness. Of course I am aware that not all those I meet can be paragons of goodness. Still, my bet with myself is that they will be nice to me. I think of my goodwill as an unspoken challenge to them and envision that our lives will be made better by our interaction.

Forni's advice came back to mind last week when I read the summary of the Public Religion Research Institute's massive new survey called, "A Shifting Landscape:  A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues".  Much of what the survey found confirmed what I already knew.  But one finding in the survey really surprised me:

Even though most polls since 2012 have shown a majority of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, only about one-third (34%) of the public believe that most Americans favor same-sex marriage. Nearly half (49%) of the public incorrectly believe that most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and roughly 1-in-10 (9%) believe the country is divided on the issue.

Regular churchgoers (those who attend at least once or twice a month), particularly those who belong to religious groups that are supportive of same-sex marriage, are likely to over- estimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.

  • „„About 6-in-10 (59%) white mainline Protestants believe their fellow congregants are mostly opposed to same-sex marriage. However, among white mainline Protestants who attend church regularly, only 36% oppose allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry while a majority (57%) actually favor this policy.
  • Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Catholics believe that most of their fellow congregants are opposed to same-sex marriage. However, Catholics who regularly attend church are in fact divided on the issue (50% favor, 45% oppose).

To summarize, people believe that the country is less accepting of gay and Lesbian people than they actually are.  This is especially true within religious communities.  Note that this is NOT about people outside of churches guessing that the people inside of the church are more judgmental than they really are--that I understand.  This is about people who are part of a particular church assuming that the other people in the church are a whole lot more judgmental than they really are.  

When it comes to the people we go to church with, many of us do not think the best.

Forni argues that when we think the best of the people around us, it invites those people to fulfil our expectations of them.  I wonder if the inverse is true?  If we assume that the people around us are judgmental and unaccepting of difference, perhaps we are less likely to share our opinions or to inquire about theirs.  We don't speak up when we hear an ignorant comment because we assume that everyone will attack us if we do.  We may even say judgmental things ourselves, just to conform to what we think the people around us believe.

The good news in the results of this survey is that it would be quite easy for mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to increase the level of acceptance of gay and Lesbian people in their congregations (which of course they should since that's What Jesus Would Do).  They just need to encourage people to talk to each other.  

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