The connection between white evangelicals and President Donald Trump has become clear since his election. More than 80 percent voted for him and that support remains strong.
But what was it like a year ago? That question I, a UNG professor of rhetoric, sought to answer by analyzing sermons given the Sunday after the election from swing states, those where both candidates won the biggest and, because it mirrors the profile of Trump voters nationwide, churches in Hall County.
In an article soon to be published in a journal called “Sermon Studies,” my study shows of 47 sermons from 14 states plus Washington D.C., about 60 percent mentioned the election. But in Hall, only 3 of 11 mentioned it. Why? The most important reason may be what Riverbend Baptist pastor Mike Dorough argued as he addressed the election before continuing his series on Philippians. He said he hopes the American church would “never be guilty of thinking that our answers are political.”
In another Hall County sermon, the Rev. Peter Wallace of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood described his divided congregation as “elated,” “despondent” and “in shock.” He added the “deep division in our country” and in “our own families ... could make this Thanksgiving very interesting.”
And so we come to Thanksgiving 2017, still divided, perhaps even more so. And still having to break bread with someone whom we love and yet who thinks differently on important issues.
I would like to advise how to talk to someone over the divide. I have people in my extended family whom I will see this holiday who only watch Fox News and think highly of the president. And I have people who watch Rachel Maddow and say unprintable words about the president.
First, we may “win” a battle over turkey and gravy with a witty retort or stronger voice. But that hardly ever persuades. If you are intent on convincing someone on either side of America’s divide that fear and hate won’t get us very far, how might you do that?
A recent survey by Baylor University showed white evangelical Trump supporters favor “emotional truth over fact.” The survey’s director, Baylor professor Paul Froese, said “If the people around you, who you trust and love, say, ‘Don’t believe in evolution,’ or ‘Don’t believe in global warming,’ it doesn’t matter if I can show you scientifically that these things have some basis. It won’t resonate.”
This may sound like a dig against Trump voters. But we all use “emotional truth.” And we get nowhere by dismissing or downplaying the emotions of others. We need to make room in our listening not just for hearing fear and anger in others, but also in ourselves.
Only then may we get to the key element of persuasion: the moment of kairos, an ancient Greek word meaning “best opportunity.” It won’t come by being right all the time or merely throwing facts into the face of emotion. It may only come when we have listened and, to use the old cliché, lived in the shoes of another.