How many of us have felt dismay over a friend or family member’s stubborn resistance to our arguments or evidence showing (we believe) that Donald Trump is (or isn’t) making America great again, or that immigrants are (or aren’t) a threat to our way of life? Sometimes, it seems, people just stubbornly resist change.
Recently, however, I’ve also been struck by the pliability of the human mind. We are adaptive creatures, with malleable minds.
Over time, the power of social influence is remarkable. Generations change. And attitudes change. They follow our behavior, adjust to our tribal norms, or simply become informed by education.
The power of social influence appears in current attitudes toward free trade, as the moderate-conservative columnist David Brooks illustrates: “As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade. Now they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.”
Those who love history can point out many other such shifts. After Pearl Harbor, Japan and Japanese people became, in many American minds surveyed by Gallup, untrustworthy and disliked. But then after the war, they soon transformed into our “intelligent, hard-working, self-disciplined, resourceful allies.” Likewise, Germans across two wars were hated then admired then hated again then once again admired.
Or consider within thin slices of recent human history the transformational changes in our thinking about race, gender, and sexual orientation:
- Race. In 1958, only 4 percent of Americans approved of “marriage between Blacks and Whites.” In 2013, 87 percent approved.
- Gender. In 1967, two-thirds of first-year American college students agreed that “the activities of married women are best confined to the home and family.” Today, the question, which would offend many, is no longer asked.
- Gay marriage. In Gallup surveys, same-sex marriage—approved by only 27 percent of Americans in 1996—is now welcomed by nearly two-thirds.
Consider also, from within the evangelical culture that I know well, the astonishing results of two Public Religion Research Institute polls. The first, in 2011, asked voters if “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Only 30 percent of White evangelical Protestants agreed. By July of 2017, with President Trump in office, 70 percent of White evangelicals said they would be willing to separate public and personal conduct.
An April 22, 2018, Doonesbury satirized this “head-spinning reversal” (quoting the pollster). A cartoon pastor announces to his congregation the revised definition of sin:
“To clarify, we now condone the following conduct: lewdness, vulgarity, profanity, adultery, and sexual assault. Exemptions to Christian values also include greed, bullying, conspiring, boasting, lying, cheating, sloth, envy, wrath, gluttony, and pride. Others TBA. Lastly we’re willing to overlook biblical illiteracy, church nonattendance, and no credible sign of faith.”
In a recent essay, I reflected (as a person of faith) on the shift among self-described “evangelicals”: The great temptation is to invoke “God” to justify one’s politics. “Piety is the mask,” observed William James.
This tendency to make God in our own image was strikingly evident in a provocative study by social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his colleagues. Most people, they reported, believe that God agrees with whatever they believe. No surprise there. But consider: When the researchers persuaded people to change their minds about affirmative action or the death penalty, the people then assumed that God now believed their new view. As I am, the thinking goes, so is God.
But the mind is malleable in both directions. Many one-time evangelicals—for whom evangelicalism historically has meant a “good news” message of God’s accepting grace—are now changing their identity in the age of Trump (with Trump’s support having been greatest among “evangelicals” who are religiously inactive—and for whom the term has been co-opted to mean “cultural right”). Despite my roots in evangelicalism, I now disavow the mutated label (not wanting to be associated with the right’s intolerance toward gays and Muslims). Many others, such as the moderate Republican writer Peter Wehner, are similarly repulsed by the right-wing takeover of evangelicalism and disavowing today’s tarnished evangelical brand.
Times change, and with it our minds.