How Not to be a Sectarian: Ten (Not So) Easy Practices

David Lipscomb, late 19th century southern radical, farmer, publisher, and educator, once said:

“A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party does not hold or that will injure the strength and popularity of his party.  The partisan takes it for granted everything his party holds is right, and everything the other party holds is wrong and to be opposed….  He sees no good in the other party.  He sees no wrong in his own party…”

I happen to be sitting, while I’m writing these words, in a building on land that formerly comprised Mr. Lipscomb’s farm. These words often echo in my mind, especially in these days of increased social hostility and rhetorical entrenchment. I wonder: if Dante were living today, would he have had to envision an eighth circle of hell for talk radio hosts, majority and minority party congressional leaders, or Russians who manipulate Facebook ad's?

There are, obviously, points at which boundaries must be drawn and convictions honored. But how does the natural tendency of human groupings to protect its own through mechanisms of group-think not devolve into self-satisfied priggery? How does the rightful setting of communal and moral boundaries not devolve into moralism and blind ignorance? 

We educators too often, and rather naively, assume that the answer is ever new exposure to facts. But a widely discussed study at the University of Michigan found in the last decade that political partisans, when presented with contravening facts, leads to a hardening of the original position. Brendan Nyhan, political scientist and lead researcher on the study, summarized: “the general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.” “Cognitive dissonance”—the “backfire” which we experience when we encounter some reality that stands in tension with our presumptions—is painful. So, digging in our heels, when faced with contrary facts, says Nyhan, is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”⁠[1]

I would encourage you to think, then, that the problem of the increased social hostility we are witnessing today is first a moral one, and only subsequently an intellectual problem. That is, if we are not to be self-satisfied, self-righteous partisans, unwilling to entertain the possibility of good in other parties, we must develop a certain kind of character. The avoidance of sectarianism is not first and foremost a matter of intellect. It is a question of character. When you see a thorough-going sectarian who always repeats the party-line, you likely are witnessing a coward (because it takes courage to face the back-fire of cognitive dissonance) who lacks integrity (because it takes truthfulness to acknowledge we may be wrong). 

Since moral formation is always a matter of practice, what might be some practices that could foster a non-sectarian character? 

Here is a list of ten possibilities, which I would challenge you to practice. These are hard practices, which would foster a character that will not be inclined to sectarian partisanship.

1. Apologize any time you have the opportunity. We all know the people who can’t apologize. You don’t want to be that person. When you take advantage of every good opportunity to apologize, without excuses or self-justifying qualifications, you begin to realize that you can be wrong and the world will not come to an end. It may be time for us to refuse to elect politicians or honor leaders who do not know how to apologize. We've all screwed up, and screwed up royally at various times in our lives. Let's not play games. Let's acknowledge our wrongs when we commit them. 

2. Admit past wrongs, even if you’ve already made them right. Last night before falling asleep, my wife and I were reminiscing about old friends from another city where we lived decades ago. One friend came to my mind, and with that memory the pain of cognitive dissonance: I once lied to this friend. Ten years after the lie, my wrong still on my conscience, I wrote him a letter to make amends. Last night, twenty-plus years after the initial moral failing, it occurred to me that I had never told my wife about this. All the desire to protect my image rushed in to keep me quiet. But my better inner voice would not relent: “Tell her now.” It was good to do so. 

3. Read a book. Better, read three. Are you a young-earth creationist and absolutely sure of it, but you’ve never read the likes of Finding Darwin’s God (by a Catholic biologist) or The Language of God (by evangelical Christian Francis Collins, who also happens to have been the head of the non-profit human genome project, and is currently the head of the NIH)? Are you a self-styled liberal who looks down your nose at Evangelicals because you’re absolutely sure they’ve never thought critically about a social issue, but you’ve never read Ed Larson’s Pulitzer-prize winning book Summer for the Gods (which shows how arch-fundamentalist Wm Jennings Bryan critiqued the ideological teaching of the theory of evolution because he feared its horrific implications when played out in free-market economics and militant-nationalism)? Then read a book, or three. If you don’t know of good books to read, ask around to find a fair-minded, even-keeled college professor who teaches in the area you’re interested in, and write them an email and ask them to suggest accessible books or articles from a variety of perspectives. (And yes, believe it or not, there are partisan college professors, too.) (And: the sort of anti-intellectualism that parades as piety, good Lord, deliver us from this. It is a seedbed of religious sectarianism full of enough manure to grow a partisanship with the deepest of roots.)

4. Read authors who transcend partisan categorization. In other words, read Wendell Berry, or Walter Brueggemann, or Howard Thurman, or WEB DuBois: each of them writers, in whom you can find all manner of “liberal,” while chock full of “conservative.” 

5. Make a game of arguing a position with which you fundamentally disagree. If you’re a student, write your next term paper with a thesis with which you personally disagree, and then do your best to make an A on your paper. If you’re a mom or a dad, pose this as a game at the dinner table, and start with some issue that does not carry much emotional freight in the family. Let the one who makes the best argument have a reprieve from clearing the table or loading the dishwasher.

6. Make friends of people who are not like you. Learn to love people with whom you fundamentally disagree about things that are really important to you. If you can be in a church or synagogue or mosque or Rotary Club with people of sharply diverse viewpoints, you are blessed indeed.

7. Are you conflict-averse? and find yourself with someone stating a position with which you strongly disagree? Practice saying: “Hmm. You know, I see it differently.” 

8. Are you conflict-avid? and find yourself with someone stating a position with which you strongly disagree? Practice saying: “Hmm. Tell me more about that.” Then say nothing else, unless the person asks you what you think.

9. Realize that we all use language and social practices and intellectual constructs a-critically. In other words, we don’t typically think critically about what we think and do and say unless someone challenges us. Consequently, if the “truth sets us free,” and if we wish to be free people, then we need other people to challenge us. We need others who see the world differently in order to help us see ourselves truthfully. Because we use language a-critically, we do not have the capacity, all by our self-satisfied lonesome, to see ourselves fully or truly. Becoming more truthful is therefore, necessarily, a communal and cross-cultural endeavor. A few examples: I’ve learned better what it means to be a Christian—for good and for ill—because I’ve spent time reading the Qur’an and talking to well-educated Muslims. I’ve learned better what it means to be an American—for good and for ill—because I’ve had the opportunity of lengthy stays in Nairobi, or London, or Santiago, Chile.

10. Celebrate the too rare instances of non-partisan partisans. For example: If you’re a Republican, find Republicans who don’t always tow the party line, and pay attention to them. Same for Democrats. (Like David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, two fine men who know how to disagree with one another about important things and still respect and honor one another.)

Practice some of these. Your non-sectarian soul will later thank you. 


[1] See


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