By Bruce Ashford
Recently, the Pew Research Center published a study demonstrating Americans have difficulty distinguishing between fact and opinion. Only 26 percent of adults correctly identified five factual statements as such, and only 35 percent were able to do the same for five opinion statements.
The research also found we’re significantly more likely to consider something “factual” rather than “opinion” when it favors the narrative of our preferred political party or confirms a pre-existing bias.
This news is unsurprising, considering that, during the 2016 election cycle, Americans gradually became aware of the phenomenon of “Fake News.”
A number of websites plagiarized the look of mainstream media outlets in order to spread patently false stories. Social media often blurs the line between facts and opinions, allowing opinion-masquerading-as-fact to be instantaneously accessible and potentially viral.
As ministry leaders, we want to help our people distinguish between fact and opinion, and between true and false. After all, we’re in the business of truth-telling and wisdom-cultivation and, for that reason, we want the people to whom we minister to be wise, discerning, and truthful.
Toward that end, we can help our people by placing a high value on truth-finding and wisdom-cultivation in our own approach to politics and public life. In so doing, we can model for our people what it looks like to be a truth-oriented people in a fake news era.
As I outline in Letters to an American Christian, together with our people, we must soak ourselves in Scripture, which alone provides the true story of the whole world. And at the same time, we must take three other actions:
We must reject fake facts in order to restore “reality-based” politics.
When the term “fake news” emerged several years ago, it referred primarily to websites that adopted the look of mainstream media outlets in order spread patently false stories. Since then, however, the use of the term has expanded to include any media outlet, news article, or political commentary whose interpretation of the facts differs from one’s own.
In a recent YouGov poll, 43 percent of Americans say they’ve personally used the term “fake news” to describe something. People on both sides of an issue often claim the other side is creating fake news. In fact, some people believe the term “fake news” doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Regardless, one thing is clear: Americans need to get back to reality-based politics. That goes for media outlets, politicians, opinion writers, and everyday citizens. We must not only refuse to spread patently false stories, but also resist the temptation to misrepresent our opponents in order to gain a “P.R. advantage” or score a short-term political victory.
We must reject cynicism in order to restore trust in one another.
The existence of patently false stories and fake news websites, compounded by the deluge of accusations about fake news, has a disorienting effect. What’s more, it fosters an atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust. Unless we find a way out of the morass of cynicism and mistrust, our nation may never recover.
How can we restore trust? We can’t control whether the radio talkers, cable news pundits, or politicians will make a positive contribution.
What we can control is the way we—everyday citizens—carry ourselves in public. We can control what we say and how we say it, in coffee shop conversations, parent-teacher meetings, water-cooler breaks, and neighborhood get-togethers.
“Where cynicism and irony rule,” James K. A. Smith writes, “the web of trust is torn. But trust can be rebuilt by all sorts of small-scale but cumulative efforts—in churches, schools, neighborhoods, families, unions, for example. The encouraging thing is that the rebuilding of trust doesn’t need the state to get started. Reweaving webs of trust doesn’t require government permission or programs, even if those might later contribute.”
We must reject political correctness in order to restore public civility.
When we find ourselves disoriented by the sheer volume of lies and misinformation, and when we live in a society characterized by cynicism and mistrust, it’s easy to become one of the “bad guys” ourselves. We are tempted to demonize, degrade, and misrepresent people on the other side of the political aisle.
Not so long ago, the term “politically correct” was used to discourage lies, inaccurate stereotypes, and degrading language. These days, however, “political correctness” more often signals deference to progressive social norms that often conflict with our religious and political beliefs.
What we need is not political correctness but civility. Whereas today’s political correctness often demands social conformity at the expense of personal beliefs, civility encourages us to articulate our beliefs, but to do so in a way that respects the dignity and decency of other persons.
Civil citizens are smart enough, strong enough, and patriotic enough to make their political points without having to take the low road.
Together, we can make the public square healthier again.
Change doesn’t always come from the top down. Often it starts at the grassroots level, with church leaders and everyday Christians rather than with national political leaders or television pundits. And when it comes to restoring reality-based politics, social trust, and public civility, we as church leaders must be at the front of the campaign.
We can restore “reality-based” politics by watching more than one cable news network, or reading more than one newspaper, so that we can better see both sides of a matter.
We restore trust in our own neighborhoods and communities by listening to people we may disagree with politically, and then speaking our minds in ways that are firm but civil.
As evangelicals, we should have as much motivation as anybody else. After all, we are the ones who the Apostle Paul instructed to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Let’s resist the temptation to ignore either parts of that command: the truth-speaking or the genuine concern for the other person.
If we speak the truth in love, and if that becomes a hallmark of evangelical political activism, we can play a more significant role in making the public square healthy again.
BRUCE ASHFORD (@BruceAshford) is Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of five books, including Letters to an American Christian. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter and as a regular contributor at Fox News Opinion and bruceashford.net.