The Decline of Political Empathy and the Role of Religion

in the 2016 Elections

Brian H. Smith

Ripon College

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest American Academy of Religion, Ball State University, March 2 – 4, 2017.


Empath, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the ability to share someone else’s feelings, the capacity to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. It comes from two Greek words, “em” which means in, or part of, and “pathos” which means feelings or pain.

We do not live as isolated beings. We need others. Biologically we do not survive as a species without cooperation and respect for other humans. We live in communities and thereby are able not only to survive but to flourish as individuals. Without some community in our lives we die, physically and spiritually.

No community, however –family, neighborhood, village, city, state, or nation -- can flourish without the capacity to sense and appreciate the feelings, thoughts, and needs of others.

Aristotle taught that we are social beings by nature, and that politics, in fact, is the conversation of citizens in community discussing and seeking the “good life together.”

For these reasons, our polis or political community, like every other community of which we are a part, needs empathy among its members to thrive. This does not mean we always agree, nor always are able to reach a consensus on important public issues. It does mean that we try to understand our fellow citizens, especially those who hold different views from us, regarding what the “good life together” is all about.

If our political community is to flourish, we need empathy -- which involves both an understanding and a respect for the views and experiences of fellow citizens, along with capacity to discuss these civilly. Out of this “empathetic” process of civil dialogue and debate comes a sense that, despite differences of approach over policies, there is a deeper bond as human beings holding citizens together.This is what empathy in politics produces and which makes sound democracy in a pluralistic society possible.

Our heritage as Americans always has been confident that we can meet this minimum standard. Our Pledge Allegiance to the Flag reminds us that “we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Even our money reminds us that “E Pluribus Unum” – out of our diversity comes unity. Empathy in civil society makes this pledge, this hope, possible, because when we practice it together with fellow citizens we sense, feel, believe that what unites us in our differences is stronger than what divides us.

Political Empathy Declinined Severely in the Recent Election Campaign

The 2016 election campaign frayed the deeper bonds of unity among us as citizens and showed we are losing the capacity to feel and understand the experiences of those with whom we disagree politically.

We heard Donald Trump verbally attacking minorities and immigrants and boasting of his disrespect for women. We have heard Hillary Clinton call his supporters losers and claim he does not have the character to be president.

The political commercials on television not only for president but down the ballot as well – senators and state legislators – were filled with disrespect and selective marshalling of facts bordering on out and out distortions. They appeal to the emotions of fear and disgust; they did not promote a rational understanding of issues.

One of the most disturbing things that happened was that facts did not seem to matter in candidate speeches, even when independent organization pointed out the numerous errors in their claims. The distortions and lies by some candidates and their propaganda machines continued blithely along bombarding live audiences and media messages with distortions of the truth without shame or hesitation even when proven to be wrong. We have subsequently learned that some of these distortions also came from abroad from persons purposely floating false reports on westies whose source and accuracy Americans could not verify.

Joseph Goebbels the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany in 1941 said:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”1

The phrase “big lie” was also used in a report prepared during the war by the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - predecessor of the CIA - in describing Hitler's own psychological profile:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”2

It is not only that Goebbels and Hitler said these words. They put them into operation by large public rallies and the use of the media to whip crowds and the public into high pitch anger and even hatred.

These words and tactics have an eerie tone for us listening to them over 70 years later. In a different context and in a different time, these same words and tactics have a whiff of truth to them as we listened to the political discourse and watched public reactions during the recent electoral campaign and subsequently. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it …. Never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives’ never accept blame. …”

It would be sad if these kinds of attacks were just the in the domain of the political candidates and their media spin doctors. What is most disturbing is that many Americans bought into these distortions and allowed them to stir up emotions such as anger, fear, and even hatred, boil up in their hearts and actions.

When crowds yelled, “Lock her up!” or even , “Execute her!” When a political commenter in the media announces that if the other candidate wins, “I am getting a musket” When white racists fire bombed a black church in Mississippi and scrawl, “Vote for Trump,” on the wall. When Muslim Americans faced an uptick of physical and verbal abuse in public not seen since the immediate 9/11 days. In New York City alone in the days following the election the number of attacks on persons of color in public increased over 60 %.3 When all of this happens in public, we are in danger of serious disarray as a nation and a loss of political empathy for one another.

Even in private life the ability to understand and respect political differences came apart. Friendships were lost, families were seriously divided. In some families in order to maintain peace relatives could not discuss the election with one another, before and afterwards. Wives and husbands who supported different candidates were living in tense fear and silence with one another.

In 1990 surveys indicated that 20% of Republican parents were opposed to their children marrying a Democrat, and 18% of Democratic parents felt the same reluctance about their offspring marrying a Republican. By 2010, however, 50% of Republican parents said they would not want their children to marry a Democrat and 30 % of Democratic parents showed the same reluctance about their offspring marrying a Republican. In fact, this dramatic uptick in parental reluctance on both sides occurred right after the election of President Obama in 2008.4

As reported by the American Psychological Association (APA), psychiatrists watching these bitter divisions said that about half of adult Americans experienced what they term “electoral stress” and worry that such stress would not automatically subside the day after the election. There are many Americans so worked up emotionally in this election who continue to experience stress and bitter disappointment over the outcome.

In the post-election period president- elect Trump continued his tweet attacks on the media and also questioned the reliability of unanimous intelligence community reports that the Russians disseminated fake news and commentaries on the internet during the campaign. How are Americans to know the truth anymore as such recriminations continue against public sources of information and even our own professional government agents? Indications are that Americans are becoming very bewildered and even cynical about politica facts given all the attempts by political leaders to discredit facts they find disagreeable, and that as a result many Americans are more prone to trust only news reporting that fits their own preconceived political views.5

What does this forebode for us as a nation as we try to move forward, to come together to support our new government leaders, to work for the common good? Will there be any sense of a common good left, or will we be living in different realities feeling we have been cheated by the results and unwilling to believe there are any fundamental values left which unite us? Are we becoming two Americas?

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we have not been so divided as a nation since the eve of the Civil War a century and a half ago.

What Is the Role of Religion Amidst this Decline in Political Empathy?

What is causing such decline in empathy among us?

Perhaps it could be due to the growing confusion and pain many Americans are experiencing with loss of jobs in middle age as corporations move abroad and new jobs require education and training which they do not have? Could it be the rapid cultural changes going on in our society with women needing to become breadwinners in families, grandparents needing to raise children in face of growing parental opioid addiction, the recognition of LGBT rights in so many institutions, the growing coloring of the American populace and the loss of white male power?

It could be a combination of all of these factors. What is clear is that the result is that so many of us due to our own pain and confusion and inability to cope in our personal lives are losing the ability to understand and sympathize with the experiences and feelings of others. We are losing empathy.

Where is religion in this crisis?

All religions teach that there is a presence in every human being of something divine or spiritual that provides a deep bond of unity among us.

The religions of the Book –Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all believe in the same scriptural passage in Genesis 1:26 – “he created them in his image, male and female he created them.” For these traditions what they believe to be God is actually in every human being, and that is why the commandments of Moses were given – to promote respect the sacredness for the life of every person who reveals the divine to us.

Sometimes this is one of the most underemphasized doctrines in Christianity. In my World Religions class recently when discussing Judaism I explained this passage and explained why Jews are so keen on keeping the commandments since an act of disrespect against another person is also blasphemy against God. The looks on the faces of several indicated that it was as if they had never heard this before, although most grew up Lutheran, Catholic, or Evangelical.

Eastern religions teach something very similar. For Hindus who believe in a divine force, Brahman, teach that the human soul is actually a piece of Brahman, and also emphasize the importance of practicing respect towards others ad an encounter with the divine.

Buddhists do not believe in a transcendent divine person or force beyond this world but teach that all living beings – humans, animals, vegetation – share in a spiritual power that unites us all in one sacred reality. When we disrespect or hate others we are actually destroying ourselves.

Native Americans believe the Great Spirit is present everywhere -- in every human, animal, and plant. All creation deserves our reverence, and before we judge another we need to walk a mile in their moccasins. That is practicing empathy.

Confucius taught that the order of heaven was to be realized on earth through ethical behavior, and that if one could not respect humans there was no way one could understand the gods nor have a relationship with them. He actually would be horrified were he to visit our country at this time, and would probably conclude that many of us are practical atheists by our actions, even if professing a belief in God in words.

The vast majority of Americans identify with one of these religions, with 80 % professing to be Christian and about 5% other traditions. Even the 15% today who do not, or no longer, identify with any organized religion mostly characterize themselves as spiritual and try to live moral lives, espousing the same ethical ideals and values taught by the great religions of the world.

Why are these great traditions, religious and humanist, not nurturing empathy in our political discourse today? They have been powerful motivating influences in our past to promote justice and civility – the abolition and temprance movements in the 19th century, the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Why are they not countervailing forces today to oppose the rampant disrespect in our politics and the severe polarization this is stimulating right down to the personal level among those who disagree politically?

Is it because many interpret the separation of church and state to mean we can behave one way in houses of worship and a completely different way in politics? Is it that some believe it is faith alone that saves and behavior has nothing to do with it, so why bother being moral in politics? Is it that greed and hunger for power has overwhelmed any sense of decency among many of us so that religious or humanist values are only skin deep?

Is it partly due to the relative silence of religious and moral leaders in face of public disrespect and hatred, something that did not occur fifty years ago during the civil rights and anti-war movements when clergy were out front in word and deed prophetically reminding us our responsibilities to act justly to one another and stop violence?

I am puzzled by all of this. I know many of those who experience tension in their own families and friendships over politics, and a good number who attend and yell at political rallies, also must be attending houses of worship regularly or occasionally. Statistically this must be a fact. What is going on in churches in face of the stress people are facing in their civic lives? Why are not religious leaders addressing these issues of fear and hatred in their messages, or doing so only in very general ways by saying we always need to love one another with no specific applications to our own context today?

Are the clergy afraid of violating IRS rules about not preaching partisan politics? They are not reluctant to condemn abortion and gay marriage in sermons, why are they reluctant to condemn serious disrespect and sometimes hatred for one another? This is not partisan politics; this is their duty as moral and religious leaders.

Are some pastors perhaps afraid of losing members of their congregations, something Jesus was willing to do to speak the truth even at the risk of his own life?

Some religious leaders did address the moral dangers of severe disrespect bordering on hatred during the recent political campaign. Prominent Evangelical and Catholic leaders criticized Trump’s values, including Max Lucado and Al Mohler.  Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention reminded Trump that the “man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again’.”

Over 100 Evangelical leaders issued a statement during the campaign denouncing the “vulgar message and style” of political rhetoric and the “direct appeal of racial, religious and gender bigotry .. . being brought to painful public light.” They did not endorse any candidate but singled out Donald Trump for special criticism:

The ascendancy of a demagogic candidate and his message, with the angry constituency he is fueling, is a threat to both the values of our faith and the health of our democracy. Donald Trump directly promotes racial and religious bigotry, disrespects the dignity of women, harms civil public discourse, offends moral decency, and seeks to manipulate religion. This is no longer politics as usual, but rather a moral and theological crisis, and thus we are compelled to speak out as faith leaders.6

A group of Catholic lay leaders publicly denounced Trump’s “vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and —demagoguery.”  Even, Pope Francis made it clear that someone who proposes building a wall to keep immigrants out is “not a Christian.”7 

The American Catholic bishops issued moral guidelines for making political choices during the campaign, as they do every four years when presidential elections occur. These principles covered a wide variety of issues from the protection of life for the unborn, concern for the poor and immigrants, renunciation of capital punishment, and protection of the environment. They articulated what they believed to be the moral values underlying all of these issues and appealed to Catholics to consider all of them as they made decisions for whom to vote. They did not tell Catholics for whom to vote, but the thoughtful tone and respect this statement clearly appealed to rational thought and conversation a -- very much in opposition the strong emotional appeals of disrespect and hatred promulgated by political ads and speeches during the campaign.8

Why did not these public statements by prominent Evangelical and Catholic leaders blunt the decline of political empathy during the campaign, or at least make respective members of these denominations reluctant to vote for a candidate such as Donald Trump who was using base emotional appeals, discrimination and distortion of facts to garner votes?

Election results indicated, in fact, that 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump (compared to 78% who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012), and 60% of white Catholics did the same (compared to 59% who voted for Romney in 2012). 9 Hence, despite the very different appeal made by Trump compared to Romney and his blatant distortion of facts, discriminatory behavior toward women, and verbal attacks on Muslims – all of which were contrary to Christian values and strong criticisms by Evangelical and Catholic leaders – the Evangelical and Catholic vote remained as solidly behind this Republican candidate in 2016 as it did behind Romney in 2012.

Reasons Why Religion Not Countering Decline in Political Empathy

Why did not religion make a difference? One explanation is that the strong criticisms of Trump’s rhetoric and behavior by top Christian leaders never filtered down to the pews for churchgoers to hear. Local pastors simply did not include any of these official statements in their Sunday sermons for fear of appearing to take sides and alienate members of their congregations (whom they well knew had conservative political leanings based on past election results).

The custom in Catholic churches during presidential campaigns, for example, is to include the US Catholic Conference’s guideline for making political choices as inserts into Sunday worship bulletins with very little commentary by pastors, thus reducing the effect of these nuanced principles and guidelines on Catholic laity. In some Protestant churches pastors simply urged their congregants to vote according to biblical teachings, without ever applying these to the vicious political campaigns being waged in public.

Another explanation is that when clergy do venture into public policy issues in their sermons they are inclined regularly to focus on one or two issues, such as abortion or gay marriage only, condemining these practices and warning laity not to vote for candidates who are tolerant of them. Rarely do they include protection for the environment, increased efforts to reduce poverty, or respect for immigrants in their homilies.10

This narrow exclusive focus on abortion and gay marriage over time in by clergy shapes Christian lay consciences to believe these are the only moral litmus test for choosing candidates, thus gravitating them to the Republican party regardless of candidates.

My experience in speaking to three different Catholic high schools in the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin (Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Green Bay) during the 2016 election illustrated the power of this argument among juniors and seniors in religion classes, some of whom were old enough to vote in the presidential election. I spoke to approximately 500 juniors and seniors in various classes, in these high schools who were to read the US Catholic Conference guidelines for making a decision in conscience when voting. In my opening presentations I explained the the guidelines indetail and explained that they did not focus only on one or two issues but a whole range affecting the quality of life.

I also explained that when no candidate supports all the values laid out by the bishops -- protection of unborn life, natural death as opposed to euthanasia, helping the poor, respecting immigrants, protecting the environment, and against capital punishment – then a Catholic has to make a decision in conscience as to which of these values they believe is most important. I explained the traditional position in moral theology of having sometimes to choose a “lesser evil” in complex decisions when no perfect decision is possible. I made it clear that saying one is against abortion or gay marriage alone are not enough for a Catholic to choose since most often candidates who run on such promises do not, or cannot, make a difference on these issues once in office. A good decision in conscience, I argued, required wedighing all the moral values in the the bishops’ guidellines before deciding on a candidate, including their positions on captial punishment, government spending to help the poor, fair treatment of illegal immigrants, and government regulations protecting the environment.

I then passed out to all 500 in the several classes a description of two hypothetical candidates running for the same office, with contrasting platforms as follows:


Candidate A’s Platform

Pro-life, against abortion

Pro-capital punishment

Cut govt. spending on welfare programs

Against doctor-assisted suicide

Climate change needs no more govt. regulations – it is not a critical issue

Cut taxes and reduce government bureaucracy

Against civil marriage for LGBT community

Candidate B’s Platform

Pro-choice on abortion

Against capital punishment

More government spending on job training and assistance to poor

More government regulation against air and water pollution

Leave it to states to decide on doctor assisted suicide

Supports civil marriage for LGBT community

I then asked each class to divide into two groups on opposite sides of the room, one group supoprting Candidate A and one group suporting Candidate B. Then I called upon individuals in each group in rotation to give the reasons why they chose the candidate they did on moral grounds. Among the 509 juniors and seniors who participated in this exercise in the three schools approximately 413 chose candidate A. When student supporters of Candidate A spoke up with their reasons almost every time they mentioned that the candidate ws pro-life, and once in a while someone also mentioned that A was also against civil marriage for LGBT persons.

Interestingly, my private conversations with the respective religion teachers (all Catholic laity) before and after these classes all indicated that they personally do not hit the abortion of LGBT issues hard and single moral concerns for Catholics in their teachings but that the parents and churches the students attend by and large emphasize these as the two critical issues for Catholics in political decisions.

Despite the wide range of moral issues Pope Francis has been emphasizing in his letters and talks and the kind of behavior he models in reaching out to the poorest and in strongly supporting efforts to protect the environment, he is not having a significant effect on the thinking of young Catholics in these schools. Moreover, all the nuanced guidelines of the US Catholic bishops for several years is simply not filtering down to these students or their families who are raising them. Many Catholics are still predominantly voters who gravitate to any candidates (overwhelming Republicans) who announce that they are pro life and against marriage rights for gay and lesbians.

More research is needed to explore this hypothesis about Catholic voters and also include Evangelicals to discern to what extent this same narrow moral focus is predominant. It may be that religious messages are affecting the rank file church members, but these are so narrowly focused that the other serious moral challenges during the 2016 elections – including blatant lying and character assassination by candidates – were not even considered as important moral concerns by many Christians.

Glenn Beck -- not normally known for being politically objective -- in an interview on Meet the Press a month ago said something wise: he professed he was really worried about how the new president will be able to govern effectively given the severe polarization in the country. The only hope for coming together after the election, he said, was for reconciliation to begin at the local level.

What is each of us doing? Do we periodically throw “gasoline on the fire” in the way we talk about candidates for office? Do we cluster in political conversations only among like-minded folks who think like we do?

What are we personally and as a fellowship going to do once this election is over to promote reconciliation across political lines? Whether or not my or your candidate wins or loses, are we going to practice empathy – truly find ways to understand and sense the experiences and feelings of those on the other side, and work to restore bonds of mutual respect among one another?

Will we try to understand why some feel so emotional about the elections and where their anger or hatred is coming from? What is the disappointment and pain they are experiencing to smother their rational faculties of reflection? Where is the common ground we can re-establish with them so that we can agree to disagree respectfully and work together to reconstruct civility in our political discourse?

We are doomed to another four years of political stalemate if we do not try to do this, and we all will suffer as a country. Many critical issues facing the nation need to be addressed in the next few years – economic growth with equity, terrorism at home and abroad, immigration reform, community-police relations, protecting the environment. These challenges cannot be engaged effectively unless we as a people come together and let our elected officials know that we want them to work together as we are doing as American citizens.




4 David A. Graham, “Really Would you Let your Daughter Marry a Democrat?, The Atlantic, Sept. 27, 2012.


6Called to Resist: A Statement of Faithful Obedience.” Pope says Trump is ‘not Christian’ for wanting to build a wall on U.S.-Mexico border

7 Robert George and George Weigel, “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics,” National Review, March 7, 2016; “Pope says Trump is ‘not Christian’ for wanting to build a wall on U.S.-Mexico border,” PBS Newshour, Feb. 18, 2016.

8 US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”

9 Gregory A. Smith and Jessica Martinez, “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 9. 2016.

10 A student of mine at Ripon College carried out surveys will all 12 Christian pastors in Ripon on what social justice issues they addressed in sermons, and found that abortion and gay marriage were the only two the clergy felt obligated to address in sermons since they considered poverty, war, the environment, immigration not related to biblical teaching and strictly partisan political. Elizabeth Blum, , “Social Justice from the Pulpit: A Small Town Study.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest American Academy of Religion, Ohio Northern University, April 4-5, 2014.