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RANDY HUFF: On Disagreement, Motive and Dealing With The Issue at Hand

Charity can help avoid the mire of polarization

Amazing how readily we find fault. Steven Covey said we get our “emotional jollies” by pointing out fault in others. I always heard we put others down to lift ourselves up, but this never made sense to me. Not sure why. Likely because I wasn’t asking why I found fault with others. I just did it. If I did ask myself why, the answer would be sure and certain: “I found fault because there was fault to be found.

Why need there be more explanation than that?”

Why indeed?! I’m trying to sort this out because so often it seems we try to explain an action based on motives. And this seems wrong, except it is not.

There’s the old relational wisdom that says we tend to judge ourselves on intent and others on their actions. That is, we excuse ourselves because we mean well and disregard possible good intent when assessing the action of others.

But what can happen when we obsess over motive? We excuse the action and fail to hold the actor accountable. This is a two-edged sword in controversy. I’ll take a public figure as an example and see if I can work this out.

James Dobson served the American public for many years, trying to help us all think better about family and the things that matter most. He had his faults, like all of us, one being his leaning more and more into politics. It made his work more difficult I think but I always assumed he did it because — here comes motive to explain and justify — he felt the political arena could help him further his mission.

During the Clinton Presidency a scandal erupted around the President’s alleged 18-month sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. This sordid affair, mixed with any number of other misdeeds, gave major ammo to his opponents. In the mix of the 1996 Presidential election Dobson and others made the earnest case that this flaw in Clinton’s personal character disqualified him for the presidency. Adultery, with the mitigating factors of doing so in office and with an intern no less, was an offense so egregious one could never vote for Clinton in good conscience. Character matters and we must not compromise.

Fast forward to June of 2015 and one Donald Trump declared himself a candidate for President. Easily half of the electorate couldn’t believe he was serious. But he was serious and because — I assign motive again — he was running as a Republican and at least ostensibly promoted traditional values, the Evangelical mainstream and right embraced him.

Now the fight was on. Trump’s life openly ignored traditional values. Twice divorced, his various escapades in business and family put him in the same broad moral category as Clinton, some would say worse. Granted, Trump did not violate said norms while in the White House, but that’s a small detail in a political scrum.

So in 2016 we had that same voter base – largely Evangelical Christians and social conservatives – deciding they could overlook Trump’s sullied personal life. Character matters, yes. But some things matter more. (Say, policy?)

Many in what we might call the ‘evangelical left,’ saw red: “Dobson and the Evangelical right is just doing this because they want political power!” Or likely more to the point, and more charitably: “Dobson supports Trump because he thinks he is best for the country.” But both deal with motivation, not the fact at hand.

Why, exactly, did Dobson go in for Trump? Not sure. Probably several reasons. And why must we assign motive?

Another axiom says something like this: “Never assign ill will or malice as an explanation when ignorance or sincerity may do.” This seems a minimum of charity. We can surmise motive, and it is deeply human to do so, often very charitable. But why always go there? Why not just observe the action and deal with it?

So how did much of the Evangelical world assess Dobson’s support of Trump? They charged him with gross inconsistency; some even use that overplayed word hypocrisy. “He said character matters for Clinton, he doesn’t think so with Trump. He’s a hypocrite!” Or worse, “He’s a liar!”

Really? Is it possible we just deal with the action and allow that maybe, just maybe, he simply changed his mind? Maybe he overplayed his hand in the mid-90’s and since came to believe he can’t let his moral scruples rule out a candidate with whom he agrees philosophically. Maybe his motive is good in a tortured situation, dealing with multi-layered hierarchy of values. (Ya think?!)

Maybe the comparison between the two candidates is not one-to-one in Dobson’s view. Maybe we should just deal with the facts on the ground and quit assigning motives that allow us to disdain. We have enough trouble knowing our own motives in difficult matters; pray tell how we can know the motives of others? And besides, I thought the great mantra governing all of life was “judge not.”

Dobson was no fan of Clinton, and I can presume he liked Trump for some inverse reasons he disliked Clinton. And Dobson apparently decided he could live with Trump’s character issues regardless of what he had said about Clinton in 1995. Was an explanation in order? Maybe. But I am not sure most would even care. They had already decided his motives were sullied and he was a hypocrite.

There’s a lot of fault to be found: planks and specks and a cruel vortex of exchanging barbs. When we step in that arena we step in quicksand. So we should stop and remember: beside the plank in my eye that keeps me from really seeing the speck in yours, there is a mirror. Find fault if you must, but start with yourself and you’ll find you have enough problems to keep you busy for a lifetime.

Or as a friend is wont to say. “when you point at someone in blame, you have 3 fingers pointing back at you . . .”

Finally, I’ll admit this is about ‘heroes’ and our desperate need for them. Dobson was such a hero and like all heroes – and everyone alive – he had faults. Newsflash: he even made some serious mistakes. But in this world of shocking polarization and devastating loss of friendship due to these kinds of disagreements, I’m trying to hold on. Dobson was one of my heroes and if I can – if the analysis and charity and judgmental habits will stretch far enough – I am going to keep it that way.

I hope my dear friends on all sides can find the grace to do the same with me. And I’m not even a hero.

Randy Huff

Randy Huff and his wife lived for 5 years in Roanoke (Hollins) where they raised 2 sons. Randy served as Dean of Students at a Christian school and then worked in construction. For the last 8 years he has served as pastor of a church in North Pole, Alaska.

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