There are many things that I love about the company I work for, and my job as a human resources manager. One of our core values in particular, which has influenced me far outside of my working environment over the past four years, is the idea that we should always assume positive intent. You may have heard this phrase before. But, I’ve never been in an environment where this principle is not only spoken about on a daily basis, but is also seen as fundamental to every relationship and interaction we have. This holds true for the supervisor/supervisee relationship, between coworkers, and with our clients.
I’m sure we have all worked in environments where this principle would be laughed at. Where conflict usually becomes toxic, and it’s expected that we should trust no one and think the worst of everyone. I’m grateful on a daily basis that I no longer have to suffer through that. Just Googling the phrase “positive intent” will bring you a number of articles laying out the benefits of embodying this principle. I highly recommend that everyone do some research into it if you never have, or are entirely unfamiliar with the idea.
Of course, assuming positive intent doesn’t always bring about the results that we want. Some situations are just tragic. And some people are just assholes. That’s reality. But, the research seems to indicate that this approach has a very high return on investment. Assuming the best about other people is definitely worth the risk of the opposite actually occurring.
With all of this said, I have a sort of confession to make. When it comes to the category of “evangelicals,” I have not done a very good job of assuming the best. I have assumed that all those who claim to be evangelicals, or attend evangelical churches, and so on are deluded. Or intentionally ignorant. Or hateful. Or even evil.
I’m sure that I haven’t done this in every possible situation. If I run into someone I have categorized as an evangelical, I don’t call them names, or make weird faces when they talk, or run away from them. But, in many ways, I have refused to even consider that they might actually have good reasons to think and act the way that they do. I haven’t wanted to admit that they could actually be good, genuine, caring people who I might just happen to disagree with. I haven’t even wanted to hear their side of things.
I’ve told this story a hundred different ways, but I had some pretty bad experiences in evangelical churches and with some specific evangelicals. There is simply no way that I can claim any longer that those experiences have not created filters for me. The reality that I now have visceral triggers against certain phrases, attitudes, groups and experiences is evidence of the fact that who I am today has in some sense been shaped by these negative things. And, that influence may weaken over time, but I doubt it will ever entirely disappear from my identity.
As David Bazan has said, I’m actually still an evangelical: a non-believing, non-practicing evangelical. For better or worse.
Thankfully, despite (or maybe even because of) my “religious trauma,” I can now a little more calmly, a little more rationally, reconsider some of the good motivations and tendencies of who evangelicals can be. I haven’t spent much time reading anything in depth in the last few years. We moved into our current house over three years ago, and I have about a dozen boxes of philosophy and theology books that I haven’t even touched. I just haven’t found any of it interesting enough in a long time to dig them out. But, more recently I’ve had some other experiences that have made it much more difficult to just write off a lot of people.
Of course, I still know and communicate with more than a few people who I would consider evangelicals. Some of my best friends even, and, especially, some family members. It’s become a bit dissonant to make broad sweeping claims about a group to which all of these very real people belong. People for whom my criticisms simply do not apply.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I am not giving evangelicals a pass. I am not saying their ideas or actions shouldn’t be evaluated or, when necessary, criticized. There are some pretty horrible evangelicals. And, many evangelicals hold to some pretty horrible ideas. But, rather than pigeonhole and stereotype, my new hope is to understand.
One of the things that has led me to this point is all of the time I’ve spent watching and listening to The Young Turks. It’s become a bit of an obsession, if I’m honest. I started paying attention to them a few years ago, when I was really trying to figure out where I stood philosophically and politically, and my interest has only multiplied over time. But, it’s almost without fail that any time Christianity in general is brought up, there is a lot of misunderstanding and stereotyping going on. In one sense, I can’t blame them. It doesn’t seem that any of the hosts grew up as evangelicals, and it’s a lot easier to simply equate evangelicalism with “true believer” fundamentalism (a distinction that I think is extremely important). Or, to find the lowest common denominator among all evangelicals, and define every single person and church and so on by the movement’s worst and most ignorant adherents.
On the flipside, I do want to defend The Young Turks. Islamophobia is everywhere, and they do a great job of fighting against that – even against their friends and fellow atheists. I just wish they would apply that same principle of charity toward all religious groups. Of course, all of us can only speak from our own perspective. I’ve never been a Catholic or a Mormon or anything else, so I feel a lot less reactive against any unfair evaluations of those groups.
So, where do I go from here? The main way that I learn and reconsider ideas is to read. And I hope that I will truly listen. Derrida used the language of “fidelity” or “faithfulness” when discussing his first reading of a text. Rather than assume all evangelicals think alike, or are coming from the same perspective, I want to try to understand each person on his or her own terms. Somewhat ironically, I find a principle of biblical hermeneutics to be helpful here: I want to know what someone actually means, rather than allowing my own presuppositions, biases or judgments to neuter a faithful or charitable interpretation. And I want to assume the best about people, rather than imposing any negative experiences I’ve had upon anyone else.
As one of the texts our evangelical friends and family claim as their own says: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” This agnostic’s prayer is that I can follow this simple but sound and sage advice.