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The Political Brain and the Workings of Whisper Ethics

In the last several essays, I have written about looking at political theology through the lens of whisper ethics. Whisper ethics comes from process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians. To summarize briefly, humans make decisions based upon different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, and hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust, among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity. To be a follower of Jesus is to act on these messages from God. 

As I have also pointed out in the past, every individual has a unique base outlook, a worldview that comes from parental instruction, core adult experiences, genetic inheritance, and a host of psychological factors. It is through this unique worldview that we process the messages of God’s goodness and love. Understanding this worldview is important because it explains how we see the world and act politically. Today I want to examine genetic inheritance in more detail and, more specifically to explore some ideas of how the political brain is formed out of it.

I am a political liberal. Science tells me that approximately fifty percent of my political orientation can be explained by the workings of my genetic inheritance on my political brain. Brain tissue is made up of more than ten billion neurons. These cells are organized into circuits, thousands of miles of them. When neurons become active, they fire an electrical current, which travels along dendrites that function as tiny wires. Synapses are spaces along this highway. There are more than ten trillion of them. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that flood these spaces and function as a bridge. These chemicals slow down, speed up or change the direction of the traveling neurons, which affects how one sees and experiences the world.

High levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are known to lower aggression, as are low levels of the hormone testosterone. High levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are linked to positive emotions and an optimistic view of the world. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that rewards circuits in the brain connected to inhibition and avoidance. People with high levels of norepinephrine organize their lives around preventing unpleasant events from happening. People with low levels seek novel and exciting experiences.

Though my brain has not been tested for neurotransmitter levels, my personality fits the pattern of low levels of testosterone and norepinephrine with contrasting high levels of serotonin and dopamine. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt demonstrates through a series of impressive statistical studies how such a brain chemistry would predispose me toward liberal political values. As I stated above, genetics explains about half of our political orientation. The inheritance of a different brain chemistry would have predisposed me toward a conservative political stance.

The above analysis suggests that our brains create a worldview that affects the way we see politics. This worldview is the product of genetic inheritance, parental messaging, and core adult experiences, among other things. The three factors mentioned in the previous sentence are key ones and result from chance.  They are random. Reroll the cosmic dice as it relates to genetic inheritance, parental socialization, and core adult experiences, and each one of us could see the political world very differently.

This understanding of the human condition humbles me. It tells me that my view of the political world is partial, limited, and imperfect. It tells me I don’t have all the answers. It tells me I have no right to judge. It tells me to listen. It helps me to see my political opponents not as enemies but as fellow travelers.

Such an understanding is not easily achieved. My self-righteous ego screams out that I am right, that my opponents are consumed with self-interest and have no concern for what is good for the country. When I am at my best, however, I search for win/win solutions through dialogue. If you want to get God involved, honest discussion of political issues with people holding wide-ranging perspectives can often produce results. The key is to listen to others with an open mind and a genuine respect for their dignity as human beings. While undergoing such a discussion, you may be amazed at the creative solutions, God’s messaging,  that float through your awareness.

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Dr. Rick Herrick (Ph.D., Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of six published novels and two works of nonfiction. His three latest books are A Christian Foreign Policy, A Man Called Jesus, Jeff’s Journey, and A Second Chance. His musical play, Lighthouse Point, was performed as a fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Herrick is currently retired, living in Bluffton, SC. He is married with three children and seven grandchildren. You can find him at https://rickherrickauthor.com.

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