Benefit of the Doubt

The United States is splitting down the middle, becoming increasingly polarized between young and old, democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives.

A Pew Research study done in 2014 has empirically demonstrated just this. According to its findings, the share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades—meaning those in the middle listening to both sides has diminished. Partisan antipathy has risen amongst Republicans from 17% to 43% and amongst Democrats from 16% to 38%. About six-in-ten consistent conservatives and five-in-ten consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views, thus further insulating them to their side. Today, 39% of Americans currently take an equal number of liberal and conservative positions, down from 49% in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2004. And to end the study, Pew Research explained that the most ideologically oriented Americans (those who are further to one side or another) make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process—in summary: the gap is widening.

Amidst all this division, there are undoubtedly hopes for unity. It is the hope of all people that strife will fall to the wayside as people choose harmony.  Yet while it is our duty to maintain this hope, it is crucial at this point that we learn how to cooperate in this era of radicalization. The deep seeded division is already present, and we have no choice but to live in it for the time being. And so as a way to “make the best of it,” I offer Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding.


Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl was a professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, and he is best known for his work in Jewish-Christian dialogues. In 1985, he laid out in a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden, in response to opposition to the building of a temple there by the Church of Latter-day Saints, his three rules of religious understanding—they are as follows:

    1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
    2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
    3. Leave room for “holy envy.”

For the most part, Stendahl’s rules are pretty self-explanatory. The first one is merely an academic reworking of the Golden Rule—ask those who you would want to explain your own faith/ideology. In doing this, we avoid the pearl-clutching responses of alienation and vilification. His second, similar, rule asks that we assess fairly—not taking the most outlandish, and maybe not even the majority belief, but taking the other ideology’s best. The third rule is perhaps the most cryptic, but the holy envy of which Stendahl speaks is simply a willingness to hear the elements of another faith and wish that they might be manifested in your own.

Of course the three rules are concerned with religion—and are of particular interest to the discussion a few weeks ago—but I think they can be made relevant to a number of situations—to religion or politics or any ideology. And when they are generalized in this way, Stendahl’s rules are not some sort of bleeding-heart dream, but are the most fundamental requirements for civilized discourse. And while the case could be made that it doesn’t apply to this current political cycle, I would contend that when one adopts these three rules, to give the benefit of the doubt, that our understanding of our fellow men and women will reach new horizons and we will see that understanding is the primary tool in loving one another.

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