The Role of Critical Thinking in Democracy

Photo by Shelagh Murphy | Unsplash
Photo by Shelagh Murphy | Unsplash

A Trump supporter vented on social media that she couldn’t comprehend why some Americans place culpability for the Capitol riots on Trump supporters who weren’t physically present for the insurrection. Yet Trump consistently demonstrated his dangerous lack of understanding and respect for democratic ideals throughout his candidacies and presidency. The citizens of this nation who voted for Trump granted him the power and platform he used to incite the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol.


After the election was called for Biden, a former co-worker of mine commented on an ABC News story about President-Elect Biden to state he “is NOT the president-elect” and that the Office of the President-Elect isn’t real. But Biden was indeed the president-elect. And I am confident this individual didn’t complain when Trump was at a podium with an “Office of the President-Elect” insignia four years ago.


Shortly before the November 2020 election, a teacher from a local Christian preschool posted on social media that a Trump sign was stolen from her yard. This made her wonder about the “character and integrity of Biden supporters.” Many affirmed her sentiments. None considered the hypocrisy of passing moral judgment on a neighborhood sign stealer while supporting a presidential candidate who had consistently demonstrated a lack of character and integrity.


I spent my 20s and 30s towing the ideological line as a member of the Republican Party and evangelical church. In the past five years, I have shed the GOP, the white American brand of evangelical Christianity, a patriarchal worldview, and some toxic relationships. I have reflected at length regarding why, at forty years old, I began to see the world through such different eyes. I have also wondered why those still identified with the groups and ideologies I have shed seem so unwilling or unable to see truths that are now so glaringly obvious to me.


I have had the privilege of teaching communication and first-year writing courses at two local institutions of higher education. The curriculum included teaching logical fallacies, common ways that individuals draw illogical conclusions due to faulty logic. The courses also included rhetorical analysis, which analyzes persuasive writing or speaking to unpack the communicator’s purpose, intended audience, and credibility. Most higher education institutions require some form of study of rhetorical analysis and logic because these are tools that allow individuals to engage in critical thinking, and critical thinking allows one to separate truth from falsehood.


I have perseverated on why 74 million Trump voters fail to appreciate the threat Donald Trump has posed to our democracy since his first primary candidacy in 2016, and I have concluded that a terrifying number of citizens of the United States cannot (or will not) apply critical thinking to their politics.


Evangelicals comprise a substantial portion of the 70 million Trump voters. From 1996-2014, I served on staffs of multiple churches in various denominations. In my experience, critical thinking is neither affirmed nor rewarded by the culture of the church. For evangelicals, failure to employ critical thinking in politics mirrors an approach to religion or theology that often does not value critical thought.


Critical thinking exposes lies, hypocrisy, inequalities, race, gender, sexual orientation discrimination, and more. Rather than using emotion and confirmation bias to draw conclusions, reliance on tools like logic, reason, and rhetorical analysis to draw political and religious conclusions requires an acknowledgment that you have likely participated in lies that have harmed yourself and others. It’s a hard pill to swallow, which demands ample humility and courage.


Originally, I intended to suggest that I had “defected from” and “abandoned” the GOP, white American evangelical culture, etc. as opposed to “shedding” them. However, just as snakes shed their skin in order to allow for growth and to remove parasites, I have done the same. This process accurately describes my experience as I have employed substantially more critical thinking in my worldview these past five years.


Rejecting flawed logic has yielded tremendous personal growth and has allowed me to shed the parasites of disrespect, manipulation, gender inequality, and covert racism.  What I previously thought of as righteously “standing firm” in my worldview was in many ways a commitment to reject logic and reason that might broaden or change that worldview. Resistance to an evolving worldview was encouraged by institutions, groups, and individuals that benefited from my failure to apply critical thinking.


To be clear, I have not pledged myself to the Democratic Party in place of the GOP, and I have not abandoned my faith in my rejection of white American Christianity. Instead, I have realized that a worldview that does not stand up to an examination through the lens of critical thought is not a worldview that is based on truth. And the truth is a central tenet of both the Christian faith and democratic form of government. This, therefore, makes truth a vital component in the construction of one’s political and religious worldview, particularly one that includes democracy and/or Christianity.


Tragically, a tremendous number of our citizens, including political and religious leaders, do not think critically. This lack of critical thinking has led to horrific consequences for our nation.


We have failed to properly address a deadly pandemic in large part because individuals with no medical background and little medical knowledge think they know more than medical experts backed with scientific evidence.


We see videos, again and again, showing law enforcement officers killing unarmed Black men and yet continue to deny the systemic racism that is thoroughly documented, evident, and rampant in our institutions and society.


Swing states have counted, recounted, certified, and defended their election results in court dozens of times with no evidence of widespread election fraud, and yet, millions of our citizens still believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump.


We must do better. Our political and religious leaders must examine themselves, adjust their rhetoric, and then engage their constituents and congregants in difficult and honest conversations. Our education system must make critical thinking the top pedagogical priority. We must examine and educate ourselves, then commit to a rigorous application of critical thinking – adjusting our worldview accordingly. And finally, we must do everything in our power to help our fellow Americans embrace and apply critical thinking to their lives. The future of our democracy depends upon it.


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