In the context of the war in Ukraine, how is it that a conservative Christian and a liberal atheist can agree and work toward the same goal?
A conservative Christian and a liberal atheist walk into a…YouTube interview and discuss their agreement on Ukraine. You could be forgiven for thinking there is little scope for agreement, but you would be wrong. How have they both arrived at the same destination—hosting YouTube channels giving daily geopolitical analyses of the War in Ukraine, with such a strong moral sensibility in defending Ukraine?
Dr. Darin Gerdes is a professor in organizational leadership, having studied at the religious institutions of Liberty University and Regent University, while also being a member of several associations, such as the Christian Business Faculty Association (CBFA). His present obsession concerns the leadership of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is an obsession that I can very much associate with.
I am a liberal atheist with a predilection for global geopolitics and philosophy. I have written a dozen books arguing against the existence of God. I have probably written a host of articles against the sort of position Dr. Gerdes holds or even the sort of person he is!
He is the right to my left, the believer to my lacking.
We have both turned our attentions very firmly in the direction of Ukraine and Russia over the past 6 months or so. Presenting so much content on a daily basis takes a lot of time, research, and will. But why do we both feel this need to talk about this subject? Have our worldviews helped to shape our opinions?
The two of us sat down and discussed our differences, but, more importantly, our commonalities. “We are on very different pages,” said Dr. Gerdes, “but on this we can be unified. I think we make a mistake in society of trying to divide everybody. No, let’s find that ground and unity because on this, on Ukraine…this is very important.”
Republicanism has seen something of a seismic shift over the last six or seven years. Fissures have developed in the American political landscape on the right that have rarely been seen before, with Kevin McCarthy presently setting records in struggling to be elected as Speaker of the House. For so long, unity has been the pipedream of Democrats—attempts to get them rallying around a single vision has been like herding cats. Very obstinate cats.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have traditionally been successful in putting differences aside in order to rally around the electoral flag. But the populist MAGA-Trumpism of the last election cycle has left lasting damage, shaking the foundations of the GOP. In trying to rebuild to move forward, they have felt forced to pander to the ever-louder, once-fringe, hard-right base and lawmakers who represent that base.
The reason this is relevant to the discussion at hand is that this growing section of the GOP have been the ones to decry American military, financial, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Such voters and lawmakers would prefer that money be spent on a border wall with Mexico.
With Gerdes leaning slightly more to the Reagan, perhaps even classic libertarian Republican (though we didn’t get into the long weeds of the details of his social-moral politics), I asked him how he understood this. “As a conservative, I want to control the border to make sure what’s coming in should be coming in. And I’m fine with immigration. Control your border—that’s your job as a government,” he explains. “But it’s not the number 1 item. Conservatives are ‘Yeah, it’s important,’ whereas populists are ‘This is crazy-important, this is number 1!'”
He continues that for the liberal priority, it’s far lower down the list. But that difference between the different factions of the GOP leads them to be at odds with each other over how best to spend government money. Thus it is not so much about the fact that the money and policy are being directed toward Ukraine, per see, but that it is being directed toward something other than the very top of their priority list.
“If it was my highest priority, I would perhaps see it that way too. But my answer is that we don’t want to start World War 3. Keep Putin from becoming Hitler. The greatest service we can do to Putin is to stop him here. Hitler said that if he was stopped in the Sudetenland, he would have stopped. That’s why this is important, stop Putin here.”
For both of us, this is a high-stakes game, but a game where all the outcomes are bad and involve untold amounts of suffering and death, and whose ripples of ramification can be felt the world over. “Game” is perhaps an inappropriate word to use, then.
As well as being interested in where divergent worldviews can lead us, I have always been fascinated by how we come to our views in the first place. Sadly, philosophy is somewhat impotent without the accompanying psychology.
In this context, I was interested in seeing whether our core moral characters, our political psychologies, were fundamentally at play here, rather than whether or not we believe in God, and the additional philosophy or theology that might be appended to that proposition.
It is my opinion that political psychology is more fundamental that our religious adherence (and, indeed, that other physiological causal variables can be at play that are even more fundamental). In this way, the idea of church shopping can be brought to the fore. This is the idea, becoming more and more prominent in the US, that if one’s church doesn’t accord with one’s political identity, then something interesting happens: One changes church.
Rather than one’s religious faith being fundamental, and requiring that political views adapt to one’s theology, it is the other way around: Religious views tend to adapt to political ideologies. Americans, at least, have a habit of leaving a church if its political persuasion does not fit. They will shop around to find a church that does fit.
Dr. Gerdes wasn’t so convinced. “You talk about ‘church shopping’—I wouldn’t call it that, although I do call denominations ‘franchises’ because it’s actually a really good term for it,” he tells me. But for faith and psychology, “They both impact each other.”
When I ask him more explicitly whether or not it is his faith worldview that has got him so interested in Ukraine, he answers, “Yes, it has!” He goes on to give an anecdote of studying the Nazis for his thesis, which took its toll on him. He didn’t want to make the same mistake twice so he decided to study the American Founding Fathers’ assumptions of leadership during the constitutional convention.
“When I got to my doctoral dissertation, I spent my time with the American Founding Fathers. They had a very clear understanding of theology, a much clearer understanding than the general population has today. And one of these things,” he goes on to simplify, “is that there are bad people out there. Now you can call it a Calvinistic something-or-other, but bad people exist. There are bad people doing bad things to innocent Ukrainians today. Bad people exist. So that’s how I filter and come at this: there is right and there is wrong and I can see that very clearly.”
Of course, there is much to debate in these ideas, but the key comes next. “To my mind,” adds Dr. Gerdes, “I feel like I would come to it more naturally than you would given that I can deduce this much more readily, I think, where you have to inductively come to it.”
In another discussion, in a different environment, this would have been red rag to a bull—a right old moral ding-dong.
However, my response, and this was building on my feeling that (political and moral) psychology is fundamental, was that we are both probably operating psychologically as we humans tend to post hoc rationalize our psycho-moral intuitions. This occurs in the same way that we do “automatic evaluation” when looking at a painting in a gallery within 30 seconds of seeing it. When asked why we like it, we expend a lot of mental, rational energy creating the ideas to support our initial intuition after the fact.
Now, there is much debate as to whether such rationalizations are “correct” and succeed in properly justifying the position, but there is certainly a lot of heavy lifting that our non-conscious brains do.
Now, this could go a long way to explaining why we can come so strongly to the same conclusion: Perhaps our core moral psychologies aren’t so far apart. After watching many of Dr. Gerdes’s videos and speaking to him, part of me speculates. Had he not been born to a very fundamentalist church family of elders, and to a highly religious community, perhaps to parents and a situation like mine, he might have had the requisite biology to produce a completely different worldview.
Much of my own obsession with Ukraine is borne out of a strong sense of fairness. This came up as we were discussing the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt. A sense of fairness is one of the key components to a politically liberal person’s moral psychology. I’m not so interested in otherisation, in building up small in-groups to ostracize those outside, in tradition and purity. And it definitely felt like there was an element of this in Dr. Gerdes in much of what he said.
But that’s a whole dollop of potentially dangerously inaccurate armchair psychoanalysis—call it an intuition, if you will.
At the end of the day, it might not really matter how we got to the same destination, the important point is that we are both there. And we have a stronger, more tuneful voice when singing together from the same song sheet in harmony.
Indeed, in the context of the subject, this was something we discussed with regard to the former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A hero in Ukraine for doing all the right things by them, he got to the right destination, though we might question quite how he got there. We could suggest that Ukraine was his political safe space given his tanking domestic platform and public persona at the time—strength abroad to overcome a weakness at home. Or he could have genuinely believed all the right things about the geopolitical landscape. Or both.
It’s not that this scenario is a direct analog to either of ours: I don’t think for a second that either of us are pathological liars who would say anything to appropriate leverage and power. No, the point is that it doesn’t matter about how we have arrived at our conclusions concerning Ukraine. Whether as a point of theology—a product of core psychological identity, or through humanistic philosophy—we are at the right place, working hard to make the right waves in the hope that we can do our bit to make the world a better, safer place for us all.
Putin’s imperialistic conquest is an existential threat to the world, but given the possibility of it falling off the news cycles and political radars as the story competes with all the other challenges in our lives, it makes sense to reach across the aisle and shake hands. Better still, to put our hands together toward some useful work.
(Perhaps, at this point, you’d hear Dr. Gerdes shout a hearty “Amen!”)
Jonathan MS Pearce can be found giving two daily reports on the Ukraine War at ATP Geopolitics on YouTube, and Dr. Darin Gerdes (with his own take reviewing the relevant news and considering issues of leadership) at WAR IN UKRAINE: Professor Gerdes Reviews the News.