I didn’t set out to do a political blog, so I’m not going to deal with all the dimensions of Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47% here. As much as possible, I want to set aside the content to see what we can learn about leadership from his mistakes. (I’m sure that those on both sides of the aisle can agree that as far as political blunders go, this was a big one.) Unfortunately, as I look at the thought process behind the comments, I see errors I make all the time.
First is the tendency to impute motives to opponents without checking the validity of our assumptions. For Governor Romney, that meant taking a valid statistic – that 47% pay no income taxes – and using it as a springboard to the conclusion that the same 47% a) will vote for his opponent, b) perceive themselves as victims, and c) are dependent on government. These kinds of unfair, sweeping generalizations are not far from any of us whenever we open our mouths to say, “You know what your problem is?”
It’s easy for leaders to get stuck in the thinking that our opponents are fatally flawed. We perceive that they argue against our self-evident wisdom because they are selfish, or immoral, or just too stubborn to change. In the church, we see this in conversations around human sexuality, worship, spending priorities, and all the questions around how best to reform our institutions. We make the mistake of assuming that we understand the nature of the opposition – either because it seems to fit a familiar pattern or because we’ve had some conversations with a few people and assume they stand for all. The problem is, they do not.
In the local church, if we’re willing to invest the time and energy in relating to our opponents, we sometimes learn that there is deep emotional content to their complaints. Our opposition is not monolithic. People start out being against our ideas for all kinds of reasons, most of them very personal. I think it’s only when people realize that they are no longer seen as individuals but a bloc that they begin to react as a bloc. Partisanship begets partisanship. If your opposition has developed the trappings of a bloc and you’re relating to them that way, change your approach. Try talking to them one-on-one. Listening may not change their minds, but it may begin to re-humanize them for you, so that in your mind they are no longer part of the 47%. I’ve found that having my own attitude changed is often a victory in itself.
Re-humanizing our opponents is important, because it can save us from overreaction. I have some sympathy both for Governor Romney and President Obama. As thick-skinned as politicians try to be, it has to be incredibly difficult knowing that every day, half the country is talking about you in unfavorable terms. It feels very personal and usually is. I hope the opposition you face isn’t at 47%, but even at 10%, the constant drip-drip-drip of criticism is maddening. It’s an incredible challenge to be unemotional and see opposition as a natural part of the process of change. Both advocates for change and preservers of tradition have a role to play. We have to remember that. If we don’t, we’re likely to react to our opposition from an irrational place of anger and hurt. That anger might take the form of a public exchange we’d rather take back, or it might slip out as frustrated exclamation in a room of like-minded people. The problem there is – and you can ask Mitt about this – not everyone in the room is as like-minded as we think they are.
I’m not sure where Romney goes from here. It is, of course, possible to be elected president by 51% of the people, or even 50.1%. But leaders in the church don’t have the luxury of functioning that way. It’s not possible to be pastor to only 53 out of the 100 people in worship (unless you’ve set a goal of having only 53 in worship). So somehow we’re going to have to learn to lead the 47%.
Next time you’re faced with opposition, talk with your opponents and then pray over this question: Even though I don’t agree, can I understand why they would hold the positions they hold?
Until we can understand what’s at stake for the opposition, we’ll never learn to lead the 47%.