SEPTEMBER 12, 2020
FOR WHITE LIBERALS, the greatest intellectual challenge of Donald Trump’s election is not the revisionist task of explaining his aberrational and short-term rise to power. The uglier but more important task is taking an honest inventory of just how many layers of self-deception were necessary for his victory to come as a surprise.
John W. Compton’s The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors will become an immediate classic in American political and religious history precisely because it invites readers down that disquieting path in such detail.
He takes apart a popular myth of the rise of the Religious Right: that it emerged in the 1970s as a response to a Democratic Party that had veered to the left on moral issues such as feminism and abortion rights. This story serves both sides: for liberals, it confirms their suspicion that post-Reagan Republicans are fundamentally reactionary in their ideology; for conservatives, this narrative strengthens their case that the culture wars of recent decades were initiated by radical left-wing activists, and that conservatives have simply been defending themselves from this persecution ever since.
Compton’s most enduring contribution will be debunking this story once and for all. The End of Empathy puts to rest any doubt that white Protestants and evangelicals were equally if not more involved in social justice politics before the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Conservative and libertarian business activists in the early to mid-20th century worked relentlessly — with mixed success — to infiltrate and subdue progressive mainline Protestant institutions into endorsing laissez-faire economic policies, and subsequently selling such politics to their congregants. Central among them was conservative philanthropist J. Howard Pew, who used his business connections to procure a seat on the board of the left-leaning National Council of Churches with the overt intent of stifling its liberal theological publications for pastors.
The single greatest victory of conservative activists such as Pew and Billy Graham was to persuade Americans that religious leaders should simply stay out of politics and focus on spiritual issues. This position of quietism has now become a hallmark within evangelical circles, where the idea of preaching about an explicitly political matter from the pulpit is seen as divisive or sacrilegious. The aging demographics and waning social capital of white Protestant churches in the 1960s allowed conservatives, who were unable to muzzle liberalism on theological grounds to instead silence mainline religious institutions on political matters.
The full effect of this long game paid off in the wake of the Civil Rights era, when conservatives used the “prophetic silence” to turn white Protestants against any religious institutions that persisted in advocating for racial justice.
The End of Empathy unearths a mountain of empirical data to support some of the darker truths that many liberals have been reluctant to accept about the rightward trend of American Protestant and evangelical institutions. The Religious Right did not arise as an inevitable correction to a leftward trending Democratic Party; it hijacked white Protestantism from its own progressive leadership, thereby creating a theological vacuum ripe for the Republican Party to exploit with white disaffected voters. Through rigorous polling data, Compton shows that moral concerns such as abortion were essentially non-issues for the Moral Majority until as late as 1988. This means that such moral grievances were only used retrospectively to defend Republican opposition to Civil Rights legislation.
It would be easy to misread The End of Empathy as offering a vision of Obama- and Hilary-Clinton-voting Democrats as political actors of principle, while white evangelicals who have been co-opted by authoritarianism are fundamentally selfish. The title of this work seems to suggest as much. But it also requires attention to the most unnecessarily misleading detail of his project: empathy itself.
The End of Empathy is not a book about empathy — at least not on any explicit level. Compton references empathy in a scant five places. He actually means one of two things: “tolerance” or “costly forms of political behavior.” As a researcher of empathy who also teaches the political and religious function of the phenomenon, I have come to terms with the fact that most English speakers are content to use “empathy” and “empathetic” as surrogates for “kindness” and “kind.” While Compton functionally uses empathy in place of what social scientists refer to as “prosocial behavior,” empathy is more accurately the psychological phenomenon of taking the perspective of others.
The source of the common confusion between these meanings for empathy comes from the notion that perspective taking — “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” — often serves as the foundation for tolerant and prosocial behavior. But, as psychiatrists have been explaining since even before the Civil Rights era, perspective taking is an inherently morally neutral process. This means it can be used as much for prosocial behavior as for selfish exploitation.
You can be both empathetic and terribly cruel in the same moment. Emotional abusers and sociopaths are often highly skilled in cognitive empathy, enabling them to anticipate the needs of others for the sake of gaslighting, triangulation, and worse. The ancient military wisdom to “know your enemy” is, at its core, a call to empathy.
The reason why The End of Empathy may wrongly appear to be a liberal indulgence is that taking its insights seriously may feel to some like an uncharitable reading of one’s conservative opponents. Anyone who has, like me, spent countless hours trying compassionately to understand what “true” or “core” reasons motivated 81 percent of evangelicals to vote for Trump will understand this reservation. As horrifying as it may be to accept that tens of millions of white Protestants and evangelicals voted for a man who bragged about habitually sexually assaulting women and who campaigned openly on white supremacist promises, it can feel somehow worse to forfeit the possibility of finding a more noble justification for their behavior.
The End of Empathy ultimately avoids liberal wish fulfillment by revealing how historically misinformed it is to fantasize about saving Trump’s evangelical supporters from themselves. In this way, Compton’s project, though not itself a text about empathy, nonetheless offers a vehicle for political empathy in the more substantive sense.
White progressives thus face the same empathy trap today that they did during the Civil Rights era: without understanding that empathy includes prophetic resistance to harm, the liberal Protestant adage supposedly coined by John Watson to “be kind, for every person you meet is fighting a hard battle” becomes the perfect nihilistic ammunition to destroy all ethical responsibility at the altar of political expediency.
This paradoxically means that the costliest political behavior required of white Protestants right now is to disavow the desire to be seen by others as empathetic. While empathy remains a powerful tool, it becomes nothing more than justification for white civility if it is not used as spiritual fuel for protecting one’s vulnerable neighbors. To relinquish solidarity with oppressed Black, Brown, and Indigenous people because of bad-faith political accusations of incivility would be the true end of empathy.
Peter Capretto is assistant professor of Pastoral Care in Religion and Culture at Phillips Theological Seminary, and co-editor of Trauma and Transcendence: Suffering and the Limits of Theory (Fordham University Press, 2018).