I just watched the Saddleback Forum in which Rick Warren asked Barack Obama and John McCain about their beliefs and policies. Both candidates reminded me again how blessed America is in this election to have two such excellent candidates. Over the twenty years that I’ve followed politics, our elections have consistently featured a pair of self-serving, corporate-funded liars whose noblest ideas involve the personal acquisition of power and wealth. This year we finally have two genuinely good-hearted, intelligent, capable leaders from which to choose. The Saddleback Forum solidified that impression.
McCain seemed to come out stronger in the forum. He generally answered more quickly than Obama did, with little to none of Obama’s humming and hawing. He had a rich repertoire of highly compelling anecdotes to draw from. His policies were mostly agreeable to the conservative Christian audience he was addressing.
Most interestingly, his answers were far more decisive. Asking about abortion, Warren asked, “When do human rights begin?” McCain responded instantly: “At the moment of conception.” Obama, in contrast, gave a much more cautious answer stressing the difficulties of drawing a hard line. Warren asked whether evil exists and whether we should ignore it, contain it, negotiate with it, or defeat it. McCain never hesitated. “Defeat it.” Obama affirmed that evil existed, then gave a considered, careful answer that stressed we should “confront it.” If decisiveness is what we want in a President, McCain won the day.
And doubtless many Christians and older voters believe he did. Decisiveness, after all, is a crucial quality for any leader.
And yet many younger voters—including many conservative Christians—will find Obama’s careful, sometimes ambiguous answers equally or even more compelling than McCain’s decisive, no-nonsense answers. What I want to explain now—in careful but unambiguous terms—is why it is reasonable to be attracted to Obama’s careful ambiguity.
In order to make my explanation useful I want to frame it in terms of two ways of thinking: divergent and convergent. Whenever anyone makes any decision, these two kinds of thinking are at work. The difference in the way my generation sees McCain and Obama is, to a large extent, the difference between these two ways of thinking.
Divergent thinking is what enables you to consider a wide variety of answers. It allows you to break down answers into their components parts and rebuild them in new and synthetic ways. Divergent thinking is the voice of uncertainty.
Convergent thinking is what enables you to make clear, practical decisions. It allows you to weed through the haze of ambiguity that clouds any decision to find the one key answer that you believe in. Convergent thinking is the voice of certainty.
For example, you’re thinking about where to eat supper. There are thousands of potential answers. You could go to a fancy restaurant. You could go to any of dozens of fast-food joints. You could cook something at home. Grab a microwavable meal at the gas station. Order pizza. Show up at a friend’s house unannounced. Those are the “stock” answers. Then you’ve got the synthetic answers: Pick up food from a fancy restaurant but take it home to eat it. Grab a microwavable meal and take it to a friend’s house.
The more skillful you are at divergent thinking, the more options you’ll be able to think of. But ultimately you have to narrow down those options, and to do that you have to use convergent thinking.
Both convergent and divergent thinking are “Good Things.” It’s not as if one is practical and the other is artsy-fartsy: both are necessary for skillful living. The person who makes snap decisions about everything—who is, in other words, highly convergent—will often miss important options that a little contemplation could have uncovered. The person who considers every question deeply and avoids drawing sharp lines will often fail to make any decision and allow opportunities to pass by.
If you think I’m about to say that McCain is a convergent thinker whereas Obama is a divergent thinker, you are converging your thinking too quickly. These men are not as simple as that. Both candidates are smart and experienced enough to have learned a lot about making good decisions. McCain’s creativity can be seen in his willingness to oppose his own party on many issues and his choice of Sarah Palin as runningmate. Obama’s decisiveness can be seen in his consistent stance on Iraq and his effectiveness in defeating Hilary Clinton. Both convergent and divergent thinking are necessary for good leadership and both men have shown they can do both kinds of thinking.
What I’m actually about to say is this. My generation is very cautious about excessively convergent thinking. There is such a thing as excessively divergent thinking—consider the hippy generation, for instance—but in the last several years we’ve discovered some of the horrors of excessively convergent thinking, and we are anxious to avoid past mistakes.
Let’s consider again Rick Warren’s question about evil. Imagine you’re a Christian Presidential candidate before a Christian audience and I’m asking you, “Does evil exist? If it does, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it?”
What I hope you’ll notice about each candidate’s answer is that neither candidate got this question remotely correct. Not from the Christian point of view, they didn’t. Both gave answers that were wildly divergent from what Jesus Christ taught about evil. Obama said that we see evil in our city streets and in child abuse. McCain said we see evil in Osama Bin Laden and that he would hunt him down “to the gates of Hell”—a rather interesting answer if we’re thinking in Christian terms.
The Christian answer is terribly easy to express: a single thumb pointed at the chest. Who is evil? I am. What do I do about it? Ask Jesus to wash it away.
Well both men admitted they were imperfect and had made mistakes. They both talked about sin. But when asked about evil, they didn’t point to their chests. They pointed to the exploiters of the weak and disadvantaged (stock Democratic answer) and around the globe (stock Republican answer).
Both answers are insufficient. Both answers, taken to their extreme, are dangerous and—indeed—evil. And here’s what older generations need to understand about my generation. In our time, we have not seen Obama’s answer taken to the extreme. Welfare is not killing America. Democratic spending on government aid programs is not filling us with terror. In our time, McCain’s answer has been taken to the extreme. Out-of-control wars, out-of-control military spending, out-of-control corporations, and an out-of-control intelligence community are filling my generation with terror.
When McCain says, “Defeat it!” without hesitation, our minds pass over the travails and uncertainties of the Iraq War and we think, “Hold on a minute. Was Iraq really an evil regime in any kind of unique way? Isn’t preemptive invasion of a sovereign country evil? Isn’t torture evil? Isn’t thumbing our nose at the international community evil?”
And now as I ask these things, perhaps you’re thinking, “Ah, this is one of those anti-war soft-touch guys.” Well, no—you’ve converged too quickly. I’m not against the war. I’m not exactly for it. I’m confused by it. I’m still processing it. My thoughts remain in a divergent state. And that’s just where I think they should remain. Because the situation is too complicated for a firm, decisive, no-questions-asked sort of answer.
If you were raised in the aftermath of Nazism, during the trauma of Stalinism and the long boil of the Cold War, you were raised thinking in terms of them=evil / us=good. This is the kind of thinking that Bush invoked when sending “war criminals” to Guantanomo without trial and when rallying America to invade Iraq. After the fear and anger of 9/11 this kind of thinking seemed good again to many Americans.
But the Patriot Act and Abu Ghraib and Enron and domestic wiretapping and Halliburton and waterboarding and Katrina and the mortgage crisis and a thousand other villainies have brought many Americans to believe what Christians should have proclaimed all along.
Who is the evil one? I am. That’s the Christian answer. We are evil—whoever we are—and we are at our most evil when we see ourselves as good.
There is a time for decisiveness, for get-out-of-my face, no-nonsense laying down the law. McCain is a military man, and the military loves decisiveness. In battle you don’t have time to explore all your options, to nuance the subtleties of this position or that. Your best choice is often your first choice. There are times in any President’s term when he will need to show the kind of decisiveness that McCain consistently demonstrates.
But not every situation is like a battle. Sometimes you do have time to think things through, to mull rich uncertainties. A candidate whose decisions are too bold, too confident, too decisive is a candidate who makes my generation nervous. We’ve seen too much militarization in too little time, heard too many do-or-die gung ho speeches. Politicians who seem too sure of where the lines fall—who the good guys and the bad guys are and how to take them out—more and more smack of arrogance, or at least crudity of thought.
We live in a complicated age. Technology is making it easier than ever to talk things out, to diverge and converge in large, informal groups. It’s a matter of time before I’ve got Google implanted in my brain, before representative democracy is supplanted by pure democracy and the American people become their own legislature. Unless we’ve been bombed or de-banked back to the stone age, America will change vastly in the next four years, not to mention eight. We want a candidate who can provide steady leadership amidst the changes ahead. In this respect I believe McCain could be the stronger leader.
But we also want a candidate who embraces complexity, who is slower to proclaim judgment, who is cautious in converging. This is, in some measure, Obama’s strength. Perhaps Obama will prove excessively divergent, slow to act in a crisis, too open with enemies, slippery in his opinions. But after the decisiveness of Bush and Cheney, we’re willing to take the risk.
Here’s the punchline. I voted for McCain last Thursday. As I said before, I think both candidates would make great Presidents, and I agree with McCain on more of the issues. But I can’t wait to see Obama as the next President of the United States. How’s that for ambiguity and divergent thinking?