Brain science and Trump’s speech to Congress

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I thought Donald Trump’s address last night to a joint session of Congress was the most effective speech he’s ever given. His words and tone were presidential, and his passion for our country was obvious. Seventy percent of viewers said the speech made them more optimistic about the direction of the country. I heard one television commentator say afterwards, “He may have been inaugurated on January 20, but he became president tonight.”

However, the partisan divide that challenges our future is on clear display this morning.

The Huffington Post sarcastically headlines, “Speaker’s Pet,” with a picture of the president shaking hands with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The Los Angeles Times complains, “Trump speech: Promise the world, leave out the details.” The Washington Post is skeptical: “A tale of two speeches: The contradictions of Donald Trump’s Presidency.” On the other side of the aisle, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was “Blown Away” by the president’s “Unifying” speech to Congress.

Why are our political divisions so entrenched? According to scientists, our brains are to blame.

University of Southern California cognitive neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan has been studying how our brains react when our political beliefs are challenged. Kaplan and his colleagues performed functional MRI scans on the brains of forty participants, all of whom held strong political views. They monitored brain activity as their team presented counterarguments and tried to sway the subjects’ political positions.

According to the MRI scans, the areas of the brain that were triggered control deep, emotional thoughts about the subjects’ personal identity. When these parts of the brain were stimulated, the subjects felt challenged and became defensive, shutting down any willingness to accept counterarguments.

Such divisiveness is truly dangerous, for it threatens our nation’s future. In a two-party system, compromise and consensus are essential to progress. When one-half of Congress stands to applaud the president while the other half sits in stony silence, the government gridlocks and America suffers.

Here’s what united the political parties last night: patriotic sacrifice. President Trump honored Carryn Owens, widow of William “Ryan” Owens, the US Navy SEAL killed in a late-January raid in Yemen. The unanimous standing ovation she received lasted for two minutes, eleven seconds.

Men and women from both political parties are fighting and dying for our country while too many of us are engaged in self-serving partisan defamation. Politics flow downstream from culture. It’s time for Americans to stop condemning those with whom we disagree and start finding ways to cooperate for the common good.

And it’s time for America’s Christians to lead the way.

We are commanded to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1–2) and respect those in authority (Romans 13:7).

“Good Christians make good citizens” (Justin Martyr). Here’s why: We are commanded to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1–2) and respect those in authority (Romans 13:7). We are to refuse all slander (1 Peter 2:1), treating our opponents with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

These biblical imperatives are especially appropriate for the season of Lent, which begins today. As we enter forty days of preparation for Easter, Pope Francis asks that we fast from indifference toward others so we can feast on love. Jesus was clear: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).

Will you obey his commands today?