There are several new studies out that suggest mental health issues, particularly depression, are higher among politically liberal people. Highest of all among young women. Both young men and women who identify as liberal or progressive tend to have markedly higher instances of depression than self-identified conservatives of similar age or gender. Why? (Well, yes, I know that some will say it’s because liberals know what’s up while conservatives are in an alternate reality, curated by FOX NEWS.)
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind draws together a bunch of research on this at his Substack site, “After Babel.”
The gist of it is that liberal/ progressives have adopted ways of thinking that contribute to depression. For example, formulations that emphasize and, in some measure, privilege victim status. Such thinking tends to diminish a person’s sense of agency, that is, the ability to shape one’s own life.
“You are making me unsafe by speaking/ allowing that speaker, here on our campus,” would be an expression of such an outlook. The problem with seeing everything through the oppressor/ victim binary and identifying with or as victims, is that it by definition gives power over your life to someone else. “You made me feel this way. You have made me unsafe.” Or, “I can’t possibly do this or that, because the world is against me.” Power is thus given over to externals (outside us) rather than internals (inside us).
That said, as my recent piece on “the war on trans people” indicates words (“the ideology of transgenderism must be completely eradicated,” CPAC speaker) can be dangerous. And there are systemic factors that are real and limiting for many in our society. So it’s not simple. Still, there seems to me much in Haidt’s research that deserves attention.
Haidt’s colleague, Greg Lukianoff, steeped in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), wonders if certain patterns of thinking that have become prominent in liberal/ progressives spaces incline people toward depression. “In CBT you learn to recognize when your ruminations and automatic thinking patterns exemplify one or more of about a dozen ‘cognitive distortions,’ such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, fortune telling, or emotional reasoning. Thinking in these ways causes depression as well as being a symptom of depression. Breaking out of these painful distortions is a cure for depression.”
Lukianoff and Haidt wondered if some college campuses and other liberal/ progressive enclaves were doing a kind of reverse CBT on people. They aren’t the only ones raising such concerns. Here’s the progressive journalist Jill Filipovic:
“I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are ‘deeply problematic’ or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life—to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean—are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response.”
There is some cross-over to all this in liberal and progressive churches. I’ve been in many such congregations, sometimes as a pastor, other times as a consultant or teacher. I notice that often the highpoint, in terms of energy, seems to be as people gather for worship and at the beginning of the service. The morning coffee has kicked in. People are greeting one another. There’s some sense of anticipation.
But too often it’s all downhill from there. By the end of worship in many such churches its as if the air has gone completely out of the balloon. Which is sort of the opposite of what you would want to happen. You would hope that energy would increase not decrease. Why? What’s happened?
In liberal and progressive churches there’s a lot of emphasis on the problems of the world, and on what you should be doing about it. Or maybe that it’s you who are to blame. There’s little emphasis on what God has done or is doing on our behalf or on God’s capacity to bring good out of or in the face of evil. So it’s kind of all on us.
By the end of such a worship service people are overwhelmed and depressed by having been given a list of stuff they are supposed to do to fix the world and be much better people, when they were perhaps looking for some grace, some encouragement, even comfort, in the face of life’s challenges. Sermons in such churches are often what we call in the trade “lettuce” sermons. That is they end with a lot of “let us.” “Let us go forth and bring peace to the world.” “Let us go forth determined to end the climate crisis.” “Let us be more kind and generous.”
I remember a young woman who thanked me for a sermon. She was a school teacher and mother of small children. She said, “Thank you. I don’t need to be reminded every Sunday of my responsibilities. They are staring me in the face. What I do need to be reminded of every Sunday is the grace of God.”
Without some greater framework of meaning, without some sense of a a mysterious yet persistent grace at work in the world, it tends to be all on us. Throw in the a few “cognitive distortions,” like catastrophizing or black-and-white/ all-or-nothing thinking, and emotional reasoning” and you’ve got a bunch of sad liberals.