Truth, Stages of Faith, and Our Political Divide

a candle held in someone's hands - truth is like a candle, and the hands help us heal

Living in a Parallel Universe

What a week this has been. First, Raphael Warnock became the first black, and John Ossoff the first Jewish, men from Georgia to be elected to the United States Senate. Then, a mob, egged on by our president, broke into the Capitol building, thinking they had the power to stop the certification of the electoral college vote because Trump incorrectly implied that they did. Normally a routine ceremony, the certification was turned into a tedious farce by a few elected officials who chose to challenge the vote. They defended their actions by parroting the baseless claims of election fraud Trump has spouted for months, in spite of the fact that every court in which Trump’s attorneys filed writs, including the Supreme Court, denounced these claims because they contained no evidence and which the Republican governors and electoral officials of those states declared were untrue.

But though absurd, the actions of these political leaders and MAGA protesters were not benign. The mob that swarmed through the Capitol traumatized legislators and damaged property. Because of their actions, people died. If officers hadn’t found and disarmed the bombs planted by at least one of them, more death and destruction might have followed.

Even so, more than half the Republican Representatives and a handful of Senators voted not to certify the Arizona and Pennsylvania election results. Then, two days later, in an amazing endorsement of our president’s disdain for democracy, the Republican National Committee absolved him of responsibility for the attack on the Capitol and endorsed him, once again, as their leader.

As Jonathan Martin said of the RNC members, it appeared that most of them “were operating in a parallel universe.” [1] So, it seems, does everyone else who embraces the lies of Donald Trump.

Can We Agree on Anything?

Common ground used to seem possible. Most of believed in democracy and in the founding principles of our nation, the ones that held certain “truths to be self evident,” as it says in our Declaration of Independence, truths that “all men are created equal,” that we have “certain unalienable rights,” including the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” [2]

Of course, we never have agreed on what that means. Who is included in “all men,” for instance? What do people need to be able to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness,” and how much of that is the government’s responsibility to provide?

A large minority of our country believes that while they have a right to “life, liberty, and happiness,” other people don’t. Counting themselves among the righteous, they see their enemies are evil.

This is not new. In the past, peaceful protests by people of color have been met with tear gas and bullets, while lynchings and violent uprisings by whites have been met with tacit approval. Ever since our nation was founded, we have been struggling to create a true and lasting justice. Sometimes it seems we make progress; sometimes not. But since nearly as many people think our president is a savior as think he is a villain, this tension will not go away anytime soon. It seems we hold almost no truths in common.

Stages of Faith

Originally, I was going to write this column about different religious beliefs. Does some universal truth underlie all faiths, or are they so different from one another they cannot be reconciled?

Given the chaos in our nation right now, though, I wanted to look at the link between our religious and political beliefs. We can start by looking at James W. Fowler’s stages of faith. [3] Developed forty years ago, its flaws highlighted by scholars, Fowler’s system nonetheless has relevance today.

The pre-stage, what Fowler calls the Primal Faith, occurs in infancy. It determines how we think about God. How our caregivers treat us — whether we are nurtured and cared for, played with or ignored, mirrored or misunderstood — we either develop the capacity to trust, or we don’t. We learn we have value, or we don’t. Unless we do spiritual or psychological work to heal and change, we tend to imprint on God and the world what we learned from our parents about who we are and what it means to be in relationship with another being.

In the first stage, what Fowler calls the Intuitive-Projective Faith, begins when children start to talk. Though they still understand things emotionally, they are beginning to learn about imagination. For them, magic and fantasy are indistinguishable from reality. Unambiguous stories of good and evil appeal to them. They begin to make concrete their images of God.

Concrete and Authoritarian Stages

As the child’s cognitive abilities improve, they move to stage two, the Mythic-Literal Faith. In this stage, the child begins to pay attention more to story, which they tend to take literally. More comfortable with concrete concepts, children at this stage rarely reflect on what they’re told. They tend to see God as a just parent who rewards good and punishes evil. Some people remain in this stage their entire lives.

The Synthetic-Coventional Faith, stage three, occurs in adolescence when people start to question who they are and what they’ve learned. Able to appreciate abstract concepts, they’re still concerned more with what the group thinks than with their own, individual belief system. They still look to authority figures to tell them what to believe. As with stage three, people can remain at this stage until they die.

Moving Deeper Into Faith

As a person moves toward stage four, the Individuative-Reflective Stage, they begin to question the teachings of their faith, trying to make sense of their religion’s symbols and stories. Sometimes they reject that religion altogether. At other times, they understand it in a new way. Though they no longer unthinkingly accept authority, they can become overconfident in their interpretations. They often lack an interest in the subtle, unconscious, mysterious aspects of life, in the human spirit, and in their relationship with the holy.

This stage is rarely comfortable. Rarely do people in this stage find answers to their questions, and they try to maintain their self through their reasoning powers without embracing the emotions and compassion of the heart. This is hard to live with. Also, no one reaches this stage without experiencing some kind of spiritual wound, but unless they can move through that pain to reach a sense of healing, people can’t move forward spiritually.

To reach the fifth stage, that of Conjunctive Faith, people must grieve the hurts of the past and reconnect with their heart and spirit centers. Then they can be more open to the truths of others. Confident in their own self and beliefs, they can nonetheless entertain the ideas of others, for they have already learned that it’s possible for them to change their worldviews and survive. They appreciate paradox and tend to emphasize the commonality of people rather than their differences. They realize that truth is complex, but they still see themselves as separate individuals, distinct from others.

Eventually, some people reach the sixth stage, the Universalizing Faith. They move beyond even paradox to embrace a true sense of oneness. For them, all is love, all is God. There is no “other.”

Stages of Political Faith

In a study performed at an Israeli kibbutz, John Snarey found that these stages of faith correlated with our moral and ego development, which influences how we engage with life, in business, family, and politics. [4] Yet even Fowler acknowledges that we do not live within one stage in any rigid sense. [5] We can shift back and forth, and even move backward. Each stage does represent a particular worldview, though. Where we find authority, for instance, varies from stage to stage, as does how we understand stories and symbols, and who we embrace as part of our community.

This has a lot to do with our politics. Do we take things literally, or can we understand nuance and symbol? Who is our authority, and how loyally do we follow him or her? Do we identify people as either good or evil, or do we see complexity in human nature? Do we insist that bad should be punished and good rewarded, and are we certain that our enemies, will be punished by God?

Though it’s tempting to imagine that only conservatives fall into the earlier stages of faith, not all of them do, and liberals are not immune to such rigid thinking. Fundamentalists are everywhere, but just because we’re conservative in faith and even in politics does not mean we cannot entertain the views of another. It seems clear, however, that if one can move into the Individuative-Reflective, and especially the Conjuctive, stages, one will be more open to the possibility that one may not know the entire truth. This would make one less militant and more receptive to collaboration.

Such a movement toward deeper and more complex stages of faith would then enhance our democracy. But how do we do that?

a candle held in someone's hands - truth is like a candle, and the hands help us heal
Photo by Dhivikaran S

Moving Beyond Stage Three

Few people reach stage four without some difficult life event. Sometimes it’s as simple as moving away from home and being exposed to new ideas that create a cognitive dissonance within us. At other times, a death in the family, an accident, or some trauma thrust us into that place of unknowing, where the world no longer makes sense. Stage four is a place of questioning. Because of that, it can be very uncomfortable. To move through it into stage five, most people need someone to nurture them, to embrace their pain, and teach them to move through the pain rather than avoid it. If that doesn’t happen, most people return to their earlier stages, finding comfort in certainty, even if that certainty has changed some.

In the early stages, we tend to desire an authority figure who can tell us what to think and what to do. When stuck in those stages, then, we become vulnerable to the lure of a charismatic leader. If we choose a rigid and domineering authority, we are likely to learn to hate.

Yet none of us develops hate in our hearts unless we have first been deeply wounded. Of course, not everyone who has been wounded learns to hate, but those who do are the ones who do not have someone to help them through the pain. They may have been alone, or rejected, or ridiculed for their weakness. Shame enhances our tendency to project our weaknesses onto others. If we have been hurt, then shamed for our suffering, we are more likely to blame others. Who better to hate than someone from a different religion, race, or political party?

Opening Up to Other Truths

The most important thing we can do, then, is to notice when people’s lives have been shattered and help them heal the hurts so they can move forward into complexity and inclusion. We can reach out to those who express hate, hoping to touch them enough that they might shift. Not everyone is open to this, of course. Sometimes the best we can do is set boundaries, limiting a person’s ability to hurt others.

But we can also educate people. We can develop systems that address their needs for food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Then we can provide the means for people to support themselves in a way that makes them feel proud and successful. This will go a long way toward helping people feel safe in the world.

Helping People Heal

We also need to get to know those who are different from us, religiously and politically. Listen to them. Accept them. Love them. As you spend time with them, you will notice when they become open to change. Invite them to feel their pain, slowly and carefully. Stay with them as they explore the shame and fear within them. This will help them heal.

Obviously, this won’t happen overnight. Relationships take time to develop. Some people we won’t want to know at all. That’s okay. We can’t heal everyone ourselves.

But if we’re willing to reach out to a co-worker, the person sitting next to us on the bus, the cashier at the grocery store, and offer understanding and compassion, that will make a difference. Real change occurs slowly. But if we honestly believe in the worth of every human being, and if we are brave enough to be changed by listening to those whose worldviews might threaten our own, we will help heal this painful political divide. Bit by bit. One person at a time.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Martin, Jonathan, “In Capital, a G.O.P. Crisis. At the R.N.C. Meeting, a Trump Celebration,” The New York Times, January 8, 2021,, accessed 1/8/21.
  2. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, accessed 1/8/21.
  3. See Fowler, James W., Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, New York: HarperCollins, 1981 and Fowler, James W., Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life, Nashville, TN: Abindgon, 1996.
  4. Parker, Stephen, “Research in Flower’s Faith Development Theory: A Review Article,” Review of Religious Research, vol. 51, no. 3, 2010, 233-252, 238,, accessed January 10, 2021.
  5. Fowler, Stages, 68.

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