The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



In the Christian tradition this is Palm Sunday in commemoration of the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, come there to celebrate Passover, and was greeted by a crowd who threw their coats and cloaks on the road for his to ride on, waving palm fronds and greeting him as Messiah and king. This may well have been much the same crowd that a few days later cried, “Crucify him!” in answer to Pilate’s question of what they wanted done with him when he was brought before him on the accusation of treason against Rome. It was implied that they were in the pay of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jewish priesthood, but given the tendency of crowds to sway back and forth according to the last opinion that got their attention, it would not surprise me at all if they were acting on a voluntary basis.

It has seemed to me that a very similar thing has happened to our president, Barack Obama. He was elected to extravagant hopes, and it was obvious in the 2010 election that buyer’s remorse had set in very strongly. It’s hard for me to understand quite why. That those who had always disliked him should continue to do so is not surprising. After all, he’s done pretty much what he said he was going to do, given the limitations that partisan politics and an impossible task have placed on him, although he is clearly less bold and more conservative than many of us had hoped, and has made his share of mistakes. Nevertheless, the congressional and gubernatorial elections of 2010 seemed to favor those whose primary argument was that they would fight Obama tooth and nail. There has always been a tendency in U. S. politics to correct from one election to another — liberal this time, conservative next — but this seems to me to be a much faster and more extreme shift than I have seen before. It wasn’t just people who disagreed with the president who were elected, but who hated him, and whose politics were so extreme that their principles made it impossible for them to work with him even if they had understood the art and necessity of compromise in the first place, which they clearly did not. Obama was elected to fix the economy and in the last election it seemed that the majority was determined not only to keep him from doing it, but to concentrate more and more of the nation’s wealth in the hands of the richest. Facts clearly have as much to do with it as they did with the crowd in Jerusalem who continued to cry for Jesus’ death even when Pilate stated that he found no fault in him. Donald Trump has even floated the possibility of running for president himself based on a doubt of Obama’s citizenship. You would think that that alone would be sufficient to destroy his credibility. Obama’s birth certificate stating that he was born in Honolulu has been published in many popular venues, and those who want to see it merely have to type “Obama birth certificate” into Google and they can go right to it. To deny that he is an American citizen is to put yourself on a par with believers in alien abduction and black U. N. helicopters poised to take over Washington D. C.  However, he seems to be being taken seriously. People seem to believe that all you need is wealth and notoriety to be deemed infallible.

It seems, indeed, that people are hardly interested in facts at all but base their opinions on the opinions of what they think is the majority of others. Majorities are smaller than they used to be. We don’t look at the whole population to find our majorities, but just those with whom we feel some affinity. Perhaps it is because we have so many sources for data and for opinion that we have to limit the input.

That was the opinion of the wonderfully enthusiastic young man who gave the program at the ministers’ meeting in Orlando last week. He came to evangelize for use of the electronic media to get the word out about free religion. He, like me, thinks that we have a gift to give that is vital to the world. He told us, what I already knew, that nowadays people no longer come to a church for the first time with only a vague general impression. They have done their homework. They’ve looked at the web page, read a sermon or two, checked out the calendar, and have some notion of who we are before they ever enter the door. That’s why, of course, it has become so important to have an attractive and accessible web page, and you will be happy to hear that ours won an award from the district at the annual meeting, but, the presenter told us, that’s not enough. We also have to be on Facebook and twitter. You may not know it — I didn’t — but we already have a Facebook page. I’m not sure how we got it — maybe it comes in a package with the web platform we’re using — but anyway, there it is. Why this is important, the speaker told us, is that if someone on Facebook looks at our page and clicks the “Like” button, that information will automatically go out to everyone in that person’s social network. After which they will look at it and the word will go to all their contacts, and the contacts will look at it, and then all their contacts…. I knew I thought Facebook was scary. And this is important because people base their decisions not on facts or data — there are too many of them, perhaps — but on other people’s opinions.

There seem to me to be a lot too many opinions, too. One of the most useful aspects of the internet is that if you are looking for a fact on almost any topic, all you have to do is type the words into the search engine of your choice, and you will find an immense amount of information. It gets bigger all the time. About two years ago I wanted some information about a poet whose single poem that I had read was in unpublished form when I was given it. The only reference I could find on the internet was my own sermon in which I had mentioned him. The other day I tried again, and there were pages of reference, including the full text of the poem. The problem is that people are learning to work the internet to get their words to the forefront — you have to know which ones your search engines like — and often when you are looking for a fact what you get is so many references to opinions about that fact that it takes an unconscionable amount of time to sift through them.

Blogs proliferate. If there are any of you who have so insulated yourselves (and I can hardly blame you) from the explosion of electronic communication that you don’t know what a blog is, it’s an online journal in which the blogger posts his or her opinion and readers can write responses to it. Many of my colleagues have them. One delightful one is on dress for women ministers. Its author has a particularly mordant sense of humor and not a great deal of respect for her colleagues’ taste. They can be a lot of fun, as this one is, or even informative, but they’re not the place to go for hard data. “I learned it from the internet,” is sometimes almost a guarantee that the information is suspect. You can find reliable sources, but it’s not always easy.

Part of the problem is that many people don’t seem to know how to separate fact from opinion. I remember when I was very young at the height of the Red scare a book was published by the John Birch Society called None Dare Call It Treason. When people recommended it to you they always said that what was so wonderful about it was that the facts that it stated were extremely well documented. I read it and checked the endnotes. They certainly cited sources, but all the sources were references to opinions, not to fact. It doesn’t seem to me that people’s critical thinking skills have improved much since those days, and since we have more sources of misinformation we have more ways that we can form opinions based on error.

Not everything that is not a fact is an opinion, though we tend, in our broad tolerance to treat it that way. Some statements purporting to be statements of fact may be in error. Some may even be lies. The idea that Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not a citizen is not an opinion. It is a misstatement of fact. Believing that he is or is not a good president is a matter of opinion. The second can and should be tolerated, whether we agree with it or not, but the first must be corrected. What is more, and this is much more difficult, somehow a way must be found to enable people to not only differentiate between fact and opinion, but also to check those things presented as facts, particularly if they are being presented by an obviously biased source. I am told that our schools teach critical thinking, but with the concentration on passing tests it seems to me that instead we are filling them with data and omitting to teach them the skills required to separate wheat from chaff.

Majority opinion is often right — more often than not if it is tested over time — but sometimes it is wrong. It was wrong when it assumed that the world was flat; it was wrong in Nazi Germany; it is wrong today when people are elected on the strength of their willingness to balance the governmental budget, state or federal, on the backs of the poor or the middle class, if it can even continue to exist. I don’t have the numbers before me — I could always look them up on the internet, but just the general trend is sufficient — but they are continually worsening. The gap between the rich and poor is reaching monumental proportions. A smaller and smaller percentage of the very rich enjoy higher and higher percentages of the national wealth. That is a fact, not an opinion. That this is not a good thing for the sustainability of our economy or the wellbeing of our people is the opinion of nearly all responsible economists, even Alan Greenspan who recently renounced his discipleship to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Yet it is the majority, the people who may be worried about living to their next paycheck or having their homes foreclosed on who are electing politicians whose opinions will increase rather than lessen the gap. The only thing that I can imagine is that they have somehow been convinced that if they put enough money in other people’s pockets they will one day join them in their luxurious lifestyle. How they might expect that to happen, I don’t know, but I can see no other reason for people’s consistently voting against their own interests. It has, in fact, been going on for a long time. Obama’s election was the anomaly.

This is where politics and religion meet. The morality as well as the practicality of the opinions we hold are religious issues. The economy is only one of them. Issues of war and peace, of immigration, of care for the earth and many more are subject to the same kind of necessity of separating opinion from fact, and checking those statements cited as fact for their truth. I spoke recently of the necessary discipline of freedom, and that holds in the secular as well as the religious worlds. We must be willing to do the work of freedom. With the barrage of opinion and data to which we are subjected we are often overwhelmed and choose to believe what sounds good, what is plausible, what promises us, whether true or not, the outcome we desire.

Other people’s opinions do matter. They can guide us, often, in the right direction, but they cannot be accepted as unquestioned truth in the secular world any more than in the religious one. Our obligation to doubt does not end with theological speculation. We must not be like the citizens of Jerusalem of almost 2000 years ago, blown by the winds of rumor and assertion, but wield our freedom in the sake of truth.