22 February 2012: The religious nature of politics Pt. I on the polarization of American political parties

The religious nature of politics

An old saw says it’s best to avoid politics and religion at social gatherings. Jonathan Haidt, author of the soon-to-be-released The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, now says politics is religion, a curious conflation on the surface..

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, offers insight into his research on the reason people of good intention and intelligence arrive at polar-opposite perspectives.

As much as we like to believe otherwise about ourselves, arriving at our political philosophies and issue positions is not completely a rational process. It’s pocked with inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, conservatives generally express strong tribal—family and church—identification that flies in the face of also-held faith in rugged individualism and freedom of conscience.

What brings us together as a people is a common enemy: e.g., Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks. Once the enemy is vanquished, “tribalism can ramp up,” says Haidt, “and reach really pathological proportions. And that’s where we are now.”

Amen, brother.

If one craves novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, and travels, he/she is likely to be a liberal. Haidt calls those dispositions “openness to experience.” Conservatives, on the other hand, find comfort in that which is familiar, safe, and dependable. Consider the two sides’ attitudes about immigrants in that context.

Our political history through mid-20th century gives evidence of non-ideologically pure parties.

Republicans annually attend a Lincoln Day dinner, but one wonders how Ol’ Abe would fare in the party’s 2012 primaries. Teddy Roosevelt, the great Trust Buster and conservationist, was a Republican until he bolted and formed the Bull Moose Party. Would he be considered today “anti-business”?

Democrats hold J-J dinners, for Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, both slave owners. Further, Jackson was one of the most notorious oppressors of Native Americans. Reread the history of the Trail of Tears; a strong case can be made for genocide.

Ironically, Tea Partyers on the right quote Jefferson and Wall St. Occupiers on the left cite Roosevelt. Party dynamics, however, have changed.

Haidt points to three events to help explain the divisions that have arisen over the past five decades: the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Baby Boomers replacing the Greatest Generation; and homogenization of American communities.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965, southern Democrats abandoned their historical party. President Lyndon B. Johnson said to Moyers, his press secretary, “I think we’ve just turned the South over to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.” Moyers is still alive.

The Deep South voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and with the triumph of Ronald Reagan over the Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller wing, ideological purity became the creed of the Grand Old Party. Moderate Republicans, burdened with the RINO—Republican in Name Only—appellation were read out of the party or abandoned it. The result: “There are basically no liberal Republicans matching up with conservative Democrats,” notes Haidt.

What I didn’t hear Haidt address in the interview, although he might in the book, is the corresponding rise of the Christian Right under Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and a host of others including James Dobson of Focus on the Family. The correlation between the two movements explains much of the conflation of religion and politics.

With them, Boomers have brought what Haidt calls “Manichaean thinking,” dubbed for third-century CE Manichaeans who saw the world divided into stark contrasts of good v. evil. Espousers of such eschatological thinking, of course, are always on the side of good, which means all the rest of us must be evil.

While Haidt doesn’t explain, at least on the show, from where he believes the Boomers’ worldview arose, it could only be from our parents, who were shaped by their experiences in the Great Depression, World War II, and Cold War. America grew from secondary power to one of two nuclear titans, became an economic juggernaut, and morphed into the world’s policeman.

Once Congress and President Eisenhower added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, it was a small leap to Reagan’s “City on a Hill” and “Evil Empire” metaphors—Light v. Dark and Good v. Evil.

One of the casualties of the revolution has been compromise, an essential aspect of a functional republican form of government.

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but when it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” states Haidt. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Next week, I’ll pick up on that.

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