Tag Archives: politics

Allergic To Religion?

Remember that old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

Boy, do we ever!

I can’t help wondering what people living  40-50 years hence will think about this fraught time in America. (Actually, wondering about that is an exercise in optimism–it assumes climate change hasn’t eradicated what we call civilization…)

The multiple offenses of Donald Trump will of course receive treatment by historians, but I wonder how those future scholars will connect the various “dots” that led to his “election” and especially how they will view what may be the roots of a newly secular, evidence-based age. (Okay, I said I was an optimist…)

A month or so ago, FiveThirtyEight–Nate Silver’s blog–reported that Christian fundamentalists were driving more liberal people–especially young people– away from all religion, and as a consequence, away from the GOP.

A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”

This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.

A number of surveys, including those by Pew (the “gold standard” in survey research) have found the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans increasing substantially over the past few years . The reasons for that shift are complicated, but as the article notes, politics has been an important contributor.

“Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”

Nearly one in four Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. Nearly 40 percent of liberals are, and that’s an increase of 12 percent since 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. The number of self-identified conservatives and moderates who are unaffiliated has also risen, but less dramatically.

Social scientists were initially reluctant to entertain the idea that a political backlash was somehow responsible, because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are. Even now, the idea that partisanship could shape something as personal and profound as our relationship with God might seem radical, or maybe even a little offensive.

But when two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular, those conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.

Subsequent research confirmed the thesis. The newly political Christian right energized religious voters, but Christian conservatives’ social agenda prompted other people to opt out of religion entirely. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

Campbell also warned that increasing secularism is reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together–something that, theoretically at least, helps to break down partisan barriers.

Add this social shift to the other massive social changes we are experiencing, and the ability of those future historians to make sense of it all looks pretty daunting.

 

Space: The Final (Political) Frontier

One of the questions I have wanted to research always seemed to be “un-researchable.” I have been interested in the phenomenon of high-end gated communities, and my question is a fairly obvious one: do people choose to live in these communities in order to separate themselves from “others,” however defined, or if not, how does the experience of residing in such communities affect their political opinions?

There are all kinds of practical problems in researching that question, which is a subset of a larger question that also intrigues me: how does the built environment affect social attitudes? (My husband is an architect, a fact that has undoubtedly piqued my interest in the interaction between environment and attitude.)

There is very little social science research on this question, so I was thrilled to discover this report from CityLab, written by noted urbanist Richard Florida.

We urbanists are obsessed with place. So it may be hard for us to believe that the connection between physical space and urbanization has been neglected by much of social science, outside of urban economics, urban planning, and urban geography. Indeed, place and geography have been notoriously absent from the greater field of political science.

That’s why the research of political scientist Ryan Enos is so interesting. An associate professor at Harvard’s Department of Government, Enos focuses on the geographic or spatial underpinnings of politics. His new book, The Space Between Us, dives deep into how the places we live influence our politics.

Following that lede is a transcription of an interview Florida conducted with Enos, in which Enos points out that geography has historically factored into politics, and not just politics, but other human behaviors. Politics, of course, is ultimately about who gets what–as we’ve seen rather vividly with the GOP’s recent tax bill. That “what” has often been control over land.

On a deeper level, geography is one of the fundamental ways we understand the world: We define locations, good or bad, by who lives there, by asking, “Are they one of us?” We treat places where the people are not like us—cities versus suburbs, red state versus blue—as different than places that are like us. This creates political conflict.

I found the following statement particularly insightful.

The “space between us” is the political space between us, our inability to come together, across groups, in politics to do the things necessary for a successful society, such as cooperating and compromising. The “distance” in political space is a manifestation of the psychological space between groups, how similar or different we think other groups of people are from our own group, and thus how much we think that we should cooperate with them.

This psychological space is influenced by geographic space: When groups are separated on the Earth’s surface—say into different sides of a city—our minds use this geographic separation as a shortcut to believe the groups are different; they become separated in our minds and this then spills over into our behavior, separating us in politics. This separation has consequences. If we cannot cooperate politically, we cannot do the things necessary to have a functioning modern society, such as building infrastructure and caring for the needy.

 As segregation increases, white people in the United States hold more negative attitudes about African Americans and they are also less likely to support black candidates running for office. We can also see that when we create social geography in the lab, in a sense, creating this mosaic we discussed earlier, that the segregation induces non-cooperation between groups.
This may be as close as I get to answering my question about gated communities–not to mention the urban/rural divide.
I need to order the book.

Defining Moderation

New York Times columnist David Brooks is given to periodic meditations triggered by the political environment; recently, he mused at some length over “what moderates believe.” 

I’m not ready to endorse Brooks’ entire definition, which is a bit too formulaic and pietistic for my tastes, but I do think that one sentence describes the fundamental difference between “wingers” and moderates:

Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.

I would probably phrase this differently, but I agree that moderation is an approach, an attitude, an openness to complexity rather than a set of rigid beliefs. A moderate is someone who recognizes the increasing ambiguities of modern life, someone who can make peace with a world where there is less black and white and more shades of gray without feeling disoriented or panicky.

Moderates use terms like “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Moderates reject justifications for the use of violence in service of ideology; they recognize that whether it is the Nazis or the Antifa who oppose them, a resort to the use of force places zealots outside the norms of acceptable political discourse, undermining both the rule of law and fundamental American principles.

The True Believers of both the Right and Left are the enemies of functioning government. These are the judgmental, “my way or the highway” purists who prefer losing to taking half a loaf, who don’t understand that sustainable progress is almost always incremental, who have learned nothing from the history of revolutions.

The GOP has pretty much rid itself of its moderates–it has actually made “moderate” a dirty word– and the party’s current inability to govern despite controlling both houses of Congress and the Presidency is a direct result of its radicalization. Once-thoughtful elected officials now pander to the party’s rabid base in order to avoid being primaried–and it’s hard not to wonder if and when they’ll regret trading their souls and the tattered remnants of their integrity for another term in office.

For their part, the Democratic Party’s purists are responsible for that party’s recurring “circular firing squads.” Here in Indiana, several have announced that they won’t support incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly because he is “insufficiently progressive.” Their defection is likely to give Indiana a Republican zealot in his place–hardly an improvement, but evidently satisfying to those for whom ideological purity is more important than retaking the Senate. For the record, I am considerably more progressive than Donnelly, but he will vote against the upcoming attempts to eviscerate the social safety net in order to give huge tax cuts to the 1%, and every Republican running to replace him will enthusiastically vote for those measures. Should the Democrats retake the Senate (something they probably cannot do if Donnelly loses), Donnelly will also be a vote to replace Mitch McConnell–that alone is reason enough to support him.

Politics has been called “the art of the possible.” Moderates acknowledge that reality, and are willing to take something less than perfection if that “something less” is an improvement over the alternative.

Come to think of it, perhaps “moderate” simply means “adult.”

Markets and Inequality

Those of us who believe in the efficacy of markets (a fundamental tenet of capitalism) must be prepared to accept a certain degree of inequality. Your invention of a better mousetrap will cause my older model to lose market share; your admirable work ethic will earn you a higher wage than my preference for taking long weekends.

Theoretically, in a genuinely capitalist system, the market will reward merit more liberally than it will reward mediocrity.

Of course, a genuinely capitalist system will not be rigged to benefit the powerful and/or well-connected at the expense of others. America has long since morphed from capitalism to corporatism, a system in which lobbyists for powerful interests are able to ensure that government regulations favor their well-heeled clients.

In capitalist systems, the theory is that the promise of greater rewards is an incentive for innovation and diligence; advocates justify the resulting inequalities by pointing out that everyone benefits from the resulting entrepreneurship. A rising tide, we are told, lifts all boats.

When capitalism devolves into corporatism, only the boats of the powerful and well-connected get lifted, and it becomes much more difficult to sustain the pretense of meritocracy.

In capitalist/corporatist systems, rampant inequality poses challenges that ideology cannot satisfactorily address. Social scientists and historians tell us that when the gap between rich and poor widens too much, there are very negative consequences for social and political stability. In order to manage the size of the disparities, most first-world countries today have “mixed” economies; governments socialize the services that markets cannot provide (public safety, environmental protection, healthcare, etc.) and—importantly—recognize the existence of an obligation to citizens who for one reason or another, cannot earn a living wage.

In the United States, we have a number of elected officials—in Congress, certainly, but also in statehouses around the country—who reject the logic of mixed economies, and refuse to recognize the threat that extreme inequality poses to social stability and national cohesion. Paul Ryan’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s brutal (kick ‘em when they’re down) budget proposals, the persistent efforts to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide critical medical care to the needy, are assaults that strike many of us as indefensible—especially since they are almost always accompanied by tax giveaways to the rich.

Those arguing on behalf of these measures insist that their purpose is to defend market economics. Most of them know better; the rhetoric is an effort to divert attention from the fact that government is doing the bidding of powerful, rich and very greedy special interests.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this assault on the poor is the not-so-subtle characterizing of needy Americans as “Other.” “They” are immigrants, living off the sweat of “real” Americans; “they” are lazy people of color. If “they” are female, they’re immoral sluts popping out babies in order to qualify for the public dole. It doesn’t matter that none of these characterizations are remotely factual; the dog-whistle references and dishonest descriptions find a willing audience among people who see themselves as part of an America that is rapidly losing cultural hegemony.

The “Other” is the shiny object that distracts attention from corporatist wheeling and dealing.

If current levels of material inequality are bad for America—and they are—this cynical effort to distract our attention by widening our social divisions is even worse.

Pastoral versus Ideological Church and State

Speaking of religion, as we did yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a column by E.J. Dionne that I read a couple of weeks ago, because I think it has application to what I will (somewhat grandiosely) call the human condition.

Dionne is a Catholic, and he was examining the differences between the approach to that religion of two other Catholics–the Pope, and Steve Bannon.

Bannon believes that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.” He calls for a return of “the church militant” who will “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity,” which threatens to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”