Tag Archives: zealotry

Faith-Based Politics

Among former Republicans of a certain age, “what the hell happened” is a popular topic of conversation. What turned a major political party composed of people with a reasonable range of respectable views into a cult imposing extremist litmus tests? What accounts for the rejection of evidence, disdain for science and rigid refusal to compromise even the most extreme positions?

When did the Grand Old Party go nuts?

In a new book, The Party’s Over: How Republicans Went Crazy ,Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted former GOP strategist Mike Lofgrin blames religion.

Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war.

In retrospect, Lofgren sees Pat Robertson’s strong showing as a Presidential candidate in 1988 as the warning sign for what was already underway: the capture of one of the country’s major political parties by religious fundamentalists and fanatics.

The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs. All around us now is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science. Politicized religion is the sheet anchor of the dreary forty-year-old culture wars.

Lofgren takes aim at a theory that I have held for some time–the theory that the differences between what we used to call the “country club” wing of the GOP and the religious zealot wing would eventually cause a split. It seemed reasonable to assume that the socioeconomic and philosophical gulf separating the party’s business wing from the religious right would make for instability.

I’ve been predicting this split for at least twenty years, and I’m still waiting, so he may be right when he suggests that there really isn’t a basic disagreement between these factions on the direction  the country should go– just a quibble about how far.

The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age; the theocrats to the Salem witch trials. If anything, the two groups are increasingly beginning to resemble each other. Many televangelists have espoused what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel—the health-and- wealth/name-it-and-claim-it gospel of economic entitlement. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! This rationale may explain why some poor voters will defend the prerogatives of billionaires. In any case, at the beginning of the 2012 presidential cycle, those consummate plutocrats the Koch brothers pumped money into Bachmann’s campaign, so one should probably not make too much of a potential plutocrat-theocrat split.

As for the supposedly libertarian Tea Partiers, Lofgren cites academic studies that identify them as authoritarian rather than libertarian. Over half of Tea Party members self-identified as members of the religious right and 55 percent insisted that “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation”—a higher percentage than non-Tea Party  Christian conservatives.

If Lofgren is right, it explains how we got here, and why government is broken. You can reason with someone who holds a political or policy position. You can negotiate a compromise– a “win-win” with someone whose ultimate goal is different from your own.

When a political position is held with religious fervor, however, it becomes immune to logic and evidence.

Did you all hear about the Republican Representative who attributed the ocean’s rise to the fact that rocks fell into it?

I rest my case.

Lesson from Egypt

There’s an old saying to the effect that what you see depends upon where you stand, so the lessons we can learn from the chaos in Egypt will depend on the perspectives we bring to our analysis.

In my view, Egypt is a cautionary tale about zealotry and fanaticism, about rigid self-righteousness untempered by doubt or moderated by open-mindedness.

As Roger Cohen wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,  the Arab Spring “demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.” But zealots cannot, by definition, respect the equal rights of others. They cannot concede the reasonableness of differing beliefs or judgments, nor the right of others to hold those beliefs.

 Morsi misread the Arab Spring. The uprising that ended decades of dictatorship and led to Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election last year was about the right to that vote. But at a deeper level it was about personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.

In a Muslim nation, where close to 25 percent of Arabs live, it also demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.

Authoritarianism, however, is indistinguishable from zealotry and fundamentalism of all kinds.

As a friend of mine noted in an email a couple of days ago, the despotic and deeply anti-libertarian impulses that are so easy to condemn when expressed by Islamic extremists are not so different from those displayed by some on the Christian Right, or in the Tea Party. If you need examples, think about Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann…think about the antics currently underway in statehouses across the country, as self-righteous men pass laws to control women’s bodies. Think about Indiana, where Mike Pence and Brian Bosma reacted to the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions by doubling down on their insistence to make “sinful” gays second-class citizens in Indiana.

The lesson I take from Egypt is simple: zealotry is dangerous, no matter what its content.

As the late, famed jurist Learned Hand memorably put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

Sometimes You Have to Eat a *** Sandwich

Pat McCarthy is a very thoughtful commenter to this blog, and he made an important point yesterday about compromise–a point that deserves consideration. What, exactly, do we mean by these repeated calls for political compromise? Should progressives “compromise” our insistence that GLBT citizens are entitled to the same civil rights as the rest of us? Can we really expect–or demand–that conservatives “compromise” deeply-held religious beliefs?

I think there are two different, albeit compatible, answers to that question.

The easy answer–the facile answer–is that honorable people don’t compromise on matters of moral behavior; we don’t sell out our gay citizens, act in ways that violate our consciences. The caveat here is that few political battles really involve such choices. Votes on tax rates, minimum wage, health care, the social safety net and the like may have moral underpinnings, may implicate our beliefs about social justice, but rarely present us with stark decisions about Good and Evil. (Note caps.) You’d have to be morally obtuse to characterize the recent, shameful mud-wrestling over the fiscal cliff negotiations as a fight for first principles.

Which brings us to the more honest–and arguably more difficult–definition of political compromise:  prudence, a recognition that few votes are “all or nothing” and a willingness to accept less than everything in order to get something, in order to move, however incrementally, toward one’s goal.

One of the more memorable quotes in the wake of the fiscal cliff vote was Senator Bob Corker’s glum conclusion that sometimes, it is necessary to “Eat a *** sandwich.” The difference between a passionate advocate and a zealot is that the advocate will be willing to “suck it up” on occasion in order to achieve broader goals, willing to do what is necessary in order to advance his cause over the long term. The zealot is the “all or nothing” guy, and generally, what zealots get is nothing. As someone once said, politics ain’t beanbag. Or as Kenny Rogers might put it, people who actually get things done know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

There aren’t bright lines when principles are at stake. We’ve all seen people selling out their principles and justifying that transaction on prudential grounds. But when zealots insist that every s**t sandwich is a betrayal, we all lose.

Bipartisanship

There’s a lot of talk these days about bipartisanship and the lack thereof. One the one hand, we have cartoon characters like Richard Mourdock and peevish pundits like George Will decrying the very idea. (In a recent column, Will attacks all the bad ideas that have become law as a result of the dreaded cooperation across party lines.) On the other hand, we have well-meaning citizens and numerous other pundits despairing over the disappearance of that same co-operation.

Absent from this conversation is any recognition of the difference between goal and strategy–the difference between substance and method that determines when bipartisanship is appropriate and when it is not.

No sane person (granted, the numbers falling in that category have dwindled dangerously) promotes “compromising” with, say, genocide. But neither do sane people try to hold the country hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and thereby throwing the entire globe into financial depression, in order to get their own way about something.

As with so many other aspects of our efforts to live with one another in something approximating civility, an all-or-nothing mind-set is a hindrance. The question is not: should there be bipartisanship no matter what the goal? The question is: can we work together when the common good clearly requires that we do so? Reasonable people (again, a vanishing breed) can and will disagree about what the common good requires. Bipartisanship–rightly understood–is a good-faith effort by members of both parties to determine the extent to which they agree on what the common good requires, and to come to as much agreement as possible on the methods for achieving those ends. We used to believe that getting 70% of what you want is preferable to taking your ball and bat and going home, getting none of it. (Okay, I’ve mixed my metaphors….)

There is a lot of agreement (at least rhetorically) about the nation’s problems. There is less agreement on the best way to address those problems. That’s not new. What is missing these days is a willingness to engage in the sort of give and take that gives us at least partial progress toward solving pressing issues. What’s new is the willingness of the GOP to take the country down in service of ideological purity.

Call it absence of bipartisanship, call it zealotry, call it partisanship gone wild. Whatever you call it, it bespeaks a depressing absence of the good faith and integrity citizens have a right to expect from those we entrust with the nation’s business.