Polarized politics, righteous minds, and Dr. Who

Working on a project the other day, I came across this quotation, courtesy of that brilliant British social critic, Dr. Who (circa 1977):

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views—which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

The quote is out there. When I searched on the Internet to confirm the source, I found it at several other web sites, including this one and this one.

See? The left and right really can find common ground. Except I have a hunch they’ll differ about who exactly are “the very powerful and the very stupid.”

But seriously, folks …

Bill Moyers broadcast a fascinating interview on Sunday with philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why American liberals and conservatives see the world so differently, to the point that our current political polarization seems inevitable. While U.S. politics has always been rough and tumble, the consensus is that we’re witnessing something different in our time, something toxic. It seems that most public debates don’t stop at disagreement these days. Now we push on to personal demonization. I’m not talking only about recent televised debates among professional politicians. I’ve been tempted to cancel my Facebook account a few times in the last six months because of the rancor coming from some amateurs.

Jonathan Haidt, appearing on "Moyers and Co."

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

Haidt, who teaches social psychology at the University of Virginia and is a visiting professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern School of Business, traces the roots of our current state of affairs to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Moyers himself was involved in those pieces of legislation, as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.) He also offered a couple of realistic suggestions about how we might start reducing the temperature and return to more civil discourse and a more functional public life. To view the Moyers-Haidt interview, go here.

If you’re wondering where Haidt himself stands, he said he began his research as a confirmed liberal but now describes himself as a moderate. In his opinion, he said, conservative intellectuals understand basic human nature better than liberal intellectuals. That statement alone could prompt a good conversation either in a classroom or a dining room. (Go ahead. Don’t let me stop you.)

He has a new book coming out in March that explores the connections between morality and politics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). I don’t pre-order many books, but after listening to Haidt, I think I’ll make an exception.

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Coming soon: Notes about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require all health-insurance providers–including religion-based organizations–to provide contraceptives to women, even if the religious organization believes it is wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of other church leaders are calling this an infringement of religious liberty.

Don’t be surprised: An Alabama governor, Irish bishops, and a certain Florida pastor

You remember Gomer Pyle, don't you? "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

From this week’s news, file the following under “Don’t Be Surprised”:

1. The newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself immediately in public-relations hot water after telling a church audience on Martin Luther King Day that only Christians were his brothers and sisters. The new governor, who’s a Southern Baptist, apologized to his constituents two days later. Theologically, he’s very much in line with mainstream evangelical theology — that is, that Christians have been uniquely adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. But any suggestion of being exclusive or of favoring one group of constituents over another is not politically savvy — or even that advisable at the duly elected leader of all the people of Alabama.

2. The Vatican shouldn’t be surprised (and most likely isn’t) that the disclosure of a confidential letter from a Vatican official in 1997 to Irish bishops re-opened wounds, sparked yet more controversy about clerical abuse and was mostly misunderstood if not altogether falsely reported. The letter, obtained by an Irish TV network and released to the Associated Press, warned the bishops of likely consequences if they followed through with their proposed policy of reporting all charges of child abuse to police. Victims groups and at least one American lawyer who is working to sue the Vatican on behalf of a victim, said the letter was a “smoking gun” that proved the Holy See was encouraging a cover-up.

The Vatican said the letter simply alerted Irish clerics that their proposed policies had implications under both civil and church law, but it never advised them not to report abuse. Reading the one-and-a-half page letter, it looks like the Vatican has a point. To judge by the coverage, especially when it first hit the headlines, some of the reporters on this story either didn’t understand “Vaticanspeak” and the workings of Roman Catholic Church machinery — or they didn’t want to. (To read about the problems with the reporting on this story, check out this post, which gives me a chance for a shout-out to friends at the Get Religion blog, a good place to find critique of how the mainstream media covers religion.)

3. Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who drew worldwide attention last fall when he pledged to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, should not be surprised that the British government denied him entry into its country. He planned to speak at a February rally protesting the rise of Islam in the UK as well as visit his daughter who lives there. The British government said he was denied a visa because it “opposes extremism in all its forms” and  thinks his views would “foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”.Jones, of course, protested the decision, calling it “sabotage of the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression” as well as proof of “the effectiveness of the threat of militant Islam in the UK.” About 2.7 percent of the UK’s 62.3 million people are Muslim (compared to 0.6 percent in the US), according to the CIA World Factbook. When I lived in England in the 1980s, we could already say, accurately, that there were more Muslims than Methodists in Britain.

Are there any other threads running through these stories? Maybe, to paraphrase the most famous line from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate … well.

George and Martha and Adam and Eve … and other problems with a patriotic Bible

adam_and_eve_2george-and-martha-washington_small

Thanks to a marketing video that compares George and Martha Washington to Adam and Eve, I’m trying not to think about the nation’s first First Lady walking around a garden without her petticoats.

But what really sets my teeth on edge is how the advertisement equates Jesus and his disciples with the Continental Congress as “founding fathers,” with its closing line: “Sometimes history does repeat itself.”

The ad is for the American Patriot’s Bible, released last month by Thomas Nelson, with Atlanta megachurch pastor Richard G. Lee serving as general editor. Nelson won’t disclose sales figures, but it is already preparing for a second printing of the hefty, colorful book.

AmericanPatriots_Bible8
“You will find a great volume of both information and inspiration revealing the ‘strong cord’ of the Bible’s influence that runs through the colorful fabric of our nation’s past and present,” Lee wrote in the introduction. “Joining with the sacred text are stories of American heroes, quotations from many of America’s greatest thinkers, and beautiful illustrations that present the rich heritage and tremendous future of our nation. If you love America and the Scriptures, you will treasure this Bible.”

Maybe so, but I mostly just felt annoyed. It’s not the emphasis on the role of religion in the American story, particularly a certain strain of Christianity. That’s old news.

It’s true, after all, that the majority of revolutionary leaders were Christians of some kind and many were motivated by their religious convictions, often arguing from the Bible against tyranny. There’s no question that the nation’s founders, not to mention later leaders, were shaped by their beliefs, which of course influenced their ideas and actions.

Even unorthodox deists like John Adams, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson (who literally cut the miracles out of his Bible) used religious rhetoric and biblical imagery.

But then there’s the matter of what is often called civil religion, a kind of ecumenical devotion to the ideal of the United States. The nation itself becomes the object of veneration and Uncle Sam is dressed in priestly garments.

It’s a common impulse. People throughout history have considered their kingdoms on earth to be special outposts of heaven: Italy, Poland, Spain, England, France, Japan – the list goes on.

Many Americans can keep their belief in their country distinct from their religious faith. We can love the U.S., they say, and we can love God and remember the two are different.

But others forget the distinction, entwining American ideals so tightly with a Christian identity that they become confused, usually with bad results. That is the trap where the American Patriot’s Bible falls.

John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."
John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."

A full-page sidebar uses a story from Abraham’s life to illustrate … the right to bear arms? That seems like a stretch. John Quincy Adams is quoted saying that “in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior” – and that notion isn’t challenged?

Then there’s the irritating historical revisionism that comes from leaving out uncomfortable details. Adams, Jefferson and Paine are all favorably quoted, for instance, but the details of their beliefs – or lack of beliefs – are glossed over. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking they were Christians.

Likewise, the book frequently presents wartime sacrifice as supreme examples of Christlikeness, but ignores the significant tradition of Christian pacifism.

Then there is the two-page essay that rightly discusses how Christians led in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, but does not explain how other Christians opposed those rights, quoting Scripture to justify sexism, segregation and slavery.

"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817
"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817

Such myopia isn’t only annoying. It’s unnecessary. Honest historians know that biblical ideas (along with Greek philosophy, rationalism and other worldviews circulating in the 18th century) helped the founders craft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s no secret that men and women of faith are among this nation’s chief architects.

We can admire leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln without confusing them with Adam, Moses or Jesus (much less imagining Martha Washington as a new Eve). I can believe the U.S. fills a distinct role in the world without casting it as God’s singular chosen nation.

And today I can certainly celebrate what the nation’s founders did without believing their sacrifices repeated the history of Christ’s sacrifice. Believing that wouldn’t make me a patriot. It might only make me a heretic.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 4 July 2009.

Prayer, politics and those pesky hot-button issues

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Phil Roe enjoys his new job. The U.S. Representative from Tennessee’s First District, a retired physician, wanted to join the debates in Washington over health care, and here he is. And if politics were baseball, he just moved to the major leagues.

But Thursdays are good days because that’s when he gets out of the Capitol Hill routine. In the evenings he usually flies home to Johnson City for the weekend. Before that, in the mornings, he joins other House members for an hour-long nonpartisan prayer breakfast.

“We all check our politics at the door,” Roe said during a phone conversation this week. “I really try to guard that time. We meet and get our week straightened out.”

Roe came away inspired from last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama spoke, but Roe was most impressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism soon after leaving office in 2007.

“I had never heard him share his faith,” Roe said. “That was the best event I’ve attended (in Washington) so far. I left with my jaw hanging down.”

While his own faith is important — he and his wife, Pam, are members of Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church — Roe favors the language of “values” and “morals” when discussing his work in Congress, perhaps sensing that too much religious vocabulary is easily misunderstood or potentially divisive.

In political office, “you rely on the values you grew up with, (such as) just telling the truth,” he said. “You look at that in the totality of your lifetime.”

But it seems inevitable that such conversations will turn to hot-button topics such as abortion, which Roe adamantly opposes. That issue marked one of his first big Beltway moments.

He delivered a brief anti-abortion speech in the House on Jan. 21, the day between the presidential inauguration and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Afterwards, he was asked to “say a few words to a group of people” the following day. Expecting a relatively small gathering, he found himself addressing more than 200,000 people in the National Mall for the annual pro-life rally.

As an ob-gyn specialist Dr. Roe delivered thousands of babies, and he would like to see abortion debated and put to an up-or-down vote in Congress, but doubts that will happen in the wake of Supreme Court decisions.

He was troubled by last week’s order by President Obama to lift former President Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Roe considers the research unnecessary and the surrounding political drama a distraction. He chooses his words carefully.

“A human embryo is how life begins, and that comes back to one of those core basic values: Do you consider this a human life or not?” he said. “That’s an argument that personally took it off the table for me. Where do you stop on the slippery slope?”

Obama set limits when he signed the federal funding order – prohibiting cloning embryos, for example – but Roe still thinks the president needlessly re-opened a door.

“To show you how creative people are, all the great breakthroughs have occurred with adult or umbilical-cord stem cells,” he said. “Science came right along and made breakthroughs. People feel strongly about the issue, and we didn’t need this.”

Given the current economic crisis and his own conservative politics, it’s no surprise that Roe talks about taxes and government spending in moral terms. He calls his belief in “smaller, leaner, more accountable government” one of his core values. (“My head is spinning with all the spending that goes on here.”)

A member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, he considers it “a moral obligation to take care of the people who make us free.” Low taxes, he said, attract businesses to the state, which ultimately provide new jobs that can help people get out of poverty. And “the worst thing you can do” to people living on a fixed incomes – including the growing numbers of retirees in Northeast Tennessee – is to raise their taxes.

“I can’t do that to them,” he said. “When I was practicing medicine, I knew people who watched their spouses die and struggle to make payments. I would get afghans and apple butter. I have to look these people in the eye.”

Johnson City Press, 14 March 2009.