Opinion

It’s time we think of politics more like religion

Supporters cheer as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Sarasota, Fla., on Nov. 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FARNSLEY-OPED, originally published on Dec. 7, 2016.

(RNS) Students in my college classes start out thinking religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. When I ask them about differences between Catholics and Methodists, they respond with differences in beliefs: the pope, contraception and transubstantiation.

These theological differences are real, of course, but I learned long ago that ideas do not create religious identity: They follow from it. My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.

It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.

My students know, for instance, that people of Irish, Italian or Mexican descent are much more likely to be Catholic. Their Catholic identity and the intuitions that flow from it are shaped by their tribal membership long before they know a menu of ideas even exists. By the time they think about the ideas, their interpretation, acceptance or rejection is already deeply conditioned.

Ideas still matter but these ideas matter mostly to those who share a group’s identity. Catholics do not become Catholics, nor do Muslims or Jews become Muslims or Jews, because of reasoned argument: Who we are comes first.

It’s time to acknowledge that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us care to admit.

This may sound obvious to some, but I learned it the hard way. I have spent too much of my adult life pretending the opposite, that politics is about ideas and we develop our positions through reason, logic and formal argumentation. It’s time I accept the truth: Who we are comes first in politics too.

It’s time to stop saying “People don’t vote their interests.” This usually means working white people would be better off voting for a government that promises to protect people like them. But that’s not how they experience their interests. They want a world where people like them have meaningful jobs and high status. In that world, those who need state protection have low status. Why should they trust the government as the solution when they see government as the cause of their lower status?

We must stop assuming people’s interests are based on the amount of money they earn rather than who they are.

It’s time to stop saying “Candidates should focus on the issues and stop running negative ads.” In what world is this a more effective strategy? It may appear effective in an academic world where people like me incorrectly assume elections are about ideas, reason and argumentation. But the political operatives of both parties have known for decades that voting behavior is about emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation. It’s about whose status goes up or down. The operatives know who we are.

Young supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wait for him to appear at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FARNSLEY-OPED, originally transmitted on Dec. 7, 2016.

Young supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wait for him to appear at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FARNSLEY-OPED, originally transmitted on Dec. 7, 2016.

It’s time to stop saying “Better civic education will fix the problem.” I am the director of the Indiana University Center for Civic Literacy, so I believe civic education matters. But we need to be realistic about how it matters. The Constitution applies to all of us; we all live in a complex, bureaucratic world. There is a difference between fact and opinion. Better education in these areas can support evidence-based debates, but the way we interpret evidence is shaped first and foremost by who we are.

Smart people have been telling us this for a while. Read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and John Hibbing et al.’s “Predisposed.” Each debunks the notion that our reason operates free from, much less above, our pre-existing intuitions.

Most people seem to understand this about religion but have failed to realize it about politics.

This is understandable; there are good reasons to resist this view of political behavior. We do not like to think of public deliberation as quite so susceptible to the wiles of cynicism and manipulation. We imagine our own intuitions and affiliations stem from clear thinking while our adversaries are peddling mere identity politics.  We want politics, even elections, to be evidence-based. We don’t want to live in a “post-truth” world.

But this is not about giving up on facts, truth or logic. When people lie outright, or are simply wrong on matters of fact, we must say so. But facts are understood in a context shaped by everyone’s fundamental sense of who they are and which side they are on.

There are limits to the religion and politics comparison. Religious organizations adapt more slowly to change than political parties do. There are relatively few barriers to broad religious pluralism in America, but our vast diversity of political views must be squeezed, more or less, into two parties.

Despite such limits, any hope of bridging serious social differences between rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old, or among racial and ethnic groups, starts with learning about people’s identities. We have to find places where our intuitions overlap. We have to search for places where our many tribal affiliations coincide even as we disagree about other issues.

As with religion, the choice between “facts” and “identity” in politics is a false one. We can argue about policies using evidence, just as religionists argue internally about theology and ethics. But we should also remember that political behavior, like religious behavior, begins with the way we understand our place in the universe.

(Arthur E. Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of  “Flea Market Jesus”)

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Arthur E. Farnsley II

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  • “My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.”

    It was that way for me, and it SHOULD be that way.

    “Catholics do not become Catholics, nor do Muslims or Jews become Muslims or Jews, because of reasoned argument: Who we are comes first.”

    I am a convert. Reasoned argument is why I’m where I am today. Just because YOU blindly follow group identity to found the basis of your metaphysical beliefs doesn’t mean it should work that way for everyone.

    I was also a “convert” when it came to politics.

    So rather than opposing the identity-based worldview and moving to a more exploration and facts-oriented one, your article seems to be saying we should just give up and embrace identity-driven worldviews. That’s terrible advice.

  • The majority of Americans won’t make the mental effort required or would be uncomfortable expanding their horizons.

  • As one who is also a convert, I assert and attest to what Fast Eddie just declared, “Reasoned argument is why I’m where I am today.” Now Fast Eddie and I don’t hold the same theological or metaphysical viewpoint, but that doesn’t preclude our ability to reason out our views from the evidence as we understand it, whether the construct is political or spiritual. That said, I accept one point of the author’s premise; that we are all subject to the temptations of prejudice or bias. That is why I give myself a daily gut check, and continue to seek as many sources of information to confirm or correct my own perspective.

  • I, too, am a convert, one who respects reasoned argument. I also pay close attention to the issues when I vote. But it is true that many people I have met simply think of both politics and religion as “team” sports, rooting for their side. I was shocked at the answer a woman gave me when I asked her who she was voting for. She responded that she hadn’t made up her mind yet because her husband is a republican and her father is a democrat. Then I learned that her attitude is a common one, particularly in Indiana, the state I currently reside in. What is required to address this woeful approach to politics and religion is that critical thinking courses should be mandatory at all levels of education. Of course, this entails that teachers and professors become familiar with the skills and dispositions identified in the discipline of critical thinking. If this change were to take place, we would have a more tolerant society, a more informed electorate, and make more rational decisions. However, it is likely the case that some of “the powers that be” (corporate and political) do not want a citizenry that thinks critically.

  • It is TRUE that “Better civic education will fix the problem.”

    IF…..

    The first texts of that education are “Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and John Hibbing et al.’s “Predisposed.”

    The greatest single reason for partisan rancor is an exceedingly poor understanding OF the human animal BY the human animal. For the most part we operate on a set of assumptions about ourselves and each other that are straight up wrong. And yet they form the basis of practically everything we think, say, and do. We paint each other as something we’re not, and then we demonize each other for being that something.

    If we were to correct the assumptions then greater empathy, understanding, and tolerance would be the inevitable result.

    It would not require a major overhaul of the education system, merely tweaks to current curricula. Ideas from Haidt, Kahneman, and Hibbing, for example, could be included in age-appropriate ways at all levels of public education from Kindergarten to post graduate work.

    Such ideas would include, for example Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology:

    1) Intuition comes first, reason follows.

    2) There’s more to morality than care and fairness, there’s also liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity.

    3) Morality binds and blinds.
    If ideas like these were to be worked in to public education curricula then it would be impossible for there not to be increased levels of empathy, understanding, tolerance, and inclusiveness.

    https://theindependentwhig.com/thesis-of-the-independent-whig-part-one-introduction-why-moral-foundations-and-cognitive-style-matter/

  • Fast Eddie you should read Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” or Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow,” or Hibbing’s “Predisposed.”

    Evolution shaped our brains just as much as it shaped our bodies. We are born with brains already predisposed to lean toward either the political left or the political right.

    Predisposed does not mean predestined. The things we learn either through long term formal education or from first hand experience shape, refine, and enhance our predispositions.

    But the notion that we arrive at our ideological/moral/religious views through reasoned argument is a delusion; a belief in something without basis in fact. That’s just not how the brain works. The belief that it DOES work that way is science denial.

    The delusion that we DO arrive at our belief systems through reasoned argument is possibly the greatest single reason for the worst crimes against humanity ever committed. Here’s but one example, from a lecture Haidt gave at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education:

    “the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the, uh, is the servant of the, wait what is it, David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.”I think Hume was right. So I’m really concerned about rationalists, but what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one, no what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right we have reason on our side, they called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. The committed a genocide in the Vendee region lining people against the walls and shooting them, putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.”

    https://theindependentwhig.com/haidt-passages/haidt/transcript-when-compassion-leads-to-sacrilege/

  • It would help to include political philosophy in a discussion of politics because most political disagreements are determined at the level of philosophical disagreement. That requires getting beyond the personalities and issues of the day – which is the only way a dispassionate discussion will occur anyway.

  • The Muslim religion not only advocates and reinforces these commonalities of emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation; they compel such in Sharia law. There is no distinction between a Muslim’s religion and their politics and government. I don’t believe we Americans want to go that route, and put the mullahs in charge of ordering all the details of our lives, We’re a few centuries further advanced!.

  • I am a convert to religious agnosticism after many years of pretending to believe in the supernatural. This epiphany came gradually as I was exposed to a large variety of interesting people, places, and books including those mentioned. Religion demands that one accept things that critical thinking would prevent you from accepting. It becomes a war of FACTS versus BELIEFS. As one’s critical thinking skills develop, beliefs begin to take the back seat to science and provable evidence. This ‘belief vs facts’ phenomenon has now pervaded politics; facts are now secondary and are often seen as an obstacle to beliefs and are discarded and attributed to the ‘elites.’ Anti-intellectualism has become part and parcel to both politics and religion——‘ignorant and proud of it.’ The American Evangelical movement has now become a cult that reflects this belief system.
    BTW: A far better book on this subject, IMHO, is George Lakoff’s “MORAL POLITICS: How liberals and conservatives think.”

  • “Predisposed does not mean predestined. The things we learn either through long term formal education or from first hand experience shape, refine, and enhance our predispositions.”

    You might have a point if not for the fact the article uses terminology more in referencing predestination than predisposition. IE “Catholics do not become Catholics, nor do Muslims or Jews become Muslims or Jews, because of reasoned argument: Who we are comes first.”

    “We are born with brains already predisposed to lean toward either the political left or the political right.”

    Your argument might hold salt if it wasn’t for the fact that politics is a clear geographical divide, not necessarily genetic. I invite you. Take a map of the way that each individual district in America votes, then compare it to a map of the same districts showing the urbanization of each. Politics isn’t genetic, it’s geography based along an urban/rural divide, as any basic examination of the data will show you.

    Plus if, as you say, political alignment was oriented by biological determinism then the left/right divide ~would make some sort of sense~ along biological lines. The left/right divide does not, however, make sense. The same political side that says you should be able to put whatever you want in your body in regards to marijuana wants to regulate what you are be allowed to put in your body when it comes to tobacco. The same political side that says you should be able to put whatever you want in your body in regards to tobacco wants to regulate what you are allowed to put in your body when it comes to marijuana. If the left/right divide was biological you’d expect Liberals to continue caring about presidential warmongering when the president is a Democrat, but they obviously don’t. They aren’t genetically predisposed to hold their political beliefs, apart from one thing.

    If biological determinism decided your political leanings we’d expect to see some consistency in ideological make-up. The ONE factor of biology that factors into politics is the biological factors of Tribalism. But that, contrary to what you say, does NOT mean you are born with an inherent lean towards the left or right, it means you’ll have an inherent tendency to latch on to a tribe and agree with your tribe’s politics as a matter of tribal identity. Making it more /geographically/ determined than /genetically/.

  • The current state of affairs is not the right way just because it is the current state of affairs. The article is just shrugging and going “we should just accept that people adhere to a political or religious belief based on tribalism”.

    No thank you.

  • My “argument” is not really an argument. It’s merely a summary of the most recent science on all of this.

    Read “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray or “The Big Sort” by Bill Bishop.

    Psychological predisposition CAUSES the geographic sorting you describe, not the other way around.

    Tribes form around ideological like mindedness – ideology or morality – not geography.

    If you read Haidt then you’ll see that the inconstancies you point out are not inconsistent at all. Also relevant to this is the book “The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization” by Arthur Herman, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for the two main cognitive styles that are seen throughout human history. They’ve been consistent for thousands of years. Your examples of inconsistency miss the forest for the trees.

    In all cases you have reversed cause and effect.

    Political predisposition is, in fact, primarily genetic.

    The scientific evidence is overwhelming.

    The books referenced are but the tip of the iceberg of data on this.

    Others include
    “The Blank Slate” by Pinker,
    “Social” by Lieberman.
    “The Origins of Virtue” by Ridley

    Read some of them. You’ll see.

  • “It’s time we think of politics more like religion”

    Just like Sharia, which is the goal of this anti-religion sham website.

  • You know this as a Muslim?

    If I made the same kinds of blanket generalities about Christianity, you would be up in arms about how I am misrepresenting the wide variety of beliefs within the faith as an outsider. But “because they are Muslim” it somehow excuses similar silliness.

    “There is no distinction between a Muslim’s religion and their politics and government.”

    There is no distinction between a Fundamentalist Christian’s religion and their politics and government. We have Christian types attacking the separation of church and state here on a regular basis. We have people claiming the US is a Christian nation (meaning it is a nation which is governed for the sole benefits of Christians alone). There is not a single Evangelical Christian politician who avoids entangling their religious beliefs with their politics and government. Who doesn’t seek to give their religious beliefs color of law.

  • Progressivism 101: Politics must replace God, family, and friends. The Party is the religion.
    Notice you never see a progressive that criticizes islam as islam is government, law, politics, and religion.

  • @FastEddie – I think his writing is very strident – so I agree with you on that. But beyond his tone he has a good point: remember that our “reasons” are only part of why we come to our political opinions. But I think his stridency is intended to get us to see our biases, rather than submit to them.

  • “We have people claiming the US is a Christian nation (meaning it is a
    nation which is governed for the sole benefits of Christians alone).”–Spuddie

    Show your work. Give examples to support your claim. No hand-waving allowed, your examples must be sourced so others can verify them.

    Until then, I don’t trust anything you claim. Your parenthetical remark poisoned everything else you tried to assert.

  • Read the works of David Barton and any Dominionist. I describe their exact position. I don’t care whether you trust me or not.

    You can try with Barton’s piece of historical dishonesty, “The Myth of Separation of Church and State” and take it from there. I am not going to post a link to that lying turd as a matter of principle. But a simple search on Barton or the title will yield the results you ask for.

  • I guess you don’t know about organizations like Muslims for Progressive Values. And you don’t know LGBT Muslim people, or Muslim feminists, or imams who contribute to interfaith understanding in their communities. There is the same variation in Muslim identity and politics as there is in the Christian world. The Christian world runs from the Christian Identity Movement to left-leaning Christian activists like Rev. William Barber or Jim Wallis. And perhaps you’ve not read or seen Fareek Zakariah, a columnist for Newsweek and CNN commentator, or Hasan Minaj on the Daily Show. To name but two obvious examples of Muslims who are not the cartoon characters you seem to imagine. The Muslim world is hardly a monolith.

  • Did I miss the moment in which I and my fellow evangelicals were forced to be married to a same-sex partner? All I remember is that the country, which is supposed to allow for the free exercise of religion, decided to let all people be guided by their religious beliefs and non-beliefs in the matter of marriage. And, while this is not the rule of law in every state, the country was moving to disallow discrimination in housing and employment. I am sorry to see my fellow evangelicals become so mean-spirited. I thought they believed in witnessing to their faith — demonstrating by their lives the truth of what they believed. Instead they have decided to play the role of the aggrieved, grasping at power to defeat ideas and their perceived enemies. What a shame.

  • You allow no room for the voice of progressive religious people, both Christian and Muslim. You don’t seem to know of their existence. How is that possible?

  • Gee, I guess I’m really ignorant of your favored religion! I know this much: Jim Wallis and company wasn’t any help at all in getting Hilliary elected president! For that I celebrated Thanksgiving heartily, as one of those “generic Christians” who is not intent on cutting anyone’s head off to please their primative god.

  • What I find most disturbing about your response is that it begins with a lie. You have no idea what God I worship — but you must pretend it isn’t the God of Jesus Christ.

    And you have collapsed all of Islam into ISIS, which means you have mirrored the work of ISIS — for they claim that the entire Christian world wishes to steal the land and resources of Muslim nations, and to repeat the Crusades. And so it tries to coerce and convince other Muslims to join them.

  • Perhaps you did it that way, but do you really believe that most Americans wrote out a chart to determine whether they were Methodists or Free Methodists, Lutherans or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Wisconsin Synod Lutherans or Presbyterians or Congregationalists or Brethren or Disciples of Christ or Baptists (in 7 different flavors) –and so when they move to a community which doesn’t have a congregation in their flavor, they pine away their lives wishing their one true church would come and build a building?

    The very diversity in the Roman Catholic church suggests to me that most people didn’t come to their faith tradition by filling out the chart and making their decision.

  • Read a little more carefully, my Brother! Where did I say anything about ISIS? I don’t care anything about their lies and misconceptions. Thos Muslims are still smarting from getting their ass kicked back there in the 7th Century! They must represent your religio-political your cause because you’re the one who brought it up, and are yet so fixitated on it!

    I don’t begin with any lie. YOu jumped to a conclusion about what I was saying! One can favor the Muslim religion without being Muslim! Again, a teachable moment, if one is tuned in!

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