In an article at Alternet,Katherine Stewart observes:
There is an obvious answer, and it is, in a sense, staring you in the face every time you watch a political debate or read about the latest antics of Focus on the Family and the AFA. The kind of religion that succeeds in politics tends to focus on the divisive element of religion. If you want to use religion to advance a partisan political agenda, the main objective you use it for is to divide people between us and them, between the in-group and the out-group, the believers and the infidels.
The result is a reduction of religion to a small handful of wedge issues. According to the religious leaders and policy organizations urging Americans to vote with their “Biblical values,” to be Christian now means to support one or, at most, a small handful of policy positions. And it means voting for the Republican party [snip]
When religion is thus reduced to a single policy decision and support for a political party, it becomes shrill and bigoted. This abuse of religion for political purposes has been tremendously damaging for American politics. But it is worth pointing out that it has been destructive of religion, too. According to another poll this month, this one by the Pew Research Center, record numbers of Americans are now reporting that they have no particular religious affiliation. Perhaps that is because, right now, the God of hate seems to be shouting louder than the God of love.
Stewart’s article is a good one, but I don’t believe she pushes her thesis far enough. I’ve written before about political fundamentalism on the American Right:
Fundamentalism is a rigid overreaction to changes in society. It represents a frantic attempt on the part of believers to manage their response to those changes, to reduce their anxiety about them and ultimately to sustain their sense of the social order. Fundamentalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It is the response of a portion of the population who see the modern world racing ahead and feel that the modern world is leaving them behind. Their values, beliefs, and ways of life face come face to face with forces that feel alien, anonymous and dangerous and they hold even more firmly to their values, which become a stabilizing force in their lives.
Politically, fundamentalism expresses itself:
- Conservatism forms a core part of their identity, both individual and communal.
- There is only one patriotism and it is theirs – only one way to be an American and it is their way.
- They are purposefully engaging in shocking behavior (carrying loaded weapons to political rallies?)
- They see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle – as part of a cosmic struggle against socialism, marxism, fascism, collectivism and in favor of a very particular understanding of freedom.
- They interpret historical events through the lens of that struggle for their understanding of freedom
- They try to make the opposition look immoral and bad
- They only emphasize some parts of their heritage (in other words, they ignore what it is convenient to ignore). The right continually white washes American history, they ignore the long history of slavery and racism, pretending it is all in the past.
- The right’s favored leader is typically male (although there are noteworthy exceptions, I’m hardpressed to imagine a sustained rally for a female conservative in the US).
- They are rebelling against what they perceive as an emerging and changing power balance in the US..
Drawing on the work of Manuel Castells, I observed:
. . . as the world has changed, people who experience the new world as excluding them, turn their back on it and construct an identity which defines the new world as invalid, as inauthentic, as morally wrong and bad, as having lost possession of the Truth. The excluded retreat into a realm in which their values, mores, and perspectives are defined as the true values, mores and perspectives and they enter a feedback loop. Talk of the right’s epistemic closure is an observation of that dynamic at work.
Fundamentalism asserts there is a single, correct view of politics, of history, of the law, of the Constitution. David Barton is a much debunked author of pseudo-history (he has no credentials or training as a historian) who peddles a version of history which religiously conservative voters joyously pay for it because it tells them they are God’s side and God on theirs. The Biblical literalism of religious fundamentalism is easily transferred to a Constitutional literalism, surrounded by a host of hoary and saccharine myths about the Founding Fathers. The religious right’s version of history has the Founding Fathers faithfully praying to God, humbly asking for guidance and being guided by God to write a divinely inspired, if not dictated, Constitution. In 2010, I argued:
Constitutional originalism is the political variation of biblical literalism, it is an attempt to argue that there is one meaning and only meaning to the constitution. It applies a fundamentalist thought process to the Constitution, it treats the US Constitution as a religious document and responds to it in the manner of religion, offering devotion and reverence rather than dialogue and interpretation.
Among the most basic ideas shared by Fundamentalists is the notion that today’s world is fallen, corrupt and foolish and that we must return to the wisdom of our ancestors:
Just as religious fundamentalism imagines we cannot be more wise than our ancestors, that our goal is to uncover the true and original meaning of The Word that is the Bible, so our political fundamentalists imagine that we cannot be more wise than the men who wrote the constitution. In asserting that one can discern the “original” meaning of the Constitution, these fundamentalists are telling us we cannot possibly know more or better than our ancestors. They have attempted to place us in bondage to the word on the page, to limit understanding to the literal and to reject the symbolic understanding which in legal terms is the constitution as a living document.
The polarization caused by fundamentalism arises simply because the American right would have us live in bondage to the past, governed by a doctrine of absolute adherence to their understanding of the Constitution and of social values of the past while the majority of Americans prefer a contingent and conditional approach to law and policy.
To put it very simply, political conservatives are often religious conservatives and they use the same tools to evaluate both the Bible and the Constitution and reach the same conclusions – namely that things are hard today because we’ve angered God and we must appease God to solve our problems. Frankly if one side believes in absolute law and absolute obedience and the other doesn’t, you’re going to have growing polarization.