“Religion and Polarized Politics”

Religion and Politcs

This was the subject of a recent forum at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.   The speakers were Melissa Rogers of the Brookings Institution and Wake Forest University and Peter Wehner of the Ethics & Public Policy Center.

Here is a taste of the conversation from Religion & Politics:

R&P: Given that the theme of tonight’s event is “religion and polarized politics,” what do you make of the nation’s current political polarization and how does religion play into it?

Peter Wehner: The country is deeply polarized. All the survey data indicates it. This is a trend that predates Donald Trump, but he’s accelerated it and made it worse. The reasons for polarization are multi-varied. There’s the increasing polarization of parties, increasing polarization of the public, and the urban-rural divide. There’s an increase in antipathy that people feel toward folks in the other party because they’re able to chart how much anger and antipathy that individuals in one party feel toward another. That’s definitely up. Then you have social media, which has made all these problems worse. So, we’re living in a polarized time. You need perspective. We’ve had more polarized times. We’ve had more dangerous times in American history. The Civil War is one; the late 1960s is another. But this is a difficult moment politically in terms of our civic culture.

In terms of how religion is playing into it, I would say that religion as a general matter is making things worse, not better. And I say that with regret, as a person of the Christian faith. I think Christianity ought to be a means for reconciliation and repair and greater empathy and greater understanding. That doesn’t mean people of faith don’t have deep and strong convictions on important matters of justice. But you would hope that religion would be a force for reconciliation. I think that’s not happening, and I think what’s increasingly happening is that religion is being weaponized in politics. And people of faith—and I can speak best for the Christian faith because that’s the world that I know because of my own faith commitments—is subordinated to partisan politics.

What happens is people take their ideologies and they sacralize them, they baptize them, and they think that these views and these approaches have somehow been ordained by God. You know, religion is complicated. It’s got a complicated history in the world and in the United States. Sometimes it’s a force for good; sometimes it’s a force for bad. That isn’t to say that there aren’t individual voices and institutions and figures who are doing good things. Certainly, people of faith are doing good things in their daily lives. But I’d say, right now, faith is making things worse rather than better.

Melissa Rogers: Just to add an example to that, I think we’ve seen on the political scene generally—people have written books about this like The Big Sort—that people tend to be sorted into communities based on their political beliefs or policy views. And, with specific reference to religion, we’ve seen that happen to some degree in churches and other congregations as well. Whereas in the past, it would have been more likely that you would be sitting in the pew with someone who wouldn’t share your political views or policy views, that’s less likely today. There are fewer purple churches and more red and blue churches. The effect that has both in other settings and in religious settings is that when people are relating to one another and in a shared community, like a congregation, and they have different views, then I think they each tend to moderate one another. But when people are together and have the same views, sometimes there’s a race to the edges. And so, I think that has had an effect on both our political scene generally and our religious communities, and it’s a struggle to try to ensure—both within the government and within politics and in the religious sphere—that we actually preserve and protect places where people of different views can form relationships and cooperate. That’s a big challenge for us right now within the political and religious sphere.

Read the entire conversation here.

One thought on ““Religion and Polarized Politics”

  1. Here is one method of creating perceived polarization. Pollsters do it all the time because it makes for exciting data. And we have to remember that pollsters are trying to sell a product, while also being part of the same class as political and media elites. The method is the forced choice question.

    If you tell people they have to choose between rights and regulations (about abortion, guns, etc), they will choose one or the other, even if they would choose a balance of both if given a third choice. Another way is framing that often also uses forced choice. If you ask Americans whether they’d choose to punish criminals or let them go unpunished, most Americans choose a punitive legal system. But if you ask Americans about punishment vs rehabilitation, most Americans choose rehabilitation.

    So, it matters which forced choice according to which frame. But if you believe that Americans are polarized, it’s easy to find or manufacture data that supports your belief. Or even if you don’t actually believe it but want to manipulate public perception in order to get Americans to act polarized, that can be accomplished as well.


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