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Bridging the red-blue divide

Essay February 2012 / Posted August 2018

I'd love to see a softening of the culture wars and a recognition of core values and common ground among differing views, and especially a softening of the culture wars related to faith communities. Since my early teens I've been attracted to faith and religion as a foundation for working toward social, economic and environmental justice; and for years assumed a natural harmony between church and secular work; with common ground toward helping others, and strengthening the fabric of communities.

But now, as a politically and theologically progressive Christian, I often react with awkward embarrassment about political views of many people on the religious right. Why would religious people hesitate to work to address climate change? Why would religious people oppose measures to improve access to health care? Why can't religious people keep an open mind about letting states allow same-sex marriage?

But I am also bothered by the increasingly harsh tone of anti-religious sentiment, heard and seen in social media, books, academic discussions and general conversation.

I quickly explain to friends and acquaintances that I think that the political right is currently blending religious and secular interests in ways that don't always make sense to me. I defend religion, saying that I believe that the energy of most churches and religious groups around the country is focused on helping people to live positive lives of faith, and not on the controversial "hot-button" political issues highlighted in the media. I explain that most of the religious people I know are strong supporters of environmental and social justice work. I point out that people of faith are active all around the world in showing compassion for others and working for positive change. I say that religious people have realized for many centuries that science and faith are complementary ways of understanding the world, and that science is a wonderful avenue for understanding life, health, the earth, and the awesomeness of God's creative work. I say that religion promotes not just tolerance but true unity, and that is through the diversity of my network of Christians that I have formed my best friendships, where differences in age, race, gender, ethnicity, social and economic background are not barriers to friendship and collaboration.

But as much as I would like to say that we all have common ground, I know that the current cultural and political divide in the country is very real.

Of course it's easy to engage in culture wars. It appeals to some basic human instinct to compare ourselves favorably to other groups of people, to contrast our own values with those of other people, to engage in lively conversation about what's wrong with the world today, to lament the loss of traditions from the past or to lament a lack of progress in society.

Talking critically about other values and lifestyles can sometimes help us articulate and solidify our own values (which can be a good thing) but also makes us feel superior to other people (a not-so-good thing) and also closes our minds to the wisdom and positive aspects of other people's values and lifestyles (a definitely-not-so-good thing).

The range of media now available to fuel the culture wars - tv, radio and internet - greatly enflames the human tendency to compare and be critical, resulting in greater divides than perhaps ever before, and adding an unpleasant tone to what might otherwise be healthier debates. And the appetite in the media for a few hot button issues focuses attention on these issues, distorting more thoughtful, real cultural and values-related concerns that are emerging across the country.

One of the factors fueling the culture wars may be a sense of disempowerment among many voters... a sense that others are controlling government, business and society; that "they" control everything. I have trouble relating to this distrust of a powerful "them." In contrast, I was raised to understand the U.S. government as representing the people. Ever since high school, in high school social studies classes and in later in college classes and then in community and professional groups, I have enjoyed lots of discussions about how "we" can solve various problems. I think with the pronoun "we," identifying myself, through my participation in voting and various aspects of citizenship, with the leadership of the community, state or nation.

I suspect that the current culture wars are not primarily about the hot-button issues of science and evolution, reproductive rights or marriage equality, but more fundamentally about a division between a populist view and a more centralized, scientific and business-like view of society, with disdain and distrust of views that feel elite or elitist to many populist thinkers.

There is a long-standing tradition in the United States of local control of economic activity, culture, education and lifestyle. Populist movements have arisen when centralized power threatened the health of local communities. For example, in late 1800s and early 1900s, populist movements advocated for the needs of farmers in the face of increasing power of banks, railroads and agricultural and industrial monopolies.

It was not surprising to see populist themes and populist movements arising in the 1980s, 1990s and subsequent years. Over the past several decades, technology and globalization have sparked an intense trend toward centralization of business, financial markets, healthcare, social services, education and government. There is a strong tendency by leaders and managers in business, technology, government and social services to pursue more technology-driven, more standardized, more centralized approaches to issues and problems.

The most painful manifestation of the tendency toward centralization was seen in the economy of the 1980s and 1990s, as the globalization of the economy led to corporate mergers and multinational structures, with smaller local companies taken over by larger organizations, resulting in downsizing and factory closures. The recent attention to the behavior of private equity firms has highlighted a painful truth - many of the layoffs and plant closures of the 1980s and 1990s probably didn't have to happen. Many of these actions were probably not an inevitable result of global competition but were the result of a re-organized and more aggressive corporate and financial power structure.

The growth in centralized corporate power has parallels in public policy and social services. There are large software, medical, pharmaceutical and management corporations gaining market share in social services, health and educational policy and planning. Business members of public policy advisory boards are treated with reverence, often gaining more attention and more respect than local citizen voices. There is a trend to automate, measure, standardize, and centralize everything. In meetings and discussions about public policy, I hear leaders ask "How can we overcome the problem of local control in education?" or "How can we get around student privacy laws that interfere with centralized data collection?" In this mindset, local control of education, data privacy laws or any other factors that prevent universality of a policy or practice are seen as barriers to progress.

The populism of the religious and secular conservative movement is a reaction to this centralizing tendency. Anger toward a "liberal elite" reflects the frustration of people concerned that decision making about everything from local jobs to healthcare to curriculum taught in local schools is increasingly far away and outside the control of local communities.

Populism and local control are not explicitly religious values, but are strong social and cultural values within American religious history and tradition. American churches typically value and nurture local leadership and emphasize the autonomy of local congregations. Even in the more hierarchical denominations, the local parish experience tends to be a primary focus for most members. This populist tendency in American religion may be a positive factor in the high rates of religious participation in the United States in contrast to many other industrialized nations. The populist tradition is a key to understanding the conservative nature of the political views of many of the religious people in the United States.

One of the greatest areas of (possible) common ground is a common appreciation for conserving and preserving traditional ways of life and values. People in both rural and urban, red-state and blue-state communities are increasingly aware of the ways that technology, media and corporate power have affected our personal and family lives. Many people are working to conserve or re-discover more traditional ways of living. For example, people in many urban communities are looking for fresh, local foods instead of packaged and processed foods, looking for non-electronic toys and games for children, looking for ways for children and families to rediscover the value of spending time outdoors and in more creative, less structured activities. And, for example, the emergence of urban and suburban community gardens, urban agriculture and markets for locally-grown and organic food are examples of efforts to conserve the long-standing agrarian tradition in the United States.

Another area of possible common ground is the idea of balancing "self-sufficiency" and social "safety nets". Self-sufficiency is not so much a religious value as a universal human value, presented in proverbs and stories as something to be sought for a successful life. It is a natural human instinct to desire self-sufficiency for ourselves, for our children and for other children in our extended families and communities.

Any well-developed society, belief system or value system learns to balance the natural desire for self-sufficiency with the need to provide mutual support, to provide an economic safety net for hard times, and to allow individuals to be able to graciously give and receive assistance. And this has been the case throughout American history, as communities have formed networks of mutual support.

So why is self-sufficiency such a strong value in the current thinking of the populist religious and secular right? And why is there antipathy toward social welfare programs?

Most religious writings do not emphasize self-sufficiency as a value, instead emphasizing having faith, sharing with others, providing for those in need, showing and accepting compassion and forgiveness. People who sing and listen to gospel music know the phrase "free grace," which means that God's grace does not need to be earned, but is a gift that is freely given and that should be graciously accepted. Self-sufficiency is clearly not an element of the essence of the basic gospel message.

At several key points in American history, the expansion of social welfare programs has come as a response following the breakdown of economic opportunities. While the leaders who extended social welfare were acting out of compassion for those in need, they also were aware of the need to offer immediate financial assistance in order to protect current business and government power structures.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, as midwestern farmers lost their farms and livelihoods to dust storms and mortgage debt and as workers and small business owners across the country lost jobs and businesses to the stock market crash, the new social welfare programs and federal work programs must have felt like cheap substitutes for the opportunities that were lost. But over time, the federal social welfare programs developed in the 1930s gradually became accepted as part of the basic social contract in the United States, as a necessary and compassionate economic safety net.

Since the 1980s and 1990s as deindustrialization, outsourcing, and corporate restructuring led to job losses, and the 2000s as the mortgage crisis led to foreclosures, underwater mortgages and high unemployment, social welfare programs have expanded further. But this expansion has probably felt, to many people, not so much like the extension of a basic safety net for occasional hard times but like a long-term substitute for lost economic opportunities. It seems that this sentiment may explain the political opposition to safety net programs from within many of the communities that need these programs most.

Common Ground. While these are some theoretical areas of common ground, the gap continues to widen. What type of leadership could re-establish conversations around common ground? How could social and economic policies be shaped to highlight common ground? What would be the best first steps to bridging the left-right, red-blue divide?

-Jennifer Leonard / Essay 2012 / Posted August 2018

J.M.L., 2012