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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 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 an 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.

Roots in Human Nature

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. While our better nature tells us not to gossip, sometimes it is tempting to talk critically about others, individually and on a wider "What's this world coming to?" scale. The expression "What is this world coming to?" expresses a feeling of passionate lament about what's wrong about other people, entertaining and captivating to engage in this critique of the world.

The tendency to gossip and criticize is part of our human nature.... gossip is one of the human universals found in virtually every culture and 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). In the culture wars that have been growing over past decades, it now represents deep divisions in society and in the wider church.

The range of media now available to fuel the culture wars, with tv, radio and internet, mega-churches, news networks and social media networks, greatly enflames the human tendency to compare and divide, resulting in greater cultural divisions than perhaps ever before.

Roots in Religious Thought Patterns

Religious groups can be especially susceptible to the temptation to criticize other values and lifestyles. One of the themes in religion is to be people who are "set apart" and different from the rest of the world, not "worldly;" but focused on a future place in heaven and not "of this world." The expression "What is this world coming to?" takes on a whole other meaning for many religious people who focus on a future spiritual world.

Roots in Populist Economics

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. There is a trend to automate, measure, standardize, and centralize everything.

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.

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.

Roots in Perceptions of Power

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.

Where will common ground come from?

This question remains open. I like to look for common ground by exploring universal values and areas of common political interest. This exploration can focus on POLICY QUESTIONS to connect with populist politics: How can new trends in fields as diverse as food and farming, environment, manufacturing, education, architecture and or urban design capture the value of traditional communities? Can midwestern farmers help to address climate change through soil management and carbon-reduction policies? Can a green economy bring jobs to rust belt states in creating new infrastructure?

Also a focus on PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS to connect across the religious divide: What biblical teachings focus on generosity and a sense of abundance rather than competition and scarcity? How do biblical teachings show the value of humility and a sense of wonder and curiosity, rather than loud and strident certainty, about the world? How can faith communities restore a sense of openness and constructive engagement with the world that could help to move away from the current bitterness of the red-blue divide?

-Jennifer Leonard / Essay 2012 / Posted August 2018

J.M.L., 2012