My Take: The religious roots of our political gridlock
December 5th, 2012
08:04 AM ET

My Take: The religious roots of our political gridlock

Editor's Note: Mark Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

By Mark Osler, Special to CNN

The divide between Democrats and Republicans that has frozen the mechanisms of American politics has many causes, but one of them is tangled up in the faith differences of our legislators. Faith, for many lawmakers on both sides, is the source of their outlook and principles, and faith has in part created the conditions for the current impasse about the fiscal cliff.

For many (though certainly not all) Republicans, the root of knowledge is a bedrock certainty about the inerrancy of a literal reading of the Bible. This provides them with clear, absolute answers - that gay marriage is wrong, that modern science is suspect, and that much of what we see on earth is a struggle between good and evil.

When the 2012 Republican Party platform stated that we should “reaffirm that our rights come from God,” that reflected a sincere and genuine sense of bright-line natural law.

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That kind of certainty in faith, which so often draws good/evil lines on theological issues, very naturally supports a similar outlook on political issues that aren’t directly rooted in the Bible. Faith, after all, if it really is faith, structures the way we view and interact with the world.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that some American conservatives tend both to see their opponents as evil and to catastrophize potential political losses.

If the world is locked in a battle between good and evil, and our side is good, that leaves only one possibility for our opponents.

Bending to that other side becomes unthinkable. A loss or even a compromise is something terrible - it is a victory for evil. When Rush Limbaugh tells his audience that Democrats “want to ruin America,” he knows how a significant part of his audience will receive that message, through the lens of a faith that offers certainty and bright lines.

Some Democrats, too, suffer from political disabilities that are formed by faith. Few of them have the absolutist outlook describe above, but their own New Testament-focused view of the Bible leads in a different problematic direction.

There, we see a Jesus who is anything but a capitalist. Instead, he urges others to give away all that they have to the poor, and often disparages the wealthy.

To the rich young ruler who has followed all the commandments, Jesus instructs that he must also sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, without regard to the people he will have to fire and the resulting poverty of his own family.

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Many Democrats have taken this broad lesson of concern for the poor to heart, as we all do with core messages of faith. That quiet wind is always there.

This gets us to gridlock because it puts Democrats in the position of class warriors - they favor the poor and disfavor the rich.

This is most clear in framing tax policy, which is at the heart of the gridlock we have seen around how to avoid the fiscal cliff. At times, the Democrats' certainty on these issues is the equal of what we see in Republicans.

So we end up in a deadlock. Now, we hear, that gridlock may be breaking up a bit.

On one side, the certainty is less certain as the “no increase in taxes” pledge is abandoned by some. On the other, there is an openness to cutting government spending.

Some will say this is simply political expediency, but I am more hopeful: This opening may be tinged with a blessed uncertainty, the faint hint that the complexity of politics may be as messy and glorious and private as the complexity of our faiths.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Osler.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Church and state • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (1,027 Responses)
  1. charles darwin

    It's high time people get up to date with the current century and stop living the fables of 2000 years ago.
    If religion were ever to take over politics we would be no better off than being ruled by the taliban.
    The religious nuts would have everyone under their control and human rights would vanish.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • lol??

      Um,. johnny come lately racist Darwin, I call foul. Your scientists claim 400,000 years of humanhood for the race in da hood.
      That's 1/2% of the total time ago. What's yer hurry?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  2. gotmercury

    I thought that the problem with fiscal cliff is NOT a varied belief in g__ but rather in two conflicitng economic theories. One holds that the rich create jobs and economic growth through investment of capital (watch them now sitting on cash doing nothing!) and the other that economic growth is driven by spending (middle class needs $). Personnaly, I think that someone doesn't build a factory unless they are pretty sure there are buyers for the products. The rich can't create jobs alone. Chubby if not fat middle class is a must and good goverment and infrastructure also help.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  3. Sorensen

    Religion is the single source of 95% of all wars, human disasters, misery, corruption (Vatican!), lies, naivite, etc.etc.
    That's how it is, and will always be.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • lol??

      Bringing up the false prophet without mentioning the beast could lead to jealously and a cat fight.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Peter

      Oh, cry me a river.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • powersliderx

      War is based on imperialism, protection,fear, desperation, glory, envy and love amongst the mortals. Only when God gets involved can you claim religion is the root of war.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  4. George Marshall

    I would like to see an atheist or a Wiccan elected president, not because I'm advocating atheism (I'm not) nor because I'm a witch (I'm not) but because it might signal an end to these mindless and unproductive brouhahas over religion.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      unfortunately, christian politicians try and often succeed in passing laws based on biblical law. i'm an atheist and i would love to see an atheist elected president too - someone who doesn't think there's an invisible man in the sky talking to him.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • lol??

      3 nots and 2 nors means you are. Very odd.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  5. DC

    "To the rich young ruler who has followed all the commandments, Jesus instructs that he must also sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, without regard to the people he will have to fire and the resulting poverty of his own family."

    Rather clear you didn't understand a thing you read. The guy had money. He told the guy to give up his money. Didn't say he couldn't let his family have it or couldn't set up the business he may have had (stretch of a thought).

    December 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • sam

      It's so funny how all those passages can mean anything you want them to.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Ed Schultz

      god does not exist. sorry

      December 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • lol??

      Looking into Scripture is great.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • powersliderx

      When a person creates the universe, I will listen to them as to whether God exists. As far as this article goes, wow, Republicans believe the Bible literally, but Democrats don't ? Jesus was not a capitalist ? Republicans view Democrats as demonic spawn? The Democrats' perverted faith is a reason for class-warfare ? I'm thinking Pulitzer.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • ME II

      "When a person creates the universe, I will listen to them as to whether God exists."
      Then you don't "listen" to the Bible, I take it.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  6. Mark S

    You need to read and understand your bible more clearly before making broad statements like "Democrats believe that Jesus says to give all your money to the poor." In fact doubt there are very many democrats or republicans that identify themselves the way that you are portrayed them.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  7. Michael

    TO : 4july1776 You are the problem with the USA and the gridlock. You must live in a shell and only come out when grover calls your name. Learn to think for your self instead of people like limbaugh doing all of your thoughts. Religion does not belong in government. Look up the quotes from Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. How many wars throughout history have been fought over religion; more then you can count even if you do remove your shoes.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • 4JULY1776

      No, actually you're wrong!

      I never met grover norquist nor intend to......I just don't like being ripped off to support millions of people who make up the welfare class and live off everyone else's dime!

      December 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah...way to prove Michael's point, July. Dumbass.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      4July1776: Many, many of the folks who receive government assistance are employed. Many, many of the folks who receive government assistance do so for a short period of time (the majority of folks who receive food stamps, for example, do so within a year – per USDA study)

      December 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Akira

      Ending the futile war will recoup what is paid out in welfare many billions over.
      I don't want for my taxes going for that, either.
      Norquist is nothing more than an obstructionist blackmailer.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      Akira: Excellent point – there are plenty of things that I don't want to pay for, but we don't get to vote on each line item of the federal budget.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      You guys are wasting your time talking to July. His type reject any fact or line of reason that doesn't agree with their twisted world view.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  8. thelastdemocrat

    This article repeats the same old stereotypes of the intolerant left. Many of us used to be happy with an American Democrat party before hate-fomented marxists took over, and started villifying the opposition as evil, dumb, stingy, or all three.

    Look on any political blog where either liberals or both sides comment – the liberals have only name-calling and vitriol. All the conservatives are pointing out is how spedning is out of control, duh, we are hading out too much duh and creating a dependent class duh we all recognize that and that obama is a marxists. All of these observations are just plain ol political speech, as well as being true.

    Instead of addressing these issues, we liberals foam off at the mouth – you hardly can find a comment from us without vile language. What this editorialist tries to perpetuate is that what was normal 40 yeas ago is now somehow unthinkable.

    Conservatives are evil for opposing free birth control and free govt-paid abortions for all – that is the rigid religious thinking?

    December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • 4JULY1776

      Excellent comment!

      To illustrate your point......even Reagan was once a Democrat, until they went too far toward Socialism.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah, it's all the 'liberals'. You don't sound insane at all.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Chuckles


      Gimme a break DINO, the dems might be leaning a little more lef than you want, but to say that the dems just complain and spew anger and don't do anything is either ignorant or you are just plain lying. I'm not saying that the dems are completely right in any regard but when Obama has said he wants to focus on education by decreasing the bloated defense budget, increase taxes to create revenue and siphon both those funds towards education, the ONLY thing holding him back have been the do-nothing repubs.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  9. Luke

    This article is an example of very narrow thinking and lazy stereotypes. Many Republicans are not overly religious and form their positions on secular principles, such as a belief in personal liberty. I do not believe that the majority of Democrats base their political views on their religious philosophy. A significant portion of Democrats do not even believe in religion. And a significant portion of their overall philosophy is in direct contradiction to one of the ten commandments- thou shall not covet anything that is thy neighbor's.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      I would rather have neighbors that covet my stuff than neighbors that try to cram their moral values down my throat.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Me

      luke – you have just posted the DUMBEST comment here all day........... Congrats 🙂

      December 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  10. billyMinnesota

    Oh! This was soooo close to being a good article. If only Mr. Osler had allowed himself to skewer the Democrats as objectively as he did the Republicans it would have been a good piece for both sides to ruminate upon. Instead, he allowed his own 'religion' to to dull his good point and render the effort to yet another biased rant. Ho-hum.....nice try.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  11. Boost economy and pay off debt

    It's time for the Middle Cla-ss to run this country,, today we are taken advantage of by the poor, by religion's scamming and by the upper cla-ss who wouldn't be there without the buying power of the Middle Cla-ss. Fixing it fast and making it fair like this;
    1) treat all organizations, including religions, as the businesses they really are. 2) tax all property of all organizations, religions too (they have become wealth accu-mulators at the cost to the middle cla-ss). 3) end all grants and subsidies to all organizations, including religions. 4) tax all income at payroll income. - these groups are providing duplicate services already available. The middle class carries these groups.

    Doing the following will bring in over a trillion dollars in new revenue and return $200 to $1,000 after tax income PER MONTH to the middle cla-ss worker – economy wins.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  12. robert

    Oh, how I wish this author was right in saying that our illustrious politicians make their decisions based on their interpretations of Scripture. While I have no doubt that there are well-meaning Christian politicians who really want to do the right thing based on their beliefs, somehow as I watch them spin everything from one side of the aisle to the other something tells me that at the end of the day it is political expediency and personal survival that wins the day in Washington. No more, no less. Call me a cynic, but on this matter I proudly where the label.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • sam

      They've proven over and over that they'll say anything to get elected.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Me

      I would hope all politicians leave religion out of their decisions and govern with common sense instead of a book written thousands of years ago.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  13. lionlylamb

    The sediments of concubine melodramatics parlors the fiscal teasing giving rises to variants of deposed and forborne predecessors who knew well the days would come when social tyrants would be the masked rangers of lewd and lascivious acts upon despotisms long foretold and weaned once away from. Time forgets and so do those who are timed up to so be as a fruition of injustices reckoning and willingness to not turn asunder the flagrancies of stolen commodities in the welfare of the now mothered prenuptials growths.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • gotmercury

      You construct very poor, run-on sentences that do not make sense, C-. Go back to school.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      You are either taking too much medication or not enough.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  14. America was a Great Place

    You can't make the rich want to take care of the poor, but you can empower the poor to take care of each other. If the democratic party would give this country's children a solid education and some well defined skills, we might eventually dig ourselves out of this rut. As it stands, the selling of our country to China and other financiers will bury future generations. And for what? Our programs are pork-filled garbage. How long do you really think we can just print money...

    December 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      The Democrats tend to be the ones who support education spending. It is the Republican legislatures that are slashing money to education and insisting that "intelligent design" be taught in science classes.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • lol??

      The educratists doubled their prices in the last 10 years. Good ol' PUblic Servants lookin' out for ya. They vote in a block.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • America was a Great Place

      I didn't say throw money at the education system. There's a big difference.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      YOU MUST BE JOKING " If the democratic party would give this country's children a solid education and some well defined skills" Like what, teach creationism in public schools so our test scores go even lower? Cut more funds from education.??? You are TOO funny. "no child left behind is true if you leave them all behind."

      December 5, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • TheLastDemocrat

      Exactly. And the democratic party support for education? Uh, yeah – so we have the teachers' unions as a campaign war chest and labor force. In the recent Chicago teacher strike mess, it was very apparent that the socialist were guiding things – Are we democrats for the children's educational power, or for the teachers'political power. The democratic party has chosen: the teachers' unions are ited in with hte socialists more and more, and our kids are getting dumber each year.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • lol??

      "No child left behind" was just a copycat fake gubmint rapture. What they didn't know was that the REAL Rapture was fake. No rapture for anyone, just purification by FIRE.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      The Moral Majority is Neither Intelligent Design is Neither as well.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • America was a Great Place

      All spiteful commentary aside, our children are not being properly educated, and our universities are churning our drones who think morality has no place in commerce. We need God in our schools, homes, hospitals and businesses.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Me

      I wonder what exactly the republicans have done for education other than cut spending and passed social laws restricting everything from who marries who to how many times a person can fart in one day! Talk about a do-nothing party!

      December 5, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      No, America was, we do NOT need your god in any of those places. I have no problem with you worshiping this myth but I have a serious problem with you forcing your delusions on the rest of us.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • lol??

      Skeppy, the only way to have Christians not influence you is to kill em. Christians are the temple of God. BTW, who's in charge of your temple?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Primewonk

      " We need God in our schools, homes, hospitals and businesses."

      You mean like in Iran and Afghanistan? Perhaps, if you are so keen on living in a theocracy, I suggest you move to one. Because if you try and set one up in my country, you should expect a bloodbath.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  15. LivinginVA

    MANY folks who receive welfare and food stamps are working. In fact, Walmart employees get quite a bit of it. "The Arkansas study shows that nearly 4,000 of the companies 45,106 employees are on public assistance, with a vast majority of them receiving Medicaid for their children. Food stamps and transitional employment make up the rest of the public assistance, costing the state $39.6 million per year."

    Maybe you should complain about companies that don't provide a living wage.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • sam

      And then someone comes along yelling "well if they had just learned a decent skill they could have gotten a better job yadda yadda" and/or that most treasured of chestnuts, "them wimmens shoulda kept them legs together if they couldn't afford them children."

      December 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  16. Miss Demeanor

    A politician who makes a public spectacle of his religion is no different from any televangelist... his 'belief' is for his own benefit. These charlatans take advantage of simple, innocent people, leave those victims (that's what they are) worse off than before and turn people against one another. Zealous followers who blindly follow such leaders and parrot their dogma without questioning it, without considering the consequences of how it will affect others, are no better. Use common sense and follow the golden rule... these zealots have only stirred up hate and divided the country. If they are doing gawwwwwds work... their god is evil.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  17. Mike

    Talk about painting with a very broad brush...

    December 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  18. sjajr

    Oh Mr Jul 4th. You do have all the answers don't you, and the fact that that you put your name as our independance day shows you are a real patriot. How clever. Did you make that one up yourself? (In case you haven't figured it out, this is called sarcasm)

    December 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  19. 4JULY1776

    Eliminate "Obama-Care" and save $2 trillion every 6 years according to the CBO.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      We'll send the poor and sick directly to your door, but I'm sure your guns are loaded. What kind of patriot fires on his own countrymen? A whiny rich guy who feels slightly imposed upon for paying more taxes. Boo fricken hoo.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The poor are poor because of the poor.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • lol??

      Work permits at all the factories in Mexico for US citizens would give people a chance to pay off their med bills.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Willy

      Have you even looked at the CBO web site? You're not even close.

      "we estimate that H.R. 6079 would reduce direct spending by $890 billion and reduce revenues by $1 trillion between 2013 and 2022, thus adding $109 billion to federal budget deficits over that period."

      December 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • lol??

      The business plan is once the med is passed onto the taxpayers, the Europeans are gonna open up a lot of factories here and give us minimum wage work. Save a bunch on transportation costs.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  20. jsf12

    All you ordinary Democrats are just cannon fodder in the class warfare. You have been conned into fighting against the ordinary rich people in favor of the super rich (Slim, Gates, Buffet, Soros and all the others who feed at the trough of US government corruption while complaining that rich people are paying their share to fill that trough).
    If you look at the numbers, it is clear there is no solution on the revenue side. The deficit can only be dealt with on the spending and regulation sides.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • jsf12

      Needed an edit button for the typo that reversed the meaning. I had tried to type: "while complaining that rich people aren't paying their share".
      Buffet isn't paying at the rate of ordinary rich people. He will still have ways to shield his income after the rates go up. So it is no sacrifice for him to point to his low tax rate and say he thinks rates should be higher. The higher rates will slam all the small business operators who have to focus on producing the income and have no flexibility to shield it. The money managers like Buffet have enough flexibility that they can easily sidestep the higher rates that they pretend altruism in promoting.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      You're right, Murdoch and Ailes are choir boys compared to big bad Warren Buffet. Wasn't it Buffet who was caught wire-tapping private citizens to bolster his newspaper sales? Think what you want... repugnicans are a dying breed and the rest of us have nothing but time.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Jesus

      Ooohhh, ok, if we look at THE NUMBERS. THE NUMBERS will answer all our questions. All we need are THE NUMBERS

      December 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • KrjMc

      Lets not forget that the small business owners are using the "S" corp tax bracket to avoid paying taxing on their business and their personal taxes. It is a way to scam the system. If they were to use the "C" corp tax bracket the business would pay taxes separately and they would be taxed on the money they were paid from the business under their individual rates. They are avoiding paying taxes on the business and merging it with their individual rates so that they get to pay at a lower rate.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.