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. lionlylamb

    Let the trades war begin! Free trade for all drugs known and yet to be known! Free trade of all s e x u a l affairs! Even free up the gambling trades for people to better choose their wanton ways to so gamble! Soon if these 3 trades were freed up, what say you would be the outcome? Sure the emotionally insecure would lay waste to their money but what about the rest of te well off and emotionally balanced individuals who know better than to waste their hard earned capital all in one lump sum as today's addicted do now so do?

    December 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Guy

      Since this is one of your more rational posts; do you think if jesus finally made his comeback he woldl run the bingo parlors out of church basemrnts, just like the money changers in the temples in the good old days?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  2. Tim Brown

    The deadlock is 90% Republican religion which is mostly not found in the Bible. I don't see anything about pure capitalism or tax rates in the Bible.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Silly1

      There and I thought is was 100% about money. The democrats want their billionaires richer and the republicans want their billionaires richer and both are very happily screwing the middle class out of existence.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  3. Pedro

    More religious bashing by CNN. Great.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • OOO

      Yea, it is great!

      December 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • kenny

      if religion was all good, we wouldn't bash it... so guess who's fault the bashing is PEDRO!>!>!

      December 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • nonconformist

      So religion is faultless?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  4. blake

    I am disgusted by the relentless stream of far left nonsense posted daily by CNN.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Thoth

      Well gee, here's a thought – don't read it then.....see, it's all about CHOICE.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      And yet you still return. Says alot about you.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • kenny

      I am disgusted by the relentless stream of far RIGHT nonsense posted daily by FOX.... oh wait they banned comments because SO WAS MOST EVERYONE EXCEPT THE FOXIES.... LOL

      December 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  5. tank

    Wel thenl, how about an athiest 3rd party that doesn't carry any of this baggage around?

    December 5, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Tim Brown

      Great idea if there were enough of us to make it work,

      December 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • kenny

      just a matter of time and the right kind of leader....

      December 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • lol??

      Living atheists or dead atheists? Are ya gonna rewrite history if you win?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Silly1

      Good idea, let's throw MORE greedy politicians at it!

      December 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  6. John

    I'm not a religion basher. I simply quote the Bible. 8. Deuteronomy 23:1 ESV – "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord." GLORY to the LORD.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      cut by who?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  7. Dave

    A professor, what does he know about the real world? He lives in a tower up up there far away from reality. Useless comment.

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

      Did you ever go to college?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • nonconformist

      Actually it was quite astute. Something you apparently know nothing about.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • kenny

      who knows things, YOU DAVE??? limblahblah, o'really not... your crowd is nothing but mental midgets slightly more informed with plausible but not actual facts then its senile ignant viewership... i'll take a thoughtful analysis that bashes BOTH sides over ANY OTHER since EVERY problem is partly caused by BOTH SIDES...

      December 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  8. Shelia Bumgrner

    As a Quaker, I try to see that of God in everyone. That pratice is becoming more and more difficult when I hear and receive such ugly attacks about my evil, ignorant "liberal" views, and that I am just like all Democrats. There are days I feel like I live in the land of stupid.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Science_Guy

      I often feel the same way. I get attacked and told that liberals are "Satin worshipers." I attend church meetings every Sunday and always volunteer to serve others. How am I a Satin worshiper? I sometimes have a hard time seeing the good in the hateful right as well. It is a sad world.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I think everybody loves Satin.
      It is a wonderful, soft material.
      There is nothing better than a set of satin sheets.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Silly1

      You do live in the land of stupid. One thing that has historically been pretty consistent about humans is the ability to be arrogant and ignorant at the same time.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  9. Geckowise

    This guy is way over-analyzing this.

    To simplify: The GOP is littered with religious extremist nut cases; in fact the GOP leadership and their Tea Party allies like to invoke the term God at every possible opportunity. Rigid extremism is their banner and calling card.....and making sure the rich get richer is their cause.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • lol??

      You prefer soft, cuddly, flexible extremism?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  10. Thoth

    Best tax policy – end income tax and go to straight consumables tax. This would end loop holes and deductions while also broadening the tax base to include those who do not file income tax forms. The more you buy, the more you pay in.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Bart

    Very interesting and well thought out article outlining both sides. Very good.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  12. n222s

    LOL – I love religion bashers. So tolerant. Look, the real problem with Christians (and I am one of them and very guilty of this as well) is their unwillingness to live up to their beliefs. Religions are not evil. Religions used as justification for evil acts is the real problem. If we did as Jesus asks (love fellow man, love God) there would be no need for using government as charity dispensers. We could trust our politicians if they followed the first part of loving fellow man part even if they were atheists.

    If I have some wacky religious belief (wacky to you, maybe) who cares if I treat you with kindness and respect? So please, stop bashing my belief until you have a belief that I, me, the individual has somehow used it against you. Treat me as a human being and respect my beliefs. You can criticize my religion all you want but stop picking on the individual for trying to live in that faith. My belief in transubstantiation may seem strange to you but at the end of the day...if it doesn't cause me to harm you, what's your problem with me?

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

      Fair, as long as your support for a particular cult does not infringe on my childrens right to attend a public school without cults trying to indoctrinate them or harrassing my sister if she wants to enter a family planning clinic; have we got a deal?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • lol??

      New at CNN belief blog?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Primewonk

      " If I have some wacky religious belief (wacky to you, maybe) who cares if I treat you with kindness and respect? So please, stop bashing my belief until you have a belief that I, me, the individual has somehow used it against you. "

      I have absolutely no problem with this.

      But it never works that way does it. We have religious nutter wanting to regulate what happens in women's vàginas and gay men's butts. We have religious nutters wanting to stand between women and their physicians. We have religious nutters wanting to have their religious myths taught as science in our schools. We have religious nutters wanting to pass laws and amendments making gay folks second class citizens. We have religious nutters wanting to put their version of a god into our secular laws.

      Get these religious nutters to knock this off, and we're fine.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  13. jarda cervenka

    Christopher Hitchens has it right: religion ruins everything. But to be less dramatic: Believing in god or God is a childish nonsence. Check the science, please.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Evangelical

      Hitchens has been burning in hell for a nearly a year now.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Thoth

      @Evangelical – Prove it......

      December 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Science does not fill all gaps.

      Which might not be important to everyone; evidently it was not important to Hitchens. But the certainty level that his view is any MORE accurate than the opposite is zero.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • nonconformist

      @JFCanton – Ah the old God of the Gaps argument. And yet the gaps continue to get smaller every year. Only a simpleton would use that argument anymore.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Spencer

      JFCanton, that statement should read "Science does not fill all the gaps yet."

      December 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • JFCanton

      The "size" of the gap isn't really germane to the epistemological problems at the limits. The existence of any gap at all: or of the arbitrary constants that physics uses, and of the quantum observational effect... those are all problems that remain, regardless of how much evidence we can build up for the things that we can test.

      At any rate, the universe's preference for irony is good enough for me. Not that it really matters... I wouldn't do anything differently if I didn't believe in God.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  14. John Williams

    extremely silly and superficial. you cannot take this seriously.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  15. Jojo

    I was with you with the thing about fundamentalist American politicians seeing in terms of "good vs. evil", and therefore demonizing the other side and being unwilling to compromise.

    You lost me, however, when you said that the Democrats are defenders of the poor. What passes for left wing in the United States is just not-as-reactionary conservatism. The Democrats have just as many corporate sympathies as the Republicans, just without the oppressive socially conservative views, benevolently dubbed "traditional values."

    December 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • vacation ready

      I agree with you totally on the Republicans and Democrats both being equally at fault with the relationships they have with big business.

      I think the biggest issue is that they are swayed by the uneducated voter who is constantly mesmerized with false facts in the news. It's sad to watch the country turn into a legion of monkeys who buy into the poor me syndrom merely because the media guides them in their views.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  16. Silly1

    I know tagging in a religious tie in makes the boards jump, but this is a logical joke. I think my 6 year old has a stronger grasp of history and the modern political climate.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  17. gladiatorgrl


    December 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Evangelical

      Great! Then the shackles will be off! We can run our own candidates then.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Interesting how people don't understand this. It would kiss goodbye the possibility of enforcing separation of church and state in the exact places where that separation is lacking.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      When filing for tax exemptions, there are pages to go through, unless you're a church, then you check a single box and you're done. How is this already not a violation of the seperation?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  18. Allan Hotti

    Republicans would easily establish an autocratic almost “theocratic” government based on belief systems (including Free Market Capitalism) that have yet to be empirically proven to help more than a few. By all accounts, the United States is a religious country in the sense that a majority of citizens believe in a higher being/authority. Abrahamic religions by and large are administered by top down authoritative organizations. It follows that many citizens are comfortable emotionally and cognitively with a top down authoritative government led by leaders with special knowledge (beliefs). This arrangement is in no way threatening or unfamiliar to the religious minded. Human beings may in fact possess instincts to easily follow believable “leaders” (even though autocratic), without much emotional or intellectual angst, particularly if the leaders offer hope of better things to come. Hope is that great placebo that relieves troubled minds in times of stress and duress in personal or national lives.

    Republicans appear to appreciate the political advantage that accrues by emulating
    strong religious organizations. “Successful” religious organizations build a strong conceptual wall between “believers” and “non-believers”. The organization then demonizes those on the other side of the wall and de-legitimizes (and even kills) those believers who dare to wander to the other side of the wall. One need only look at the political demise of so many centrist Republicans who have been attacked by their own kind. Look about our world, past and present; death (figurative or real) is dealt to non-believers at alarming rates.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • n222s

      Allan, please. Lets not pretend there has been no purge of centrist Democrats. Is there one prominent pro-life Democrat? Nope. How about one that doesn't believe in higher taxes? Prominent, not backwater, afraid of losing their job Dems but decision makers. None.

      And your belief that Republicans are okay with centralized government if religious is false. Desiring politicians with morality rooted in faith is not the same as all Republicans desiring a theocracy. That is a false premise.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Bob Casey is fairly prominent-though is he going to be promoted by the party, probably not.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  19. lionlylamb

    Last night all have slept, This morning all have risen. Today's hours are so numbered and marked. Living is no more a palatable issuance of wonderments. Love is in bitter pieces and left upon the dung heaps of desperations gone ever awry. Where then shall be the one or the many to set right all the wrongs left by social generalists who made wasted the fruits of once plenty and most bountiful of our conquered lands?

    December 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  20. Kre

    Repubs do have a preponderance of religious whackadoodles in their party. I wouldn't trust such people to set my clock, much less public policy. I do, however, respect and listen to Repubs who represent true conservatism. Those folks advocate spending thriftily, conserving nature, and letting us remain a free as a society can be from government intrusion (everything from abortion to gay marriage and school testing is left up to individuals or local governments). Too bad these people have gone the way of the Dodo bird. I know of zero Dems who advocate giving everything they own to the poor, or asking the rich to do the same. That characterization is bizarre and I doubt you can find even one Dem who feels that way other than those who join religious cults (who I dismiss as non-representative of American society). This article is a fail – could have been written far more thoughtfully by a social scientist than a law professor.

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

      John Kennedy – Donated his salary to charty. Not exactly donating everything he owned, but quite a statement nonetheless.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • n222s

      Hear, hear, Kre. Giving away other people's money is not really charity. As for the whackadoodles, religious beliefs do drive a lot of conservative beliefs. Don't always throw opposition to abortion as somehow going against conservative values. There is an argument to be made that abortion is the destruction of a human life. You're not going to agree but it can be made from a conservative point of view for reasons that don't have anything to do with religion. I am one of those conservatives that doesn't believe in execution of even the most heinous criminals because it is taking of life. And...I could go on and on about morality of immorality of wars.

      And you're right. Don't use law professors as arbiters of right and wrong.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • n222s

      Al Gore donated less than a $1000 while VP till someone called him on it. Not exactly charitable, but quite a statement nonetheless.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:28 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.