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. craig

    Although Jesus, according to the Bible, did offer such advice, I suspect he tempered his thoughts with an application of reality. After all, he acknowledged that Caesar had the right to collect taxes so it seems likely he wasn't against the concept of secular government per se. Obviously the issue continually returns to the same point...that in every situation there is a clear black and a clear white, that someone must win and someone must lose. As you've observed, that demonization of someone who disagrees with you has created the absolutist viewpoints.

    Unlike the more fundamental Christians I just don't see Jesus saying "my way or the highway" nor did he ever qualify his thoughts with things like "love your neighbor...unless he's Gay."

    December 5, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      well, it seems you haven't read all of what jesus said and did in the bible. the bible is often cherrypicked, leaving out any ethically inconvenient stories. jesus told slaves to obey their masters if they want to go to heaven. he also said non-believers go to hell, which means they are tortured forever, so he doesn't seem all that open-minded about secular philosophies to me. here's jesus being a racist: a Canaanite woman wants Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus tells his disciples he only heals Jews. He calls the woman a dog and won’t heal her daughter until she agrees that Canaanites are dogs.

      Mathew 15:21-28
      21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
      22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
      23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
      24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
      25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
      26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
      27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
      28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

      not the all 'loving' and 'compassionate' jesus they teach in church...

      December 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Of course, boneheaded interpretations like this are why the Catholic Church refused to translate into the vernacular...

      This writer is generally accepted as having a Jewish-Christian audience, and the reason for the inclusion of this is rather obviously a slap at haughtiness among members of that audience. Prior to this Jesus had been upbraiding the Pharisees.

      Do people who see evil things in the Bible have the same problem with context when reading other works of literature? Or history? Are there ANY worthwhile examples in history? Some of this gets mystifyingly bad. Granted, so are our national reading comprehension test scores...

      December 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      take of the rose colored glasses and be honest. christians like you are the ones that are twisting the bible's words. read the passage again. jesus himself says he's only there for Jews.

      "This writer is generally accepted as having a Jewish-Christian audience"
      yep, exactly, and that's why jesus rejects canaanites. this woman begged jesus and told him her daughter was possessed by a demon and jesus called her race dogs. that's inhuman. disgusting. but make your excuses...

      Do people who see evil things in the Bible have the same problem with context when reading other works of literature? Or history? Are there ANY worthwhile examples in history? Some of this gets mystifyingly bad. Granted, so are our national reading comprehension test scores...
      *** no, because history is real - the bible is a work of fiction, myth, folklore. the bible is not to be taken any seriously. and again, you are cherrypicking if you think there's nothing unethical in the bible to discuss. if you're going to hold the bible up as being the perfect word of an all loving god, you have to explain why the bible supports slavery throughout. you would think god would at least get that right - "thou shalt not own another human being - to own another human is evil." but nope. instead, there are rules in the bible for selling slaves, for selling your own daughter into slavery and for how to beat your slaves. the bible is atrocious.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • snoozie

      And that is why I cannot accept the bible as the word of God.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Good grief... and you evidently just skated by my observation of what preceded this passage in the text. The Bible is not special, but context goes with everything, and ignoring context makes one's argument wrong, and there's nothing more to say about it.

      The slavery harping astounds me. Slavery existed. Do we think it would be better if it existed without rules? According to the literal Jewish law, Jews could not be slaves. We have to consider what slavery was, which was a common economic decision for poor people. The Bible presented another option, which was to be communitarian and thus remove the need to enslave oneself. That's an enormous advance over any other preserved culture at the time.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      I love that particular spin.

      "God's the ultimate morality.
      God thinks slavery is wrong, but it's ok for these people because everyone else was doing it.
      At least they had rules though, even though it's still wrong to own another person."

      And the Christians accuse everyone else of subjective moral standards. Ahhh the hypocrisy.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Michael

      JF Canton, just what does the Catholic Church have to do with what Booty Funk said? Not a damn thing! But more to the point, you don't know what your talking about when you say that the Catholic Church does not translate the Bible in the vernacular. That is a false statement. Watch out, your un-Christian tendencies are showing.

      December 5, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  2. RDKirk

    Jesus has no dog in the tax fight. Everything scripture has to say about taxes, both OT and NT is: Pay whatever tax the king levies. Just pay it.

    In the OT, God stated that if you have a king, he will tax you as he wishes. When several of the tribes of Israel revolted against the heavy taxation of king Rehoboam, those tribes were eventually destroyed as a direct result of their tax revolt.

    At one point, Jesus acknowledge that He shouldn't have to pay taxes...and then He did so, despite that.

    So even if it could be argued that a certain tax was "wrong," the scriptural direction for all Christians is: Pay the tax.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • RonRonDoRon

      The problem with trying to draw parallels with the Biblical situations is that none of the societies discussed in the Bible (on the subject of taxes) were self-governing. None but the few members of the ruling elite had any input on who paid taxes and how much.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • ME II

      Of course. If they religion opposed paying taxes, it would never have made it past 34AD. Governments don't like people messing with their revenue.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  3. Bolivar Shagnasty

    Well thought out! Describes the issues and conflicts of values. It also addresses the catastrophic thinking that runs through contemporary politics.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  4. Art


    OK, I don't mean that literally. I'm just saying that, as far the issue of raising taxes on "the rich" is concerned, invoking the Bible just muddies the (proverbial) waters. We have an example in recent history (Clinton years) wherein taxing the rich at a certain rate coincided with a profoundly prosperous period for our country. We then had an example (Bush years) wherein dropping the tax rate for the rich coincided with a profoundly disastrous period for our country. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or a theologian (whether on the right or the left), to see that it makes sense, if we want our country to prosper once more, to try the tax plan that was in place the last time the country was prosperous.

    If the Bible (or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching, etc.) agrees with this common sense approach, fine . . . I'm for the Bible! If it doesn't, go back to my 1st line . . .

    "Peace 2 U!"

    December 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  5. coolio53

    One of the worst "articles" I've read on CNN in a while. What a joke

    December 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  6. Asaph

    Stereotypic nonsense. Religion is a convenient scapegoat but political ideology is the main religion practiced in America and it's not espoused in any church, synagogue or mosque.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Pluto Saturnson

      Political ideology isn't a religion either in the theological definition of the word, just as atheism isn't. You have to apply the Fallacy of Equivocation there, and that pretty much fails your attempted position automatically.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  7. Jokesterer

    Dear Jesus,
    It seems we spent more money than we earned. I know but there was so much cool stuff to buy and do that we couldn't help it. Would you please come back and miracle up some free money to help us out. We won't do it again. We promise. Thank you. Amen.

    Jesus should be along shortly...

    December 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • JohnReedjr

      We do not need free miracle money from Jesus, we just need to tax the people who have the money to pay off our debts, like we always did until someone decided we did not have to pay for our wars, and we had a boy president who thought "starving the Beast" was a cool idea.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • jorisheise

      Oddly enough–few people realize that once President Nixon took us off the gold standard, money is whatever we say it is–we being the people/government/country. The fiscal cliff is a fallacy; The government's money rests–happily so–on the faith and consistency of the American people, in the end. The government can print as much money as it wants, and needs no miracle to do so. The refusal to print lots and lots of it makes sense because it would destroy us, but in the end we–we the people of these united states–are sensible.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  8. Thomas

    We all need to heed the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

    December 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  9. IvotedforObama

    The Right is not really Christians at all. They practice a HATE BASED faith and not one based on Christ's principles.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Troy

      As opposed to the fantasy that plays out in Genesis?? CHristianity is dead, people should start acting like it.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • ME II

      If everyone who tries to define who isn't a Christian was right, there would be no Christians.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Art

      Like Gandhi said:

      "I like your Christianity. I don't like your Christians. They are not at all like your Christ."

      December 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      Deifying should not be an allotment of governance orientations as the founders did so emphatically foresee but many have now forgotten in our stumbling along the way. I follow an individual lifestyle of my own godly infidel pleasures and do seldom twine together religious views upon my philosophies of tenacious individual governance. Sometimes though, I become unsettled in social issues. In sweeping the mind clear on occasional forsaking, I find that sometimes an overlooked addendum needs more thought processing.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  10. lionlylamb

    Righteousness in the governances of any nation's law-abiders tabulations tends to ever conflict with the natured pre-ambled venerations of once chaliced domineering and effectually driven cloisters of an age soon forgotten and judgmentally dismissed by many folds of future variegated socialisms. Who among us really knows what styled premonitions the governance of the first-rooted molders of once solemn declarations really had on their mindset and were they aptly abled to foresee unto our now times ages?

    Federal debts are thru the roof! The economy all but in shambles! The plights of many folks do live in earnest means are just floating above the poverty line of watered down welfare! Where then is hope to so be found? Whose trusting decanter can the people throw their money within? Will the debts of Federalism sink the Bismarck and then shoot holes in all its lifeboats leaving all to sink or swim upstream without the means and ways to stay afloat of living in their natures?

    December 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • rdeleys

      In spite of what I'm sure you must think, your English isn't eloquent. In fact, it sucks.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Momof3

      Someone's thesaurus application got a good workout today!

      December 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • No! No! No!

      Don't tell him! I think it is hilarious that when he produces his literary dung, he thinks he is creating poetic brilliance.

      liarlylame is excellence in feculence.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • JFCanton

      This is what we can look forward to if pot is legalized...

      December 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Yeah right

      I would rather be around the stoned people of Venice Beach than the angry conservative wingnuts of Texas any day.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  11. stonedwhitetrash

    The God that I know has no need to be praised all the time Also he is a very busy God and may not want to get involved in our petty squables

    December 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  12. netprophet

    This writer evidently upholds the cardinal postmodern view that the only objective truth is that there cannot be any. He offers the nonsensical canard that because Jesus "cared for the poor" and told the rich young ruler to "sell all his posessions" the Democrats because of they favor the poor and disfavor the rich. No. Jesus never said that the poor should be taken care of by a centralized bureaucratic government run welfare state. His parable of the Good Samaritan called his followers to have compassion on the man who was left half-dead among thieves. Compassion means literally to "suffer alongside" the other person. That effort to care for the poor has nothing to do with the Democrat Party.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      the effort to care for anyone has nothing to do with politics.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  13. Alip

    The problem is that most politicians appear to be extreme examples of religious individuals and are therefore not very representative of the whole. We just need more politicians who can represent and make decisions more from the middle.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  14. Ares


    December 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  15. notawingnut

    Put more simply, the problem is self-righteous zealots on both sides.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      To a point I agree with your statement, I would only like to point out that the original positions on this budget were as follows.
      GOP – Keep Bush Era tax cuts in place, cut medicare, move the age of retirement up to extend SS, cut discretionary spending and some tax loop holes increase defense budget.
      DEM – Leave SS and Medicare alone cut defense budget or level off, tax the rich, cut loop holes in tax structure.

      Currently the GOP position – unchanged – have not identified loop holes.
      Currently Dem position – has agreed to medicare cuts, identified some loop holes and have agreed to level defense.

      It seems the Dem position has moved the most though not much.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  16. Bob

    The author says:
    "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."

    Yes, that's what Jesus said... but liberals say something entirely different. While Jesus said to give to the poor, liberals say "Give what your neighbor has to the poor... and then take moral credit for it yourself as if you were the giver." We all know where Jesus said that such hypocrites end up: in nether gloom, weeping and gnashing their teeth.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • lol??

      You brought up the authors "political disabilities" statement. Legislation is already being prepared to add that into Affirmative Action, so no harm done.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  17. organically

    Religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity and based on hypocrisy. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to save millions of lives, but this is being prevented by religious radicals and therefore religion is detrimental to the preservation of life. Religion has been the greatest cause of war and conflict throughout human history and has resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people from B.C. through 2012, therefore religion is detrimental to the preservation of life.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Bible Bill

      " Render unto Ceaser what is Ceaser's and to God what is God's"

      December 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • ME II

      If I see "Property of God" on something, I'll let Him keep it.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  18. Jokesterer

    What if God were one of us?
    In debt up to His ears like all of us?

    December 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • ME II

      Probably be hittin Zeus up for a loan...

      December 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  19. HenryB

    This really is a shallow article. This is all it amounts to in terms of religion? What utter nonsense!

    December 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  20. Patricia Kraybill


    December 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Art


      December 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
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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.