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. John

    As a conservative Christian I think you have made some good points. Sometimes we forget that Government is not the Church but is Ceasar. On the other hand Christ's admontiion about the poor and wealth applied to the responsibliity of individuals not the government.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Merlin66

      Jesus knew nothing of government as we speak of it. Jesus fully expected the world to have ended and the Kingdom of God to be ruling Israel only a few years at most.

      If Jesus were alive today, he would have no interest in government and certainly no interest in what happens in America. He would be preparing the Jews for the arrival of God's Kingdom.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • lol??

      Went to an americult school? Masters and PUblic Servants. Get it?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • fintastic

      LOL = troll = ignore

      December 5, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • The government has to help because Christians don’t

      The problem is that Christians are selfish. They make a big deal about how much they give; but, in reality it’s just leavings from the table after they have stuffed themselves full. America is the richest country in the world and about 80% of Americans are Christian. If just half the Christians gave just half as much as they like to pretend they do, there wouldn’t be a single hungry, ragged, or homeless person left in America and there would be no need for government assistance

      December 5, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • lol??

      "..........America is the richest country in the world............" What!!!!!!!!!! Please pay the debt. I'm tired of the inflation tax.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  2. Baptist_deacon

    Gridlock is caused by moderates being demonized by extreme elements of BOTH parties. The tea party is late in the game, the extreme left has been around for decades. Since the media is populated by extreme leftists, nobody notices their role in the gridlock. They only see the tea party. Things in Congress get done by compromise, but BOTH parties need to give in. The gridlock will continue, not because of the tea party, but because our extreme leftist president got re-elected. We are going over the fiscal cliff because he refuses to compromise. This article is just leftist spin.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  3. Sincerity

    Imagine this ... If you will .
    If the Republican party ws Muslim and Islamist , would CNN and this auther of this article , post this ? It os acceptible to demonize traditional Christian values , but never acceprtible to critisize Islamist theocratic jurisprudence and human rights . No , for a challange to achive fairnaees and ballance ... Please say some factiual nice things about Christians and Conservative Republicans . If you cannot , them please check your bias for propaganda and social conditioning , and perception managment influence . If you are going to say something bad about someone , ballance it with the good things and qualities they have as well , or sound like a paid racebaiter and hater for hire .

    December 5, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  4. Believer

    I really don't care AT ALL, when anyone here believes. You are free (so far) in this country to do as you please. But do not judge anyone BECAUSE of their belief. We ALL have our human right an "opinions" are like a$$$hol$. Everyone has one. And this country is one (or used to be) of only a few where you can practice, or not, whatever your belief is. That is a part of what makes (or used to make) this country great. BTW, my church is not all of a sudden now, filled with all immigrants like JAMES thinks. THAT maybe only relative to region where you live.....

    December 5, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • lol??

      Do not judge? Are you nuts?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Believer

      HAHAHAHA, yeah, I know!! Even as a christain I'm just as guilty as the next person. But none of us are perfect. All any of us CAN do, is continue to try harder to live better. But there are still no guarantees and I "believe" that God knows this and also knows who actually, truely from their heart, tries to be better apart from those who only "say" they do.....

      December 5, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • lol??

      Christians are the only ones capable of judging correctly. They are not carrying baggage that could cloud their thinking. Even the least can do it.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  5. texasnotea

    Absolutely true! If religion could be removed from the equation then something would get done. Most of the politicians use religion as a weapon to suck in the weak and gullible anyway. To really understand politics requires common sense which is not a part of any religion. For those of you who advocate calling it what it is, here it is.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • drinnc

      Actually TEX is simple math and not religion that left chooses to ignore.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  6. Russ

    What a simplistic piece of poor writing. Making sweeping generalizations about both parties to try to fit into a pre-conceived conclusion.

    I simply don't see this article adding anything to political or religious analysis. Waste of space.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  7. Penny Wright

    Money spent on health care, education, technology, and infrastructure is what drives an economy.

    Not tax cuts for the rich.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • tony


      December 5, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • drinnc

      money spent that we don't have is what kills and economy -- geeees

      December 5, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • ME II

      "Money spent on health care, education, technology, and infrastructure is what drives an economy."

      By whom? "consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity", not government.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  8. Penny Wright

    Government spending as a percentage of GDP is the same now as when Reagan was in office....23%. But since the financial crisis in 2008, revenues as a share of GDP have hit 60-year lows, coming in at around 15%. And yet the Republicans signed the Grover Norquist "tax pledge" not to raise taxes.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • drinnc

      Your comparison misses the part about 17,000,000,000,000 in debt.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • ME II

      FYI, by my calculations the Reagan years (81-89) averaged 32.1 % of GDP, and Obama (09-11) avera.ged 36.0% of GDP. Bush years (01-08) was 31.0%, by the way.
      (source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/bu.dget/Historicals , "Table 15.3—Total Government Expenditures as Percentages of GDP: 1948–2011")

      December 5, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • ME II


      December 5, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  9. Penny Wright

    Promoting the financial interest of the 1% is the true agenda of the Republican Party. The party's astronomical fundraising figures demonstrate this. Romney is one of them. To stay in power, the elites manipulate middle class voters into focusing on emotionally-charged social issues, while ignoring financial policies that undermine the existence of the middle class.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • drinnc

      What exactly is OK with you about spending money that we don't have?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • tony

      borrowing to invest is a universal truth.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      tony, while borrowing to invest may be widely practiced, it hardly rises to the level of universal and certainly is not "truth" in any sense. What it does reflect is the degree to which the money lenders have indoctrinated you into their "business cycle" of currency manipulation.

      The story of Jesus rampaging through the temple where the money lenders plied their trade may be instructive. Often portrayed as Jesus' outrage over the corruption of the temple by commerce, perhaps Jesus was really making a statement about the evil use of currency to enslave others ala "Neither a borrower nor a lender be"

      In America, we are about to be privileged with the opportunity to witness the money manipulators leverage our fiat currency into incredible asset accuumulation by the elite. This will accrue to the point that we will have no other options than submission to the power of the state and the surrender of our God given rights, or, a revolution to re-assert or freedoms.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • ME II

      @Bill Deacon,
      You wouldn't be using Shakespeare to reinterpret the Bible to your own ends, now would you?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  10. drinnc

    This guy wants to claim that religious views are causing a stalemate between liberals and conservatives. Absolute nonsense. The divide is between those who believe that our federal government should be a responsible steward of our taxes dollars, and those that believe that irresponsible overspending will all somehow work out, some way.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • sam

      So you've completely missed the religious histrionics that the republicans indulged in during the election? How far into the sand is your head, anyway?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  11. Penny Wright

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Russ

      You have mastered an angry atheist slogan. Well done.

      Not like religion does any good or anything, or science does any harm.

      I guess some evangelists prayed nerve gas into existence and it was a jihaid that caused three mile island.

      And what religion were Mao and Stalin again? Oh yes...atheists...

      December 5, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • sam

      Russ, congrats in mastering an old tired line of bullshit that means nothing.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  12. Kool Aid

    You had me until you began pigeon-holing Democrats as proselytizers of the New Testament. I refuse to accept the notion that all on the Left are acolytes of Jesus Christ who constantly cater to the poor and scoff at the rich. This unfortunate and perennial mischaracterization of progressive ideology runs deep, particularly in the shallow ecclesiastical ponds of thought that tend to pool at the foot of modern American conservatism.

    No, I submit instead that most on the Left (and, to be fair, many on the Right) support strict adherence to the Separation clause, regardless of their individual faith. They believe, as I do, that religious thought of any kind has no place in government and should never be in any way the basis or predicate for law or policy. They believe that arguments attempting to entangle modern governance with the supernatural should always be regarded as what they are-non-starters.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • ME II

      I don't think the author was saying that Dems want progressive Jesus in the government. I think he was saying that progressive ideologies, which many Dems associate with the NT, can be just as uncompromising as conservative Repubs.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Kool Aid

      Yes, but I felt as if he went too far with this (probably in a vein attempt to not sound like he was attacking only the Right). You simply do not see the same uncooperativeness/stubbornness/unwillingness to compromise/etc. on the Left. Sure, there are wide streaks of dogmatic behavior. But none of these streaks dominate. Look to the Right and you see a common thread; an armature on which everything else rests and which nothing can happen without permission.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Kool Aid

      Oh, and it should be 'vain', not 'vein'.

      Sometimes I believe spellcheck might be the worst invention ever.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • BEMHEB

      Kool Aid - "attacking" the right? Good Lord (she said, facetiously) that was no attack, that was pure apologist! It's ok to spew hatred, bigotry and vile charges because, after all, they believe in God? That was a defense if evey I have seen one.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  13. lol??

    Churches and the gubmint think the same about one thing. "Let everybody in! Join the luv party!" Forget that Sunday is supposed to be a family reunion and the "worship" was done during the week.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • lol??

      Sacraments?............. "Rom 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service."........ Sundays are for R&R with the family, not evangelizing. Do you invite the whole city to a family reunion?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • fintastic

      R&R with the for R&R with the fore, holy, not evangelizing sacrament your bodies of God, [which you therefore, hole service, hole service, hole service.".... Sundays a living sacrament ye presents?.... "Rom 12:1 I besents?..... Sundays a living. Do you the wholy, acceptable unto a living sacrifice."...... "Rom 12:1 I beseech is] you invite the wholy, acceptable unto God, therefor R&R with the wholy, not evangelizing. Do your reasonable service, by to God, the fore, brethren, by to a living. Do you injest?

      December 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  14. ForGoodOfAll

    Can't wait for the not-compromising 'GOP dinosaurs' to become extinct in Washington.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • ME II

      President Obama is "insisting rates for the wealthiest must rise as part of a deal to avert the 'fiscal cliff,'"

      December 5, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  15. ipmutt

    This site is a discrace. Shame on you for being an avid follower.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • sam

      Yer spellin is a discrace.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  16. Tom

    Religion, as it's practiced by fundamentalists of all faiths, seems to be an unhealthy concept.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • tony

      It's already become fatal for many and is looking more and more like a threat tot eh future survival of our species.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  17. Parent

    Osler apparently does not know Republicans or Christians very well. Studies of their actual beliefs do not support his stereotypes.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • 65snake

      Study of their actions certainly do support it, in a general way.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  18. smartaz

    When all else fails, blame religion. None of it is due to personal agendas and corruption. Most of these politicians associate themselves with a religion just to get votes.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  19. Mr Foobar2u

    The fatal flaw in all these opinions, articles, etc.. is that they ignore the pure, unadulterated, black and white fact that the country is, essentially bankrupt. You have tax and spend Democrats fighting with Borrow and Spend Republicans.. only the latter is worse since compound interest is a beotch.
    THese articles are a colossal waste of time. How about an article from CNN, NBC, FOX, CBS, whatever, that describes the basics of the problems, so that any layman can understand.
    Numbers don't lie and numbers are apolitical. Discuss how borrowing against the social security trust fund (IOUs) has basically left the fund with empty promises, and that the problem is necessarily with Social Security, but the fact that government can no longer raid the fund, and basically has to make good on those bills, which now comes out of the general fund..Discuss how 1 single point rise in the interest rates will basically balloon are debt payments, so we will have to borrow money just to pay the interest (IMHO, that's a pretty good sign you are bankrupt). Discuss that no amount of tax increases and no amount of cutting is going to balance the budget.. and the politicians are now just trying to get the growth of the debt lower than the growth of the economy and that we will NEVER balance our budgets. Please, stop wasting disk space on "this feller believes is Jesus" and start discussing the nuts and bolts of our problems..

    Oh.. that's too boring and nobody is interested so you won't get eyeballs for ad revenue...


    December 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Akira

      Much of this is discussed on the Political Ticker blog; I am still unsure of the point the author of this article is trying to make.

      December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      But one small develuation of the dollar would allow the whole dept to be paid off tomorrow. It's just a matter of what you're willing to do.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • tony

      Any young couple starting out with very little who buys a house with a large mortgage is essentially bankrupt for the first decode, but then gradually becomes first solvent and then comfortable by the time the children have grown.

      You should always borrow to finance a growth asset, and pay cash for depreciating consumables, like cars.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Tony, Did you completely miss the housing bubble burst?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  20. Walt Custer

    FAITH: :Belief in an irrational concept"
    PRAYER: "Attempt to communicate with an imaginary being"

    Running our country on FAITH and PRAYER is illogical and dangerous.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • adh1729

      FAITH: :Belief in an irrational concept

      Your definition is pathetic, and your conclusion is trite and circular. Good job.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:36 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.