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. bp

    The rise of the Christian Right, especially in the Republican Party, is the #1 cause of the dysfunction of American politics over the last few decades. After all, members of the Christian Right know without a shadow of a doubt that:

    1. They are on God's side and all others are not
    2. They know God's will and all others do not
    3. God requires them to use government to advance their view of his kingdom on Earth
    4. Anyone who disagrees or opposes their ends is by definition anti-God
    5. You never compromise or seek to understand agents of Satan

    All Hail the Christian States of America.

    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.” ― Bertrand Russell

    December 5, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • TommyTT

      Seen some years ago in a Civil War museum: a Union soldier's belt buckle with the words "God is on our side," and a Confederate soldier's belt buckle with the words "God is on our side."

      December 5, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Matthew

      Provide some examples for us of politicians (Democrats -or- Republicans) who are "full of doubts." All I see is politicians of either party pushing for 100% what they want and 0% of what others want. When was the last time you heard a politician of any political flavor utter a sentence beginning with "I may very well be wrong on this, but . . . "? I can't think of a single example of a politician whose "wisdom" has led them to be full of doubt. I see politicians of both parties whose desire for total power and control leave them completely unresponsive to the 60% of Americans who are neither idiot left-wing zealots nor idiot ring-wing zealots.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • n222s

      In case you missed my point bp

      The rise of the Secular Left, especially in the Democrat Party, is the #1 cause of the dysfunction of American politics over the last few decades. After all, members of the Secular Left know without a shadow of a doubt that:

      1. They are on the correct side and all others are not
      2. They know what is right and all others do not
      3. Their belief system requires them to use government to advance their view of secular utopia on Earth
      4. Anyone who disagrees or opposes their ends is by definition anti-intellectual
      5. You never compromise or seek to understand agents of God

      All Hail the Secular States of America.

      We can all play that game. Remember, the left says that conservatives are evil, racist, anti-women, anti-intellectual, anti-science, blah, blah, blah. There is NO room for disagreement with beliefs held by the left. Or should I say, there is room, just not at the power table. The LEFT constantly berates and belittles the right all day long. Spend an hour looking for tolerance from the left for right wing views on any of these discussion boards. There is absolutely none.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  2. gladiatorgrl


    December 5, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  3. 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 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?

    Did such wise and abled governances of so long ago really so rightly rationalize their futuristic nation's preclusions of sedentary "volumnistic" precursors in a sublime commonwealth stance of sublimated worthiness leading to righteous submissions of regulated governing for the socially contained welfares of today's slumming economic timeline?

    Does our futures look brighter based upon the causations of prime-factored prenuptials of long forgotten folks who dared to envision their nation's future upon a time such as ours are now in? 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?

    Test. This is just a test. Do not be alarmed folks please! This is just a test.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • FTRedd

      Would the test be to be able to quantify the fog index of this piece?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Merlin66

      I read your paragraphs and suddenly I see the light! I now know the truth behind all things.

      When I read, "sublimated worthiness leading to righteous submissions" I thought, My God! That's it! That's the key I've been looking for all my life. I was blind, but now I can see.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  4. C. Smith

    Christ's teachings on government are remarkably short: Render unto Caesar... If we expand it to the other writings in the new testament, we also see that government should be a 'terror' om the evil, but not the good; i.e. it should also enforce the law. Everything else in the entire new testament is directed to YOU and ME, not the government. On fiscal issues, I believe the conservative position is the responsible one, and the liberal spending spree is irresponsible, but that's my own personal belief. God didn't tell me. What' more, irresponsible does not equal evil.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  5. DaveX

    Why do we allow crazy people to vote? And, why do we care what crazy people say?

    December 5, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • fintastic

      Why do we allow crazy people to run for office??

      December 5, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Spencer

      Easy, because of how ill-defined and subjective the term "crazy" is in this usage.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  6. William Watts

    "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." where did the last half of this sentence come from? It's certainly Not in the gospels.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • FTRedd

      But doesn't it naturally follow....?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  7. Maveric43

    I think this a wonderful article and it is very insightful.

    But I think we ought not forget that very powerful economic interests also play significant roles in the political agenda of our elected officials.

    The distribution of Trillions of dollars which come out of the pockets of citizen tax payers are powerful motivators.

    It should come as no surprise that there are some citizens who do incredibly well with the current situation.

    In this regard Republican interests are more transparent. The GOP has always been the party of Big Business and the wealthy. In order to secure the support of the less affluent masses they have wrapped themselves in the cloak of unerring righteous moral authority.

    The Democrats have traditionally been the party of "the people", the underdog, the socially and economically disadvantaged. However, we should not be naive. There are equally powerful economic interests which benefit from the current levels of government spending in the healthcare and insurance sector who are motivated to resist change.

    The political reality like the theocratic reality is there are often equally legitimate approaches to governance and economics as there are to faith.

    For better or worse we as a society find ourselves at a point where substantive structural imbalance has formed with respect to wealth, government services, and how those services are to be paid for.

    In getting to a point where we can restore balance it often helps to take a look at the problem from a " 50,000 foot" perspective.

    The total economic pie is 16 Trillion dollars ( National Gross Domestic Product-GDP ). In prior healthy economic times the fraction or % of the pie in tax revenue has been near 20% or just under 20% and the fraction or % of the pie directed toward public spending as been just at or somewhat above 20%.

    In our current situation spending is near 25% or almost 1/4 of the pie while government income or revenue has dropped to a bit more than 15%. a bit more than 1/10 th of the pie.

    There is simply no way around this. Getting this fixed is going to require cooperation from everyone from all sides. It's not a pleasant situation to be in. I suspect the American people are capable of making the necessary accommodations as long as everyone can see and understand that the accommodation each of us are called upon to make are being distributed if not in an equitable manner than in a reasonable manner.

    So like many things in life we can get there as long as there is clarity of purpose and clarity of reason for all to see AND understand

    December 5, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  8. Tom

    How incredibly delusional. There aren't any elected officials who are men of faith. The only thing they worship is the chance to get reelected. Many of them are perfectly willing to sound like evangelicals when they think it will get them primary votes, but when has any serious attempt to advance any issues of concern to evangelicals ever been made?

    December 5, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  9. Choir Loft

    MR. OSLER has provided nothing in the way of evidence for his assertions except that of his own religious bigotry. True to form, CNN hosts yet another display of anti-Christian rhetoric and hate language passing for journalism.

    Which legislater is Osler writing about? Which specific legislation is impacted?

    The column here is more about Mr. Osler's agenda than anything approaching truth or news. Then again, who said CNN was capable of anything approaching a balanced and unbiased view of anything.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    December 5, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  10. Chuck

    Here come the communists to the rescue.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  11. Rettas Vegas

    Religion is and should be seperate from politics, I voted for Obama NOT because he represents me my faith, BUT because he is the best person who was running , to be president.
    I think Ameicans spoke loud and clear when voting this election, we are fed up with religions in our politics!
    We are done with the TeaBaggers, they are too extreme for the majority of Americans, WE VOTED, THEY LOST!
    Time to unite those of us who want to move FORWARD, and not go off the cliff...but if we do there will be HELL tp pay from the GOP, we will come after then with pitchforks if need be to force them out out.

    We are not going to have them hold the middleclass hostage anymore, they must be held accountable if they throw us off the cliff as they commit political suicide, handcuffing America to them as they die...

    December 5, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Believer

      .....and spoken like a true extremist!! It's all about "Winning", isn't it?? HEH-HEH, I won! I Won!! No, it's not at all about whether or not someone is qualified. Just as long as "they won"!! You'd probably sell your own family if it meant getting your party's official elected.......I didn't like Romney either, but I've yet to see where being a "community organizer" or a "not in attendance for his total of only 1 year as a Senator" seems to meet the qualifications TO RUN A COUNTRY, especially The "United" States...........

      December 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  12. Not MY god

    interesting that this article is about Christian A vs. Christian B. What about those of us that are NOT Christian?
    you have the Republicans which are most assuredly Christian. Devout, fanatical, even tyrannical at times.
    Then you have the democrats, who may not be as fanatical or tyrannical, but also fail to understand there are Other Peoples who want no part of the God of Abraham, and wish to live their lives free of the restrictions imposed by the followers of that God.

    but as a lesser of two evils, at least the Democrats are more willing to let people live their own lives, the way their faiths suggest, as long as it doesn't harm the 'greater good'. So, even though they are dragging the Country into the muck, people will vote for them because of what they perceive as a more friendly Administration to their personal freedom.

    if the Republicans could just get off their high-horse, we might get some fiscal conservatives into office before this train wreck reaches its ultimate destination.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  13. H. E. Baber

    Religion is epiphenomenal in this political division: it's a culture war between my tribe, upper middle class urban professionals and the white working class–now a shrinking minority with their backs to the wall. Evangelical Christianity is white trash religion, the religion of the white working class. The Culture War is represented as having religious roots because we're too embarrassed to say that we are righting against the lower classes because their values are detestable and they are garbage. It's acceptable to pan religion of course so our contempt and hatred for working class people is coded as push-back against Evangelical Christianity. I however freely admit that I detest the lower classes and that's why I'm a person of the left: I want to see the working class obliterated through upward social (and economic) mobility.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • lol??

      You did it on credit with no intention of paying it back. The Trailer Park Avenue trash hire the judges.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  14. Merlin66

    There are thousands of Christian gods all named "God" unfortunately.
    It is like knowing several men named John Smith, all of whom have very different personalities.

    Every little Christian Church worships a different god, each one named 'God'.

    It's all very confusing to all of us.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • lol??

      Well, you had the Beast incorporate them. This should clear up your confusion. The gubmint rules.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • fintastic

      LOL?? = troll = ignore

      December 5, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  15. Aggie

    This article is irrelevant, because religion has nothing to do with the gridlock. That is caused by political posturing, self-interest, and petty, immature politicians to whom American citizens are merely pawns in their eternal power plays for influence and wealth.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  16. Perfect Truth

    The author said… "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."...

    Jesus was completely right in principal. If all riches and goods were shared equally among all people, there would be no poor, and there would be no poverty. Poverty only exists because a few people in this world want to horde the bulk of the riches, while all the rest has to suffer. That's not right. If we suffer, we should all suffer together. And if we rise, we should all rise together. That is the "godly" thing to do...

    December 5, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • lol??

      Are you a Christian?

      December 5, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • fintastic

      LOL = troll = ignore

      December 5, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  17. DaveinIL

    Tune in tomorrow for the follow up article, "The racial roots of our political gridlock", from LZ Granderson.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  18. TomNPitt

    Mitch McConne'ls only job for four years has been to defeat Obama in this years elections. He failed miserably.
    Let's vote this loser out of office. He's done nothing for four years and has the gall to act like he's a leader for the future.
    He needs to be taught that the "Colored's" are allowed to live in his state and vote. Get rid of this shmuck!

    December 5, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  19. garden1

    if one accepts religious books literally, do not understand religion hidden in religious messages given by prophets, son of god and god(s). to understand or comprehend their or his messages properly are beyond human mind. that is why spiritual search of so called professed messages are required to become truly religious. to gain spirituality make one closer to understanding one's religion, otherwise he or she remain ignorant of religious knowledge. in other words, end result is to get spiritual knowledge to be true religious. most republicans do not have that much time because they want primarily material gain and cut short their religious goals to become so-called fashionable religious for social and political acceptance.

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

      The problem as I see it with taking any religious writings literally is that they were handed down vocally for 3oo to 400 years before they were then written 1500 years ago in a language that no one speaks anymore and they were then translated through half a dozen other languages before we read them today in English – Much, as they say, has been lost in translation to the point that no reasonable person would make any attempt to interpret any of them literally today.

      In short, they're all fables

      December 5, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  20. hypatia

    oh manure. the focus of the right wing is tealiban sharia. the extreme far left? some moronic commune. the majority of us are really sick of being commandeered by either version of this extreme juvenalia.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:16 am |
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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.