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. n222s

    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.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Not Surprised

      You are correct.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Huebert

      I am a liberal atheist.

      1. I frequently change my opinion in light of new evidence.
      2. Same answer as number 1
      3. Please elaborate.
      4. Not true at all. I know several highly intellectual conservatives.
      5. Prove that God exist.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • ME II

      "5. You never compromise or seek to understand agents of God"

      What agents of God exactly?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • jmm

      Glad to see that you have not come to grasp reality. It is people like YOU that prevent the GOP from winning elections. Keep up the good work.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • webknight18

      That's because they r right. Right-wing religious nuts have proven again and again that they are anti-intellectual, anti-science, morons. Only a secular country can be a democratic country. If u don't understand that simple fact, how can u be anything other than a retarded moron?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • john

      This is an extremely isolated view that is false as false can be.
      Who exactly is this 'secular left'? There are also plenty of people I know on the 'secular right' so where do they fit in? The majority of people I know are not secularists at all, but neither are they carried away with literal interpretations of the Old Testament that prevent them from accepting science, such as the principle of geologic dating by radioisotopes like Carbon 14, which clearly place the date of the earth eons before the Bible does. If the people of the Bible had access to modern science they would have written a different interpretation of the world. This is not 'secular left,; It is rational, using the mind that God gave us,

      December 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Guy

      Which agents of which gods? I am trying to get a vineyard up and running under the Dionysus banner, do you think I could get a GOP backed grant in congress?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Enlightened1

      It's interesting that many otherwise logical adults continue to place faith in faith. There is so much that can be proven empirically (with meddlesome things called facts) that mysticism should have an obvious place in the modern world. Yes, certain things are facts and not subject to debate no matter how much Mr. Limbaugh repeats the same thing over and over – but somehow adults indoctrinated since birth continue to believe in invisible beings influencing them and introduce arguments that cannot be supported by observation, controlled tests, and/or common sense. Do you want your surgeon to pray for you before a complex operation or present credentials validating structured training and intensive medical education in his/her field? I certainly do not want to hear, "Have faith. I know what I'm doing."

      December 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Spencer

      And this is why we can't have nice things.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Gene

      Wow Webknight. Way to make a coherent argument. Ridicule anyone who might believe in God, that's the way to get your point across. Who am I kidding, that's the way all those "destroy religion at any cost" groups argue their point. And, by the way, how ARE those secular democracies doing right now?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • RedskinsFan

      We are a nation of many different creeds, races, and religions. The First Amendments very first clause is the Separation Clause, which forbids a union of church and state. I hate to break it to people like you, but we are a secular nation... and for very good reason. When our Founding Fathers looked at history, they saw what most people see: more discrimination, killing, and general atrocity has been committed by governments in the name of religion than any other single cause in history. They never wanted something like this to be caused here, and since most were more humanist and deist than actually religious, they decided it was in the best interest of everyone not to sponsor one faith above all others. Look at Iran, a "Islamic Republic", or look at what Egypt is rapidly becoming. Look North Korea where the government perpetuates a mythical parentage and classic heroic lineage to the Kim family that runs as dictators. Look at the European Christian Kingdoms and the Islamic Empires of the Middle Ages, and the Crusades and Jihads of the era. Look at the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish and English conquests of the New World. All of that is and was fueled mostly, if not all, by a religious belief that they know what is right and all others are infidels that must be made to accept the truth or be eradicated.

      We have also committed deplorable acts in a lust for land and resources, or racist views. And, in some ways, we have allowed religious zeal to allow for persecution. But we have still held ourselves as a government for all people in our country. We are far closer today than we have ever been, and will constantly strive to live up to our ideals.... so long as we don't fall to theocracy like so many people who think like you would like.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Turtleguy

      Which is the way it was designed. Not for xians only. Religious crazies need to understand that their belief in bronze age mythology does not make it real, and does not make it binding on those of us who actually THINK about reality.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  2. southernwonder

    people should not vote for a candidate who boasts about his/her "beliefs". period. enough of irrational high these itiots get being a roadblock.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. gladiatorgrl

    K from AZ

    Spoken by a member of the 'godless & immoral' opposition, I suppose!
    Example A of the problem. They're sooooo persecuted BUT they're the ones persecuting others with differing opinions – "godless & immoral" REALLY?? Sticks and stones thats all you got – no reality – no facts to support your position – just the persecution of others who don't believe in your sky creature.

    As an aetheist I'm more of a free American woman than I ever was under some religious dogma.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  4. TheMeanGuy

    This is the dumbest thing I have read on the internet all day. The reason we have so much conflict in politics is that the government has made promises it cannot afford to keep. One side is finding out they are going to have to pay more in taxes and that their quality of life will be diminished. The other side is finding out that they aren't going to get all the benefits the government has promised and that they have come to depend on. So everybody is mad (just like Europe).

    The religious angle? Please. This country is less religious now than in times past. Yet conflict is at an all time high. This has precious little to do with religion.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Believer

      .....I'm right with you on that one. Yet, people here are too stupid and stubborn to see what's going on over there and learn from it. Instead, it's all about being on a "Winning" side........the helll with compromise.......

      December 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • MommaG

      Truth be told many hold money as their religion.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  5. toydrum

    The absolute certainty that extreme religious viewpoints reflect also shows an amazing amount of arrogance. Just who are these people that they think God has personally unlocked the complexities and wonders of the universe just for them and boiled it down to simplistic answers that their tiny minds can comprehend? That is not a faith in any kind of God, it is a faith in the absolute rightness of their own intellect and judgement.

    The arrogance and insistence in the "rightness" of their own answers are appropriate attributes for dictators, not democratic leaders.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  6. n222s

    I'm sorry but this is possibly the worst opinion piece I have read on this site in a very long time. "It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that some American conservatives tend both to see their opponents as evil..." Because conservatives are NEVER portrayed by the left as being evil. Nawww, racist is such a loving term.

    Ask yourself, if Christ was a deity, why didn't he do away with all poverty and hunger and illness with the sweep of a hand? Why did he, almost exclusively, ask a price for a miracle? That is, faith.

    Money is NOT the root of all evil. What is done that is not in accordance with morality (I believe in Him, so His) in the pursuit of money is the root of all evil.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • jmm

      The rise of the secular left? We have always been here, it has been the rise of the delusional right that has changed the political landscape. Educate your self.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Ruby

      "... why didn't he do away with all poverty and hunger and illness ..." (?) He did. He explained in very simple language how that could be accomplished. As always, people were left with the freedom to choose.

      By the way, the correct quote is "The LOVE OF money is the root of all evil." The Bible is a really great book, you should read it sometime.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  7. gladiatorgrl

    Religion is like a P # n [ $. It's OK to have one just don't wave it around in public and try to shove it down others throats. 🙂

    December 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  8. DC

    The author is also completely ignoring the fact that most Republicans are certainly NOT bound by true religion. The GOP uses religion as a wedge issue to garner votes from those who are very religious and ignorant. If the GOP was truly Christian-based, they wouldn't be hell bent on ruining God's planet, they would NOT favor the rich over poor, etc.

    So, let's call a spade a spade here. Religion is merely a tool the GOP uses to manipulate its voter base.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • K from AZ

      Spoken by a member of the 'godless & immoral' opposition, I suppose!

      December 5, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • jmm

      The rise of the secular left? We have always been here, it has been the rise of the delusional right that has changed the political landscape. Educate your self.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      1) godless does not equal immoral.
      2) religious people voted for this administation – twice.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  9. gladiatorgrl

    "The Family" by Jeff Sharlatt explains how the religious right circa 1935 started a concerted effort to remove the separation of church & state. They were undone recently- their own undoing (it always is w/extremists) when they were all stepping out on their wives at their "tax exempt" home away from home on C street. One of the wives found out and well "a woman scorned" blew the lid off of C street and they lost their tax exempt status. Again HYPOCRITES BUT they were very dangerous to our country. Remnants of them still remain in power.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  10. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    This column should be have the headline "why faith poisons our poilitical process".

    December 5, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • jmm

      Or just poisons America in general. Must I say Catholic priests???

      December 5, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • gladiatorgrl


      December 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  11. Little Baby Jeebus

    Right wing fanatics? The recent election proved that, "the female body has a way of shutting all that down".

    December 5, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  12. Jeff

    I think this is pretty dead on. If people adopt a mind set of absolute right and wrong, good vs. evil, how can they govern in body that was designed to work through comprise? Our system was set up not to be a Parliamentary system where the winner takes all in an election and the loser sucks an egg until the next election. There is supposed to be deliberation and finding ways to cobble things together that everyone can live with. It was never designed to work with two groups, separated by miles, working to constantly undermine the other. It's supposed to be a body of educated, enlightened gentlemen (originally just men, and just white land owning men, but no one is perfect) not some childish High School football team cross town rivalry.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  13. Just Me

    Spell the F%@K in religion.....there is no F%@K in religion...and there should be none in politics either!

    December 5, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  14. John

    "Science flies you to the moon, Religion flies you into a building"

    December 5, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Chewie

      It's cute that you can regurgitate a line that gets thrown around by people who can't muster an original thought.

      My position is people can either be good or evil, and use religion or science to further their good or evil. To make a blanket statement like "religion/science is evil and must be ended" is total nonsense and demonstrates a lack of critical thinking.

      Have you considered the fact that science has produced all explosives known to man, namely nuclear/biological weapons, the most devastating and destructive devices on Earth? How many people have been destroyed by bombs and weapons of mass destruction? That's not too good is it?

      So while religion motivates people to do terrible things like fly planes into buildings and repress the rights of others Science isn't a shining beacon of what is right in this world. Science can motivate people to do terrible things as well.

      I would ask that you be more balanced in your opinion because as I stated earlier Religion and Science can be turned good or bad depending on the motivations of people.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • adh1729

      Islam didn't bring down the WTC. The Bush and Cheney club did it. It had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with money and power. Look up "architects and engineers for 911 truth". (Bonus: they discuss science, and no religion at all - that should make you very happy).

      December 5, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • jmm

      Spot on in my book

      December 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • fintastic

      Yup, and you know we didn't land on the moon, right? yup, big government coverup.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • adh1729

      fintastic:" Yup, and you know we didn't land on the moon, right? yup, big government coverup."

      Did I say something about the moon or the Apollo program? No, I didn't.

      Your government is as corrupt as that of Germany or the USSR in 1940. It is not my fault that you don't know and don't care. Go look up that website that I mentioned, and while you are at it, read "Freedom Betrayed" by that crackpot, the former president Herbert Hoover, and do some research on that crackpot congressional committee in the 1950s, the Reece committee, and then come back and talk to me. It is not worth my time holding a further discussion with an ignoramus.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  15. Little Baby Jeebus

    Religious fanatics in the Republican party are the problem.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  16. Arbogast

    "This gets us to gridlock because it puts Democrats in the position of class warriors – they favor the poor and disfavor the rich." The Republicans are equally class warriors, except that wish to impose a plutocracy and widen the gap between the rich and poor. In effect, they essentially believe in the unspoken divine right of kings and castigate anything that challenges their authority. They unfortunately lack any sense of noblesse oblige. Nothing else could explain their insistence on reducing tax rates on the wealthy and increasing it on those who can less afford it.

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

      they believe in the Divine Right of Kings but not in Noblesse Oblige...

      December 5, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  17. conoclast

    Evangelicals, by their own fervent admission, are "not of this Earth". With that as a given at the very foundation of their thinking, that they would cheerfully engage in partisan politics is pure hypocrisy. The "religious right" in particular has completely lost sight of the difference between conservative politics and religious proselytizing. Just listen to the not-of-this-Earth folks scream that global warming is a hoax!

    December 5, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • lol??

      Warming, cooling, cause. The question is can a small country like the USA do anything about it with sacrifices of the citizens. That's what the "leaders" want.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  18. tj

    I understand your concept except that the world is not just about the new testement and the old testement. Many, many people are not christian at all. We never seem to hear much from the American Jew except about Israel. Where is the voice of the American Jew in our political conversation and position? Itneresting to me.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  19. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    The author does not address the role of the media in reinforcing this gridlock. Fox polarizes reporting. Their rabid right approach pushes other outlets from a centrist to a left leaning position on EVERY issue.

    Fox also manufactures issues – like the annual "war on Christmas" stories that perpetuate the delusion that Christianity is under attack by godless diversity.

    Monday's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" has a great look at this year's "war on Christmas". In it Bill O'Reilly of Fox tries to tell David Silverman that "Christianity is not a religion, but a philosophy".

    See: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-december-3-2012/the-war-on-christmas–friendly-fire-edition

    December 5, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      And the best part in the follow-on:
      "Bill O'Reilly hands atheists another thing they can't fvcking believe."

      December 5, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Huebert

      Fox is STILL pushing the war on Christmas? I thought they dropped that years ago. Though I guess this shows how much attention I pay to faux news.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Mark of CT

      I guess this is faux news about the same as BO's charge that the GoP was waging a war on women, which was complete BS. IIf you don't think that the far left has been attacking all forms of religion (i.e. nativity displays on public property, etc..) then I'd advise you to take your head out of your a$$

      December 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • fintastic

      Bill O'Reilly is a clown. Everytime I see his face I imagine him with a big red nose, wild frizzy hair, big shoes and a horn.

      I love when John Stewart told him he was living on bullshlt mountain.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  20. WachetAuf

    The author commented: "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."

    This equates "God's law" with "natural law". It is wrong, Wrong, WRong, WROng, WRONg, WRONG. "God's law" is defined best in John 1:1 which says something to the effect that in the beginning was the word, the word was with God and the word was God. It is describing "reason" and "logic", not natural law. Jesus invited is to be "born again" to a higher nature. He asked for tolerance ABOVE ALL. By asking us to turn the other cheek, not to cast the first stone, to examine the log in our own eye before we criticize someone else for the spec in his eye, Jesus is asking that we examine objective facts, to reason through issues. The GOP claims the supremacy of "natural law", the Darwinian survival instincts in which a natural "pecking order" has been in place for thousands of years. The fight belongs to the strongest. The kind of truth which prevails is only the illusion, even the delusion, of truth which is supported by guns and bullets, money, herd instinct. That is not the "word" of God. It is the word of Ayn Rand, Russian Jew, an athiest. It is the philosophy of Neitzsche who proclaimed that "God is dead" and that a new superman would create a new moral code. That new code was not Jesus' code.

    December 5, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • TommyTT

      Well, the "Russian Jew" dig was uncalled for and it snottily places Jews outside "God's law" when, in fact, Judaism is the source of Christianity's "God's law." But your points are correct as are those of the author. The GOP's strategy of aligning with the fundamentalist right in order to gain power has come at a terrible cost. The GOP is no longer the party of William Buckley. It has become the party of fundamentalists and absolutists. The GOP has, in essence, taken too many steroids in its reach for power and these influences have made it muscle bound, irritable and ignorant.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:46 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.