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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. Me 3

    The same right wing GOP nut jobs that read every word into the bible quickly forget about separation of church and state. The pastors of the mega churches are bigger scammers than Bernie Madoff.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Me

      You probably don't know the origins of the "separation of church & state" was referring to keeping the state out of the church, not the other way around.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      Let's just be glad the separation is there. It's what keeps this country from theocracy. Where religion rules, innovation and progress cease to exist. It is intellectual suicide.

      December 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • counterww

      That is Bs. Most of the Ivy league schools were started by religious folk. You are a bigot.

      December 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • ME II

      @Me,
      The origin of the phrase was referring to a "wall of separation". I don't know too many one-way walls.

      December 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Michael

      @Me (again) – I do know the origin of the separation clause and the intent was to prevent the government from becoming the church; ergo, keeping church out of the government. The pilgrims came to this land to escape religious persecution because the Puritans disagreed (to put it mildly) with the government led church which was also the church led government. You can keep your beliefs, I don't fault you that. Use common sense and not religion; the two are not mutually inclusive.

      December 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  2. Boost economy and pay off debt

    1) treat all organizations, including religions, as the businesses they really are, and tax them.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Boost economy and pay off debt

      2) tax all property of all organizations, religions too (they have become wealth acc-umulators at the cost to the middle cl-a-s-s.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Boost economy and pay off debt

      3) end all grants and subsidies to all organizations, including religions.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Boost economy and pay off debt

      4) tax all income at payroll income.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Boost economy and pay off debt

      Doing the above will bring in over a trillion dollars in new revenue and return $200 to $1,000 after tax income PER MONTH to the middle clas-s worker – economy wins.

      It's time for the Middle Cla-ss to run this country,, today we are taken advantage of by the poor, by religions and by the upper class who wouldn't be there without the buying power of the Middle Cla-ss

      December 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • zed

      YES!!! why should any group call themselves a religion and receive instant tax exemption? Scientology for instance is a hoax and the Catholic church is rich beyond measure. why should a poor old person living on retirement pay taxes but wealthy organizations who purport to be "religious" recieve a pass?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Boost economy and pay off debt

      Religion is no different than a business. If they want to have buildings in nice property,, then pay the taxes.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Not Surprised

      Easy to say Tax religion – what you forget is that the dollars that "religion" receives are from voluntary sources. If you tax that money – much of which returns to our communities through charity and outreach. People will just stop giving it and you will have done nothing but curtail voluntary programs that bring relief to many.

      Do a bit of research about where "religious" money goes in communities and the work they do with it before you decide that we don't need what they offer.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Turtleguy

      @Zed – Scientology is a hoax – and other religions aren't? Every religion is based wholly on someone's hallucinations, or overactive imagination, or outright deception. Show me one that's otherwise.

      December 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  3. Nick Gonzalez

    What a shame that in this age, people still believe in God. Wake up people, use common sense. Commom sense, trumps Reigious Dogma.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Not Surprised

      ah, and I'd been looking for the Oracle of common sense and here you are.

      So – I believe in science...but they've really yet to prove the origin of the materials that were necessary for the big bang.... (which I do not doubt happened even a bit).

      You must know the answer – since you can understand everything through common sense. So... some stuff blew up...the still expanding universe proves that. Exactly how did the stuff that exploded come to exist? Where did it come from?

      December 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • fintastic

      When are we going to stop confusing mythology for reality?

      December 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  4. Gene

    What the heck is this guy talking about?! Does anyone at CNN actually READ these opinions before they allow a posting? Just sounds like another attack on religion.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Closet Atheist

      There's plenty to attack....

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

      Gene I think you are right in many ways. Most of the people who comment here (Believers and non believers) don't have anything worthwhile to say in direct relationship to the article. Morons are everywhere.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • GAW

      BTW I thought you were referring to the comments. Most of the articles are well thought out and to the point. Religion or any other ideology is never above question. To insist that no questions can be asked or ideas be challenged is to learn towards the ideology of Fundamentalism.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Spencer

      you may want to refresh your understanding of the term "opinion".

      December 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Humanist11

      He gets it. Religion poisons everything and it isn't even true. Religious people have been duped.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • ME II

      "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Osler." – The article

      December 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  5. GAW

    The Jesus of Capitalism says "You earned it you keep it"

    December 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • steve

      Unless we adopt a "cover charge policy" to taxes (ie every man, women and child, rich or poor, sick or healthy, working or unemployed, etc) pay the exact same amount to the goverment every policy we have regarding taxiation is a redistribution of wealth – from those that have more and the ability to provide (typically people who are healthly, educated and working age) to those who have less and limited or no ability to provide for themselves (children, elderly, sick, less educated, etc). So please stop saying you do not believe in the redistrbution of wealth, because unless you want to kill unemployed cancer patients or orphans or the a good portion of the elderly you do believe in redistribution - though we can debate on the best way to accomplish our goals.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Guy

    Leaving out the various industries and lobbyist groups that have bought and paid for so many of the GOP politicians is just so wrong. Many of us know that many of the religious would happily sell their souls if the price is right and that goes for most if not all politicians.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  7. LouAZ

    There are in fact four very significant stumbling blocks in the way of grasping the truth, which hinder every man however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a clear t itle to wisdom, namely, the example of weak and unworthy authority, longstanding custom, the feeling of the ignorant crowd, and the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge. – Roger Bacon (1219-1294)
    We don't seem to be any "smarter" than we were in the 13th Century. Suppoert my god or I'll keel you !

    December 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Christopher Xenakis

    It's hard to say. Many people associate theological liberalism with political liberalism and theological conservatism with political conservatism, but this is not always the case. There are Democrats who are theologically conservative and Republicans who are theological liberal.

    The labels "Democrat" and "Republican," as well as "liberal" and "conservative" can also be confusing. Most of us think we know what these terms mean, and that they can only mean one thing. In reality they mean many things.

    In addition, political rhetoric is often infused with cant. There are many reasons why government officials, as well as people like Rush Limbaugh, may say one thing in public but believe something completely different in private. (Actually, this happens all the time.)

    So on the whole I agree with Mark Olser, but certainly feel that the whole issue is much more complex and nuanced than he has presented it in this piece.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Closet Atheist

      The dimwitted GOP decided it was a good idea to try to "out-jesus" each other in the primaries. That was the nail in the coffin for this outdated party. We are in desparate need of a third party (fiscally conservative and socially moderate). Until then, the left will drive this country into the ground....

      December 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  9. southernwonder

    a new one i heard today. the religious republican nuts in congress now want to deny visa to a foreign politician who does not allow illegal conversions by missionaries – ie thr' working crazy miracles – among the poors and illiterates of his country. they allege persecution for which the politican has actually been never found guilty of. these nuts are rep wolf (r-va), rep trent franks (r-ar), rep pitt (r-pa), dan burton (r-pa) et al.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  10. Closet Atheist

    As a fiscally conservative atheist, I find this country becoming unbearable. Time to smuggle gobs of cash out of this dump and buy some property in a friendly country.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Money is god

      Ahh. The Romney way...

      December 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Closet Atheist

      Romney did it legally.

      If you don't like it, then try to get the tax code changed. Interestingly, tax code changes aren't a part of the Obama administrations proposals re: the fiscal cliff.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  11. Luis Wu

    "Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines." – Bertrand Russell

    December 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  12. QS

    The entire premise of this article doesn't seem to pass the 'false equivalency' test.

    Trying to compare the so-called extremes of each party as being equally terrible when one side has made their loyalty to the wealthiest quite known and the other side has been proposing a balanced solution for some time now doesn't quite work.

    If you break it down and we look at the how the majority of our politicians all subscribe to essentially the same 'faith' in one way or another, and if we were to base our judgements on the simplest descriptions of each party as laid out in this article – that one over-emphasizes helping the rich while the other over-emphasizes helping the poor....can we really compare those two as being equally bad when both originate from the same foundation of 'faith' yet one favors the smallest portion of the population while the other favors the largest?

    December 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • ME II

      Sorry, but "balanced solution" is your opinion.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • ME II

      If you keep spending other people's money, eventually you will run out of it.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  13. Money is god

    This article is ridiculous. Money is the root of everything in Washington. Big business and the lobbyists are the root of gridlock. Religious beliefs are just a secondary nuisance.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • ME II

      Money is not god, but it comes to the end of the month 'money' pays the rent.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Money is god

      In god we trust is on all money (unconst I tutionally placed there in the 50's and is a lie), more people seek money worldwide than seek god. At least money is real.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • ME II

      No argument here.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • spk

      Religious beliefs become the excuse for greed and oppression
      The verbiage of faith is used to disguise the true objects of faith, money and power

      December 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • LouAZ

      I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Corporate States of America,
      And to the Republicans for which it stands,
      One Nation, Easily Divisible,
      With Liberty and Justice for sale.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  14. jmm

    N222 said:
    "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."

    That is because the left does not tolerate racists and misogynistic views. Its called discrimination, ever heard of it??

    December 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • n222s

      jmm – and you make my argument. You believe that conservative views are necessarily racist and mysoginistic. There is no room for the possibility that conservative beliefs could be in any way valid. And that, my friend, is the definition of intolerance and anti-intellectualism.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  15. sociologywoman

    Another big difference is that the views of the Democratic Party are supported by the studies of actual reality. Lowering taxes on the rich sometimes makes the economy better, many times doesn't. Having more money in the hands of the poor and the middle class always makes the economy better. Having great inequality in a society makes all the ills of the society increase. Helping the poor opens up opportunities for them to become middle class. The policies of the Republicans just don't work. The policies of the Democrats do. I'd rather go with policies based on reality than those based on religious ideology.

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

      Agreed. any politician that looks to God for answers has NO BUSINESS leading our nation. Having "Faith" and a belief system is a good thing, but anyone thinks that God speak's "to them" needs to come back to reality and in no way govern Americans.

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

      Remember well the Nobel Peace Prize winner who started the concept of micro-lending, lending small amounts to people who wanted to start small businesses. That flourished, saving thousands of people and boosting their economy – on the lower end but nevertheless it succeeded wildly, far beyond anyone's expectations.

      It is not solely the role of the wealthy to create jobs but the entrepreneur with good ideas and a firm grasp of available market can work at the lowest end of the economic ladder.

      I'd like to see the likes of Gov Romney and his level of income start up some micro-lending programs in the US to create jobs as he says the wealthy do all the time. Put your money where you have put your mouth and prove to us that, yes, wealthy people can create jobs directly. Here is how – micro-lending.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  16. turby

    He had a great theme for this article. His Biblicism is very poor, he would make a poor liberal or conservative. I propose that the definitions of Faith/Christianity are rooted in the two versions of Christianity. 1, the literalists; and 2, the literary critics. One sees mythological implications in the Bible, the other only Divine intervention – hence, good vs evil or humanistic relativism. Then to through Rush into the mix is just stupidity. He is neither a functional Christian nor a balanced moralist. God help us in our unbelief.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  17. MormonChristian

    This is a huge stretch. The reason for our gridlock is lack of empathy. Our politicians – on both sides – cannot see the problem from the others' shoes and will not compromise. If anything, pure religion would teach us to work together. To the extent our politicians (and citizens) will not do this, they are not following their faith.

    As for Rush and the extremists on both sides, they sell fear to make money, not for any religious conviction.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • ME II

      "If anything, pure religion would teach us to work together."

      First, that is your interpretation of your doctrine/scripture.

      Second, it is arrogant for Christians to refer to "religion" when the really mean "Christianity" and more specifically "my version of Christianity".

      December 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  18. lol??

    The progressives could not foresee the results of the consolidation of power, that they so much desired and GOT by messing with the const itution. What the hey does a president have to say about education, religion, health, etc bla bla bla. Just sit in the chair, look pretty, and go to war when we tell you to.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • mama k

      "messing with the const itution"

      Explain this.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  19. Rich

    What a load of crap. Look at the make up of Congress. 3-4% of them are something other than Morman, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • mama k

      And too bad that among the majority Christian there is such a wide disparity of belief and inner conflict.

      During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

      James Madison – chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, delivered to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  20. achepotle

    I think it would be fair and appropriate to start sending all religious people to FEMA reeducation and microchip tracking camps.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Ron Caldwell

      Finally the MSM is pointing out what motivates the modern Republican Party and its not fiscal conservative values but social conservative values defined by various right wing groups such as the John Birch Society and driven by Southern and Border states electoral political strength. The MSM is just beginning to pick up this story line and will expand it to include how the Republican Party is not a national party but a creature of the Southern Bible which has never enjoyed any national political popularity.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • adh1729

      You display your evil nature for all to behold. Thanks for clarifying and making it simple for us.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:29 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.