Whose Reality-Based Community?

                                                                        For: Religion and American Culture

                                    Whose ‘Reality-Based’ Community?


How we explore the various intersections of religion and politics in contemporary America depends to a considerable extent upon how we define both terms. We know, for example, that people who attend church services more frequently are more likely to vote Republican. Whether frequent church-going is a fair proxy for ‘more religious’ is, however, a different question. We have a considerable amount of data on the denominational affiliations of partisan Republicans and Democrats, but we know far less about the ways in which the complex dialectic between religious and political life shapes individual approaches to policy issues. We see the effects of doctrinal clashes in so-called “culture war” issues, but generally fail to appreciate the extent to which religion has shaped our varying approaches to seemingly secular political issues. In short, if we take a more nuanced view of what counts as “religion,” and if we define “politics” to include the enduring questions of political theory—i.e., how do we live together? what is the role of government? what is a just society?—efforts to understand the relationship become both more complicated and (arguably) more rewarding.  


I first became interested in the religious roots of ostensibly secular policy preferences while researching so-called “Charitable Choice” legislation and the President’s subsequent Faith-Based Initiative. Proponents and opponents of those measures held incommensurate, deeply-rooted convictions about the causes of poverty, the nature of religion, and the proper role of government in the economy, shaped by what Peter Berger has called the “plausibility structures” of particular religious cultures. Those who saw poverty as a function of systemic, “social justice” failures approached the issue very differently than those who saw poverty as a sign of individual moral defect (or, to use politically palatable terminology, lack of “middle class values.”) 


It isn’t only Americans’ differing perspectives on the causes and cures of poverty. Why, for example, do many people continue to be highly skeptical of global warming, despite the fact that 99% of scientists confirm its existence? Why do so many politicians look at overwhelming evidence that the drug war not only doesn’t work, but is actually counterproductive, and remain convinced that we just need to do more of what we’ve been doing? Why do some Americans characterize progressive taxation as a fair system requiring wealthier citizens to contribute proportionately more to the common good, while others see it as an unfair, even immoral, extortion that punishes the most productive?   Many of these attitudes can be attributed to economic self-interest, of course, but many others are evidence that Americans apply very different conceptual frames to the issues of our common political life.


Our individual realities, or worldviews, are shaped by our cultures, and those cultures are inevitably rooted in religion—after all, religion was the way in which early humans tried to explain reality and account for natural phenomena. In Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart tell us “distinctive worldviews that were originally linked with religious traditions have shaped the cultures of each nation in an enduring fashion; today, these distinctive values are transmitted to citizens even if they never set foot in a church.” To illustrate, they repeat a telling exchange with an Estonian colleague who was explaining the cultural differences between Estonians and Russians. “We are all atheists; but I am a Lutheran atheist and they are Orthodox atheists.”


Even people who do not consider themselves at all religious, people who never set foot in a church, synagogue or mosque, are products of religiously rooted cultures—cultures that have changed and morphed over time, but continue to be profoundly influenced by normative beliefs that were originally constructed by religion. When communities were monolithic, the people in those communities shared a common worldview, but as societies became—and continue to become—more diverse,  we have greater difficulty communicating with each other. We talk over and past each other. And nowhere is this more apparent—or more problematic—than in the realm of government action and public policy.


To greatly oversimplify, there are two primary sources of America’s contending cultures.


We are all taught that the Puritans settled in the colonies in pursuit of religious liberty. What we aren’t usually taught is that, to the Puritans, “religious liberty” meant “freedom to do the right thing,” and to establish the right religion. John Winthrop wanted to build a Shining City on the Hill; other early settlers set about making America the “new Israel.” Legal scholar Frank Lambert has called those Puritan settlers the “Planting Fathers,” to distinguish them from the men who would become our “Founding Fathers” 150 years later.


The Planters and the Founders weren’t just separated by 150 years; they were separated by the Enlightenment—what the Founding Fathers called “the new learning.” 

The “old learning,” had begun with an a priori “given,” the bible, the absolute truth of which was unquestioned. The primary goal of Puritan education was thus directed at biblical understanding; one began with the text and learned—deduced—how to interpret it. Proper interpretation required the application of time-tested methods of exegesis and analysis, and instruction in historical context and meaning (mostly, what important theologians of the past had decreed to be correct understandings and approaches). In other words, you started with Truth, and education was the process of learning to apprehend and defend that Truth.


Bacon changed the fundamental order of things by teaching that education had to begin with observation of natural phenomena. From those observations, if sufficiently numerous and careful, a general explanatory theory could be drawn. That explanatory theory, in turn, would be tested against additional observations. Isaac Newton, building on Bacon’s work, declared that “insurmountable and uniform” universal laws capable of mathematical expression governed the physical world, and could be discovered through this scientific method. 


The influence of empiricism and the scientific method extended far beyond the physical universe, and ushered in dramatically new ways of thinking about the nature of liberty and the proper form of government. The constitution drafted by the Founders and ratified by the colonies reflected a religious and intellectual paradigm shift that had moved the country’s predominant—but by no means exclusive—worldview from that of a Christian Nation to that of a secular republic in a mere hundred and fifty year period.


The Planters and the Founders occupied dramatically different realities—and both of those realities continue to influence us today. This has by no means been a simple or linear process, but in their purer forms, today’s Puritans and modernists hold radically opposing views about the nature of morality and moral responsibility. As James Morone puts it, America has two different answers to the question: “Who do we blame for trouble, the sinner or society?” While comparatively few of us fall neatly within one or another category, the conceptual divide between the Puritans and the modernists persists and, by some accounts, grows wider during periods of rapid social change. The result is that forging a common political life becomes increasingly difficult, as is evident from our ever-more contentious public policy disputes. Some examples:


  • The importance of religious culture in framing economic policy commitments has been documented in a number of studies. Among deeply religious respondents, support for public spending is substantially higher among mainstream Christians and Jews than it is among Evangelical Christians; support for tax cuts, on the other hand, is much higher among Evangelicals. Several religious scholars have remarked upon the influence of the doctrine of original sin in shaping economic policy preferences; if you have been socialized to believe that the trials of economic life are earthly tests of an individual’s sinfulness or virtue (or “character,”) you are less likely to approve of interventions intended to ameliorate poverty.  


  • Religion and religiously rooted worldviews also intersect with the criminal justice system at a number of points, beginning with our very different ideas about which behaviors ought to be considered crimes rather than sins. Arguments over the propriety of classifying so-called consensual behaviors (sometimes called “victimless crimes”) demonstrate this disconnect. So do policy disputes over such measures as the “three-strikes” rule and the severity of punishment in general. Literalists and those who perceive God as punitive are far more likely to support capital punishment and to favor harsher prison conditions than are religious modernists who emphasize more forgiving elements of the biblical texts.


  • Even in areas where there is a broad consensus among Evangelical and mainstream voters, the conflicting worldviews of those in positions of power has confounded efforts to forge policies reflecting that consensus. American environmental policy has been heavily influenced by the explicitly Puritan commitments of a relative handful of powerful political figures who believe that mankind’s “dominion” over the earth justifies the continued use of natural resources without concern for the ecological consequences.


  • If one looks at the conduct of American foreign policy, it’s not difficult to see the persistence and influence of the belief that America was founded to be the “new Israel” and “a light unto the nations.” A widespread belief in American exceptionalism and righteousness, coupled with a strong tradition of proselytizing, helps explain policies that often seem quite irrational to the modernists among us.   


Americans’ incompatible worldviews, manifested in these and many other disputes over our public policies, raises the quintessential political question: what do we do?

If our understandings of the nature of liberty and our very perceptions of “the way things are” are at odds, if our policy disputes are inescapably intertwined with our incompatible conceptual paradigms, how do we talk to each other? How do we live together? How do we forge a working political community, and make coherent public policies? Can we ever hope to reconcile our “inner Puritans” with our Enlightenment rationalism?


In order to function, America needs a shared paradigm—a culturally-endorsed mythos (what some might call a “civil religion”) that can be shared by Puritans and modernists alike. The current conflict is over the form that such a civil religion should take. The Puritans, harking back to the Planting Fathers, want a national narrative that portrays America as an unequivocally “Christian nation,” where liberty means “freedom to do the right thing,” although they do not necessarily agree upon the form such a Christian nation would assume or the rules it would impose. The modernists want an open and tolerant polis where diversity and civility are prized,  empirical evidence forms the basis for national policy decisions, and liberty means freedom to make one’s own life choices consistent with recognition of an equal right for others, although—again—modernists have competing notions about the content of social norms appropriate for a diverse society.


At the end of the day, Americans are unlikely to solve the pressing political problems we face, from Iraq to health care to the preservation of our constitutional system of checks and balances, unless and until we identify and reclaim enough conceptual common ground to allow for genuine communication. Perhaps then we can address the  fundamental human question that gave rise to both religion and politics: how shall we live together?


  1. I was raised by a staunch Republican family in a staunch Repubican neighborhood and SENT to the local Methodist church for Sunday School and bible study. Even as a young chld I didn’t understand the racist, bigoted beliefs of family or friends and in my neighborhood the Catholic families seemed to keep themselves isolated from the rest of us. This system of “neighborliness” was encouraged by non-Catholics and this caused religious confusion in my mind because I thought we all believed in God, Jesus and the bible. I began life with political and religious confusion, not realizing these different views were catagorized and considered to be separate situations. My confusion grew as I grew and I was always out of step with people and events around me. I later attached myself to the Baptist religion – basically – and realized I did not have to believe everything Republicans believed. This caused even more confusion in my mind as a child – and caused me many problems and an adult.

    A few words from a Holocaust survivor on Oprah Winfrey gave me an entirely different view of religion. When asked how she could maintain her strong belief in God while living in the middle of pure hell, this woman replied, “When God gave man free will, all control was taken from his hands. I believe God cries, too.” This profound comment ended my belief that God caused all bad to happen and would provide all good things if we prayed hard enough and deserved them. It made me fully realize that I, and I alone, must accept responsibility for my decisions and actions. A few years later an Athiest friend explained to me that they are not against religon, God or the bible; they simply believe in scientific studies and evolution. This led to my belief that these are inclusive forms of spirituality – not exclusive. From these beliefs, or disbeliefs, we form our political views. We are now upset with the results of our own actions or inaction and the Repubican money-hungry, anti-everything and everyone different from their belief system. Face it; we either handed them the power they now wield or we sat and did nothing which resulted in allowing them to grab the power and in the condition of this country today. Religion and politics cannot be separated; they are entwined in our government and in each of our lives. Religion and politics are intimitatly personal for each of us and shapes our beliefs and our lives. We are responsible; whatever our upbringing, for ourselves.

  2. My parents believed in and were examples of the good Samaritan. They were always helping poor folks on their own, and also put them in touch with the township trustee and their church.

    When I grew up, one of the pastors at my large church said that the church does numerous good works but if government ended its safety nets, churches could not begin to provide for all who really needed help.

    Many conservatives who are deeply religious and help those who are less fortunate still oppose government safety nets for the poor, in part due to feelings that there is too much abuse of the systems and/or they view government with suspicion.

    To be sure, there is abuse of requests for charity to both government and charitable organizations. If anything, government has more resources to expose and penalize the abusers than do churches. But I wince when well-fed folks denounce food stamps or when those with employer-sponsored health insurance object to Medicaid for those with so little.

    How many of us put up a sign for the hungry to come to our house for a regular meal? It’s easier to pay someone else to process food stamp requests so that the hungry can buy their groceries and fix their own meals. Unfortunately, governments’ charity is SO impersonal that we lose touch with how much it means to needy recipients. The end result?? The joy of giving celebrated by many religious faiths becomes a target for denunciation by taxpayers and politicians.

    The balance between justice and mercy is often a tough call – for government, churches and social service agencies. Ending government mercy would end the abuses and shrink government, but unless each of us is willing to take in the poor and tend to their needs individually, it wouldn’t be just, merciful or consistent with many religious faiths.

    Like my father did, I want the church and government and Good Samaritins to all work to meet the needs of the needy because it takes all of us and even then, some will still be left behind. But in that statement, I just imposed MY religious view on OUR government.

    Whether one can ever separate oneself from such deeply held beliefs is another tough call, but I hope someone doesn’t die of hunger or inability to gain medical care while the rest of us argue about government’s role. That Golden Rule gets to me every time.

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