A couple of years ago, I came across a fascinating article in a legal journal comparing constitutional and biblical cherry-picking. I no longer recall the journal, the title or the authors, so no link, but I do recall the thesis: certain personality types have a need for bright lines and a profound discomfort with ambiguity, leading to the use of selected passages from religious and legal texts to confirm their pre-existing biases.

When evangelical Christian denominations embraced Trump–some pastors insisting he’d been chosen by God– it was tempting to describe religion in general as a big con. Like most generalizations, that characterization is both under and over-inclusive. The problem is not religion per se, but fundamentalisms of all sorts. As the referenced article made clear, religious dogma isn’t the primary problem (although some certainly is very problematic), it is fundamentalists’ insistence on its inerrancy.

In other words, there’s a great deal of similarity between Second Amendment absolutists and fundamentalists of all religious persuasion–and I do mean all religions. American Jews provide just one example. Pew recently published a study of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs. Unsurprisingly,  the study found that a majority of Jewish Americans lean politically liberal and currently favor the Democratic Party. However, Orthodox Jews (our fundamentalists), were “a notable exception.”

The survey, which was conducted in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, finds that 71% of Jewish adults (including 80% of Reform Jews) are Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. But among Orthodox Jews, three-quarters say they are Republican or lean that way. And that percentage has been trending up: In 2013, 57% of Orthodox Jews were Republicans or Republican leaners.

There is further evidence that the content of belief is less troublesome than the intensity of that belief.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an essay asking whether politics has become the new religion. The article featured examples of Americans for whom politics has become an identity and a quasi-religion–suggesting that the waning of traditional  faith commitments isn’t leading to a reduction of conflict, as many of us had fondly supposed; rather, those for whom lines must be bright and beliefs should brook no dissent have simply transferred their fundamentalist passions elsewhere.

The United States has long been known for what some sociologists call “civil religion” – a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on the flag, the nation’s founding documents, and God. But the God factor is waning, as so-called nones – atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” – have risen to one-third of the U.S. population, according to a major 2020 survey out of Harvard University. 

From MAGA devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism that can feel “absolute” in a quasi-religious way is rampant. At the same time, American membership in houses of worship has plummeted to below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling – from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

The article points out that Americans have been moving away from organized religion for several years–and notes that–rather than easing intergroup tensions– the shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics. For personalities that need certainty about “righteousness,” political ideology provides a sense of “devotion, belonging, and moral certitude” they might once have found in a religious congregation.

The problem isn’t Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other theology. It’s the certitude motivating adherents’ intransigence and unwillingness to live and let live.


  1. Todays post reminded me of the images of the fevered white American Taliban folks with MAGA hats assaulting our nations capital, killing police officers in their way. This fundamentalism and absolutism is scary stuff.

  2. It seems that politics has also found a new enemy in science, as those finding less of a home in organized religion seek refuge in political righteousness also run headlong into those pesky scientific facts and hypotheses that then must somehow be detoured around. When religious and political certainty no longer seem so certain, there become fewer and fewer places with which to find the sanctity and security they crave, except in in an evermore confining niche of fundamental purity.

  3. That is a penetrating observation.

    Now, what is the opposite of fundamentalism? Intellectual humility?

  4. I don’t know about the political and religious spectrums being used to support belief systems. I believe it has more to do with closed- or open-mindedness.

    If you are very rigid and need control then you are going to interpret things a certain way. Ambiguity is not your friend. You need dogma and rules where none exist. I’ve heard it described as right or left-brained. Maybe that’s the scale we should be using.

    I’ve attended black churches and nothing feels right about their sermons, especially when they come from the Old Testament or they discuss the rapture. I watch the interplay between Israel, Palestine, Hamas, and the US, and nothing seems kosher. The reality doesn’t fit the narrative. If religion was used by rulers to control the masses then it’s not a very text for society today.

    When I listen to the narrative coming out of Washington with their constitution and then look at the policies and actions, I get the same feelings. There is a disconnect between what they are saying and what’s really happening.

    If the Buddha was correct, all things are impermanent. It means what we believed last year no longer works today. We have to continue to evolve to new information and knowledge. We are manifesting or constantly growing in our understanding. I believe this is scientific inquiry. Always questioning why and then seeking the truth.

    This completely destroys the myth of Making America Great Again (MAGA). The solution is never in our past. We can’t go back to find the answers. We learn from history but don’t want to repeat it.

    Always moving forward. When we break down our world, we find quarks or tiny pieces of energy.

    There was a book in the 70s that studied the connection between physics and Taoism. I wonder where they are today?

    Most people reach a point where they are comfortable and stop growing. Stop questioning. Accept as is. However, that’s not how the universe operates. It’s growing toward something. If we stop learning and stop inquiring, then we suffer. It’s not our inherent nature to remain stagnant.

  5. I agree with Todd: some people have a deep need to be in control. Even deeper than that, I suspect, is a need to feel secure, which manifests in some as a need to control and in others a willingness to be controlled in exchange for security. Rigidity gives an illusion of security, but I think a lot of fundamentalists (of all stripes) are so fragile and brittle they are afraid they’ll shatter if anything is uncertain. Philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead warned of the human tendency to “absolutize the relative” and turn our frameworks of understanding, always partial, into rigid ideologies that people then make into idols and use to harm others. Any system of thinking can be misused this way, from religions to sciences. Marxism and fascism both have a terrible history of absolutizing, resulting in the deaths of millions.

  6. Fundamentalists want everything to be exactly the way they suppose it should be. That makes them easy prey for cynical “leaders” whether they be religious or political. I have a mantra that I use whenever my friends are trying to convince a fundamentalist of the error of his/her ways: Closely held beliefs are impervious to facts.

  7. I wonder. Is the decline in religiosity causing the shift to more intense politics? Or is it that increasingly intense political fundamentalism is crowding out religiosity? Are there perhaps many people for whom a single cult is sufficient?

  8. The book in the 70’s was called the Tao of Physics, and I read it.

    I have often thought that those with an originalist philosphy of the Constitution were like Christian fundamentalists who take the Bible literally. The founding fathers lived in the 18th century. Since then our scientific knowledge has advanced. Slavery is now illegal. Women have gained the right to vote etc. Fundamentalists want clear cut rules, control. They fear change. They fear scientific progress.

    The originalist interpretation is dangerous when it comes to the 2nd amendment. Why should anyone need a semi-automatic weapon?

    There are authors who have written about moral development. Fundamentalists have a 12 year old level of morality which does not allow for any ambiguity and is not open to the teachings of other faith traditions.

  9. A wise friend once explained to me that doubt is an integral aspect of faith. The greatest religious figures were full of doubt. Religion without doubt is a cult.

  10. Fundamentalism and its truest sense, is really not fundamental at all!

    Donald Trump was not promoting fundamental beliefs of the GOP, at least what the GOP had listed in their goals for accomplishment. But, the GOP latched on to Donald Trump as you say, like he was the son of God! And as the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and all of that other drivel!

    When men and humanity in general tend to believe that they have an intellectual concept and understanding of everything, there is a backlash or adjustment which tends to be worse than the self aggrandizing epiphanies humanity seems to revel in. But those self-aggrandizing epiphanies need to be in line with what they want to accomplish in the first place. Those self-aggrandizing epiphanies don’t happen unless they are completely in line with their own goals and desires!

    You can look at the Islamic religion, you can look at Christianity, You can look at Judaism, you can look at Buddhism and other factions of it, and its leaders will allow and endorse the murder of their brethren in wars and conflicts, even if the holy books speak out against it! So there you have an oxymoron, or an Oxymoronic Epiphany that goes against the fundamental beliefs of that specific religion.

    If, if religious hierarchies came together across political man-made boundaries during times of war and told their people to not fight each other, for Catholics not to kill Catholics, for Protestants not to kill Protestants, for Muslims not to kill Muslims, for Buddhists not to kill Buddhists, Hindus not to kill Hindus, you would have very few conflicts on the planet. I would venture to say, you would have zero religiously inspired conflicts on this planet. The Quran teaches that if a man is parched and in need, seek out good men, Christians or Jews! So if Muslims were Supposed to hate Christians or Jews, why does a speak well of them?

    But considering that is not likely to happen because mankind needs to show his patriotism and loyalty to other men, and that includes the willingness to execute his brother! So, that takes precedent over the ideas of religious peace by the founders of those religions. If you’ve ever read the QURAN, all in all, it’s a very thought-provoking book, and it is not a fanaticism or fanatic piece of literature. Besides the QURAN, you have the TAVRAT, which also is the Torah or the Pentateuch! Then you have the ZABUR which are the Psalms! And then the INSIL/INJIL which are the gospel books, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!

    So even with these very divergent religious groups, not including Buddhism or the Hindus, Judaism, Christianity, and, Islam have a lot of overlap.

    Unfortunately it’s not peace that men want its power, and actual religious written teachings be damned! Of course some uninspired religious dogma has been created to promote disunity and rigid fundamentalism, but that wasn’t the original intent of Scripture.

    So, the natural progression is to cast aside or trashcan religious beliefs that don’t conform to the political pragmatism of those pragmatic political ideologues who have been developing their highbred religion, with the worship of men and their ideas which never turns out well!

    The vehicles that men used to promote their hatred of the others, will never END. The hatred will continue until man has annihilated this planet and along with it himself. Staunch fundamentalism on all sides is used as rigid bludgeon to elevate one’s particular tribe over the others. Hence never-ending conflict and nonbinding uncooperative existence in a failing attempt to keep this very fragile home we all live on, peaceful and bountiful!

    One example of fundamentalism gone awry was quoted in John 9:29-34; Christ had healed a man who had been blind from birth, but the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin criticized the man who had his eyesight restored, questioning his right to be healed! After all, they wanted the power, and the Shema or Dogma they created for themselves seem to usurp the law of Moses! Not so different than the fundamentalists who usurp teachings of the QURAN to retain power and authority over their fellow man, regardless of actual religious teachings and laws

  11. We did witness the Dogma of the Right Wing Reactionary GOP during the pandemic. The Trumpet suddenly became a Medical Doctor of renown when he desperately tried to do anything he could to downplay Covid-19. He even offered bogus remedies. His Trumpet Cult gobbled all his blathering up.

    Covid-19 was impervious to all the Trumpet’s lies and deceptions. Yet The Trump Cult eagerly followed, in the face of an explosion of infections and death.

    Now the Stone Wall of fanatic Trumpism circles once again to protect themselves from a Commission into the Capitol Coup.

  12. Even hunter/gatherers need to understand the world around them and did, or do, but only down to a level of detail that they need to survive. Anything beyond their senses, which were limited to things at their scale, and in their time and place, really didn’t matter so if they wondered at all about them they could make up an explanation that fit their limited observations. If their world changed they merely moved on until they found what sustained them. Or, died.

    One explanation for this limited world came from shamen who gathered power by pretending to know more than others and provided direction from invisible forces that only they understood. It was a good gig.

    Over the years religions morphed with the times, always in search of power.

    As nomads started to settle down and institutions became more entrenched, shamen maintained what power they could and it took on several disguises. Aristocrats, Religions, Corporations, Politicians, Entertainers, what we now think of as “influencers”, continued to interpret what’s beyond the senses of different populations in exchange for influence.

    Science took on a different role by systematically finding ways to observe what was less apparent in search of the real explanation for it. Neither shamen nor scientists liked to change their minds because of the resulting loss or sharing of power so natural conflict existed and exists to this day between the natural and the supernatural explanations for everything.

    We all get to pick who we grant power over us to. We still have people who take the easy route to comfortable knowledge because learning the detail requires discipline while following movements is easy to start, but hard to depart from as the explanations build on each other into deep but fundamentally flawed belief structures.

  13. Conventional religion is on the wane, or is it? Perhaps it has been substituted for by the politics of greed, lust and search for power inhering in capitalist societies, and I here note that substitutes can be removed and the first five reinstated at any point down the road when the hoi polloi encounter new or different threats to their collective sense of security.

    History, which is linear, tells us that Protestants and Catholics slaughtered one another during The Hundred Years War when Dr. Luther’s views collided with those of Rome, but that isn’t the problem nowadays as we seem to be moving into a era of “a pox on both your houses,” perhaps pending the entrance of a new Luther to the scene who will vanquish the TV phonies and bring us back to that “old time religion,” whatever that is.

    To do: Live and let live. Believe what you choose to believe but be a productive and caring citizen for the short span you are on this old orb in space. The Buddha may have been on to something.

  14. I’ve recommended this book before, “The Fundamentalist Mind: How Polarized Thinking Imperils Us All,” by Stephen Larsen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, SUNY. It’s not just about religion or politics but all kinds of fundamentalist thinking.

    One take away from the book that I found fascinating was that people can be so rigid in their beliefs that when they look truth in the face, they *literally* – in the true sense of the word – cannot see it. That’s a lot different from ignoring the truth. It’s in the wiring.

  15. Eric Hoffer’s True Believer has some interesting things to say about this phenomenon.

  16. “Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Blaise Pascal

    But ambiguity is so dominant in our lives that at times I’ve been secretly envious of those who can look at any problem and pronounce an immediate and un-contradictable solution, at least in their own eyes. How comforting. How reassuring. How time saving. How devoid of intellectual rigor and, therefore, usefulness. By seeing Trump as the second coming, Republicans transcend issues such as his tax returns, his criminal Trump Organization, and his intrinsic cruelty. Have you ever seen an analysis of the character flaws of Jesus or the Buddha? Somehow Republicans can sell themselves, and by extension one another, on the idea of his unquestionable divinity. This enables them to view themselves as something less than fools as all the rest of us see them. But to do so, they must renounce or ignore all that their education taught them about how complex most important problems are, and how they can build a life of integrity only by being true to themselves.

    Didn’t Einstein say, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”?

  17. I’m reminded of something a wise man once wrote(don’t remember who, when, or where, so I can’t quote exactly), The more I learn, the more I learn that I don’t know! And that was in the ancient times before the explosion of knowledge since then!

  18. I often decry the three fundamentalisms threatening society: religious fundamentalism, Constitutional fundamentalism, and market fundamentalism. If one were to make a Venn diagram of most people holding those beliefs, it would just be a circle.

  19. We need to teach and practice tolerance in order to live and let live.

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