We live in a country that proclaims to be secular, yet we find ourselves inundated by religion throughout our daily life. It is embedded in our legal system, medical practices, our education system, and of course politics.
When I speak of the religion in politics, I am not referring to the recent surge of religious rhetoric in politics. This recent religious rhetoric in politics was spearhead by Jimmy Carter in 1975, who as a southern Democratic vying for the office of the Presidency, used his religious background to convince the U.S populace he was not going to allow another Watergate. This religious dimension became more prevalent in the executive office with Ronald Reagan, who applied Christian rhetoric even after entering the Oval Office, and made more references to Christianity as president than any president prior. But this is but a shadow of what I am referring to.
Everyday people follow politics as though it was their religion. Democrats and Republicans cite their respective political parties’ positions as if they were gospel, and adhere to overarching principles and their corresponding candidates with a passion unmatched in social circles except maybe sports and “the Church.” People’s faithful observances of a political party allow for phenomena like that found in Kansas, which Thomas Franks attributes to an widely imaginative United States in What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. What early U.S Constitutionalists had intended to be the most secular of U.S life is actually the most religious.
Politics, as a kind of religion, promotes a desire to accept completely and defend absolutely. This fundamentalist approach to politics has hijacked many voters in the United States, casting distinctions as to “Red” and “Blue” streaks, or even what type of “Bluish Hue” you are. Can we retain a level of critical thinking amidst the whirlwind of emotions, propaganda, and subterfuge indicative of politics? For many the answer is no.
Take for instance the seemingly innocuous question: Are you supporting Hillary or Barack? The question lingers in the minds of many Democrats when they encounter each other on the street or at public venues. Whereas in the past traditional Democratic and Republican supporters commiserate in unified camps, each group complaining about the problems and savoring their parties’ accomplishes, they are now less willing to talk shop, especially for Democrats. And the tensions continue to mount as the days progress. What’s more, we sanctify politicians, looking on them to be principle moral figures when holding their government offices. Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace is just an example of morally pregnant vision U.S voters and the media assume. I am not at all condoning Spitzer’s conduct in this regard, far be it from that. However, what I am saying is that the nuances of faith, morals, and religious rhetoric has seized control of the U.S voters’ scope and criteria for politics and politicians today.
William Perry, an educational psychologist from Harvard University, developed a theory in the 1960s that tracks how people process information differently. According to William Perry, intellectual development is composed of four hierarchical stages. People generally begin approaching knowledge as if it were dichotomy between truths and untruths. For instance, either Barack Obama’s healthcare plan is right, or Hillary Clinton’s plan. One must be wrong.
Gradually as people develop intellectually, Perry finds that they realize knowledge is multifaceted. There were different perspectives to any given body of knowledge and each perspective had substance and justifications. Clinton’s plan and Obama’s each have benefits, as do Republican plans such as Romney’s or McCain’s. Perry’s theory was so groundbreaking that it is still used today in academics to understand the different ways in which people encounter and interact with new information.
Can we elevate ourselves to look beyond the dualistic categories of “Red” and “Blue”? In a critical-minded approach, can voters read conservative and liberal accounts and take in the depth each perspective possesses? I may be a cynic, but Perry’s model appears to be an unlikely road for the political United States to travel on.
For those who discount Perry’s approach, arguing that dualism is what is needed and that morality has to be protected in our political sphere, consider the contents of a popular letter circulated a few years ago on the Internet. When comparing the moral integrity of two great historical politicians, readers were shocked to find that the alcoholic and moral transgressor on various accounts was Winston Churchill– and the one with moral rectitude, was Adolph Hitler. Perhaps, people are more than simply a moral compass.