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How Conservative Religion Makes the Right Politically Stronger

May 14, 2012

Progressives often marvel at how focused, coordinated and aggressive our conservative opposition is. They seem to fall into lockstep and march, building large organizations and executing complex strategies with an astonishing rate of success. We may be smarter, better educated and more reality-based — but they seem to have a cohesion and a discipline that eludes us. What’s going on here?

There are a lot of answers to that question. But I’d suggest that some intriguing answers might come from a close study of conservative religious paradigms, which play an essential role in giving conservatives a unique kind of emotional and social durability.

Conservative faiths — particularly evangelical Protestantism, but orthodox Catholicism and Judaism also include similar teachings — inculcate a worldview that equips people with extra tools to work with in face of large-scale change. The same qualities that lead non-believers to deride faith as a crutch also give believers very real psychological support in turbulent times — the kind of sure footing that makes organizing for political and social change easier, more effective, and more gratifying for those who are operating off this sturdy base.

What follows are just a few examples of advantages followers of conservative religions may enjoy when facing transformative change. I offer them not as an argument for belief — that’s not an option for many of us, and not even most religious liberals would agree with the theology at work in these systems — but rather in the hope that if we study these advantages closely, we might find authentic ways to cultivate similar strengths that are firmly rooted in our own worldview. There are lessons to be learned here.

Knowing you are on the side of right

The soul-deep certainty that God is on your side, and that you are fighting on the side of Eternal Truth, may be the biggest political and cultural confidence-builder there is. Conservatives know, beyond the shadow of doubt, that they are on the side of the angels, and this profound sense of spiritual assurance reduces hesitation, spurs action, and increases their willingness to take big risks for the sake of the ultimate victory they know in their bones is coming. They shake off defeat more easily, too, because they know it’s only a temporary setback on their way to that promised victory. After all, the Bible asks: if God is for us, who can be against us?

Progressives operate from a far more open-ended place. We’re suspicious of that kind of deep spiritual certainty, because we know how often it’s led people and nations into moral catastrophe. Instead, we prefer to operate out of our heads. We’re always questioning, taking in new data, re-analyzing, and re-deciding what we’ve already decided, triangulating and re-triangulating against our own moral lines. In our minds, the final outcome is never preordained; and what’s “right” is an ever-shifting target that we constantly need reorient ourselves toward. Chris Mooney documented these tendencies in his recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality. He notes that this hyperflexibility can make it devilishly hard for liberals to settle on a plan of action — let alone actually act effectively together with confidence when the time comes.

Also: because we’re not buttressed by the reassuring conviction that the CEO of the Universe has our backs, we feel more acutely alone in the battle, and often doubt that our ultimate victory is anything but assured. Because of this, it’s much easier for us to feel overwhelmed, discouraged and burned out. When religious conservatives feel this way, they can resort to sanctuaries of prayer, fellowship and reconnection with their sense of larger purpose. Most secular progressives don’t have any kind of built-in weekly restoration-and-regeneration process — and the lack of safe healing space does take its toll.

I’d gently suggest that there are authentically progressive, non-theistic ways of tapping into that deep spiritual conviction, raising our own sense of trust in the righteousness of our vision, and finding regular sources of sanctuary and restoration. And that it would be good for us to start exploring ways to do this.

We might, for example, make telling pieces of our own glorious history a regular feature of all of our gatherings. We could make a bigger ritual out of invoking the achievements of our progressive forebears, the noble example of the lives they lived, and the ways in which they altered the course of American history. These stories ground us in our own progressive identity, forge us into a community, reaffirm our shared vision, and rouse our courage. We are capable of everything Mother Jones and Martin Luther King Jr. were. Our enemies are no more dangerous or implacable now than the segregationists, the robber barons, the slaveowners, or the royalists were back then. We don’t know for sure if God is for us or against us, but we do know, with certainty, that “the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice.” And we are the ones in our generation who have been entrusted with the sacred task of bending it a little further. History, at least, is on our side.

Being accountable to God, and nobody else

Which brings us to another, closely related item: Religious conservatives are highly motivated by the sense that, today and every day until the end of time, they’re ultimately accountable to God for how things on earth turn out. The fear of failing the test before St. Peter — and again on Judgment Day — gives their temporal efforts a sense of urgency and commitment to the cause that we progressives sometimes have a very hard time mustering.

At the same time — perhaps paradoxically — believing that the only consequence that matters will be deferred until after death makes it easier to let go of the day-to-day ebb and flow of one’s fortunes here on earth. Conservative Christians believe that they are in this world, but not of it; and therefore, it’s a sin to worry too much about what goes on here. And they certainly don’t care much about what people outside their own tribe think about them. (Inside the tribe, they care very much.) God’s judgment is the only one that matters in the end; here on earth, persecution is just the clearest possible sign that you’re doing the right thing. This ability to disengage can be a profound source of peace and courage.

Progressives, on the other hand, worry a lot about this world. We have to: we believe that we are directly accountable to history and our grandkids for what happens on our watch. There is no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness or born-again do-overs if we screw it up. And that, frankly, makes us a little tense. We think we should control everything, and take it out on each other when we can’t. They know they can’t, and let God handle the rest. And that ability to let go of what they can’t control very often makes them easier to be around, and far less likely to take out their frustrations on each other.

Recognizing your special destiny in the eternal human story

All three major monotheisms have a linear view of human history as an ever-progressing struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. This narrative gives every succeeding generation an ever-more-important role on the front lines of the Ultimate Cosmic Battle (the final scene of which is always viewed as possibly happening Any Day Now).

Seeing your personal struggles as part of an eternal battle between Good and Evil locates you in time, and gives an epic quality to your very existence. No matter how ordinary your existence is, the notion that God Has A Plan For Your Life — and every life —  lends a vivid sense that your everyday actions have tremendous potential to affect the ultimate fate of humanity. How you manage your family and raise your kids matters. How you allocate your resources, devote your talents, and spend your time matters. What your church congregation does matters. The entire world is fraught with meaning, because your existence is exquisitely precious in the sight of God. Youmatter.

Again, this sense of being a chosen warrior in a heroic and eternal struggle is a tremendous psychological confidence-booster. It encourages people to dream big — and to take concrete steps toward fulfilling those dreams. It justifies all kinds of risks. It stirs feelings of deep love and respect toward one’s fellow warriors, which in turn creates strong movement cohesion. It gives people a vast mental space in which to regain their perspective following setbacks.

And perhaps most importantly: it confers the long view required for high-quality foresight, and the ability and inspiration to make bold plans that span decades and even generations. If your sense of time takes in all of history, from the Creation to the Apocalypse, then it doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ll live to see the changes you’re working for. The battle is forever; your job is to fight it as well as you can while you can, while also raising the next generation to take over for you when their time comes. And the most important work isn’t about getting big wins today; rather, it’s the work that builds enduring institutions that will enforce the conservative worldview long after your generation is gone.

Progressives need to bear in mind that we have a long history, too. We are today’s heirs to the Enlightenment, the latest in a series of generations that have been upholding America’s founding values and worldview since before the nation began. The progressive argument for justice and freedom is a conversation that will not end in our lifetimes. We don’t have to win all the battles, but we were born to this fight, and must also write our own chapter in its history before handing it over to the next generation.

And, most importantly: we need to cultivate that same long foresight that leads conservatives to protect their existing institutions like they were prized forts on a battlefield (which they are), and seed new ones constantly to expand their capacity to dominate the future. Our progressive legacy includes the vast array of public and private amenities — universities, parks, transit systems, social organizations, hospitals, libraries, public programs, on and on — that were created by our forebears for the same purpose, and continue to add to the dignity, opportunity and enlightenment of every American. Protecting this inheritance is the first duty of every progressive. Expanding it to serve future generations is the way we pay the gift forward.

I once was lost, but now am found

Another huge strength of the conservative side is the Christian redemption narrative. We make fun of the way the right-wing’s fallen angels do penance and are accepted readily (often far too readily, in our view) back into respectability. Make the obligatory confession, do your ablutions, and you’re back in good graces in time for Sunday dinner. And the rest of the movement will have your back the whole way. They may hate the sin, but they do walk their talk when it comes to continuing to love the sinner.

Our way of handling disgrace is demonstrably much more damaging, both to our own fallen angels and to the movement as a whole. If someone on our side is tarred — even if we all know the smear is completely unjust and undeserved — we will not defend the accused. Instead, we’ll close ranks and jettison them before anybody else has a chance to. And over and over, we lose incredibly valuable and talented people this way — people we’ve invested a lot of capital in raising up to leadership, and whose future contributions to the movement are forever lost to us when this happens.

As long as we’re so willing to off our own disgraced members, the right wing will always have an edge on us. They can take shots at our leaders and organizations (ACORN? Van Jones? Anthony Weiner?), and consistently score fatal hits, because we will reliably join them in putting their targets out of our misery. But because they have a theology that enjoins them to protect and forgive their own, they get to redeem their own disgraced people (David Vitter? Newt Gingrich?), and keep their talent in circulation. On their side, these hits are seldom fatal. They don’t lose their stars very often.

We could do with our own universally accepted rituals of repentance and redemption — a known, established path that lets our good people make their amends and put their mistakes behind them, and enables us to acknowledge both flaws and growth in each other with grace and mercy. If someone has done their penance, there will be room again for them in our circle. And our refusal to turn on each other will also do wonders for our overall level of community trust.

A mistake should not be the end of the world — or even people’s otherwise brilliant careers. And it won’t be if we find our way back to a belief in the power of redemption.

Coming together for love and community, not just work

Religion is a potent social technology — and its greatest strength is not about theology, but rather in its ability to knit people together in tight, close communities of trust, commitment, care and meaning. And regular observance of shared rituals is central to this power. Religious conservatives attend services at least once a week (in some churches, they go twice) to affirm their commitment to their shared values, celebrate and mourn the passages of life, and connect with each other not as workers and warriors, but as human beings.

Those rituals are social superglue. They build trust that extends outward into everything else these communities do. They inspire and engage people’s hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, offer incredible healing and solace when things go wrong, and provide a ready-made outlet for celebration and re-commitment to doing even more when things go right.

The rituals that make community are simple, powerful, essentially human, and independent of any theology. Sitting down together to share a good meal. (In my long experience, there’s far more likely to be large quantities of good food at a conservative gathering than a progressive one. Eating together is vastly big mojo, and we often shortchange this.) Raising voices together in song, poetry, or a shared creed. Being present with each other to mark the passages of life — birth, marriage, parenthood, retirement, and loss. Gatherings that are about joy, play, sensual pleasure, and relaxation. Other gatherings that give us safe places to struggle among trusted friends with the things that are hardest and darkest within ourselves.

Secular progressives might even consider keeping a Sabbath. How much more effective would we be if we set aside a day of personal downtime every week? Shut off the phone, turn off the computer, and re-focus on life’s deep essentials:, home, self, health, family, community, and our own sanity. It might be a day to make a real meal, have friends over, create something beautiful, linger in a hot bath with a book, take a long bike ride, watch old movies, or make a picnic with your kids. You don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate and savor the gift of simply being human. And such days are a potent reminder of why we’re doing this work in the first place, and what this life is for.

Conservatives may think and believe differently than we do. But their sheer political durability is due to some specific strengths in their communities and characters — strengths that aren’t out of reach for us, even if we arrive at them by different routes. We may not believe in God; but we have every bit as deep a need to believe in our cause, our future, our prospects, ourselves, and each other. And anything we can do to deepen our confidence in those things makes our movement more effective going forward.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet’s Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet’s Vision newsletter for weekly updates.

First Posted on AlterNet on May 8, 2012, Printed on May 11, 2012


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