Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Of The Political Sacred And Profane

John Haidt contends that people are a bit more irrational than most economists or optimists suggest. Writing in the New York Times, he asserts,
Self-interest, political scientists have found, is a surprisingly weak predictor of people’s views on specific issues. Parents of children in public school are not more supportive of government aid to schools than other citizens. People without health insurance are not more likely to favor government-provided health insurance than are people who are fully insured.
Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.
The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
I know Haidt is correct about parents and their support from schools. Haidt's analysis also makes sense of the idea that teachers are now among the hated folk in America.
I also believe he's correct about the sacred motivating people.  The belief frightens me. If people rally around the sacred, they do so to fight against the profane.  That fact means the "us" are holy while the "them" are evil.
The U.S. may have Christian roots, but it seems that most people have forgotten the injunction to love one's enemies.
43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
48Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
People who believe that the sacred involves perfectly loving one's neighbor can't avoid the "us" and "them."  All one needs for proof is to count the number of Baptist churches in any given community.  Each church likely represents a different conference, convention, or confession.  Given that politics generally seems more concerned about crushing political enemies than loving one's neighbor, viewing the political as sacred seems frightening and dangerous.

1 comment:

D.E. Bishop said...

Made me laugh about the Baptists. There are nearly 20 different Lutheran denominations. Someone in a church gets mad and can't get their way, so they start a new church.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, (ECUSA) I think it was, wrote a book positing that if the Abrahamic religions (Muslim, Jewish, Christian) gave up on the idea that their sacred text was sacred, the world would be incredibly more peaceful!

I think he's right. And I'm not talking about Koran burnings. I'm talking about the "contents" of the books.

If the bible is not a sacred text, then people who don't behave accordingly are not blasphemers threatening my beliefs, power and self-righteousness.

If the Koran is not a sacred text, Sunnis/Shiites/Wahabists/etc., don't need to kill one another.

If the Koran is not a sacred text, then the Ultra-Orthodox Jews don't have to chase down and humiliate little Jewish girls in Jerusalem on their way to school.

Danish cartoonists who draw caricatures of Mohammed won't have to fear for their lives.

I think there is fat chance of that happening, but it would be transformative.