Is Political Discord an Occasion of Sin and
What Makes Liberals/Conservatives Tick?
-by Deacon Jim McFadden
In Jesus’ priestly prayer (cf. John 17), our Lord proclaims that God, who is love, gathers together the many as one: “…that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also maybe in us”
(v. 21). That which stands opposed to God, therefore, is always a power of separation. Indeed, he Greek word for Satan is diablis, which means to tear asunder. Along this line, the early Church father Origen of Alexandria commented “ubi divisio ibi peccatum” (where there is division, there is sin).
Sin arises through the inappropriate use of our freedom: we can say “yes” to God or we can say “no.” It’s a Kierkegaardian ‘either-or’ choice. As a result, we turn in upon ourselves; we become self-preoccupied. St. Augustine defined sin as the state of being “incurvatus in se” (caved in oneself). As we do so, we lose sight of our essential dignity as being humans and we become disconnected from God, others, ourselves, and Creation.
Given the above, our current state of political conversation seems to be one that a Christian needs to tread very vigilantly. The norm seems to be to demonize one’s opponent, which is a form of objectification, which is sinful. As Catholics, we’re called to charitable dialogue. Rather than withdraw from the political process, we are to imitate Christ who cared about daily life. We are to bring our Faith to our ordinary concerns. Among those ordinary concerns are political and economic issues.
When we disagree, we can’t give into the temptation of abusing those who have a different view on the political and economic state of affairs. Instead, (We) “always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good” (Gaudium et Spes, $43). We don’t do this very well as much of Catholic dialogue is starting to resemble the cultural food fight of Fox News and MSNBC.
What we have today in our country is the politics of demonization, which has become the great civic crisis of our time as we witness the gridlock that is occurring in Washington, D.C. The politics of demonization imputes the worst intentions on those with whom we disagree. It caricatures one’s opponents view to show the obvious superiority of one’s own position. As Catholics, what we’re called to do when we disagree is charitable dialogue and to maintain a certain eschatological focus and humility.
While we believe that we’ve been given the complete and perfect Revelation through Jesus Christ, as Dei Verbum said, “The Church is moving towards the truth.” We will never have the truth in our back pockets until the Second Coming of Christ. Until then, we should engage in dialogue in a spirit of humility that people of presumably good faith may disagree with us. While we may be convinced that our opponents are wrong, that doesn’t mean we can regard them as “fools or knaves” and that there’s not something we might learn from them (cf. John Stuart Mill On Liberty).
St Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Aristotle quoted him as saying, “We should always love those to whom disagree with us for what we share in common is the love of the truth.” We should assume that posture as we dialogue with others. We should engage in charitable dialogue not with the idea of fulfilling our political agenda but the pursuit of the common good. If we as Catholics could learn how to do that, that could be a precious gift to our larger society.
What Makes Conservatives/Liberals Tick
The above challenge is going to be no easy task, especially since
Conservatives and Liberals come from such diametrically opposed dispositions, which decidedly impact their political and economic agenda. Dana Carney (Columbia University), John Jost (New York University), and Samuel Gosling (University of Texas) in their 2008 paper “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind,” published in Political Psychology (#29), theorized that there are certain personality traits associated with liberal and conservative orientations.
They argued that “…In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.” Specifically, they claimed these personality traits looked like the following:
Slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent, eccentric, sensitive, individualistic; open, tolerant, flexible, life-loving, free, unpredictable; creative, imaginative, curious, expressive, enthusiastic; excited, sensation-seeking; desire for novelty, diversity; uncontrolled, impulsive; complex, nuanced; open-minded; open to experience.
Definite, persistent, tenacious; tough, masculine, firm; reliable, trustworthy, faithful, loyal, stable, consistent; rigid, intolerant; conventional, ordinary; obedient, conformist; fearful, threatened; xenophobic, prejudiced; orderly, organized, parsimonious, thrifty, stingy; clean, sterile; obstinate, stubborn; aggressive, angry, vengeful; careful, practical, methodical; withdraw, reserved; stern, cold, mechanical; anxious, suspicious, obsessive; self-controlled, restrained, inhibited; concerned with rules, norms; moralistic; simple, decisive, closed-minded; conscientious.
Given the personality traits of Liberals and Conservatives (if one doesn’t accept Carney et al’s summary, one may still allow that Liberals and Conservatives do have distinguishing personality traits) how do these traits translate into some of the contentious and divisive questions roiling our country? Jonathan Haidt and Nicholas Winter (University of Virginia) and Ravi Iyer (USC) have collected and systematized very large numbers of responses to questions designed to elicit new information regarding political values orientation (cf. www/YourMorals.org). Their findings offer insight to our current political terrain:
1. War, Peace, Violence, Empathy with the World: On key questions and statements in this category, liberals scored high, conservatives low: “I believe peace is extremely important”; “Understanding, appreciation, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature”; “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal”; “How close to you feel to people all over the world?” On other key questions in this area, conservatives scored high, and liberals low: “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict”; “There is nothing wrong in getting back at someone who has hurt you.”
2. Crime and Punishment; Morality Elasticity; Authority. Again, on some questions in this category, liberals scored high conservatives low: “I believe that offenders should be provided with counseling to aid in their rehabilitation”; “What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another.” On other questions, conservatives scored high and liberals low: “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed”; “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn”; “I believe that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the correct philosophy behind punishing offenders”; “The ‘old-fashioned ways and values’ still show the best way to live”; “It feels wrong when…a person commits a crime and goes unpunished.”
3. The Poor, Redistribution, Fairness. Liberal high, conservative low: “It feels wrong when…an employee who needs their job is fired”; “I think it is morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing”;
“I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Conservatives high, liberals low: “(I place a high value on) safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self”’; (It’s desirable when) employees (who) contribute more to the success of the company receive a larger share”; (I value) social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.”
4. Morals, Hedonism, Self-Fulfillment, Hierarchy: Liberals high, conservatives low: “I see myself as someone who…is original, comes up with new ideas:’ “Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself”; “What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another.” Conservatives high, liberals low: “If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems”; “People should be loyal to their family members even when they have done something wrong”; “Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs that traditional culture provide”; (I favor) restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
The above questions reveal how profound the chasm is on values between liberals and conservatives, which lends itself to polarity and discord. As Catholics engage the political process, we, too bring our conservative or liberal dispositions which will incline us to a certain political allegiance. At the same time, we should have the humility to have the Gospel form our consciousness, which we bring to the political arena. Too many Catholics (a.k.a. as ‘ideological Catholics’) speak the Catholic lingo with passion and some degree of knowledge and awareness. But, their prior (political) ideological convictions determine how they appeal to their Catholic faith. They come to their Catholic faith with an ideological agenda, then they pick and choose elements of their Catholic Tradition that support their political agenda while conveniently putting on blinders to those Catholic elements that don’t support their agenda.
Despite our psychological predilections, a goal to which we should aspire is to embrace our Catholic social teaching as a whole and work to have our Catholic faith shape our political attitudes and behaviors, rather than the other way around. Our faith shapes our political conventions, not visa versa. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put out their Faithful Citizenship, they were challenging us to do just that.