So I am sitting at a stop light in traffic, waiting to make a left turn. I had my turn signal on, like the car in front of me did. No music on, so I could hear the clicking of the signal, and watching the other car, its signal was nearly exactly in time with mine. What a great coincidence, I thought! Not only is the tempo of the blinker pretty well on, but we seemed to be quite synchronized. I and my unknown driver buddy were mysteriously linked through some cosmic force. The co-blinking lights continued as the stop light lasted (are they getting longer and longer?) and lasted. It must have been a good while, but I could sense, my world of perfect harmony was no more. The beats were slightly off, then way off, then annoying enough that I was glad a diesel pick up drowned out what was left of any harmony.
That is what has happened with religion and with politics lately. Different groups may have seemed to be similar or harmonious and not that far from each other, but now, the dissonance is unavoidable. We long for a return to civil dialogue, for compromise in congress, and for religions to be tolerant and compassionate. The differences and partisanship we see now is not actually new; the roots may have been difficult to detect, but they were always there, though smaller.
The craft of those who prefer the fussing factions follows the corrupted advice of that old song: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. This combined with rule #1 of propaganda: repeat your simple message enough, and eventually people will believe it. These tactics must be played on an emotional playing field, not an intellectual one.
The emotional appeal of religion far overshadows any kind of rational one. From Jonathan Edwards to Charles Wesley to Billy Sunday, Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham, church growth has always ridden a wave of emotions. People join church because it feels good. Some may say that worship opposes the intellect. A host of recent books makes an elaborate and brilliant case that what Jesus said and historical Christianity is much different than the mega-church family values brand we see today. Churches that grow today have all sorts of passionate hand-waving, big-time music, and provide immediate moral advice. Still, there are rules that “True Christians” see as historical. The fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mathew places the following line on Jesus’ lips: "Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the Law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” What does this really mean? Well, we might agree at first…
The Tea Party has deep roots as well. Adam Smith is much remembered as the author of “The Wealth of Nations,” inaugurating the systematic study of economics in that fateful year, 1776. Few of us are aware of his other major work, “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which dealt with how people think and make decisions. Smith was well aware of certain gaps that the invisible hand might leave and he commended a legitimate role for government. The debate over how pure should capitalism be, and what constitutes an excessive government action. We can all agree that the role of government has grown since America was born. A progressive will appreciate this appreciation, but others are ready to draw a line. They don’t want to take it anymore. These are people who wish that charity can fill gaps, and lift up the poor and unlucky. They insist that consequences to actions are a critical but vanishing part of the system.
It was Ronald Reagan that ignited the dissonant spark, and the dissonant clicking began. He labeled government as the problem, not the solution. He revised the tax code and alluded often to religion. We debate to this day what the ramifications of his action were. And now that the sides are more clearly delineated, all sides pick and choose certain of Reagan’s actions that bolster their own case.
The partisan rancor will continue until our proverbial cars are allowed to move forward from the stop light. Any meaningful change must begin with a successful appeal to the emotions of a lot of people, and it might have some factual basis as well. Our various groups do have more in common that our politics and denominations, but lately we have fanned the differences that were always there, they are just really out of sync now, and really annoying.