Understanding our deep political differences

Distorting the true religious sense leaves us with sharp social divides and opens the door to politicians like Donald Trump

Peter StocklandRabbi Jonathan Sacks roots today’s religious violence in the soil of ancient heresies. By doing so, he gives us fresh understanding of the spiritual sources of our deep political divides.

Sacks will deliver Cardus’s Hill Family Lecture in Toronto on Tuesday. He contends in his latest book that contemporary murder and persecution in God’s name arise in large part from distortion of the true religious sense. Such confounding grows from the evolutionary human need to go beyond the search for meaning and draw bright lines between perfect “us” and irredeemable “them.”

Theologically, he writes inNot In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, the drive humans feel to re-order creation finds expression in heresies such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, which split early Christianity by dividing all things into unbridgeable spheres of good and evil, light and dark, pure and impure. All things in this dualistic structure, Sacks notes, include God, who is held apart from human existence and is accessible “only if we have the knowledge, the gnosis, the secret key that unlocks the door.”

Projected globally, dualism becomes, in Sacks’s word, pathological. It justifies elitism and insularity, scapegoating and vilification, and the most brutal violence against those deemed outside the circle. Sacks is careful to point out that heresies such as Manichaeism and Gnosticism per se are not pathological dualisms. Both are about God, or at least gods, not the mere earthly order.

“But,” he writes, “it is not difficult to see how the one could lead to the other because our views of the natural are shaped by our ideas of the supernatural.”

Not In God’s Name offers frightful examples of humans deforming not only religious dogma, but also our natural religiosity to satisfy our craving for belonging and our addiction to ostracism. We can see around us this human impulse to project images of pure perfection, and then ascribe such perfection to the particulars we love. If it’s abundant in our spiritual lives, it seems indistinguishable from our political responses.

Politics requires choosing. Choosing involves excluding. But we have gone much further. We have aligned ourselves into a binary politics so intractably purist, so detached from the reality of all things containing something of everything, that it would make the most hidebound Manichaean heretic hold up a cautionary hand and say: “Nothing is that black and white.” Engage in almost any political discussion on current issues and Nuance quickly slips out the door wondering why no one cares for it anymore.

For Canadians, this is particularly anomalous since our parliamentary system contains the contradiction of a loyal Opposition. We habitually forget or ignore the importance of this tradition. Yet it is a brilliant example of the whole containing contending parts without the need to negate, exclude, reject or punish. We have politicians, as part of our governing structure, whose very purpose is to oppose without being deemed disloyal to the Sovereign who, in turn, comprises all peaceful opinion with preference for none.

If such an institution seems impossibly archaic in this political season of the “Trumpeteer” to our south, it may have to do with our own Manichaean reflexes to look down at the perceived impurities of our neighbours. In a wonderful piece in The Guardian, Thomas Frank unpacks Donald Trump as a mystifying amalgam of conservative businessman, right-wing nativist, and left-wing foe of job-destroying, community eviscerating neoliberal trade pacts.

Frank holds no quarter with Trump’s boorish race baiting. Yet he quotes approving union leaders whose constituencies care not one whit about white supremacist fantasies: they want policies to help working-class Americans recover from the devastation of 30 years of neoliberalism. The “executive” and “creative” classes have ignored such suffering for far too long, Frank says. Trump is the response that scares the pants off them.

“We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for (Trump’s) emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiralling lives,” he writes. “So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.”

What he’s pinpointing, of course, is the first heresy at the heart of those Sacks identifies. Its credo is “I’m all right, Jack; you’re on your own.” It dates at least as far back as Cain.

Peter Stockland is a senior fellow with Cardus, and publisher of Convivium magazine. 

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political differences

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Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland

Prior to joining Cardus, I was vice-president of English-language magazines for Readers' Digest Magazines Canada Ltd. I am also a former editor-in-chief of The Gazette newspaper in Montreal, a former editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald newspaper and I've worked as a journalist throughout Canada during my 30-year career in the media.

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