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The Republican Party Is a Cult

The Republican Party has changed considerably in my lifetime.  When I was a kid, my impression was that conservatives dressed conservatively, were well groomed, well behaved, spoke intelligently, and valued principles.  I never expected to see a vulgar reality TV star like the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, delivering folksy speeches at conservative political events in a full beard and camouflage.  But they’ve had more than just a cosmetic makeover, with the infusion of the Tea party the GOP has undergone dramatic ideological and epistemological changes.  Their positions may have remained more or less the same, but what is noticeable is how much their principles have changed in order to remain static.  For instance, the party defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act while simultaneously championing “states’ rights” to regulate marriage, so long as the end result was a ban on same-sex marriage.  Republicans also criticize the Obama administration for dereliction of duty in not defending DOMA at the Supreme Court, but were then silent when Governor Scott Walker refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  This ends-justified mentality seems closer to what I’ve observed in cults, and in many ways I would argue that’s exactly what the Republican Party is becoming.

Cults love to catch people off guard with new information, this is the signature tactic of a successful cult.  It’s precisely why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses still go door to door, as prepared speakers trying to catch unprepared people in their homes, or why Scientologists try to catch passersby in a public park to offer a “free stress test.”  It doesn’t even matter if the information they offer is true or not, the fact that the listener is unfamiliar with it gives the cultmember illusory superiority.  The advantage is that the cultmember doesn’t actually have to be more knowledgeable on a subject, they just have to have knowledge of something that the other person doesn’t.  It matters little how much a Christian knows about the Bible, if they don’t know anything about the Book of Mormon then that’s a weakness the Mormon missionaries will focus on.  Zealous Christians trying to convert the missionaries would have to know more about the Book of Mormon than the Mormons to have any hope of succeeding. 

It doesn’t stop with converts, either.  Secret doctrines are the stock in trade of cults, and even the initiated are incrementally bombarded with previously hidden information as a means to keep them advancing further, like when Scientologists reach level OT III and are finally shown L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi creation myth.  The distinction between a religion and a cult can sometimes seem arbitrary, but students of religion can easily recognize a cult when they reach the limit of information that can be acquired as an outsider.  You can learn everything about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without having to convert to those religions, but you can’t learn everything about Mormonism or Scientology without being a member (although the internet is changing that).  Even then, the selective information that is taught on the inside differs from the total information available on the outside.  Cultmembers characteristically operate with a different set of “facts” than nonmembers.  A conflict between the cult’s “facts” and reality are dismissed as a conspiracy by their organization’s perceived enemies–which can literally include anything outside the cult.

The most frustrating part of debating with today’s Republicans is having to be on top of all the latest conservative conspiracy theories.  It can be difficult to discuss any political topic with a Republican because they frame most subjects with assumptions that aren’t based in fact.  Claiming Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, or socialist can derail any serious talk about the President or his politics.  And just like with a cult, it doesn’t matter how knowledgable an outsider is on factual information, because the Republicans are more knowledgable on false information.  Though they might really not know anything about economics or ecology, they’ll consider an opponent ignorant if he’s unfamiliar with Cloward-Piven, Agenda 21, Saul Alinsky, or climate change denial.  The secret doctrines of conspiracy theories have become the norm for the GOP as it has become more and more cultic, to the extent that members might not even be aware of how pervasive they are.  Even conspiracies that originated on the Left, like 9/11 truthers and birthers, have found their forever home in the GOP.  As with cults, their more extreme beliefs tend to be omitted from content accessible to the general public, aside from strategically positioned dog whistles.  Nevertheless, although not all Latter-day Saints are initiated in the temple rituals, all Mormons must accept that all of Christianity is a Satanic conspiracy against the one true church and the Bible, not just a theological disagreement.  Similarly, issues that are in reality just disagreements on politics are interpreted by Republicans to be conspiracies of gays, atheists, or liberals to intentionally destroy marriage, the church, or America.  Republicans seem determined to steer the political conversation towards outlandish claims which inhibit rational political debate.  Rightwing positions on meteorology, sexual orientation, evolution, and U.S. history actually require a conspiracy of elitist academics and liberal media to explain why the overwhelming majority disagree with them.  As with religious cults, if there is a real conspiracy it is to be found inside the party. 

Cult doctrines are notoriously difficult to rebut because they tend to be circular and interdependent on each other.  The Book of Mormon being true depends entirely on Joseph Smith being a true prophet, and faith in the LDS church as the only true church rests on belief in the Book of Mormon.  It’s simple enough to logically articulate why it’s wrong, yet trying to short circuit this reasoning in the Mormon mind can be an insurmountable challenge.  Although their worldview is really a fragile house of cards that should be able to topple with the removal of one or two fundamentals, their belief systems can be so convoluted that they actually forget when information has been refuted and still rely on that false information as the basis for other beliefs.  Similarly, it can be difficult to unravel rightwing doctrines.  Even when Republicans admit that birtherism is a fraud, it doesn’t seem to shake their underlying belief that President Obama is somehow ineligible to be in office; at its worst, birtherism was never more than a pretext for a preconceived prejudice.  Trickle down economics doesn’t work yet Republicans still blindly push it because it supports their tax policy.  Failure to find WMD’s in Iraq hasn’t diminished their faith in the justification of the Iraq war.  Half of Republicans still believe they were found, and Republicans have shown to be more confident in this erroneous belief after being told correctly, like a Mormon “testifying” that the Book of Mormon is true when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  On top of that, cultmembers are trained to distrust sources critical of their religion, and the Republican Party’s distrust of the so-called “liberal media” has only worsened with the rise of blatantly biased conservative outlets and forwarded emails beneath the radar of fact checkers and peer review.  In a sea of conservative misinformation, too many Republicans are helpless to discern truth.

Cultmembers generally resent the allegation that their organization is a cult.  Republicans reading this are probably thinking the same thing right now.  While it’s understandable that nobody likes the stigma associated with the term “cult”, cultmembers are often more concerned with perception than with actually being less cultic.  Cults tend to have several predictable responses to this accusation, none of which involve being less controlling or open to facts.  The first strategy is to argue that if their group is a cult, then every other religion must be a cult too.  This false equivalency projects the cult’s own secretive, conspiracist, and controlling qualities onto religions that are demonstrably dissimilar.  And while theology, like politics, can be unproven hypotheticals, factual disagreements, such as the origin of your sacred text, are verifiable.  Likewise, politicians on both sides will have differing opinions on the possible outcome of a policy, but currently only the Republicans want to have their own facts.  In the end, “both sides do it” is a weak defense for a religion or party that considers itself exceptional compared to its competitors. 

The second strategy to deflect the cult label is to argue against a stereotype of a cult, a uniformed commune of groupthinkers.  But the truth is, most cults aren’t isolated communities of identical people who all dress alike and think exactly the same, yet they’re nevertheless cultic.  Their membership may be from all walks of life and diverse on a spectrum of ideology and loyalty to the organization: some beginners, some moderates, some extremists.  Structurally, however, the organization is still a cult, and they just exploit the demographics of their membership to make people think otherwise.  The Mormon church goes to great lengths to station minorities in visible missions, both as an attempt to dispel the effects of generations of racial segregation, but also to make themselves appear less homogenous.  Their “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign was trying too hard to fight the stereotypical image Mormons themselves had created.  The GOP has been just as obvious lately in trying to push minorities, women, and young people in front of the cameras, despite its older, whiter, and manlier base pushing them out of the party.  But it’s one thing to make a woman the face of your organization when she’s just volunteering at the front desk of the temple visitor center, it’s another to make an unqualified person your vice presidential candidate because she’s a woman.  Both are undeniably deliberate and shamefully desperate, but at least they’re only superficial. 

The way cults exploit individualism and ideological variances is far more troubling.  No matter how brainwashed people are, they still can’t be programmed to think and act exactly the same all of the time.  Unlike normal religions, members of cults pass through different phases, a fake diversity that the organization will often use to give the illusion of personal variety even if the end goal is to eliminate those differences.  The Church of Scientology perfected the technique of separating novices from the advanced, which helps put a more friendly, relatable face to the general public while isolating the brainwashed zombies.  Full disclosure can be a catch-22, somebody unprepared to receive a ridiculous doctrine could easily be turned off to the organization with that information.  From my own personal experience, the GOP’s fringe tends to be more guarded about its conspiracy theories when interacting with moderate Republicans than with me.  They don’t expose sympathizers to questionable information that could potentially alienate them, but they don’t mind wasting their enemy’s time with those arguments.  Those at the lower level can also serve as a distraction from the more extreme initiates, providing a moderate voice to attack their critics while never criticizing the organization itself.  Although cults strive for complete assimilation, they can also use a member’s individuality for self-serving marketing.  Scientology wrote the book on this strategy by intentionally seeking out charismatic and eccentric celebrities as brand ambassadors.  The Republican Party has taken this to the next level, recruiting the Duck Dynasty cast in full costume, turning politicians into cable news pundits and infomercial hosts, and making candidates and reality TV stars interchangeable.  It’s not just the striking absence of this hucksterism in the Democratic Party, it’s that the Republican Party seems to have no problem being the agency for stardom in the same way that the Church of Scientology has been for aspiring actors.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become more conservative in the last 15 years.  Ideological purity has pressured members to take gradually more extreme positions, to the extent that even revered Republicans like Ronald Reagan probably wouldn’t be conservative enough to survive in today’s party.  Every four years the GOP goes through a succession crisis comparable to the Mormons after the death of Joseph Smith, and it will only keep getting worse as they keep losing. In Republican campaigns, every election seems to be the end of the world.  That’s not really hyperbole, they literally believe that.  Democratic candidates may also believe it would be disastrous if they lost (they’re usually right), but they’re not literally apocalyptic about it.  The Republican Party actually mobilizes their base to vote by speculating that their opponents may literally be the eschatological Antichrist.  But this isn’t just exploiting evangelical’s beliefs, because this eschatology has been hijacked to become something that’s no longer distinctly Christian but rather distinctly Republican.  For example, it didn’t matter that Mitt Romney was a Mormon of polygamous descent, who created the precursor to the Affordable Care Act in a state with legal same-sex marriage.  Billy Graham considered him the only candidate standing up for Biblical values, even though it’s only due to political expedience that Mormons today no longer practice polygamy, and only coincidence that Mormons oppose homosexuality (Mormons only believe this because it’s what their current prophet says, not because of anything in the Bible; their prophet could change this at any time).  Somehow a Mormon candidate couldn’t be the Antichrist just because he’s a Republican.  Every election cycle, the alarmist GOP positions themselves as the only hope between mankind and doomsday.  Their repeated failed predictions don’t seem to have eroded faith in the party any more than the Watchtower’s multiple failed Second Comings.  Cults often fatalistically condition their followers to self-destruct if they lose faith, making them think that if the cult’s teachings are untrue, then no religion can be true either.  Similarly, Republicans seem to be conditioned to abandon hope in politics or the country if their party can’t get their way.

There is no easy solution, without a fundamental demographic upset I think we may be past the tipping point.  For the Mormon church to stop being cultic would mean to stop being Mormon, and I think this may be true of what the Republican Party has become.  Too many definitive Republican positions are based on arguments which are verifiably false, to abandon those arguments would be to entertain the possibility of different conclusions.  The Republican Party has shown their willingness to change their principles to continue holding to a pre-determined conclusion, not the other way around as they need to do. 

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The Price of Progress

Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times (1936), included a scene that would be unintentionally prophetic. A red safety flag falls off of a passing truck and Charlie picks it up. Trying to get their attention, he follows after them waving the flag, not realizing that a labor protest has formed in the street behind him. The police attack the crowd and Charlie is arrested as a communist agitator. After he gets out of jail, he tries to get work again in several occupations, but at the end of the movie he still remains a poor tramp.

Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Several years later, he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940).  Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is mistaken for an anti-Jewish dictator who looks and sounds a lot like Adolph Hitler.   A decade later, however, he would find himself caught in the House Un-American Activities witchhunt.  Chaplin was, despite never having been associated with the party, suspected of being a communist for having endorsed progressive candidates, refusing to cross picket lines during a strike, and publicly praising then-ally the Soviet Union during World War II (as the government had encouraged producers and studio executives to do).  However, Chaplin had also publicly criticized Hitler before the United States was involved in the war, and in the twisted minds of the McCarthy overlords one would have only done that if they were a pro-Communist sympathizer.  Chaplin defied the HUAC by refusing to name names and he suggested he was being bullied because they also erroneously thought that he was Jewish.  As payback, the little Tramp was banished to England and could not return again until the 1970’s to receive an honorary Academy Award.

In the 1930’s, it was estimated there were over 800 fascist organizations operating in the United States.  While the movements and activities of the official Nazi party were monitored and restricted during the war, others like the Ku Klux Klan were never investigated by the HUAC because they believed the Klan’s activities were part of American heritage.  There was never a similar witchhunt of Klan members, even when the group’s terrorist activities were undeniable.  After the national KKK dissolved, its former members carried on with their jobs and their lives with impunity; the culprits behind the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing weren’t brought to justice until almost 40 years later.  Pro-segregation politicians like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace still won elections after desegregation.  A new American Nazi party formed in 1960 and its members could still be acquitted by all-white juries as late as the Greensboro Massacre in 1979.

In the same period, civil rights leaders faced very real lynchings and assassinations, while being slandered by their opponents as “socialists.”  Rightwing propaganda to this day still refers to the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a communist front.”  Conservative supporters of apartheid in South Africa, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, justified this brutal white supremacy as a lesser evil to an imagined communist threat.  This has been a successful strategy, a false accusation of being a communist can potentially ruin somebody’s life, whereas members of actual un-American groups on the right are seldom held accountable.  Going back to the Civil War, the insurrectionists of the Confederacy were pardoned during Reconstruction.  Former slaveowners were not punished for their numerous crimes against humanity, but instead were permitted to continue abusing their former slaves and their descendants for generations as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South.  Whereas the freedmen received no restitution for their lost wages, they were expected to move on as if the labor camps, the beatings and the rapes had never happened.  With the lone exception of South Carolina, Southern blacks never came close to electing a majority of black representatives in their state legislatures like D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation depicted, but that gave a paranoid white South an imaginary justification to restrict black voting rights.  Even when black communities overcame the odds and achieved respectable success, they were viciously burned down like the 1921 Tulsa race riot; true to form, Oklahoma acquitted the guilty parties and denied the victims any compensation for their miscarriage of justice.

The toll of being a progressive has always been a high cost, some escaped with only the loss of their careers, others lost everything including their lives.  It has always been comparatively safer and easier to be a conservative, yet ironically it is conservatives who more frequently exhibit a persecution complex.  They still toss around baseless accusations of communism to try to preemptively shut down any discussion of reform, and if they don’t get their way they manufacture cases of hardship and oppression.  The Confederate-invented narrative of the Civil War focuses solely on the so-called “tyranny” of the federal government and the loss of so-called “states’ rights”, while ignoring or mitigating the extent and brutality of slavery.  Their distress at the loss of privilege outweighs an opponents’ actual loss of individual rights.  For instance, they irrationally act as if monogamous gays getting legally married is somehow an inexplicable threat to their freedom, while ignoring the very real harm caused to gay families by being denied recognition before the law.  Suddenly, baking a cake or arranging flowers for a gay couple has become a violation of conservatives’ “religious freedom.”  Of course, these same bakers and florists never made an issue of gay anniversaries, gay birthdays, gay Valentine’s Day, gay Easter, gay Christmas, or gay Hanukkah, etc.; gay couples had been having commitment ceremonies for decades, but that never became an issue either, not until after conservatives lost their marriage battle.  This is obviously nothing but the same political payback and hissy fitting that followed after the Civil War, and they should have already learned from losing the Civil Rights war that a business owner doesn’t get to decide who can buy a product or what they can use it for.  If they can’t understand this, then they shouldn’t be in business.  It’s time for conservatives to give up their delusions of being persecuted, they have been the oppressors far more often than they have been the oppressed, if ever.

Disgracefully, conservative bigotry persists because every generation weighs themselves against their forebears and seems relatively better by comparison: the segregationists were not as bad as the klansmen, and the klansmen were not as bad as the slaveowners.  Like liquid following the path of least resistance, bigotry lazily finds refuge wherever it can still be seen as acceptable.  On the positive side, however, today’s liberals become tomorrow’s conservatives.  They never had to fight for progress themselves, but they can comfortably adopt positions that the previous generation would have condemned as too liberal.  Because of that, most people are not truly liberal simply because they were born into a world where slavery and segregation were illegal.  To truly consider ourselves liberal, we have to identify the safe zones where bigotry has presently slithered and stamp it out into a new corner.

This appears to be on the verge of happening in the latest gay rights battle.  A decade ago, a Christian could come into serious conflict with many churches just for saying that the government had no authority to ban gays from marriage, even if they didn’t personally approve of same-sex marriage themselves.  If the Supreme Court rules against the bans this summer, as they have indicated they will, that same position will then naturally become the prevalent view among anti-gay churches.  Liberals will welcome this forward progress even though those conservatives may have literally demonized them like the segregations formerly did to their liberal opponents.  To the conservatives who continue to resist and resent any comparison between the civil rights movement and gay rights, I beg you: now that Alabama justice Roy Moore has invited the comparisons to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, please do not consummate the likeness to those racists by resorting to violence.   You can either actively support progress, or passively become tomorrow’s conservative, but if you try to remain a conservative of the moment, then you will inevitably be compared to the ones before you.  And really, you have nothing to lose, the progressives have already paid the price for progress.

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Glean on Me

Marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan have unashamedly toed the typical GOP line against welfare.  In a now-infamous video, Marco Rubio asks, “After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?”  While offering no immediate policy solutions to support his vague platitudes, he nevertheless embraces the conservative agenda to relentlessly cut funding to the social safety net.

It’s a popular sentiment among conservative Christians to think that social programs like food stamps or unemployment benefits could simply be eliminated and churches and charities would naturally fill the gap.  Of course, it should be self-evident that this isn’t true, otherwise the church would already be doing it and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.   Even if it were possible (albeit unlikely) for the church to rise to the occasion, it’s a high risk to experiment such a cruel stress test when it seems inevitable that millions would probably become homeless, starve, or die in the process.

The problem for right-wing Christians who hold this belief is that it doesn’t reflect a Biblical  attitude towards either the poor or charity.  Today’s charities aren’t able to meet the overwhelming need because they’re any less efficient, but because charity alone has never been able to meet this need.  The Mosaic Law prescribed a social safety net to assist the poor in several ways that went beyond charitable giving, like the cancellation of debts every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) or leaving remains in the field and on the vine for the poor to glean (Deuteronomy 24:19-22).  While the Bible never intended for the poor to subsist solely on charity, Republicans expect today’s poor to do so without any fields to glean, while burdened with student loan debts that can’t be forgiven, not even in bankruptcy in most cases.

Gleaning, or collecting leftover crops, is a foreign concept to industrialized America, a custom that many Christians mistakenly assume was abandoned with the new covenant.  But Jesus and his disciples were poor and gleaned for food (Matt. 12:1), and the custom continued much longer than most people today would think: it didn’t actually end until after wealthy English landowners succeeded in having it outlawed in 1788 (Steel v Houghton).  Did Christians misinterpret the law all through church history for over 1700 years?  It seems to me that this precedent in English common law is really the only reason why Christians today don’t believe gleaning is a right, not for any real exegetical reasons.  For all their Biblical values talk, the right-wing Christian only really seems to care so far as it doesn’t conflict with modern conservative values.  This conservative knee-jerk reaction to welfare is as modern a development as the private property laws that outlawed gleaning, and every bit just as unChristian.

Of course, we’re no longer an agrarian society, another reason why the custom of gleaning is no longer a practical solution to help the hungry now.  However, the religious right loves empty talk about wanting to govern America with Biblical principles, so I challenge them to find a modern equivalent to gleaning.  I no longer give them a free pass to claim things would magically be better if the country were run on their interpretation of Christian values (which conveniently, they never have to prove) while they reject any Biblically prescribed welfare system.  Yet it seems all conservatives ever do is try to repeal programs that help the poor while not intending to replace it with anything.  Even after I explain to them that charity couldn’t possibly be a replacement, I have never been able to get a conservative to propose any alternative.  It seems they don’t even have bad ideas to offer.

We need more than the vague, empty rhetoric that characterizes the Republican party.  People who don’t really have any specific idea what they’re doing cannot be trusted to decide public policy, and certainly not to eliminate the social safety net when they have nothing to offer in its place.  The Republican base lets their leaders campaign purely on opposition, but that’s a loser strategy.  They will always be losing elections and trying to undo their opponents policies if they can’t come up with workable ideas of their own.   If not to help the poor, the GOP needs to do this for its own selfish libertarian sake, or else they’ll just become more unappealing and irrelevant.

thegleaners

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet. 1857

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The Politics of Punishment

This holiday season, I watched an unusual Christmas movie called Blossoms in the Dust (1941).  While considered a holiday movie (at least according to the Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection Vol. 2) because it spans several Christmases and has carols in its soundtrack, I say it’s unusual because it’s actually the true story of adoption advocate Edna Gladney’s crusade to have the word “illegitimate” stricken from Texas birth certificates.  People today will probably wonder why such a seemingly simple thing could provide compelling material for a feature-length movie and earn its star Green Garson an Academy Award nomination, but in 1936 it was a monumental undertaking.

blossomsinthedust

At the time, illegitimate children were frequently abandoned, but even if they could be adopted by an upstanding, morally upright family they could still never escape the circumstances of their birth.  It made no difference if they never knew their biological mother or even knew that they were adopted; if a legitimate foundling’s parentage could not be determined the state would err on the assumption of illegitimacy, and the public record would become known as adults when they tried to marry or register for selective service.  Society was clearly divided into two separate classes, punishing the children for the sins of their parents.  Edna’s conservative critics accused her of trying to destroy the family and encourage promiscuity.  To them, it was more important to inflict a lifelong stigma on innocent children (who had no choice in their birth) as a deterrent to keep the rest of society in line.

Edna Gladney’s battle was as controversial as any of the social issues being fought today, but while conservatives have thankfully abandoned the fight over illegitimacy, the conservative politics of punishment have changed little.  Whether the issue is welfare, healthcare, gays, crime, poverty, drugs, wages, immigration, etc. the Republican position always seems to be a pathological obsession with trying to unnecessarily punish people, even if just for circumstances beyond their control.  Shifting focus from the illegitimate child, most of the conservative assault against welfare has been an attack on an imagined, stereotypical single mother, Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares this conservative morality to karma, “where basically, you’re supposed to get what you deserve. And what really bothers them is somebody not getting what they deserve. So the government getting involved and interfering with people getting what they deserve is really bad.”  Even though the majority of America’s poor are under the age of 12, who can’t get jobs or move to a better neighborhood, the Republican party has demonstrated through repeated cuts that they’re willing to punish the children for the perceived sins of the mother (Clinton’s “deadbeat dad” seems to have dropped out of the equation completely).

I’ve previously made the case that conservative bans on same-sex marriage are little more than an attempt to use legislation punitively against behavior that’s not actually illegal.  Justice Elena Kagan  pointed out as much at the Supreme Court hearings when reading the 1996 House Report that unashamedly exposed the animus behind DOMA.  But even when these bans are struck down, read the comments on any news article and you’ll find conservatives joyfully consoling themselves (while giving a Christian “fu@k you” to anyone who supports marriage equality) with the reassurance that their political enemies will burn in hell forever.  These conservatives give the impression that they believe in hell simply for personal revenge, not out of any sense of divine justice.   It doesn’t come across like they want gays to go to hell because they think gay sex is wrong or icky, but rather for the most petty of reasons: because they couldn’t punish the gays themselves.

A current hot topic disputed by conservatives is raising the minimum wage.  While conservativism in general is notorious for its hostility to the poor, some of the conservative objections to this especially reveal a desire to punish the poor for their poverty.  Exceeding beyond the myth that increasing wages would kill jobs, conservatives were gleefully hoping that low-wage workers would lose their jobs.  Growing up, I can remember Ann Landers telling me flipping burgers wasn’t beneath my dignity.  Yet today’s conservatives disparage fast food workers for not having accomplished more, even in a depressed economy in which wages haven’t kept up with inflation, all the high-paying unskilled jobs went overseas, and upward mobility disappeared as unemployed white collar workers compete for the management positions.  While fast food jobs may have traditionally been intended for teenagers and students, the majority of them are now taken by adults just trying to survive in today’s economic climate.  As more and more people go to college, there are fewer unskilled laborers today than there were just a few decades ago; even the definition of “unskilled” has changed dramatically, as they now often possess more skills than their predecessors (in fact, many people settling for fast food jobs have degrees), so not everybody’s circumstances can be blamed on poor life choices.  The truth is we used to have an economy in which unskilled laborers could earn a living wage, but we don’t anymore and punishing the poor for the state of the economy isn’t going to fix it.  If conservatives don’t believe that increasing the minimum wage is the right way to do it, then they need to present an actual solution.

At its worst, this is a just-world fallacy, assuming that the reason people must be poor is their own fault.  Similarly, conservatives mercilessly neglected the uninsurable with pre-existing conditions before healthcare reform, which the GOP still seeks to completely repeal without any consideration.  Republicans seem determined to punish the few who did make poor choices even if it means punishing those who didn’t along with them.

The politics of punishment are seemingly inescapable for conservatives.  They can’t imagine policy any other way, or if they could then those policies would probably no longer be conservative.  In his book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney shows how “it is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative” (of course, it’s harder to get a conservative to behave like a liberal) simply by distracting or impairing a liberal’s attention.    Conservative positions tend to require little thought, which is why the politics of punishment are so appealing to them.  Mooney’s book shows a study in which participants were questioned about reducing crime, and the focused conservatives and distracted liberals both agreed on harsher sentencing as a solution.  At first glance, harsher punishment does seem like the reasonable deterrent to crime, but a more nuanced (ie: liberal) approach recognizes other factors.  For example, people might instinctively call for the death penalty for rape, but that does little when already less than 10% of all rapes are ever prosecuted; even worse, the rapist would have nothing to lose by killing their victim.  Clearly changes in culture and education are overdue when schoolboys genuinely are unaware that taking sexual advantage of a passed out drunk girl is in fact rape (of course, according to the politics of punishment that’s her fault).  Ruthlessly harsh minimum sentences for drug possession haven’t ended the war on drugs.  The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate, yet our endless quest to punish hasn’t reaped the desired results.

I can imagine some conservatives are objecting to this as they read it.  Conservative and liberal minds are made up on most issues, so even if I can’t persuade them to change their stance on the issues themselves, I would at least encourage them to stop and consider the way they respond to these issues and why.  Ask yourself whether your first reaction to a problem is to try to punish somebody for it.  If so, is that even practical or effective?  Is there another way it could be solved more effectively?  When pharisees present you with an adulteress and hand you rocks, perhaps you should pause for a moment to write in the sand.  This doesn’t mean that there’s no time and place for punishment, but if somebody’s behavior is not harmful or illegal then is it worth harming other innocent people in the process of punishing them?  Christians in particular should strive to err on the side of grace and mercy rather than on the revenge politics that have characterized the GOP for so long.

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