Saturday, September 13, 2008

Culture, Religion, and Why People Vote Republican

The photo above is of Emile Durkheim, influential French-Jewish sociologist (and son of a Rabbi). His theory of Religion heavily influenced Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Friday morning I stumbled across this article that tries to explains why people vote Republican - in terms of the religious motivation. Being someone who "suffers" from the religious motivation myself, I found this article both interesting and ringing very true. Below is an excerpt.

Here's my ... definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness, two of which are most relevant for understanding what Democrats don't understand about morality.

First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Mill's vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other's rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama's calls for "unity") to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.

Psychologists have done extensive research on the moral mechanisms that are presupposed in a Millian society, and there are two that appear to be partly innate. First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity.

But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other's selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that "Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him." A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one's groups over concerns for outgroups.

A Durkheimian ethos can't be supported by the two moral foundations that hold up a Millian society (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals. Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.

According to the author - Jonathan Haidt - the Democrats are the party of John Stuart Mill and the Republicans the party of Emile Durkheim. Later in the article he writes:

...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.

Well it is certainly something I get. So I do wonder: why don't more liberals get it?

Maybe there is more need for the a Network of Spiritual Progressives than I thought. Why can't liberal religions - Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, Quakers and Unitarians and Methodists (and the Anglicans and United Church In Canada), Bahais and Ahmadiyyas and Ismaeli Muslims, and other progressive religious types have as much influence in the Democratic Party, and left politics in general, as evangelicals do in the Republican Party. And why do liberals politicians, indeed "not get" religious values and motivations? There is nothing intrinsically left or right about religion. Religious people where at the forefront of of the anti-slavery movements in 19th century England and America. And most religions preach some variant of the social responsibility that is the core message of the economic left.

Maybe its because most "liberals" leaders are too cerebral, and have to little "gut". Or maybe its because they think they are preaching to the "rational" self interest of their voters, when in fact they should be appealing to the electorates deeper desire for social solidarity and transcendent meaning.


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