By nature, humans are born with limited awareness and a single perspective through which the world is experienced and understood. We’re left with finite quantities of knowledge, and the quality of this knowledge is at times unverifiable. The basis of any disagreement is in knowledge: I believe my knowledge is superior, until my opponent can provide me with new knowledge that forces me to reconsider. It’s hard to provide new knowledge, though. People with strong opinions tend to believe they already have a complete knowledge of the matter at hand, and telling them otherwise raises a lot of ire. Although ‘pure knowledge’ is theoretically universal, the knowledge we use and experience is worlds away from being pure: it is extremely personal. To threaten something so personal is fundamentally impolite, and it’s why Americans have chosen to label the discussion of religion and politics as unfit for civil conversation. This is one of the fundamental powers behind America’s religious right.
Religion exists to fill in the gaps for our immensely incomplete knowledge. It answers the questions for which there are no answers, or for which the existing answers are not satisfying. The answers to these questions – why is there evil, what is the purpose of life, where did our universe come from – are monumental, and will ultimately decide how a person lives his/her life.
Politics, on the other hand, exists to make decisions about how society will function. At its best, it is the art of compromise, seeking to craft policies that will satisfy as many people as possible without alienating the minority. At its worst, it is a tool of control, a system for amassing and maintaining power over others. Religion holds a striking parallel here. Religion can give birth to harmony unequaled – the peace and fulfillment that results from a community that earnestly seeks truth and goodness is overwhelming, and this is a reality I’ve experienced first-hand. Religion also offers immense opportunity for control, when a community devotes itself to dogma and doctrine, particularly when these doctrines are maligned by a leader with impure motives. When a politician refuses to vote outside party lines, he is not doing justice to the purpose of his profession. Likewise, when a believer unquestioningly follows doctrine, her faith loses focus. Instead of having faith in Christ, her faith is in her doctrine, and it becomes enslaved to technicalities and fine print.
Thus, when political policy becomes indistinguishable from doctrine, and a community of believers dare not question doctrine, a political force is created that cannot be talked down. To doubt policy is to doubt doctrine. To doubt doctrine is to doubt faith. To the ears of such a citizen, promotion of, say, abortion, gay marriage, or sex education is a direct attack on faith, an assault on God himself.
This kind of thinking was the power behind many of history’s greatest dictators. Stalin, for example, crafted himself as being one with the State, the essence of the people’s will, unified with the needs and desires of the nation. To question Stalin, then, was to question your friends and neighbors, and nothing less than treachery. Less extreme examples are not hard to summon. Many a pope, king, and emperor made use of similar tactics to maintain their power.
The logical fallacy here is simple: it’s all non sequitur. Doubting the quality of one man does not necessitate doubt in everything that man purports to represent. Likewise, questioning the church’s stance on one matter does not necessitate doubt in the entire church. A community based in love has room for disagreement. Two intellectually and morally honest persons can examine the same situation and reach different conclusions. Alienating the opposing side is not the solution, nor is ignoring it, nor dismissing it. These attitudes permeate both sides of America’s socio-political landscape, so please don’t think I’m only ragging on the right-wing, here – but I do believe that Falwell threw the first stone, in this matter.
It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.
– GK Chesterton