Should Religion Matter in Politics?

Ben Carson has recently surged in the polls. Should we be concerned about his apocalyptic visions? 

Donald Trump is not the only person surprised by Ben Carson’s recent surge in national polls, which has propelled the former neurosurgeon into first place in the GOP race. In an election year poised to champion an "outsider," Carson’s seemingly calm collectedness sounds like a breath of fresh air to Trump’s erratic tirade of complaints and boasts.


Underneath Carson’s cool façade resides an apocalyptic fervor, however. While it comes out sedated and matter-of-factly, his philosophy is informed by his faith: Seventh-Day Adventism was founded on the notion of a pending End Times. Such musings have trickled out during Carson’s speeches, raising more than one inquisitive ear.

Separating religion from politics is as fanciful a notion as removing church from state. As a nation, we have accomplished a great deal relative to certain nations, yet to others it’s laughable how deeply woven religious sentiments are in our politics. Given the outright religiosity of crusades against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, we have to question if we can ever truly separate our religious philosophy with our moral and political ones.

You can understand religion without necessarily believing in it, which is important if you want to wrap your head around what’s going on in our country (and world) today. But education has been stripped from our religions...

As religion professor Stephen Prothero argues in Religious Literacy, America is an exceedingly religious nation in terms of belief, yet sadly lacking in terms of religious education. Forget about knowing much about other religions; it seems that Americans know very little about our own traditions. As he writes:

  • Only half of American adults can name even one of the four Gospels.
  • Only one-third know that Jesus ... delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Most Americans don’t know that Jonah is a book in the Bible.
  • A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
  • He also reiterates the fact that many Americans believe sharia law is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which it is not. This is not surprising, considering most Americans cannot name even one pillar.

    That’s his point: You can understand religion without necessarily believing in it, which is important if you want to wrap your head around what’s going on in our country (and world) today. But education has been stripped from our religions; as Prothero points out, market research has shown that Christians are turned off by actual religious teachings. Churches have become mini-malls with daycare and shopping, along with stand-up comedians and musical acts taking the place of scriptural quotes on billboards. Megachurches become mega when preaching prosperity theology, not doctrinal lessons.

    Prothero explores three main types of Christians: confessionalists, who focus on doctrine; experientialists, who emphasize connecting with God via emotions; and moralists, who focus on ethics. While most religious are a mix of these three, the social emphasis in recent years has been on the latter (hence, opposition to same-sex marriage and female reproductive rights).

    For most of its history, Seventh-Day Adventism was considered by the larger Protestant community to be a cult, a fate it shared alongside Christian Science, Mormonism, Pentecostalism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    This goes all the way to the top: Every American president has sworn an affiliation to Jesus in some capacity; less than half of Americans claim they would vote an atheist into office; a majority of Congress is influenced in some manner by their religion. While some may be less forthcoming, Carson proudly wears his religiosity. So the question remains: What is Seventh-Day Adventism? 

    An offshoot of Protestantism, it was founded by a Baptist preacher from Massachusetts named William Miller, who, on the basis of a reading from Daniel, guessed that Christ’s Second Coming was going down on October 22, 1844. His followers, the Millerites, were profoundly disappointed in their sage’s mathematical miscalculation, but they were certain that his general belief in Christ’s return being imminent was correct. A ministry run by Ellen G. White and her husband James White picked up the pieces and founded the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 

    For most of its history, Seventh-Day Adventism was considered by the larger Protestant community to be a cult, a fate it shared alongside Christian Science, Mormonism, Pentecostalism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dominant religious groups are slow to allow "deviant" groups into the mainstream. By the middle of last century, Adventists craved a larger base, striking up conversations with Protestant leaders — a move that promoted them from cult status to acceptance under the larger umbrella of Protestantism.

    Adventists rely on their churches "28 Fundamental Beliefs," which include:

    God’s law is embodied in the 10 commandments.

    The Sabbath should be observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset (hence, the "seventh day" moniker).

    The wicked will not suffer in hell, but be permanently destroyed.

    In 1844, Jesus began to cleanse the "heavenly sanctuary" in preparation for his return — a head nod (or apology?) to Miller.

    A literal belief that God created the Earth 6,000 years ago — the modern "Creation Science" movement was kicked off by Adventist George McCready Price.

    Prothero makes a controversial request in his excellent book: Religious education should be more widespread in American schools. I agree. Having earned a degree in religion nearly two decades ago, it has proven useful in understanding how our society is operating on a fundamental level. Simple misunderstandings can be avoided, such as: How did 9/11 happen? (Because it’s been happening for 14 centuries, with varying guilty parties.) Or: Christ and Buddha taught the same thing. (No, they didn’t; not even close.)

    Prothero goes to lengths to remind readers that he does not mean religious indoctrination, yet people get the two confused. The reality is we all use our beliefs in our decision-making, some more rationally than others. Carson believes the world was created 6,000 years ago and Christ’s return is imminent. In his hushed tone resides an End Times foundation that is over 170 years old. Knowing where he’s coming from is crucial in understanding how he’d lead if chosen. 

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    Image: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.