Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Religious Right and the Federalist Papers

Interesting article from Frank Cocozelli (, discussing how the Religious Right fits very neatly into the factionalism that the authors of the Federalist Papers were so rightly concerned about. At the start of the American government, the founders intended to create a system that would force people of different ideas together. That is why the system of checks and balances in the Constitution can be so cumbersome. The basic theory is that a government will be less likely to be harmful to the people as a whole if many people are forced to work together, and the compromises that engenders forces people towards the middle.

The authors of the Federalist Papers saw the greatest danger to this model as factionalism, where small groups of devotedly self-interested people would try to drag the government in directions that would benefit that small group, at the expense of the nation as a whole.

I think it's fair to say that the Religious Right does not have a monopoly of being the "factions" that Publius was concerned about. But they definitely fit the bill, and are a very good example of one. However, I very much appreciate the reminder that the splintering of interests we see currently, along with the death of objectivity in journalism, what we are seeing now is the same problem that the framers of the Constitution saw.
In last week's piece I discussed the need to refute the myth of Liberal religious intolerance -- a bit of gasoline that the Religious Right and friendly demagogues in the media like to pour on the fires of the culture war. It certainly makes even the most mundane of skirmishes, real or imagined -- more exciting.

But what is the Religious Right truly after? Simple:

... it is the shameless pursuit of factionalism. Indeed, neoconservatives and their cheering section at the Institute on Religion and Democracy have mastered this technique to great effect. By inflaming religious emotions to a level of faction, they employ a device that has the power to destroy representative democracies such as our own.

By now most of us are familiar with the Institute on Religion and Democracy; who funds, it and who runs it. And it is no small accident that these funders would economically benefit if the mainstream Protestant faiths were to either abandon their historic Social Gospel mission or were rendered unable to advocate for it due to internal dysfunction and schism. The same holds true within the Catholic Church whose principles of distributive justice are being eviscerated from the inside by those wearing the disguise of orthodoxy. The processes are different, but many of the results are the same.

What exactly is factionalism? James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 10, offered this definition:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Further down, Madison expounded on the causes of factionalism:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

In his book Passions and Constraint, the author and Liberal law professor Dr. Stephen Holmes has written, "Faction is a third alternative between the private individual and the community as a whole." A bit further on he explains, "Factions are not mere interest groups. They galvanize behavior that is simultaneously selfless and unspeakably vicious towards others."(i)

Contemporary liberals, focused on a dichotomy of self-interest versus altruism often miss the importance of emotional attachements, and too often assume that all those on the Religious Right--followers as well as leaders--are acting primarily out of a sense of self-interest, personal advantage, or pecuniary gain. But we cannot afford to miss the forest of what gives the Religious Right its power as well as how its leadership -- for those trees. Factionalism does not arise out of the Enlightenment ideals of reason or the pursuit of rational self-interest (as opposed to the unfettered laissez-faire self-interest favored by conservatives and those further Right). Instead, it rears its ugly, destructive head when unchecked emotion controls group actions. Hume, noting in his essay Of Parties, in General observed how it is driven by very arbitrary emotions spur of the moment affinities. Once more, Holmes vividly illustrates the critical roles played by affections, the human tendency to copy others and something he describes as "selfless cruelty:"

It is easier to be cruel, on a large scale when you act in the names of others, or in the name of an ideal, or even for the benefit of your victim, than when you act for your own sake. Blood revenge for a humiliation suffered by one's ascriptive group, even at the risk of one's own life, is a glaring example. Think also of those Catholic zealots in medieval France, described by Montesquieu, who rushed onto the scaffold where a Jew was about to be executed for having blasphemed the Virgin Mary: they subdued the public executioner and used their own knives to peel away slowly the sinner's skin, They were not acting from egotistical or mercenary motives, but for the common good-as they saw it. Again, the egoism dichotomy is of no help here; neither bargain hunting nor gentle benevolence was involved, Nonselfish, but nonetheless sickenly murderous behavior abounds in history. It is not marginal, but massively important. This surely the way it appeared to those living in the wake of Europe's religious civil wars."(ii)

Holmes, again observing of David Hume, tells us of the different aims of various factions, all-dependent upon what teach one hopes to accomplish:

On this basis, he (Hume) then distinguishes among factions based on economic interest, factions based on attachment to a person, and factions based on abstract principles such as theological dogma or the divine character of royalty. If we wanted to generalize, we could say that Hume here identifies three independent and mutually irreducible factors that exert casual force upon human: interests, passions and norms.

The potential for faction's divisiveness was such a great cause of concern for classical liberal thinkers such as Hume, Montesquieu, Hamilton, and Madison to express concern over. They fully understood that its spread had brought down governments past--just as it has the power to do with ours. Understanding the danger factions represent, the Founders sought to make our federal system sturdy enough to contain and withstand them. Knowing that it cannot be eliminated, Madison sought to contain it through devices such as Article VI of the U.S. Constitution's ban on religious tests "…as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" as well as the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Why is this important? Because it explains how well-meaning individuals can have their emotions manipulated to achieve goals by those who coolly calculate such affections and responses. As Holmes concludes of Hume, "…within a single group, such as a religious sect or movement, Hume tends to correlate different motives with different roles-so that leaders and elites are ordinarily motivated by calculating interest while followers are usually motivated by non-calculating principle or effect." Thus, the IRD as well as other Religious Right groups and individuals are able to get their followers to work against their own rational self-interest in a way that furthers the interests of elites who both run and finance their organizations. And how they do it is a lesson in factionalism; all done so with the aim of diminishing the Constitutional safeguards for minorities as well as the aggregate majority.

Since being defanged by the New Deal and its successors, the Right has sought to get middle class and working poor Americans to vote against candidates who support fairer wages, better healthcare and a cleaner environment--all policies that would require increased, but still proportionate contribution to the common good from those with superfluous wealth. Over time, perhaps by looking at the past experiences of a William Jennings Bryan, they came to understand that while people can be economically liberal, they can be simultaneously religiously conservative. More importantly, they realized--as the Scopes Monkey Trial revealed, for example-that faith-based emotions can be overwhelming. The key then was to manipulate those passions. As we have seen, the IRD specializes in using schism to weaken the mainline Protestant denominations. Along with other Religious Right organizations, phony wars on Christmas and other greatly exaggerated or completely imaginary Liberal hostilities towards Christianity are conjured up with increasing regularity, simply because it must be diminished in the eyes of ordinary Americas. It is part of a broad effort to demonize Liberalism which, from the New Freedom to the New Deal to the Great Society and beyond -- have stood in the way of powerful interests bent on pursuit of economic and foreign policies of dubious value (at best) to the vast majority. If Liberalism can be defined as ungodly, sinful and of course, unChristian, then certain elites can better have their way. If Liberalism is to refute these hypocrites, we must complete two important tasks. First, those on the Religious Right who shamelessly use faction must be exposed for the charlatans that they truly are. This means pulling the curtain back to expose their ultimate pecuniary interest--interests that in fact work against the aggregate public good. But more importantly we must show the American people that in pursuing factionalism for personal gain, they are they very people our Founders feared and warned us about.

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