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“The Dark Age of religion is fading away, 'thank God'.” “Your bible has no place in modern society.”
It’s not an easy time to be a religious conservative. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) myself, I once asked a neighbor disgusted by religion: “Are you open to the existence of any kind of religious faith that actually benefits or uplifts people?”
“Nope,” he replied—end of story. An analysis of online comments following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold gay marriage shows he is not alone:
"This is a glorious step in removing destructive, discriminatory religious dogma from our personal lives."
“The fact that people like you [religious conservatives] believe that they have some kind of superiority and greater insight into the human condition is repugnant.”
"Your radical rantings are [like] the Taliban with their extremist views."
What is it about religion that drives some people nuts? Does religion (especially the conservative variety) have to elicit these kinds of reactions, or are there times when it can offer profound benefits to individuals and society?
Answering such questions depends, first of all, on how ‘benefits’ are defined. I focused my PhD research on exploring conflicting views of the benefits of anti-depressants. In the debate concerning whether such drugs are effective or not, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to what exactly is meant by the 'success' or 'effectiveness' of treatment.
Likewise, in all the debate about religion and its influence in the world, there is less exploration of what kinds of benefits or societal progress we agree (or disagree) are valuable in the first place: what kind of changes do we want to see? What kind of community should we build together?
On these questions, the differences couldn't be more profound—nor the commonalities more intriguing. In a study Nathan Todd and I published in the Journal of Public Deliberation, we found striking differences between U.S. citizens on whether the preservation of Judeo-Christian tradition was seen as a net positive or negative in terms of societal progress. While conservative-leaning citizens typically saw maintaining traditional religious institutions as key, liberal-leaning citizens often saw an unsettling of these same traditions as crucial for change.
What a difference! The very message that millions of Christians proclaim to the world as ‘salvation’ is experienced by others as a singular detriment to society's progress. As a liberal interviewee said to his conservative counterpoint in the documentary Purple State of Mind, "Christianity was liberation for you. For me it was slavery.”
No wonder that secular and religious people often take up different socio-political issues with such a contrast in emphasis and intensity. For example, while I'm concerned with racism and think we should work to end it, I've always been struck by the fact that my liberal friends see racism as one of the greatest threats facing society.
Why the difference? Am I just harboring some hidden bigotry in my heart, or might we simply be holding different narratives of the fundamental dangers that face our communities?
I also value taking care of the planet, but with nowhere near the same passion as those who see climate change as an unquestioned catastrophe at hand. When this subject has come up in past conversation, I admit having often felt a bit defensive—sensing pressure not only to help take care of the planet, but to adopt a new ‘end-times’ narrative.
As much as I agree with the value of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, this issue will likely never eclipse for me (or most other religious conservatives) what we see as greater threats to humanity—especially a kind of ‘social climate change’ that we see as incubating an atmosphere increasingly toxic to sustainable human relationships.
One example is the ubiquity of pornography and the many ways we are finding this kind of media "kills love," as one organization puts it. But this cultural toxicity goes beyond any particular behavior to a deeper dynamic at play: namely, where we are being persuaded to "set our hearts."
Let me explain. ‘Worship’ is often derided as something that crazy religious people do. On some level, however, I would argue every one of us adores something, trusts something—and literally worships something.
For religious people that happens to be God. If not the divine, however, then take your pick: Power? Money? Science? Reason? Food? Sports? Sex itself?
Each of these things will lead to a particular way of being and a certain kind of life. Whatever the details, compared to the generous, spacious, other-oriented kind of life that all great spiritual and religious communities aspire to, masses of humanity are being ushered into a narrow, narcissistic, self-absorbed life along other pathways of socialization.
For religious conservatives, this is the great ‘catastrophe at hand’—the collective imprint on human hearts and lives from the emergence of a new 'kingdom' in direct competition with the one envisioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These competing 'kingdoms' invite people to work towards very different worlds, socially, politically and religiously—worlds that on some level are mutually incompatible. In the words of a progressive Christian friend, these worlds are involved in a "fight to the death."
Ultimately, I think he's right: one 'kingdom' will win out in the end, many years into the future. But in the meantime, fighting isn't the only option. I'm convinced that we've got a lot to learn and figure out together, and I'm optimistic about the possibilities in that regard.
For example, after spending more time listening to progressive friends, I've come to a place of greater empathy and interest regarding climate change. I haven’t altered my larger narrative of the world, but from seeing the depth of their concern, I’m more moved to action. After all, if they’re my friends, shouldn't I care about what they fear?
Could this kind of motivation bring more conservatives to support additional efforts to take care of the planet, without asking them to check their worldview at the door?
This kind of empathy seems to be in short supply these days. As one online commenter on the Supreme Court decision wrote:
“If conservatives were truly interested in the impact things have on the lives of men and women, they might be more inclined to work toward universal health care, reducing income disparity, making education affordable, and ensuring that jobs with livable wages were created in this country rather than shipped abroad...Of course [these conservatives] are not concerned with our happiness."
What if we stopped questioning the hearts and motives of our political opposites simply because their actions don’t conform to our own narratives? What if we stopped trying to foist a new worldview on each other, and instead found places where our passions and fears overlapped?
Despite some gaping differences, there are some powerful things on which we might agree. And some of these overlapping understandings might also make for a more generous acknowledgment of religion's place in social progress.
For example, don't most people want family relationships that last? And aren't lots of people from all backgrounds struggling to create and sustain these relationships?
While explanations of family break-down vary widely, different groups might agree that it's not easy to be a loyal partner or parent in this world. There's also a general concurrence that children are often the primary victims, swept away into many kinds of toxic trajectories as a result of fractured families.
Indeed, absent a compelling parental presence, the omnipresent 24-7 multi-media spectacle is happy to step in, providing children with its own kind of teaching in what the therapist Mary Pipher once called a kind of "corporate colonialism."
In this sense, particularly for families who are trying to counter-balance this relentless media socialization, a religious community that provides structure, support and a richness of teaching can be a veritable God-send. That, at least, has been my experience.
Length and quality of life may provide another point of convergence. In 2008, a 25-year UCLA epidemiological study found that active members of my own religious faith had the lowest death rates and the longest life expectancies “ever documented in a well-defined U.S. cohort”—at age 86 for women and 84 for men (6-10 years longer than the U.S. average). Other research has found a similar correlation between health, longevity and attendance at church services.
Before writing these correlations off as statistical quirks or figments of power and class, note that the UCLA analysis centered around four lifestyle patterns common to Mormonism: weekly worship, marriage, avoiding tobacco and extended education. The authors also pointed out that “The more strictly and constantly Mormons followed Mormon lifestyle elements, the longer they live.”
If a drug were discovered that increased life expectancy by 6-10 years, how many people would be taking it?
Don't worry. We won't take this as another excuse to knock on your door. Most religious conservatives I know aren’t interested in dominating the government or "shoving righteousness down your throats," as another commenter on the Supreme Court ruling wrote.
You know what we really want? To be welcomed as part of an ongoing conversation about the nature of the ‘good society’—and how to get there.
Don't push us out, or assume we will eventually be ‘enlightened’ out of our convictions.
Instead, let's talk. It's true that our deepest differences may not disappear with more dialogue. But maybe other things will: fear, disgust, anger?
In their place, we might actually start enjoying talking with our political opposites, and go on to discover surprising swaths of common ground between the respective ‘kingdoms’ we call home.