Friday, February 22, 2013

On Religious Identity and Partisan Politics

...but first: a fairly simple quiz question. Which two cardinal directions would a bird have to fly on its way from Reno to Los Angelos?

Odds are you know that one of them is south. Most people assume that the other is west--but check a map or Google for longitude and you'll notice that Los Angelos is about 90 miles east of Reno.

Don't feel bad if you got the quiz question wrong--it means your brain is working normally. Our brains organize information hierarchically: if we know California is west of Nevada, we automatically assume any given city in California is also west of any given city in Nevada. That's actually quite clever of us: generalizing to individual cases by broad category is much more efficient than, say, learning the coordinates of every city in every state. And usually, we get by just fine orienting ourselves by broad category rather than specific site.

There are times, though, when it can create an awful lot of confusion.

Party politics are a great example of this. Most members of any given political party have been aligned themselves with that party out of a broad sense of where it stands relative to values they hold dear (just like we may look at a map and observe that broadly speaking, California is west of Nevada). But because our brains are built to generalize a broad belief onto individual cases, party membership can trick us into accepting things we should probably not actually believe (much like we think of Los Angelos as west of Reno).

I find this particularly fascinating among Latter-day Saints. Many American Latter-day Saints shifted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party over a few wedge political and cultural issues in the 1970s. And yet they and their children now believe all kinds of things which have nothing to do with those wedge issues, simply because it's natural human thinking for a Republican to assume that all Republican positions are better than all Democratic positions.

But for Mormons in other countries, party politics unfold in different ways. Most Latter-day Saints in India are members of the center-left Congress Party because the main conservative party in India, the BJP, advocates Hindu nationalism. As a result, they are likely to agree with many other Congress Party positions that have little to do with the tolerance for Christians that initially brought them into the party. That's just how human brains typically work.

I have been thinking about several political issues as my students debate and write about them this semester. I don't give them advice on what positions to take--just about how to make a case for whatever position they happen to choose.

But the advice I might just give all my students on politics is to watch out for the Reno problem. Assumptions that will seem right because they're common in your party don't always hold up under close inspection. And the further advice I'd give to Mormon friends is this: if you want the gospel to shape your attitudes about others, there's a very real danger that messages from your party are going to get in the way.


  1. George Washington warned us about political parties. When the party takes a priority over the people we have a major problem. Great post.

  2. Does there have to be political parties? Why can't we have the attitude "what is best for the (city, county, state, country)" and look for candidates who best match our values, principles and desires? Thanks for this thought provoking post.

  3. I think even your religion shouldn't shape your attitudes about others if that means you're going to judge them based on your moral code. However, if your religion advises you instead to love without judgement and care for those around you and seek their best interest according to your own conscience at the polls... then I think you're doing it right. On matters of categorizing people in their political affiliations, I've always seen that people are on a scale- level 6 environmentalist, level 2 pro-choice, level 7 gun control, level 4 health care... (not my numbers- lol). But it's all based on what that person feels is most important and valuable and moral and just. Some people have a trump card. Anyways, good post. Thank you.



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