A Just World: The link between conservative politics and religion

May 09, 2012 By: erik Category: Musings, Politics, Religion, USA 682 views

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balance scaleFor a long time, I have been trying to figure out how conservatism and, in particular, the Republican Party in the United States, have married politically conservative and socially conservative ideals, and thereby successfully courted the vast number of religious voters. How does a biblical position like being against gay marriage and abortion correspond with reducing healthcare and welfare spending? And on the liberal side of the coin, how does being in favor of allowing gay marriage and abortion rights correlate with being in favor of universal healthcare and welfare?

Jesus was a political liberal, very much in favor of helping the poor and downtrodden among us. Meek, earth, camel, needle, etc. Asking why Jesus was politically liberal is akin to asking why the Earth is the right distance from the sun to support life. If it wasn’t true, then you wouldn’t be asking the question. If Jesus hadn’t been in favor of the poor, then his teachings would never have spread, and we wouldn’t be discussing an iron age cult.

So why wouldn’t Christians vote in favor of policies that aid the poor?

A few years ago, I learned of a cognitive bias known as the Just World Hypothesis, and the more I learn about it, the more it explains the odd partnership of Christians and the rich. The Just World Hypothesis can be summarized with those common trite remarks:

  • What goes around comes around.
  • You reap what you sow.
  • He got what was coming to him.

It’s the fallacy that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It’s the ideal result of the Golden Rule that we all naively wish was always the case.

How does this hypothesis help to solve our conservatism conundrum? Well, logically it follows directly that, if you grant that there is an omnipotent deity that is looking out for our best interests, then everyone deserves exactly what they get. The poor are poor for a reason; the rich are rich for a reason; you deserve that membership to the country club, and that other guy deserves to have cancer. Pat Robertson gets press every so often for proclaiming that Haiti or Japan deserves its natural disaster for not obeying the Lord, and he gets written off by moderate Christians as a whacky radical, but to me, the Problem of Evil really is one of the strongest nails in the coffin of theism. If God is omnipotent and just, then we all deserve what we get.

Once you’ve bought into the Just World worldview, the conservative “don’t tax the rich” and “don’t help the poor” is an obvious corollary. Even if you’re poor. Another thing that has vexed me for years is how the poor could vote Republican, when it’s obviously not in their best economic interests. If you think that you deserve to be poor, for a reason not comprehendible by a mere mortal such as yourself, and the wealthy 1% deserve what they enjoy, then it makes perfect – yet twisted and fallacious – sense to vote for the party who will institute conservative policies.

I want to stress that the arrow of causation is not clearly defined here. I suspect that both the religious and political viewpoints stem from an underlying tendency to prefer the idea that the universe is ordered fairly. Personally, understanding this makes me feel better about people that vote conservative. They aren’t total jerks lacking any sense of empathy; they’re just reasoning sensibly from a different, albeit fallacious, starting premise.

The irony is that believing the the world is just only makes it less so.

  • Fascinating hypothesis.  I’d never really looked at it that way before.  I guess now I’ll have to change the way I see conservatives.  Now, if only this post would change the way they think and vote as well…

  • Lee

    Calvinism. I’m doing ok so I must be better than the unfortunate. And if I AM one of the unfortunate, it can’t be God because God doesn’t make mistakes so it must be the damn gummint. 

  • So all the workers that vote Republican, or PP, or other shitty parties are not assholes they are just truly believers of their God? It’s a good point of view, I will ask the next 23-year-old under-educated construction worker that I see driving a BMW 🙂

  • Stringymath

     Thanks, I love this post.  There are several things I want to say, both about anti-biblical the Just World Hypothesis is and about how anti-biblical much of the Republican platform is, but first, I want to address your question about the problem of a just omnipotent God and an unfair life.  The Christian solution to this problem is the afterlife. The God of the Bible makes no claim that the life we live right now is going to be fair–only that justice will prevail over a long term scale that includes an afterlife. I realize that if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then this sounds like a pretty pathetic solution, but that’s the solution that Christianity offers. Unfortunately, an afterlife is not the sort of thing people can argue about in either direction, because I can’t do experiments where I kill you and then ask you to come back and tell me your observations of what happened after you died.

    In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul totally agrees with you that, without an afterlife, our hope for a fair world goes out the window: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19).”  Since I’m pretty sure you aren’t fond of the afterlife solution, let me just ask that you consider the alternative.  If you have a just omnipotent god and no afterlife, then the only solution is to jettison free will.  There will always be victims of injustice as long as people are allowed to choose to act unjustly.

    • Thank you for very clearly stating the Christian rebuttal to the Just World Hypothesis. I think you nailed it.

      The rebuttal, however, is a classic example of what is called special pleading. It makes just as much sense to claim that bad people had a really bad existence before they were born and are just acting out as a result, and that the unlucky downtrodden among us had totally awesome pre-lives and are suffering the consequences in this one.

  • Stringymath

    As for what the Bible has to say about the Just World Hypothesis, I’m going to assume that we can take as given that Jesus didn’t buy into it.  As Erik summarized so nicely, Jesus pretty much taught the opposite of the Just World Hypothesis–that those most deserving of reward are likely to be poor in this life.  “The last will be first and the first will be last,” and all that.

    But what does the Old Testament say?  Well, there’s basically a whole OT book about the fallacy of the JWH.  It’s called Job.  This book tells a story about a guy named Job who starts out with a great family, riches, and health, and then loses all three.  And then his so-called friends spend chapters and chapters haranguing Job about how he must have done horrible, horrible things to deserve what happened to him.  By the end of the story, these friends are shown to be morons, and in the wrong.

    Still, why did the Old Testament feel the need to include a whole book about the JWH if it isn’t valid?  I think that’s because it’s an easy mistake to make.  After all, the OT does describe God as making a covenant with the Israelite people that he will bless them as a people if they obey his commands.  Part of this covenant is simply common sense.  Most of the OT laws can fit into one of four categories: (1) rules against adopting the religions of other nations, (2) rules about sex, (3) rules about health and hygiene, and (4) rules about how to treat fellow humans, especially powerless ones.  Most of the blessings God promises the Israelite nation if they obey his commands fall into one of four categories: (1) protection from being dominated by other nations, (2) bearing lots of healthy descendants, (3) greater health than found in surrounding nations, and (4) lack of poverty.  (See, for example, Deuteronomy 7 and Exodus 23.)

    But at the same time that God lays out these laws and issues these promises of blessings, he makes warnings about growing proud or smug about acquiring any riches (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:10-18).  Moreover, he institutes all sorts of provisions to protect and care for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners  living among the Israelites (but I’ll speak more about that when I discuss what the Republicans are doing).  Over and over, the OT makes clear that while poverty can result from sin, the sin that caused that poverty was most often done _to_ the poor, not _by_ the poor.

    “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked.”–Psalm 37:16

  • Stringymath

    I suspect that a main culprit for the emphasis on social conservatism in American Right Wing Christianity is the fact that many ARWC churches get prepackaged sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school curricula, etc not from the Bible, but straight from Republican propaganda factories like Focus on the Family. These right wing parachurch organizations do to the Bible what Fox News does to daily life–mix 5 parts sound byte with 95 parts spin. If the church members imbibing this doctored doctrine ever actually read the whole books of the Bible containing the snippets they pound their fists on, they would realize that mixed right in with those sound bytes about Old Testament sexual mores are commands about the importance of standing up for those in need. Yes, even in the Old Testament.

    For example, Republicans love to cite Leviticus 18 (which is mostly about incest) because it instructs men “not to lie with a man as with a woman.” If these experts on Old Testament law had bothered to read just one chapter further, they would have found the establishment of a welfare system through which a portion of every crop in every field was reserved for “foreigners and the poor” (Lev 19:9-10, echoed in Lev 23:22 and Deut 24:19-22). If they had read a few chapters further, they would have learned about the institution of various feasts and festivals, with the command to invite all the servants, Levites (the community of priests), foreigners, orphans, and widows living in the town (Lev 23, Deut 16:11, Deut 16:14).

    To take another example, many Republicans seem to think the story of Sodom and Gomorrah indicates that homosexuals deserve especially harsh judgement. Genesis does recount that the men of Sodom attempted to gang rape the two messengers who had come to warn of Sodom’s impending doom, but why was Sodom doomed to destruction in the first place? Genesis does not specify, saying only that “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous (Gen 18:20).” It is not until Ezekial that the Bible spells out the reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed: “Now this was the sin of your [Jerusalem’s] sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen (Ezekial 16:49-50).” Sorry, what was that again? Did not help whom?

    Or what about tithing? Everyone knows about tithing–you’re supposed to give a tenth of your income to the church, right? Wrong. You can read for yourself what Deuteronomy 14:22-29 instructs the Israelites to do with their tithes, but here’s the summary. Two out of every three years, they were supposed to bring the tithes to a big feast, and share it, especially with the Levites. Every third year, their instruction was to “bring all the tithes of that year\’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied (Deut 14:28-29).”

    What does the Old Testament say about regulation of banks and mortgage providers lending to the poor? “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest (Exodus 22:25).” Moreover, “at the end of every seven years you must cancel debts (Deut 15:1),” and “if anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. […] I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land (Deut 15:7-11).”

    Or what about migrant workers? “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. […] Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge (Deut 24:14-17).”

    And if you think the 99% were merely ranting, just listen to Isaiah: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning? […] Where will you leave your riches? (Isaiah 10:1-3)” Or perhaps you prefer Jeremiah: “‘Among my people are the wicked […]. They have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?’ declares the Lord (Jer 5:26-29).”

    Of course, the funny thing about all this is that it shouldn’t matter anyway. Christians are not bound by Old Testament law; they are supposed to follow Jesus, and it’s hard to find a better champion for the poor and downtrodden than Jesus, who, incidentally, didn’t find it necessary to mention homosexuality in any speech recorded in the Bible.

    • Wow! You’ve had that Liberal Christian rant on your chest for a while now, haven’t you? Well done. You presented an excellent case for how the Bible can also be used to support Liberal values.