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How Conservative Religion Makes the Right Politically Stronger

We may not share their theology, but right-wing religion teaches powerful lessons on courage, confidence and foresight that we could stand to learn.

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Progressives often marvel at how focused, coordinated and aggressive our conservative opposition is. They seem to fall into lockstep and march, building large organizations and executing complex strategies with an astonishing rate of success. We may be smarter, better educated and more reality-based -- but they seem to have a cohesion and a discipline that eludes us. What's going on here?

There are a lot of answers to that question. But I'd suggest that some intriguing answers might come from a close study of conservative religious paradigms, which play an essential role in giving conservatives a unique kind of emotional and social durability.

Conservative faiths -- particularly evangelical Protestantism, but orthodox Catholicism and Judaism also include similar teachings --  inculcate a worldview that equips people with extra tools to work with in face of large-scale change. The same qualities that lead non-believers to deride faith as a crutch also give believers very real psychological support in turbulent times -- the kind of sure footing that makes organizing for political and social change easier, more effective, and more gratifying for those who are operating off this sturdy base.


What follows are just a few examples of advantages followers of conservative religions may enjoy when facing transformative change. I offer them not as an argument for belief -- that's not an option for many of us, and not even most religious liberals would agree with the theology at work in these systems -- but rather in the hope that if we study these advantages closely, we might find authentic ways to cultivate similar strengths that are firmly rooted in our own worldview. There are lessons to be learned here.

Knowing you are on the side of right

The soul-deep certainty that God is on your side, and that you are fighting on the side of Eternal Truth, may be the biggest political and cultural confidence-builder there is. Conservatives know, beyond the shadow of doubt, that they are on the side of the angels, and this profound sense of spiritual assurance reduces hesitation, spurs action, and increases their willingness to take big risks for the sake of the ultimate victory they know in their bones is coming. They shake off defeat more easily, too, because they know it's only a temporary setback on their way to that promised victory. After all, the Bible asks: if God is for us, who can be against us?

Progressives operate from a far more open-ended place. We're suspicious of that kind of deep spiritual certainty, because we know how often it's led people and nations into moral catastrophe. Instead, we prefer to operate out of our heads. We're always questioning, taking in new data, re-analyzing, and re-deciding what we've already decided, triangulating and re-triangulating against our own moral lines. In our minds, the final outcome is never preordained; and what's "right" is an ever-shifting target that we constantly need reorient ourselves toward. Chris Mooney documented these tendencies in his recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- And Reality. He notes that this hyperflexibility can make it devilishly hard for liberals to settle on a plan of action -- let alone actually act effectively together with confidence when the time comes.

Also: because we're not buttressed by the reassuring conviction that the CEO of the Universe has our backs, we feel more acutely alone in the battle, and often doubt that our ultimate victory is anything but assured. Because of this, it's much easier for us to feel overwhelmed, discouraged and burned out. When religious conservatives feel this way, they can resort to sanctuaries of prayer, fellowship and reconnection with their sense of larger purpose. Most secular progressives don't have any kind of built-in weekly restoration-and-regeneration process -- and the lack of safe healing space does take its toll.

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