"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

The Politics of Polarization

When asked in 2010 about the nation’s political environment, former President Jimmy Carter said, “President Obama suffers from the most polarized situation in Washington that we have ever seen—even maybe [more] than the time of Abraham Lincoln and the initiation of the war between the states.”

While some scoffed at this remark, the past four years have only lent credence to Carter’s sentiments. Between recent gun control debates, the Obamacare fiasco and the infamous government shutdown, it’s hard to deny that political polarization is growing.

But do Americans really know what issues drive them apart?

Of course, many point to differing opinions about issues like socialized healthcare, tax rates and the extent of government intervention as the cause of political schism. No doubt, these are contentious issues about which disagreement can only be expected. But despite the gridlock and shutdowns in Washington over economic policy, these are not the primary issues driving Americans apart.

Instead, what keeps Americans up at night are issues of social and religious concern. While bad economic policy has serious ramifications on Americans’ lifestyles, its consequences are not nearly as obvious or extreme as mandates regarding marriage and the family, religious observance, reproductive rights and the death penalty—issues many see as inherently moral.

Skeptical? See this 2010 Gallup survey in which respondents were asked whether they believe certain social policies are morally acceptable. That such issues are so divisive is understandable—tolerating someone with different economic views is much easier than tolerating someone who believes your religious beliefs ought to be outlawed. And even where economic disputes lead to political conflict (like Obamacare and the government shutdown), the dispute is often over underlying moral issues more than the details of a policy’s implementation.

But why point this out? Why does it matter what issues are undermining American political unity?

[pullquote]     There is not much that a limited government can do to change the private behaviors of the American people.[/pullquote]

Because moral issues like the ones described above are not within the power of government to seriously change. While candidates and think tanks spend hard-earned money advancing their opinions on issues like these, even the President has very little control over who Americans worship and how they spend their free time.

Sure, officials can talk about the importance of marriage, the possible consequences of pre-marital sex, the alleged harms of homosexuality and the benefits of religious participation. Beyond the talk, however, there is not much that a limited government can do to change the private behaviors of the American people.

The only real effect, then, of highlighting these moral issues is that it increases political polarization. Politicians—seeking to build support—drive a wedge between voters by convincing them of the stark differences between them and their ideological opponents. Instead of noting that most moral issues are out of government’s control, they capitalize on voters’ every opinion to stir up as much passion and emotion as possible.

Of course, there are some exceptions. If abortion equals murder, then it’s a political issue. If marriage licenses must be state-approved, then gay marriage is a political issue. But much of what creates political rifts between liberals and conservatives has more to do with lifestyle choices and moral beliefs than with anything Congress can or should do.

Ultimately, be sure that you aren’t deceived into thinking that electing the right person will make everything better. For the foreseeable future, Americans will still have every liberty to engage in pre-marital sex, quit attending church and make short-sighted decisions. If these are the issues that most concern you, don’t be deceived by empty political promises. This type of change requires more than a ballot-box referendum.