Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | November 7, 2009

‘Utopianism for the powerful’

The Atlantic blogger Ta-Nahisi Coates reacts to cries of “bigotry” after the election results in Maine:

Conservatives pride themselves on their skepticism, and generally dismiss liberals as soft-headed Utopians. But in so many ways, political conservatism is Utopianism for the powerful. It isn’t broadly skeptical of human nature, so much as it’s broadly skeptical of people its agents don’t particularly like. Hence the sense that Americans are intrinsically “good people,” that this country “is the best nation that ever existed in history,” that the South is home to “the greatest people that have ever trod the earth,” and that the murder of four little girls in Birmingham was the work of a “Communist” or “crazed Negro,” which had “set back the cause of white people.”

Hence the notion that those voting against gay marriage, are not actually, in the main, motivated by bigotry, but a belief in tradition and family. But very few people would actually ever describe themselves as bigots. We think we know so much about ourselves. This is a country–like many countries–which is deeply riven by ethnic bias, and gender discrimination. And yet we don’t seem to know any of the agents of that discrimination.

I think the description of political conservatism as “utopianism for the powerful” is apt for some conservatives, but it doesn’t explain why so many non-powerful people are conservatives; for that I think you have to look at their power brokers — very often very wealthy (hence, very powerful) religious leaders. In ways subtle and overt, these politically conservative religious leaders manage to convince their unquestioning, blind-faith followers to vote not only against their own economic self-interest by voting for conservative candidates, but also to vote for politicians who support policies that violate their own religious tenets, things like loving your neighbor as yourself and the assertion that you will be judged by how you treat the least among you.

It’s a pretty nifty trick, and but one that cannot work when religion (and assertions about it made by self-appointed religious leaders) is not exempt from rational criticism. It’s why that two-word dictum — Question Authority — is so important. But it’s not enough; you also have to scrutinize the answers you get, looking for fallacies. If more religious folks asked their pastors and priests questions like these and accepted only those answers that held up to critical thinking, we’d have a vastly reduced religious right wingnut contingency:

  • Pastor, why don’t you rail against people who eat lobster or who wear clothing of mixed fiber, or who cheat on their wives like you rail against same-sex couples?
  • Father, why do you oppose health care reform even though it will help our poor brothers and sisters get access to health care?
  • Father, why was the doctor who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old rape victim excommunicated? What about the rapist who got her pregnant? What about the thousands of molesting priests whose crimes were hidden instead of reported and prosecuted?

And that’s only a few public policy-related examples — the list doesn’t touch the tons of non-public policy contradictions contained in just one “holy,” allegedly infallible text.

Ask questions. Scrutinize the answers. Do not exempt religion from rational criticism.



  1. This issue of what makes people conservative or liberal is endlessly fascinating. Especially when the constellation of conservative beliefs don’t seem to benefit them. It looks like the reason people follow powerful political and religious leaders could be due to their own authoritarian impulses. It’s a kind of confirmation bias. So Pat Robertson, Glenn Beck etc. are saying what these people already believe to be true.

    You’ve probably read this already, but if not here’s a primer on Authoritarian research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: