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Truth Wars: The Bitter Divide Between Conservative and Progressive Belief Systems

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Every so often, a truly great book comes along. When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship With God by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann is certainly one of these.

Let me recount briefly the main argument of Luhrmann's book. Doing so not only helps us to understand better the Christian evangelical mind, but strangely enough, why Democrats and Republicans are divided so strongly. In a word, Luhrmann gives us deep insight into the nature of different belief systems and why the battle between them is often so bitter and prolonged.
People are drawn to Christian evangelicalism for a variety of reasons. Among the more typical are: life-long struggles with addiction, alcoholism, a history of bad relationships, loneliness, social isolation, and the general feeling that they are missing something deep and fundamental in life. Accompanying these is also the feeling that one not only needs, but is ready to forge a personal relationship with God.

In terms of belief systems, the initial reasons are technically known as "initial inputs or starting beliefs." More fundamentally, they are "tentative 'truths'" that the system will "operate on" in highly specified ways so as to produce a "final state of truth" or more generally "state of Being." This "final state" is typically not an abstract proposition but a strong prescription to engage in actions of some kind to change either oneself and/or the world. The "final truth or state" is also known as the "output" of a belief system. Since it is generally regarded as "established beyond doubt," it is therefore regarded as "The Truth."

Luhrmann shows in great detail what the "operators" are in Christian evangelicalism that "transform" the "inputs" into "final established Truth." In short, they are a carefully orchestrated and prolonged series of "special spiritual exercises" such as distinct types of praying that train the mind first to imagine and then experience via all the senses a different reality.

The "output" is a "direct, personal experience and a day-to-day, on-going, permanent relationship with God!" One no longer just "believes in God" in the abstract but "knows God intimately" as one would a personal friend. The derived benefits, and thereby additional "outputs," are enhanced calm and peace. The ultimate end is a "heightened emotional state."
One of the most important components of a belief system is the Guarantor. The Guarantor is the set of underlying beliefs that are accepted without question. They are undeniably true. As such, they constitute the absolute, foundational bedrock of the entire system. In Christian evangelicalism, the Guarantor is the unquestioned belief that The Bible is literally true and that God exists without doubt.

As I read Luhrmann, I thought constantly of the recent, drawn-out, and bitter debates between the Republican candidates. Although both parties constantly use emotional appeals, I believe that it is not an exaggeration to say that with its extreme tilt to the right, the Republican Party is much closer to a Christian evangelical mindset than the Democrats. For example, I am still struck by the extreme emotional belief systems of Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum, not to mention Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

In effect, nearly everything in their so-called arguments" is pure "output." That is, the sheer outrageousness of a claim, i.e., the "output Truth," is simultaneously the "input," "operator," and the "Guarantor." No wonder why liberals and progressives who believe so deeply in Reason are so offended and feel a deep sense of revulsion. Everything is not only hopelessly confounded and entangled, but sheer emotional drivel. There are no independent corroborating facts as it were.

Nonetheless, as I have argued repeatedly in HuffPost, I would strongly caution liberals and progressives not to eschew emotion altogether. The proper moral of the story is that more than ever, reason and emotion need to work together. So-called logically pure belief systems may move scientists, but they are hardly sufficient to move the larger body of people to think great thoughts and/or to undertake great actions. At present, Luhrmann shows that conservatives understand this far better that liberals and progressives.

We liberals and progressives are not as smart as we would like to believe we are. We have a lot to learn about belief systems.

Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert. He is an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011. His forthcoming book is, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is A Mess And How To Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.