I just came across a fascinating anecdote that might shed light on something that has long fascinated and horrified me about my country.  At a recent town-hall meeting in Iowa a local weekly quizzed attendees as to whether or not they could find Iraq on a map.  The reporter asked 40 pro-reform attendees and 40 anti-reform attendees.  Those of us who are pro-reform can take pleasure in the paper’s report that

a full 75%, 30 of 40 pro-reform attendees, could identify Iraq in its rather eye-catching, dead center position on the map.  Only 52.5%, 21 of 40 anti-reformers, could do so.

But I want to focus on something else in the story, something more interesting and more worrisome.

Even those pro-reform
attendees who could not find Iraq on the map were good humored about their
failure.  The reporter recieved
negative comments from them or any of the pro-reform participants.  But among the anti-reform attendees,  “Many sneered.  Most at least glowered.  Four accused the test itself of being somehow biased.” 

The two crowds were demonstrably different in their reaction to other people and to requests for information. 

One of the most frustrating
aspects of modern American politics is the steadily lowering level of public
debate, mostly by the loony right. 
The entire premise of democracy is that average citizens, even if not
experts on issues, are open to rational debate and evaluation of different
proposals.  If not all of them,
then enough to offset the mindless, who hopefully will be distributed more or
less equally across the spectrum.    

I have been trying to understand why that
no longer seems to be the case, and came up with what may be an explanation
while discussing all sorts of issue with friends one evening this week.    

Conservative Christianity
has made a virtue of faith and will power trumping reason and facts for many
decades. These have always been elements of Christian orthodoxy, but they have been buffered by concern with other values during much of Christian history.  At least in the US, only among conservative Fundamentalist groups have these attitudes seemed to steam roll over every other consideration among a great many (not all, thank the Gods) believers.   

These people are taught to distrust reason as a tool of the devil, and
distrust evidence as equally misleading. 
The world is full of demonic traps for the unwary, and only blind faith and an indomintable will-to-believe are sure safeguards against Satan’s wiles.  As one very nice Fundamentalist woman told me, fossils are evidence of
God’s “sense of humor.”  I
refrained from pointing out that this cosmic joker would then sentence anyone
taken in by his ‘jokes’ to eternity in hell.  

Subjecting our most fond beliefs to reason and
evidence is hard work.  Even when
we conscientiously try and subject our beliefs to the same standards we hold
for others, we often make mistakes, and in retrospect discover gaping blind
spots in our awareness.  (I speak
from personal experience.)  Being
open to reason and facts is challenging.  It is also respect for truth, admission of fallibility, and evidences a regard for people other than carbon copies of oneself.  

A entire culture trained to
distrust reason and facts as even evil when applied to their deepest
beliefs is a culture where we can truthfully wonder whether they are capable of
democratic self government rather than mobocracy.  I would argue they are not.  The states they dominate are not like Iran because they exist within the American constitutional framework.  They are nice people in many cases, but they are not very good citizens of a free society.    

The rapid surge of Fundamentalists into active involvement in American
politics began under Nixon.  Since then we have suffered an enormous pollution of political
discourse from people lacking the skills to engage in it, but engaging in it enthusiastically nonetheless.  The future of our country may well depend on whether they
can learn to relate to people who disagree with them with anything other than
hostility and self-righteousness.  

If American democracy declines even further from its Founders’ hopes. It
will be at least in part because of Fundamentalist Christianity and the totalitarian habits of
mind it encourages.  If it somehow survives these people it will be because over time they will have learned the responsibilities and skills required for citizenship in a democracy.

I imagine I will be denounced here by some as a bigot for making this argument.  To those who denounce me I ask- where are the prominent liberal commentators who urge people to carry guns to Republican gatherings?  Where were the liberal crowds who tried to shout down George Bush, or current Republican hacks?   Where are the leading liberal politicians who made up lies out of whole cloth such a “death panels,” “death books” and lack of birth certificates?  They did and do not exist.

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