Saturday, December 9, 2017

Religion, Race and Identity Politics

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Identity politics reflect the competing constituencies of the Republican and Democratic Parties; and when those constituencies are based on religion or race they create divisive identity politics along party lines that can make political compromise impossible.  When that happens, democracy can fail.  America’s two-party duopoly is now so rife with divisive identity politics that if something is not done to defuse them, America’s democracy could self-destruct.

            Race is a major factor in American identity politics.  An unlikely alliance of poor and wealthy white voters identifies with Republicans, while the vast majority of black voters, LGBTs, and other minority groups identify with Democrats.  More than 40% of Americans are independent and have no loyalty to either party, but their voting preferences are largely determined by the identity politics of the Republican and Democratic political duopoly.

            Over the years white voters split their loyalty between the political parties, but most have gravitated to a radical right Republican Party, while Democrats have moved to the left and made white privilege a negative buzzword.  Slavery and racist Jim Crow policies once justified a condemnation of white privilege, but now civil rights laws prohibit racial discrimination.  Even so, racial divisions continue to polarize partisan politics.

            Until the 1960s blacks were Republicans and whites Democrats in the South, but then racial partisan loyalties began to shift.  By the 1980s most whites were Republicans and most blacks were Democrats.  Today most churches remain racially segregated, so that on Sunday mornings Americans are reminded that they remain racially divided in their religion and politics.

            Islam has complicated issues of religion in identity politics.  In the Middle East and Africa sectarian violence has produced a wave of Muslim immigration to Europe and America, and populist demagogues like Donald Trump have exploited the fear of Islamist terrorism to their political advantage, spreading Islamophobia and exacerbating political polarization.

            Identity groups change over time, and demographers have predicted that in 20 years white voters will no longer be a majority in America.  In Islamic nations Muslims are likely to remain a solid majority for the foreseeable future, but violent sectarian conflicts illustrate that Islamic nations are also plagued by identity politics based on religious and political differences.

            Israel is facing demographic political change much like that in Europe and America.  Palestinians are procreating faster than Jews, so that democracy could provide Palestinians with increased political power at the ballot box; but that is jeopardized by continuing Arab-Israeli violence over contentious religious and political issues.

            Unprincipled populist demagogues like Trump in America, Erdogan in Turkey and El Sissi in Egypt will continue to exploit hot button issues on race and religion to have their way, even when it jeopardizes the common good.  In America, Republicans have used tax reform to favor the rich and saddle future generations with a massive national debt, while authoritarian rulers in Islamic nations have used Islamic law (Shari’a) to deny fundamental human rights.
            In all of these scenarios, race and religion continue to polarize identity politics.  In the U.S. most white voters support Republicans while most blacks support Democrats.  In Islamic nations authoritarian rulers continue to use Shari’a to stifle libertarian democracy.  In Israel, the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as its Jewish capital has precipitated another round of Arab-Israeli violence that could escalate into a wider war in the Middle East.

            In America a third party could break up a polarized two-party duopoly, and human rights could open the door to libertarian democracy in Islamic nations.  Religion is part of the problem and should be part of the solution.  The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, but it is yet to be seen whether it can reconcile their religious and political differences. 

In his review of Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Glenn Altschuler cites Lilla blaming Democrats for failing “to offer  a political vision adapted to the new realities of American society.  Instead ‘they lost themselves in the thicket of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it.’” Altschuler goes on to say that Lilla “provides a forceful reminder that identity politics depended upon ‘being unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests,’ and on reducing or eliminating the space between what ‘movement warriors felt inside and what they did in the world.’   …Lilla concludes with a passionate, intentionally provocative plea to his fellow progressives.  Instead of ‘identity folies’ that encourage a ‘self-righteous narcissism’ he writes, progressives should try to convince Americans from different walks of life ‘that they need to stand together.’  …Equal protection under the law and economic justice are more likely to to be advanced, Lilla maintains, by appealing to shared citizenship than to (the inevitably divisive) class, race or gender identities.  Atschuler concludes, “If Democrats decide to press the reset button on rhetoric, campaign strategy and policy priorities, they will have to confront the reality that identity politics is entrenched in their core constituencies.”  See      
Mary Eberstadt has provided an in-depth look at identity politics and focused on the breakdown of the nuclear family as a reason why so many people in today’s world lack traditional identity and relate to divisive group identities as they seek to discover “Who am I” in a pluralistic culture that emphasizes “personal choice, individual rights and self definition.”  See

Related commentary on race and religion in politics:

(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
(6/21/15): Christians Meet Muslims Today
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(2/18/17): Gerrymandering, Race and Polarized Partisan Politics
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(6/10/17): Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism 
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion 
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad

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