Belief Clusters

, Paul Gottfried, Leave a comment

ELIZABETHTOWN, PA In my medieval history class, a question arose about how certain beliefs became grouped together. This question came up while we were discussing factions that formed in sixth-century Constantinople over hotly contested religious doctrines. These factions had their screaming partisans seated across from each other in the hippodrome during chariot races. Occasionally they would clash over the outcome of a race, most explosively in the Nika Riot of 532 A.D., when warring race fans pummeled one another, accusing their enemies of heresy.

One of my students wondered whether there was anything substantive linking these theological and spectator activities. She observed that certain belief clusters can be found in our society as well as in the Byzantine Empire; and our related positions like theirs would make no sense outside of a particular time and place. Why, for example, would someone’s opinion about stem cell research tell you where that person would stand on such seemingly unrelated issues as the war in Iraq or global warming? Why would the fact that I oppose abortion lead one to suspect that I do not believe in the danger of global warming or that I oppose gun control laws? Or why would the discovery that someone is a strong environmentalist lead the researcher to conclude (often quite justifiably) that the interviewee is for gay marriage?

I am not making a case here for any of these positions or for any combination of them. I am simply asking why certain views make a match, although there is not much that apparently connects them. Now it is understandable that someone who opposes abortion would also reject stem cell research-and visa versa. And admittedly someone who is a passionate environmentalist might be more concerned about global warning than someone who cares less about the environment. Also those who favor government control over the economy would be more eager to embrace the global warming cause than someone who inclines toward the free market. What seems to show less connection, however, is why being for or against more government action to deal with global warning would predict whether one is for or against abortion and gay marriage. How and why these stands are correlated is a question that needs to be addressed.

My student was correct to stress historical circumstances. Americans are trained to connect certain beliefs, even when those beliefs are, to all appearances, unrelated. One critical reason for this otherwise arbitrary grouping is that our two national parties and their respective boosters socialize Americans. And while our parties have varying degrees of ideological content, they are also collections of interests that pay for favors and yield votes. Being a “conservative” or a “liberal” means that one is a Republican or a Democrat. Being a Republican or a Democrat means working to pull as many votes and as much money into one’s party as one can. Therefore, becoming associated with an ideological label translates into accepting a grab bag of positions that one’s national party is taking for whatever reason at a particular moment.

The standard “conservative” position on health care may soon become the Republican one — which is strengthening Medicare — in order to enlist older Americans as Republican voters. There is no single “conservative” stand on immigration because the GOP is divided on this issue, partly by its indecision about which electoral group to court right now, Hispanic or Midwestern white voters. Since the party is currently wooing the NRA, the Right to Life, and the Jewish vote, one also finds gun rights, verbal opposition to abortion, and support for Israeli settlements on the West Bank all riding in the same “conservative” car.

Meanwhile the “liberals,” read Democrats, have a reawakened interest in nation-building, after opposing this during the Bush presidency. They also now passionately believe that it is the president’s duty to address the nation’s public school students, after having gone ballistic when the last two Republican presidents uttered similar platitudes to America’s youth. In dealing with partisan Democrats, I also notice the tendency to interpret my concern about farm land being turned into housing developments as support for social causes that I do not happen to favor. Why should it be necessary to embrace gay marriage or late-term abortion in order to vote for someone who does not want to turn Lancaster County into strip malls and starter homes? And why are my ‘liberal” friends unwilling to restrict the predatory raids by trial lawyers against physicians and pharmaceutical companies? Why in this case is there no outcry against obscene profits?

I know that in raising such questions I may be going nowhere. But I would like to underline the fact that collections of party interests and lobbies do not constitute a worldview. Like the Byzantine Greens and Blues, who were amateur theologians but mostly sports fans, our “liberals” and “conservatives” view themselves as thinkers, but in truth they are mostly partisans.

The Ornery Observer is copyright (c) 2009 by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation ( All rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Paul Gottfried biographical sketch