American in Spain

A Just World: The link between conservative politics and religion

May 9, 2012

balance scaleFor a long time, I have been trying to figure out how conservatism and, in particular, the Republican Party in the United States, have married politically conservative and socially conservative ideals, and thereby successfully courted the vast number of religious voters. How does a biblical position like being against gay marriage and abortion correspond with reducing healthcare and welfare spending? And on the liberal side of the coin, how does being in favor of allowing gay marriage and abortion rights correlate with being in favor of universal healthcare and welfare? Jesus was a political liberal, very much in favor of helping the poor and downtrodden among us. Meek, earth, camel, needle, etc. Asking why Jesus was politically liberal is akin to asking why the Earth is the right distance from the sun to support life. If it wasn't true, then you wouldn't be asking the question. If Jesus hadn't been in favor of the poor, then his teachings would never have spread, and we wouldn't be discussing an iron age cult.

So why wouldn't Christians vote in favor of policies that aid the poor?

A few years ago, I learned of a cognitive bias known as the Just World Hypothesis, and the more I learn about it, the more it explains the odd partnership of Christians and the rich. The Just World Hypothesis can be summarized with those common trite remarks:

  • What goes around comes around.
  • You reap what you sow.
  • He got what was coming to him.

It's the fallacy that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It's the ideal result of the Golden Rule that we all naively wish was always the case.

How does this hypothesis help to solve our conservatism conundrum? Well, logically it follows directly that, if you grant that there is an omnipotent deity that is looking out for our best interests, then everyone deserves exactly what they get. The poor are poor for a reason; the rich are rich for a reason; you deserve that membership to the country club, and that other guy deserves to have cancer. Pat Robertson gets press every so often for proclaiming that Haiti or Japan deserves its natural disaster for not obeying the Lord, and he gets written off by moderate Christians as a whacky radical, but to me, the Problem of Evil really is one of the strongest nails in the coffin of theism. If God is omnipotent and just, then we all deserve what we get.

Once you've bought into the Just World worldview, the conservative "don't tax the rich" and "don't help the poor" is an obvious corollary. Even if you're poor. Another thing that has vexed me for years is how the poor could vote Republican, when it's obviously not in their best economic interests. If you think that you deserve to be poor, for a reason not comprehendible by a mere mortal such as yourself, and the wealthy 1% deserve what they enjoy, then it makes perfect – yet twisted and fallacious – sense to vote for the party who will institute conservative policies.

I want to stress that the arrow of causation is not clearly defined here. I suspect that both the religious and political viewpoints stem from an underlying tendency to prefer the idea that the universe is ordered fairly. Personally, understanding this makes me feel better about people that vote conservative. They aren't total jerks lacking any sense of empathy; they're just reasoning sensibly from a different, albeit fallacious, starting premise.

The irony is that believing the the world is just only makes it less so.