Podcast of psychologist Peter Ditto at Cal Irvine (cite below)

Editor’s (admin’s) note: One of two posts today that were prompted by Nate Cohn’s op ed piece “Why Political Sectarianism Is a Growing Threat to American Democracy” in the New York Times. Link HERE for my notes & quotes from a 2017 article on an allied subject by Robin Wright of the New Yorker, “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?”

In the op ed section on the New York Times’ website today, a column by staff writer Nate Cohn that maybe — just maybe — connects some important dots for my study of how Swedish-American pastors negotiated the Protestant sectarian currents in the America of the 1850s. Headline: “Why Political Sectarianism Is a Growing Threat to American Democracy.”

I’ve been sensing there may be a lesson for us today in the Swedes’ experience, and Cohen’s reporting on this concept of sectarianism may be the link that connects today’s “culture wars” with the polarization of the 1850s.

So trying not to think of what the political sectarianism of the 1850s led to a couple of years later at Fort Sumter, I did a couple of keyword searches, and got some interesting leads. One was to an article (and then a book) by Curtis D. Johnson, professor of history at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland. The article: “Sectarian Nation”: Religious Diversity in Antebellum America. Google has an intriguing list of his other publications, too, on topics ranging from 19th-century religion to baseball.

The other references I googled up are detailed below. But first, Cohn’s article in the Times.

Cohen has been at the paper since 2013, covering elections, polling and demographics. Like so many commentators, he notes our “two [main] political parties see the other as an enemy.” But he has a name for it:

This threat to democracy has a name: sectarianism. It’s not a term usually used in discussions about American politics. It’s better known in the context of religious sectarianism — like the hostility between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq. Yet a growing number of eminent political scientists contend that political sectarianism is on the rise in America.

That contention helps make sense of a lot of what’s been going on in American politics in recent years, including Donald J. Trump’s successful presidential bid, President Biden’s tortured effort to reconcile his inaugural call for “unity” with his partisan legislative agenda, and the plan by far-right House members to create a congressional group that would push some views associated with white supremacy. Most of all, it re-centers the threat to American democracy on the dangers of a hostile and divided citizenry.

Cohn notes the rise of authoritarian regimes in countries where a “demagogic populist exploits dissatisfaction with the prevailing liberal order” and subverts the political order. He cites Russia, Venezuela and Hitler’s Germany, but chooses not to go down a rabbit hole by naming any American demagogues. Instead, he says:

Sectarianism, in turn, instantly evokes an additional set of very different cautionary tales: Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia, regions where religious sectarianism led to dysfunctional government, violence, insurgency, civil war and even disunion or partition.

These aren’t always stories of authoritarian takeover, though sectarianism can yield that outcome as well. As often, it’s the story of a minority that can’t accept being ruled by its enemy.

In many ways, that’s the story playing out in America today.

Whether religious or political, sectarianism is about two hostile identity groups who not only clash over policy and ideology, but see the other side as alien and immoral. It’s the antagonistic feelings between the groups, more than differences over ideas, that drive sectarian conflict.

Any casual observer of American politics would agree that there’s plenty of hostility between Democrats and Republicans. Many don’t just disagree, they dislike each other. They hold discriminatory attitudes in job hiring as they do on the Implicit Association Test. They tell pollsters they wouldn’t want their child to marry an opposing partisan. In a paper published in Science in October by 16 prominent political scientists, the authors argue that by some measures the hatred between the two parties “exceeds longstanding antipathies around race and religion.”

Citing a recent CBS News poll indicating that “[m]ore than half of Republicans and more than 40 percent of Democrats tend to think of the other party as ‘enemies,’ rather than ‘political opponents’,” Cohn acknowledges that hard-fought political battles over the Iraq war, Obamacare, gun rights are part of the picture, and adds: 

But the two parties have not only become more ideologically polarized — they have simultaneously sorted along racial, religious, educational, generational and geographic lines. Partisanship has become a “mega-identity,” in the words of the political scientist Lilliana Mason, representing both a division over policy and a broader clash between white, Christian conservatives and a liberal, multiracial, secular elite.

And as mass sectarianism has grown in America, some of the loudest partisan voices in Congress or on Fox News, Twitter, MSNBC and other platforms have determined that it’s in their interest to lean into cultural warfare and inflammatory rhetoric to energize their side against the other.

The conservative outrage over the purported canceling of Dr. Seuss is a telling marker of how intergroup conflict has supplanted old-fashioned policy debate. Culture war politics used to be synonymous with a fight over “social issues,” like abortion or gun policy, where government played a central role. The Dr. Seuss controversy had no policy implications. What was at stake was the security of one sect, which saw itself as under attack by the other. It’s the kind of issue that would arouse passions in an era of sectarianism.

There’s a lot more to Cohen’s article. It led me to his main source, a scholarly study by Eti Finkel and 14 others in Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on “political sectarianism” (the same term used in Cohen’s headline). Its subhead sums up the story: “A poisonous cocktail of othering, aversion, and moralization poses a threat to democracy.” (PDF file available HERE.)

It also led me to these articles (and a podcast). I’ll sketch in highlights:


Peter Ditto — one of the authors of the article by Eli Finkel et al. on sectarianism interviewed in a 20-minute podcast on the University of California Irvine website — UCI School of Social Ecology. [This is the podcast embedded at the top of this post.]

Blurb on Cal Irvine’s portal at https://socialecology.uci.edu/news/political-sectarianism-america-today:

Peter Ditto, professor of psychological science, is among the co-authors of a study – published in the journal Science – that describes the bitter polarization between the nation’s Republican and Democratic parties as “political sectarianism.”

The project involved a team of political science, psychology, sociology, economics and communication experts who reviewed a broad survey of current scientific literature. They concluded that the morally charged politics in the U.S. today share many of the hallmarks of religious fervor, with each sect feeling increasingly justified in doing anything necessary to defeat an evil enemy.

“What worries me most is that this kind of moralized political conflict is difficult to tamp down. Each time one side strikes a blow, the other feels it necessary to strike back even harder,” Ditto said. “The 2020 election won’t end the sectarian battle between red and blue America. It is much more likely to stoke it.”

What used to be disagreements about the best way to solve common problems have morphed into a conflict that more closely resembles religious sectarianism, Ditto said. Listen to Ditto discuss why the two sides are so far apart and how everyone can remain level-headed in these tense times on the UCI Podcast.

Quotes from UCI podcast — on Civil War (6:00) — cf. kids “fighting in the back seat of the station wagon” (11:15) — human nature? 16:20 (paraphrase) yes — our ecological niche is small groups like hunter-gatherers


Paul Pillar, former CIA agent now with Georgetown and Brookings Institution — commentary on Pres. Obama’s 2015 prayer breakfast

Mr. Obama’s remarks included upbeat and informal comments about the Dalai Lama’s presence and an earlier speech by stock-car race driver Darrell Waltrip. They also included some observations—which seemed to get all the attention in the subsequent reactions—about how at different times through history different religions have been “twisted and distorted, used as a wedge,” sometimes with outrageously inhumane consequences. But the core of the speech consisted of three main points. The first was a call for “some basic humility”—for a recognition that “the starting point of faith is some doubt,” and that we should not be so full of ourselves that we think “God speaks only to us” and “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.” The second point concerned the need “to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments—between church and state.” And the third was to affirm the “Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.”

It is hard to see how any American who isn’t in active denial about the benefits to mankind of the Enlightenment could disagree with any of those three points. As for the first—and the president’s preceding comments about how all religions, including Christianity, have at times been twisted for nefarious purposes—as E. J. Dionne observes, if acknowledging one’s imperfections were to be considered an insult to one’s religious faith, that would make St. Augustine a heretic. The second is a bedrock principle of the American political system, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The third is at the center of any ethical system apart from rationalizations of selfishness à la Ayn Rand.

In many ways, unfortunately, the United States has in its dealings with the rest of the world repeatedly flouted both the principle of humility and not assuming a monopoly of truth and the principle of treating others as we would want to be treated. We could go on at great length on those themes, but sticking to strictly religious issues leads to a comparably disturbing observation: that American discourse and American politics have been moving ever farther from separation of faith and government, and toward having the United States take sides in favor of some religions over others. This trend manifests itself in several ways.

One way is in the prominence and power in the United States of Christianist politicians—who are every bit as worthy of that descriptor as many politicians elsewhere merit the label Islamist. Overt religiosity among American political leaders and their tendency to apply religious faith to public policy issues has waxed and waned through different phases of the republic’s history, but the trend over the most recent decades has been upward. A reflection of change in this regard over the past half century was the comment of Rick Santorum—a prominent example of a Christianist politician and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012—that his fellow Catholic John Kennedy’s pledge to keep his religion out of the conduct of Kennedy’s presidency made Santorum “want to throw up.” The latest phase of increasing prominence of overt Christianists in American politics coincides with increasingly reflexive negative views about Islamist politicians elsewhere.

Another manifestation has been a series of more specific attacks on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, no one of which may be earthshaking but which collectively represent a substantial weakening of that foundation of American constitutionalism. The attacks have included such things as proselytization at U.S. military academies, a Supreme Court decision (in the Hobby Lobby case) allowing one citizen’s private religious beliefs to govern the content of other citizens’ taxpayer-assisted medical care, and most recently defiance of that same Supreme Court on same-sex marriage by the chief justice of a state supreme court whose campaign to insert his religious beliefs into public affairs has included earlier defiance of a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had erected at a state courthouse.

A third indication of the trend, noticeable especially over the past decade and a half, has been increased Islamophobia—the overt rejection or distrust of an entire religion and not just of an extremist fringe. […]

Works Cited

Nate Cohn, “Why Political Sectarianism Is a Growing Threat to American Democracy,” New York Times, April 19, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/us/democracy-gop-democrats-sectarianism.html.

Peter H. Ditto, interview by Aaron Orloski, UCI Podcast: The new American political sectarianism, University of California, Irvine, Oct. 30, 2020 https://soundcloud.com/theucipodcast/uci-podcast-the-new-american-political-sectarianism.

Eli J. Finkel et al., Political sectarianism in America,” Science (Oct. 30, 2021), https://pcl.stanford.edu/research/2020/finkel-science-political.pd

Paul R. Pillar, “America’s Slide Into Sectarianism,” National Interest, Feb. 20, 2015 https://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/americas-slide-sectarianism-12226.

Notes on authors:

fScience magazine authors: Eli J. Finkel, Christopher A. Bail, Mina Cikara, Peter H. Ditto, Shanto Iyengar, Samara Klar, Lilliana Mason, Mary C. McGrath, Brendan Nyhan, David G. Rand, Linda J. Skitka, Joshua A. Tucker, Jay J. Van Bavel, Cynthia S. Wang and James N. Druckman.

Paul R. Pillar is Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.  He is a contributing editor to The National Interest, where he writes a blog. Wikipedia: Paul R. Pillar is an academic and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving from 1977 to 2005.[1] He is now a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University‘s Center for Security Studies,[2] as well as a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institution‘s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.[1] He was a visiting professor at Georgetown University from 2005 to 2012.[1] He is a contributor to The National Interest.

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