January 31, 2024 // Perspective

How Deep Are Our Political Divisions?

The movie, musical, and now musical movie “Mean Girls” is a reminder of one of the more miserable sides of adolescence: in groups and out groups, the cool kids and the losers, the nerds and the jocks.

Unfortunately, however, in groups and out groups don’t just exist in grammar schools and high schools. Social scientists say this kind of group identity is hard-wired in us. We seek the protection of our tribe, and we view outsiders with hostility.

This is one way to understand our highly polarized and politicized world today. Americans increasingly identify with one political group and react with hostility or fear to those who are not in their group. Political identity has become a “meta-identity,” impacting not just our politics but where we live, how we pray, who we associate with. Communities are becoming more politically homogenous as we seek like-minded people and avoid those who do not think like us.

That is one of the intriguing insights of Father Robert Aaron Wessman, the author of “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World” (New City Press). In an effort to understand the harsh divides that are separating Americans, including Catholics, Father Wessman explores the power of groups, looking at the sociological and psychological research that shows how important group identity is and how easily it can pit us against one another.

Surveys show that when our political identity is more and more central to how we see ourselves as members of a group, the less likely we are to want to associate with or socialize with people who are not in our group. This is most obvious this year in our presidential politics, where a Trump voter in a red state is unlikely to socialize with Biden supporters, and a Biden supporter in a blue state is unlikely to socialize with Trump voters.

Surveys suggest that as we grow more polarized, we even view these political differences the way we once viewed religious differences. Today, parents are more likely to be concerned about their child marrying someone from another party than someone from another faith tradition.

In “mean girl” terms, we identify our group as the “in group” and the other side as the “out group.” Most disturbing is that often the punishment or defeat of the out group becomes our primary driver. Rather than looking for areas of agreement or compromise, we look for annihilation. “Rage motivates,” Father Wessman wrote, and politicians are incentivized to stimulate this rage.

“There exists an ‘us versus them’ competition taking place where winner takes all, and where the common good is rarely considered,” Father Wessman wrote.

For Christians, this environment is spiritually deadly. It divides us not just into warring camps but hate-filled ones.

Nor is the Church immune to this polarization. On a political level, red Catholics and blue Catholics are tempted to pick and choose which parts of the social gospel they highlight – a kind of cafeteria polarization. Pastors tell horror stories of how these political divides can impact parish harmony. Parishes themselves are at risk of becoming ideologically homogenous as Catholics seek out spaces where they will find others who think like them.

None of this is compatible with our baptismal bonds. “Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ,” the Catechism reminds us. “Therefore … we are members one of another” (No. 1267). The Catechism describes this as our “sacramental bond of unity” (No. 1271).

Perhaps when the Church is done with the Eucharistic Revival, it could mount a baptismal revival. Its mission would be to help Catholics understand that their baptismal bonds transcend class, gender, and most certainly political affiliation.

Such a revival would be good for the Church. Good for the nation, too.

Greg Erlandson is an award-winning Catholic publisher, editor, and journalist whose column appears monthly at OSV News.

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