Idiosyncratic Articles of Faith and Tea Party Discourse

I am still finding this story from last week’s New York Times really disturbing.

JASPER, Ind. — At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill.

It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic.

“Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”

A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party.

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.” read more

Thumping the Bible or even Rush Limbaugh (no matter how much we’d like to thump him) is no way to engage in public discourse and a really bad way to back up one’s views. Is there any dispute over that? In this public setting of a political debate—on matters of common interest—Mr. Dennison metaphorically reaches for his Bible, his idiosyncratically-read Bible (why “utilize” rather than “steward,” Genesis 1.28), to a text that is not recognized publicly as an authority.  But now we are in a vicious circle, for certainly Mr. Dennison wants us to recognize his idiosyncratic reading, his sacred (dare I say “private”) text, as a public adjudicator.

Nor was Mr. Dennison the least bit interested in civic discourse, not in either sense of the word “civic,” neither polite (he growled at the speaker) nor interested in helping to develop a shared sense of things.  It is his way or the highway, whereas civic discourse, in the political sense requires some civility in the manners sense. In all this, he certainly seems to be a good representative of the Tea Party. For a reflective kind of public opinion to emerge from any public, political conversation, participants need to present themselves as willing, at least in principle, to the possibility that they might learn something from each other, that the other might bring forward a new perspective on the matter.  I don’t see any signs of such comportment in this new “civic” movement today.

I am very disturbed.  Not just by Mr. Dennison but by an increasingly venomous public discourse in this country along with increasing hatred and discrimination against gays and Muslims. This is all worse now than it was a year ago, and it wasn’t good then. Certainly there is much that is objectively wrong in this country that might spur vitriol against political leaders who seem to have done relatively little about the economy (or pick any issue), but why is this manifesting itself as extreme bigotry?  In times of trouble, is it necessary to hold tight to one’s own idiosyncratic view of things, to “one’s own,” and denounce all things, orientations, faiths that call into question one’s own self-sovereignty?  Where is the strength in that?