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The contagion of rationalization

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist.

WASHINGTON — Susan Brooks. Brian Fitzpatrick. Will Hurd. Fred Upton.

You may have read or heard these names in passing, but they are worth lingering upon. These are the four Republicans who supported a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s plainly racist taunt urging four House members to “go back” to their countries of family origin. These are the only House Republicans for whom decency still has a political application. These are the last, scattered exceptions to the rule of malice and bigotry in the GOP.

Vote for them. Send an email to thank them. Give generously to their campaigns. Shake their hands in the street.

If we want more of a virtue in public life, it is important to praise it, and praise it properly. Brooks, Fitzpatrick, Hurd and Upton (along with ex-Republican Justin Amash) possess political courage, but of a particularly rare and important type. They refused to rationalize.

Rationalization is the default setting of the human mind. We can’t reconsider our whole view of the world with every new piece of information. So we tend to accept evidence that supports our predispositions, and filter out evidence that does not. All of us do this to one extent or another.

But in politics, rationalization can take disturbing forms. The tendency can become a habit. And this habit can harden into a rigid ideology in which all questioning is disloyalty. And this cult-like ideology, if all the maleficent stars align, can become a cable network like Fox News.

If politics is really the never-ending warfare between tribes, then information is only useful as ammunition. The consideration of conflicting ideas and views only gives aid and comfort to the enemy.

The most depressing historical example of rationalization can be found in Mark Noll’s brilliant “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.” In the mid-19th century, prominent ministers in the North used the Bible to justify abolitionism, while prominent ministers in the South employed the Bible to justify slavery. According to South Carolina minister James Henley Thornwell: “That the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled. ... We cherish the institution not from avarice, but from principle.”

“American national culture,” Noll argues, “had been built in substantial part by voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture. Yet if by following such an approach to the Bible there resulted an unbridgeable chasm of opinion about what Scripture actually taught, there were no resources within democratic or voluntary procedures to resolve the public division of opinion that was created by voluntary and democratic interpretation of the Bible. The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.”

On the issue of slavery, Southern religious leaders almost uniformly took the position that supported the oppressive and unjust economic arrangements of their community. There were very few examples of unexpected or heroic resistance. Instead, ministers built a complex series of arguments to rationalize a system based on theft and abuse. And the issue was not eventually resolved by the triumph of superior arguments. “It was left,” Noll says, “to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”

I have no intention of equating the surpassing evil of slavery to the rise and rule of Trump in the GOP. I raise the example to show how hard it is — and how important it is — to examine the settled convictions of your own community and resist them when they are wrong.

Resisting rationalization is often too difficult for the common day. But not all days are common. July 16, 2019, should be remembered for its up or down vote on political and moral decency. The rationalizations in this case — that Trump’s statement was not technically racism, that the resolution violated House rules, that Democrats are guilty of similar offenses — had nothing to do with the morality of the situation. They were transparently self-serving and political.

As a society, we would punish racist taunts of this type if done on the school grounds or the playing field. We can’t accept them in the president of the United States without doing great damage to public norms of respect and inclusion.

There is a point when rationalization reaches the soul, and human beings lose sight of simple right and wrong. And 187 House Republicans have now officially reached it.

Michael Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush until 2006. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). His email address is Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.


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