Ideologically Speaking

We all like to be right.  In my experience, being wrong has never had a big upside.   It’s usually followed by taking the blame for everything from embarrassments to car wrecks, and is why we constantly try to convince people the truth is on our side.  The F was the teacher’s fault.

The ways we try to convince ourselves and others we’re right, even when we’re wrong, is called ideology.  We concoct validations for what we believe and do, often calling upon the authority of something higher than ourselves.  In fact, the higher the authority the more legitimate we feel.  That’s why religious wars are so bloody.  It’s not just another person saying to kill everyone.  God gives you permission.

Claims about the truth, of course, don’t have to actually be true.  They just have to be believed, and we can believe most anything.  909 people didn’t kill themselves at Jonestown because they thought they were wrong.  Most died willingly; some left behind notes explaining why poisoning themselves was the right thing to do.  The outside evil world was about to invade their compound, and the People’s Temple was worth dying for.

To the rest of us, they look deluded.  But their actions are not different in kind than the Jewish Zealots who killed themselves on top of Masada, or the Confederate soldiers who marched in Pickett’s Charge, or the British light cavalry who charged into the “Valley of Death.”  All of them are regarded as heroes.  It simply depends on what you think of their justifications.

Ideology is a way of seeing the world.  It’s a world where what you do makes sense, even when other people say you’re crazy.  It’s why your critics are really the crazy ones.  It’s why God agrees with you.

One person’s demented suicide bomber is another person’s martyr.  Everyone on all sides dies for God and country—fill in the blanks for the particular deity and nation—just like all sides think they’re right.  It’s the main reason we have so much difficulty getting along with each other.

Most of my students, for example, believe the United States was founded as a Christian country, by a bunch of devout Christians, in response to the underlying plan of God.  It’s an important tenet of mainstream American ideology; democracy and capitalism are God’s way, along with freedom, individualism, and football.  Is the notion true?  Not really.  But the truth doesn’t matter.  America’s exceptionalism does.

Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine were Deists.  Washington and John Adams were Unitarians.  None of them believed in the divinity of Christ or the reality of miracles.  All of them disliked religious “enthusiasm,” and firmly believed the government should favor no religion.  When Washington is pictured kneeling in the snow, he isn’t praying to Jesus.

American ideology continues undeterred, however.  America is God’s ally, defending Israel, exporting freedom and democracy, establishing beach heads for McDonalds, Exxon, and Walmart.  Ideology validated taking land from the natives, and it validates our continuing warfare now.  We’re sure we’re the highest moral force in the world.  We’re justified.

It’s in all of us: Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist.  Republican, Democrat, Libertarian.  Football fan, basketball fan, baseball fan.  We bond with some and reject others, based on our perceptions of reality.  We agree with people who agree with us.

We need an ideology that doesn’t need to be right, because there’s a good chance that none of us are.  And I know I’m right when I say that.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

3 Responses to “Ideologically Speaking”

  1. Good article. I wish I could get back into teaching, but with only a MDiv it’s not likely.

  2. Never thought that being right was an issue. Most of what I believe regarding God’s plan of salvation through His Son, Jesus, is not because I’m ‘right’. In fact my imperfect understanding of God is not an issue, either. Us Lutherans pretty much let God sort it out and are grateful that our salvation is not dependent on us, on what we do to please Him, or our being right. It is about God being gratious and giving me that understanding. All I do is serve as a witness to His grace in my life and the peace I have. Anyone else who agrees with me shares in that ‘peace that surpasses all understanding’. My being right makes no difference, since the judge will alway have to be someone other than me or you. And in the same perspective as Dr. Dann, I know I’m wrong when I say that.

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