The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America, where we demonize our enemies and demand purity from friends

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, during a hearing on Capitol Hill on July 21. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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When I was a young boy in Ohio, my mother insisted that my siblings and I attend every service at our Baptist church, every week. That meant all day on Sundays and sometimes on Wednesdays for Bible study. She gave meaning to the phrase “full immersion” Baptist.

Sunday school was fun for me — up to a point. I liked to listen to the Bible stories, sing the songs and use the paper, paste and glitter to make art. But Sunday school stopped being fun about the same time I started to ask questions.

What first got me in trouble was asking where my dog, Brownie, was going to go when he died. I liked my dog; I wanted him to go to heaven. But my teacher dropped her chin, looked over her eyeglasses and told me that animals didn’t go to heaven. My dog had no soul, she said, so when he died, he’d just be dead.

This didn’t sit well with me, and so I asked more questions. After all, my dog was a “good boy” — just like me. My questions led to more questions from the other kids: “Why doesn’t God like dogs?” And: “How can God be so mean?” Soon, the teacher drew the line. She said my questions were laying the groundwork for me to go to hell. I shut up immediately.

That back and forth is not too different from where we now find ourselves in America. Our political parties have become rigid, unforgiving religious sects that will tolerate no second-guessing — unless we want to be shunned.

In the liberal circles in which I mostly travel, it is nothing short of blasphemy to speak a positive word about any conservative for any reason. Many of my friends can’t even bear to hear their names mentioned. I was reminded of this when in conversation with a friend I mentioned my approval of Rep. Liz Cheney’s performance during the Jan. 6 hearings. I said I thought it was courageous of Cheney (R-Wyo.) to speak truth against the kind of pressure and opposition she’s facing from her party. I said I admired her for it. I don’t love Liz Cheney or plan to send her money or anything. But I figured it was okay to say that what she is doing is good.

My comment was met with a mixture of shock, hurt and outrage — as though I had stabbed my friend in the back. “How can you say that?” he asked, noting that Cheney had opposed same-sex marriage and was a legatee of the father of the Iraq War. When I told him Cheney had since changed her mind about same-sex marriage, he listed a litany of things that she had said or done in the past which put her beyond the realm of acceptable. And in that moment, for him, I had failed the liberal purity test. Because she is one of them.

Conservatives are the same; they hate liberals with an almost otherworldly passion. They like to put bumper stickers on their cars and trucks calling Joe Biden a communist; they have convinced themselves that the blue cities and states they despise are hellscapes of crime and desolation. They have made demonizing Kamala D. Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton a kind of obsession. In that world, saying anything complimentary about a Democrat is a marker of probable evil.

Their hatred is the result of consuming the same delusional media diet of red meat that helped set the stage for the Jan. 6 attack in the first place. The other side has its purity tests, too. For conservatives, Liz Cheney is a blasphemer, a heretic, and might soon be banished from the congregation.

I remember a time when it was considered normal and healthy to criticize the political team to which one belonged. We didn’t take the words of any leader, regardless of party, as gospel. And even if people in the other party had different values and cultures, it didn’t mean you had grounds for a violent showdown. Now, the purity tests are everywhere and something akin to a loyalty code makes it taboo to question your own side or call attention to its weaknesses and contradictions.

We are no longer a country of give-and-take. We are a country torn apart by something closer to religious strife, where both sides demand devotion to doctrine and rough punishments await those who step out of line.

When I was growing up, my hometown had more churches than you could count. You could go to any one of them you liked. As often or as little as you wanted.

But now, only two churches remain. You probably go to one or the other. But you must attend all day, every day. There’s no escape from services anymore; church is always in session. And if you don’t like the teachings, you can either go along without question or your church might decide you’re no longer fit for membership.