My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
These conditions can easily be set out in very abstract terms. Government must respect human rights, it must respect religious freedom and other forms of freedom of conscience, it must distribute its wealth so as to give everyone a fair stake in its economy and, above all, it must conduct its elections and other political procedures argumentatively so that each citizen is treated as someone worth convincing not just outvoting.
The United States fails by all these standards, and Britain does not do much better. We fail most dramatically in the character of our politics. Our politicians treat us as ignorant consumers; they entertain us with slogans and sound bites rather than arguments. In America, a very pessimistic explanation of this degraded politics is now fashionable. Americans are supposedly divided into two radically opposed cultures: the red culture that wants its religion public, drinks beer, lives in the middle, and votes Republican, and the blue culture that keeps its religion (if any) private, drinks white wine, lives on the coasts and votes Democratic. Genuine argument requires some common ground from which argument can start, and the conventional wisdom now holds that these two cultures are so fundamentally divided, in every respect, that there is no common ground. Politics is doomed to be war by other means.