As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is observed in West Virginia and the nation, thoughtful people should ponder an ingrained human phenomenon: intense beliefs that set groups against each other. It can be seen in bitter daily politics -- and sometimes it leads to armed violence.
Historian David Goldfield of the University of North Carolina wrote America Aflame about the Civil War, which he considers a blind, senseless, unnecessary, tragic mistake. In a commentary, he said:
"We have an unfortunate history of plunging into wars for God and democracy that have often made a mockery of both.... More than 750,000 men died in the Civil War. Extrapolated to today's population, the death toll would be close to 10 million.... The Civil War was not a just war; it was a war of choice brought on by an insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process, and ultimately the nation, to disintegrate."
All other countries ended slavery without fighting wars over it, Dr. Goldfield noted. America might have done likewise, but people were so polarized by fervent beliefs that they eagerly lunged into killing each other.
"Self-righteousness eroded the vital center of American politics," he wrote. "Northerners and southerners flung biblical verses at each other, deepening the divide.... Young men marched off to war as crusaders."
As a result, both North and South suffered terrible slaughter and destruction that might have been avoided, if reasonable cooperation had been possible.
The phenomenon of ideological conflicts was explored in a landmark book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Although it doesn't deal with outright warfare, it outlines hostile -- often hateful -- disputes between U.S. liberals and conservatives.
Dr. Haidt says both American political parties tend to "sacralize" their stands, turning them into rigid dogma. "For the right, it's taxes. For the left, the sacred issues were race and gender but are becoming global warming and gay marriage," a <I>Wall Street Journal<P> review said.
The paper said the psychologist-author "wants liberals and conservatives to listen to each other more, hate each other less, and to understand that their differences are largely rooted in psychology, not open-minded consideration of the facts."
Stubborn beliefs are common. The old joke, "My mind is made up; don't bother me with facts," is funny because it reflects reality. Knee-jerk adherence to convictions drove America into the horrible Civil War, and the phenomenon remains visible in today's politics.