Sometimes it’s refreshing to hear a distinction between America’s political parties that isn’t the hackneyed “liberals drive BMWs and conservatives drive pickup trucks” shtick. Other times, however, it can be a bit jarring, as you realize just how ideologically divergent the two parties are.

In 2015, while campaigning for Rand Paul in Oklahoma, conservative politician J.C. Watts told writer Robert Leonard, “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.” It took me a while to determine what Watts meant by this, as he seemed at first to be revering Democrats for their kindness. Of course, as a Republican himself, he was not; he was calling them naive for putting their faith in people rather than a higher power.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical household that always emphasized the binary of saints and sinners. The mantra was something along the lines of “we’re all sinners, there is a desire to sin in all of us, and the only way we can become clean is through repentance and baptism.”

(Now, the notion that people are naturally inclined to be bad may seem hopelessly cynical, but when you believe your god is the purest thing there is, it’s actually kind of comforting. It’s like, the world sucks but someone will eventually save us from all of this suckage.)

I never once thought to apply this to politics, but doing so sheds an LED torch on Watts’ logic. Keeping in mind the fact that many Democrats are actually religious, I dissected this statement using the ethical tools bestowed upon me by a powerhouse team of Sunday school teachers (shoutout to you, Mrs. Wriston) in the first 13 years of my life.

My conclusion? The Republican ideology Watts evokes is not a holistic approach to solving the world’s problems — rather, it assumes that people are the world’s problems and ends the analysis there. This nature over nurture argument, I believe, is a cop-out and its infiltration of the political sphere has stripped rhetoric and, more importantly, policy of its compassion.

If people are essentially defined by their sins — the prostitute is lustful, the gang member is murderous, the poor are lazy — then it so easy to write people off, to dismiss their suffering as a choice rather than a product of circumstance. After all, what incentive do you have to eradicate sex trafficking, improve the conditions of inner cities or implement a more robust welfare program if you perceive those affected as having chosen their fate, as being characterized by their sin?

Take Ronald Reagan’s classic “welfare queen” speech, for example. Though the realities of an average welfare recipient are far more nuanced (and less classist and racist) than those of which the president spoke, he nonetheless managed to employ the effective conservative argument at the time, which involved evoking a caricature of deviance. The rhetoric that paints people — particularly those who are suffering or in need of government assistance — as one-dimensionally awful is useful in both religion and politics for the same reason: It justifies our inability or unwillingness to help them. In this case, if we assume individuals who use welfare programs do so by their own volition, and that they must be bad people who cheat the system, then we are absolved of blame (or even revered as heroes) when we take this system away from them.

Because the welfare queens of the world are few and far between, it is therefore not naive to inquire further into the actual motivations of so-called sinners. Aristotle made the argument that humans are fundamentally virtuous because no person causes harm with the intention of causing harm — in other words, people always assume their actions are for the greater good. However, one mustn’t necessarily subscribe to this in order to see the merit in helping others; they simply must consider how circumstances impact decisions, and how alleviation of certain circumstances through thoughtful policy can prevent people from making less-than-desirable choices.

In his final blow, Watts went on to attribute this liberal tendency to over-empathize to our godlessness: “If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us.” The assumption here is that the decisions people make — good or bad — are isolated and deliberate rather than guided by (or a direct product of) their circumstances. That is not to say people should not ultimately be held accountable for the poor choices they make, but from a policy perspective, it seems counterproductive to suggest that there is nothing we can do to prevent people from making them.

Actions, after all, are not completely disconnected from their contexts — they are directly influenced by them. Politicians such as Watts and his constituents are in a unique position to shape the contexts that beget negative actions. By assuming these decisions will be made with or without their intervention, they are forfeiting their responsibility to make the world a better place. And that, more so than people, is pretty fundamentally bad.

Lauren Schandevel can be reached at

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