Faith In The Process

One of the warmer and more persistent disagreements between liberal and conservative viewpoints in recent years has been over the commingling of religion with politics. We hear a steady drumbeat from the Left alleging that the Bush cadre is trying to turn the USA into a “theocracy”, and in academic circles, where the prevailing attitude toward religion is pitying scorn, if not downright hostility, conservative Republicans are as rare as hen’s teeth. Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, reactionary firebrands like Ann Coulter inflame the pious with books such as her recent screed, Godless.

So it was interesting to see CNN present a program over the weekend in which the current crop of Democratic presidential aspirants fed the electorate great helpings of santimonious treacle in an effort to demonstrate that their worldview was informed not only by the shrewd and worldly calculus of political advantage, but also by the sine qua non of American public life, namely “faith”.

Why is this necessary? Why must American politicians demonstrate not only that they have the intellect, statesmanship, and grasp of complex issues required to pilot the ship of state, but must assure us also of a full-duplex link to Heaven?

It’s easy enough to point out that Americans, 90% of whom believe in God, and more than half of whom reject the idea that we humans are descended from nonhuman ancestors (the scientific equivalent of denying the roundness of the Earth, or the existence of atoms) are far more religious than citizens of other liberal democracies around the world. But even so, we don’t vet our doctors or lawyers for belief in the supernatural; why must it be so for our politicians?

Well, you might say, in a democracy, our elected representatives are our proxies; we want them to be as much like us as possible, in order that society shall move in the direction we would have wished it to ourselves. Interestingly, though, what seems to be paramount is not that the candidates share our particular religious beliefs: all that matters, apparently, is that they not be altogether Godless, that they can be trusted to have some sort of religious commitment.

I think this is a fascinating fact. The actual content of their beliefs or superstitions matters, apparently, less than that we be convinced that they don’t lack them entirely. Watching the program I was struck by the scrupulous care that was taken to avoid questions like “Well, tell us, Mrs. Clinton, we’ve talked a lot about faith — in fact tonight’s entire program is all about your faith — but what is it, really, that you actually have faith in? What, exactly, is your image of God? What specific role do you believe God plays in the management of the world? Do you think that there is a place in Heaven for non-Christians? …” And so on.

But there is none of that. We wouldn’t want to examine any of it too closely, because one of two outcomes would be the likely result: either that the candidate actually possesses very specific doctrinal views that would, almost necessarily, contradict the beliefs of many potential voters, or else it would be revealed that there really isn’t anything very solid there at all, other than a vague and somewhat incoherent jumble of bracing generalities.

No, this is a perfectly illustrative example not of a genuine interest in what the candidates actually believe, but of what Daniel Dennett refers to, in his book Breaking the Spell, as “belief in belief”. I think the reason it expresses itself so strongly in politics has to do with the prevalence of the notion among religious folks that morality requires a supernatural basis: that even though, once our politicians are in office, we can’t make sure they behave, at least they will have the fear of God to keep them in line. This fits in well with our requiring that publicly binding oaths be sworn on a Bible, or “so help me God”, but it’s far from foolproof, since a scurrilous nonbeliever would presumably have no qualms about faking the whole thing in the first place — so the only ones you are really filtering out by these proceedings are the corrupt believers who might well have tried to get away with something if you hadn’t pre-empted them with an oath. But to the faithful among the electorate, of course, God is watching the whole game anyway, so it will all get sorted out eventually — and I suppose they are solaced to imagine that things will go even worse, come Judgment Day, for our crooked pols if they have gone so far as to swear falsely upon the Bible, or to piously and publicly avow a false belief in the Almighty in order just to get ahead.

To those of us who see the whole business as a sort of mass hypnosis, however, it all seems quite bizarre, and not at all reassuring.

Meanwhile, just to pile it on, there is this item from today’s paper. But that’s another story.

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  1. We have the equivalent over on this side of the pond where candidates for high office feel it neccesary to evince their love of football, in general, and one team, in particular, which is inevitably not unadjacent to their constituencies! This once led our ‘bags-packed-ready-to-go’ prime minister to muse sentimentally on his memories of watching the late, great Jackie Milburn who was a star of Newcastle United. Unfortunately it transpired that ‘oor Jackie’ had retired before Blair was born. Ooops!

    There is an interesting essay to be written, I suppose, as to whether belief in a God, or belief in the sanctity of football, does the most harm to a society. On the other hand, perhaps not, I feel myself losing the will to live before it is even written.

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Oh, we do that here too. I remember well the carpetbagging Hillary Clinton arriving here in Gotham to launch her Senate campaign; in her first TV appearance she had on a Yankees cap. I decided right then that I wouldn’t vote for her even if she were to end up running against Idi Amin.

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  3. I’m not sure that Americans would support a person of faith regardless of what their religious beliefs are — do you think America would elect a devout Muslim to be President?

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Yes, that occurred to me too. Muslims would be the hardest sell nowadays, most likely, but I do in fact think there are many who would feel they have more in common with a Muslim than an avowed atheist.

    At the very least, the specific beliefs of the generally Christian or Jewish candidate pool never seem to matter at all.

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    The actual content of their beliefs or superstitions matters not at all; it is only necessary that we be convinced that they don’t lack them entirely.

    I agree with the overall thrust of your post, but am not so sure about the above. Because America remains, demographically, a heavily Christian nation, I think we as a people have trouble with the notion of, say, a pious Jew (Joe Lieberman) or a practicing Mormon (Mitt Romney) as president. Consider how JFK took flak for being Catholic, and how John Kerry, also a Catholic, experienced similar turbulence during his campaign: “Where do your fundamental loyalties lie– with America, or with Rome?” was a question asked in both JFKs’ campaigns.


    Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Quick qualification: the above comment was made to reflect the widely held American Protestant assumption that Mormons aren’t “true” Christians. I’m agnostic on that question because I’m not an essentialist. I think it’s impossible to define what “true” Christianity (or Islam, or Buddhism, etc.) is.


    Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Well, maybe I’ll edit the post ever so slightly, to “The actual content of their beliefs or superstitions matters, apparently, less than that we be convinced that they don’t lack them entirely.”

    As I said to Peter just above, I think that the presence or absence of belief in God makes for a bigger division than doctrinal differences.

    In other words, I think folks around here find it easier to think pluralistically about Mormons or Muslims than atheists.

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    I have, in fact, edited the post accordingly, which I realize is in some people’s minds a breach of blogging protocol. I don’t really care about that, however! – and the point you and Peter raise is a good one; the sentence as written was perhaps worded too strongly.

    The key point, though, is that belief in a watchful and judging God seems to be of paramount importance, and I still think a candidate would have to get into some pretty exotic religious territory before having a poorer shot than an atheist.

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  9. Kevin Kim says

    Damn– I posted my comments without first having read the previous comments. Sorry.


    Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    No worries, Kevin. The two of you made a good point, and your comments are always appreciated.

    Posted June 15, 2007 at 6:01 pm | Permalink