The Worrisome Role of Religion in American Politics 2/22/16
As the political campaign season in the United States continues to unfold, we are met with candidates of many different stripes, and at some point in time, all of them have to pass the “God” test. Simply stated, every candidate needs to profess a faith in God in order to be taken as a serious option for office. Of, course, in a country where our political system is supposed to maintain a separation between church and state, and in which religious freedom is guaranteed, no candidate would have the authority to impose a particular religion upon the populace, or to deny a particular religion its equal right to exist. Still, a majority of Americans seem to think it important that a prospective candidate hold a belief in an almighty (if unprovable) being. Holding a strong philosophic belief as an organizing principle for a society, something that actually might manifest itself in a change of our political or societal direction, is seemingly of little interest to the majority of voters.
So, every election cycle, we have to weed through the candidates and their espoused religious beliefs to try to ascertain who is best qualified to govern our country and interpret our Constitution and laws. Some of the people who run for office want us to believe that their every move is governed by their religious belief systems, and some of those people are downright frightening. In recent years, the Republican party has made a concerted effort to court the votes of the more religious extreme of the conservative part of our population, most commonly referred to as the “religious right.” And, in the primary season, many of these candidates make no bones about soliciting the votes of the Fundamentalist and Evangelical end of Christianity, with promises to support the agendas of those communities. In a staggered date primary, the result of this solicitation is increasingly that many more religiously temperate candidates are already out of the race by the time the campaign arrives at your polling station.
It should come then as no surprise, that the most successful of the “courtiers” are the ones left standing. Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Bobby Jindal, all Christians by their own definition, have fallen by the wayside. Their faith is more of a personal matter and they made it clear that their faith was not part of defining their politics. On the other hand, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and even Donald Trump have gone on record repeatedly in defining their “personal relationships with Jesus,” and have professed that they would be guided by the teachings of the Bible in establishing their political policies as President. In the case of Cruz, a Southern Baptist and Rubio, whose beliefs embrace Roman Catholicism and Protestant Evangelicalism, I think it is reasonable to take them at their word. Carson is an Evangelical who believes the world to be some six thousand years old. Trump is a snake oil salesman and may very likely be telling suckers what they want to hear. And, of course, some of them have demonstrated the conviction of their own faith by denigrating those of another in the form of Muslim refugees.
Why should it concern us that we might vote for someone who will use his or her belief in God to shape their political decision making? It comes down to making sound judgements. Unfortunately, for the voters, we will have to vote for a candidate who has never held the office of President before, has never had to make decisions at that level. And, since the potential is always there that something catastrophic might happen day one and a tough decision would need to be made, we need some degree of assurance that we know how our choice for candidate will be guided in a pressurized situation. In recent years, fear mongers among the special interest group lobbyists and the candidate builders in our country, have led a sizable amount of our population to believe that our nation is being attacked from all sides by the forces of darkness in the form of foreigners with their foreign cultures and religions, with foreign drugs and foreign political ideologies, and that our only salvation comes in the form of our guns and our God. If enough of us believe this to vote into office someone whose judgement is based in their core fundamentalist or evangelical religious principles, we could be in a lot of trouble when the poop hits the impeller.
As an analogy, imagine this for a moment. A person goes to a carnival and sits down to watch the performance of a magician, who proceeds to pull a rabbit from a hat. “It’s magic!” yells the observer. “Proof of spontaneous creation!” After the show, the recent convert approaches the magician, who takes him aside, shows him the false bottom in the hat and the rabbit underneath, and explains how the trick works. The convert though, shakes his head and says, “No, it’s magic. I saw it.” This is the nature of fundamentalist or evangelical belief. The true believer “knows” that his or her sensory mechanisms are fallible, but his or her connection with the Divine is not. Belief, or preconception if you will, becomes reality and must be protected against the temptation to doubt, where doubt is the tool of the forces of darkness.
Ben Carson believes that the earth is 6000 years old, that the pyramids were built to store grain, that dinosaurs and humans lived side by side. And he is not a stupid man. He is a neurosurgeon, a man of science. But science has disproved his beliefs thousands of times over. So why would he cling to them? He is also a devoutly religious man, a Seventh Day Adventist and Evangelical Christian and his faith is built on a house of cards.
That is the way with all belief systems, all philosophies. If you choose to accept a certain faith as reality, as “the word,” as the proof in the pudding, you have to accept all of it. It is the “word” and you are the reader. It is the authority and you are the acolyte. And, if at some point something that you have come to believe is true can be demonstrated not to be, it has to call into question the remaining elements of that faith. It might be the case that some other aspects of what you believe are not true. It is even possible that none of it is true.
The greater portion of our society has learned to couch their faith in a somewhat abridged version of the Bible. They recognize, for example, that there are portions of the Bible that define times when it is appropriate to enslave other people. We understand now that that is never the case. So, most of us skip over those elements of the text and get to the parts with which we agree. I could argue that that approach really defines us as philosophers rather than “true believers,” because we are creating our own belief system buffet style, taking a little of this and a little of that. To the true believer, the entire text is the word of God and it is not up to us what to accept and what to refute. To date, we have not elected an activist Evangelical to the White House. But that day might be coming and when it does, we could have someone at the highest position of influence in our country, the reality of whose faith is preferred to the reality of our national intelligence agencies.
The fundamentalist or evangelical position does not allow for veering from the prescribed course. This is exactly the reason that we can never negotiate with ISIS. They are fundamentalists who have staked their very existence on the proposition that the Koran and their strict and particular interpretation of it, is the word of Allah. To make concessions such as peace treaties or negotiations to live side by side with the infidel is to debase the teachings of their faith, condemning themselves to eternal torment. How do you find a middle ground with that world view?
It is the same with our own fundamentalist religions. While they are not yet beheading people in the street in the name of God, they are attempting to manipulate our nation’s laws to mandate that all of our citizens recognize the authority of their world view. We have already seen this in forms as innocuous as inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance or inscribing the Ten Commandments on the walls of our judicial buildings. Then there are the more controversial instances such as inserting creationist views into our school’s textbooks and defining them as another “scientifically valid” theory, and the persistent efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, deny funding to women’s health organizations, disallow same-sex marriage and deny basic human rights to people whose beliefs do not mirror their own. Where we are much more sophisticated than ISIS is that our fundamentalist groups understand that we have legal mechanisms in place by which they can redirect the actions of society, and that terrorizing our citizens into submission would be much more difficult than changing laws when the rest of us are not paying much attention.
Take for example the ongoing flap in Washington over the funding of women’s health centers, some of which provide abortions as one, relatively small component of their overall service. For a considerable time, the religious extremists in our country who condemned the practice of abortion and decided it their crusade to eradicate it completely from our society, contented themselves with merely blowing up clinics and murdering doctors, nurses and patients. Somehow, they missed the section in the good book which stipulated that we were not to kill. Their position softened to one of lobbying for the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision and the governmental outlawing of abortion. Now, they seem to realize that that is not going to happen any time soon. So, in their growing political sophistication, they have decided that if they can defund organizations like Planned Parenthood, they may be able to close down the clinics without overturning the law or murdering more civilians. In effect, it becomes a bloodless coup.
Amid all of this, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the moneyed interests in the radical right wing of the Republican party decided many years ago that the fundamentalists and evangelicals were to be their foot soldiers in a wider war on the shaping of our society. As financiers to this crusade, the far right leadership and lobbyists to the Republican party serve as the purveyors of Hearstian yellow rag disinformation that furnishes the pictures to call the troops to war. And, while the generals’ agenda has more to do with consolidating the power and influence of money and shielding that money from the tax man, the soldier does not need to know the entire battle plan. Arm the soldier with the knowledge that their religion and their cultural standards are under siege by the liberal left or even the moderate centrists, and the soldier will expend the last full measure of his devotion in fighting that good fight. Then, to whatever degree the soldiers gain ground in their fight, the leaders shall assure them that their enemies are waiting for the opportunity to wage a counter offensive on that hard won territory. In the end, their only real hope is to continue to support the political agenda of the radical right as it strives to secure the new borders of Christianity. This carefully orchestrated plan has locked up the votes of the religious right in support of an agenda that in the end will enslave them economically while purporting to be the champions of their religious values.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, Americans who define their religious beliefs as Evangelical now represent a little over 25% of the total population of the country, a larger single block than any other religious or non-religious grouping. And, as a percentage of the population per state and relative to the key battleground states of the American Electoral College, their numbers are as follows: California (20%), Texas (31%), Illinois (20%), Ohio (29%), Michigan (25%), Georgia (38%), Florida (24%), Pennsylvania (19%), New York (10%), and North Carolina (35%).
When we pause to consider how closely contested many of our recent elections have been, it is very easy to understand why securing the support of this particular group in the general election is so vitally important to forwarding the Radical Right’s political agenda. When we note that in the primary season, Texas, Georgia, Alabama (49%), Arkansas (46%), Oklahoma (47%), Tennessee (52%), Mississippi (41%) and Michigan will all have voted by March 8th, it is easy to see how the latter stages of the primary are shaped by the early stages. Candidates who do not register well with Evangelicals have a very difficult slog in the early going of the election and tend to be out of the races early on, leaving a paucity of choices for voters in the northern and western states.
With a conservative, faith based ideology that is more in step with an America of the 1950’s, the Evangelicals as a voting block still wield a tremendous amount of influence in the 21st century political arena, making and breaking campaigns, and shaping platforms and policy while exerting a near constant pressure on our existing system of laws and rights in the hope of remaking the country in their old-time religion image. It is my contention that this has very dangerous ramifications for our government and the growth of our society. After all, it is the 21st century and is moving inexorably toward the 22nd. We have seen first hand the influence on societies of a fundamentalist or evangelical political system in some of the nations of the Middle East and certainly in the would-be nation / caliphate that is ISIS. Do not fool yourself into believing that that cannot happen here. The fear mongers and hate mongers who fuel the fervor of the religious right in order to secure their votes, have succeeded in convincing them that their God and their culture is already under attack from those foreign religious warriors, aided and abetted by lazy, uncomprehending, corrupt Washington bureaucrats who must be removed from office and replaced by a new leadership, dipped in the blood of Christian dogma and willing to lead a war of faith in all corners of the globe. Perhaps in another twenty years we will find ourselves in a new kind of Cold War, one not so much based in politico-economic differences as in competing beliefs in an unprovable hypothesis. Would it not be ironic if mutually assured destruction was once again our Savior?