Things Not Seen
Religion is making a play to be a central campaign issue. Between the totally flubbed and universally maligned return of the Jeremiah Wright attack — which attempts to tie the President to the radical statements of his former pastor — and an in-depth look at the nature of Romney’s Mormonism in Monday’s New York Times, religion seems to be insinuating its way back into the national mind, and justifiably so. For many in a nation that is as religious as any democracy in the world, appropriate fear of the Lord is an important tool for gauging the quality of candidate. For the devout, religion and ethical responsibility aren’t just coupled — they’re interdependent.
But that isn’t why religion is such a lasting feature of the American political landscape. Indeed, the question of political validity isn’t really about religion at all. If it were, Mike Huckabee would be sitting in the White House, not in a Fox News studio. America’s lasting relationship is not with religion so much as it is with faith. Whether or not it dominates the news cycle, faith, interpreted in its broadest form, is one of the central issues of the day as it has been in every political epoch in American history, and it is every bit as political as it is pious.
Faith is the belief in things not seen, and in a political context, the term that most aptly fits the description is party loyalty. But that phrase doesn’t do justice to the psychology of true political faith. It is about the complete trust that one’s chosen political party is, at the end of the day, doing the right thing, even though it may not always appear that way. It allows for acts of extraordinary trust: Democrats have allowed President Obama to keep Guantanamo Bay open, to continue the war in Afghanistan, and to extend the Bush tax cuts not because they’ve changed their minds on the subjects but because they have faith that these decisions are part of a greater plan that ultimately vindicates his actions and champions the Democratic cause. House Republicans (and Mitt Romney) toe the party line so regularly not because they always agree with the establishment but because they believe a purely political play (like the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”) is instrumental to a fair, unifying solution in the future.
Political faith is a belief in policies not enacted and in statements not made — a trust that you are part of a bigger plan created by an entity that truly has your best interests at hearts despite all the betrayals in the legislature. Sometimes this faith is vindicated, but most of the time it is little more than a justification for sticking by a party whose ideology you don’t share and that makes decisions you don’t personally agree with. At its worst, it is permission to disengage, to leave the defense of your beliefs to a party you have no real stake in.
When Obama and Romney make a show out of their religions, they are trying to demonstrate that they are people of morals and conviction. They are trying to show the electorate that voters should have faith in them just as they have faith in God. And it is faulty logic. To the religious, God is omnipotent and politicians are not. Neither politicians nor the parties they belong to deserve absolute, dogmatic faith. In this partisan light, it has become too difficult to see that the decision-makers can be wrong and that that is to be decried, not ignored. A republic is for electing representatives, not messiahs, and both citizens and congressmen could benefit from a little more political agnosticism.