Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Reflections on faith as an election factor

 There is a collision long in the making about to smash into the public consciousness on November 3, 2020, (and in the days and weeks following) that pits some irresistible forces against some other immoveable objects. Which side is which, however, is a moving wind-tunnel of the toxic gases that thunder through the political vortex in Washington on that day.

In the age of identity politics, when identities are as diverse as the number of people in any population, each person seems to be determined to affix him or herself to one or other of a dominant group with the specific cause of that group serving as the magnet for those committed. The complexity of the convergence of the many energies that are infused into the individuals and their respective groups, while seemingly discernible and divisive, also discloses some serious overlaps, subterfuges, unpredictabilities and seemingly unresolvable conflicts.

For example, those for whom the overturning of Roe v Wade, and for many of these also the Affordable Care Act, is a paramount moral decision for the American society, in what they believe is a return to the Godly position as outlined by the Roman Catholic church, have signed up for trump/pence. Also, among American Catholics, who have strongly opted for Biden/Harris, there is less emphasis on the need to overturn Roe v Wade (“established law”) and a need to reinforce and enhance the Affordable Care Act, especially in the middle of a pandemic. African Americans also break into different demographics, with those demanding social justice under a reformed law enforcement system flowing to Biden/Harris, with those who champion the slogan “law and order” seeing civil protest as a threat to the peace and security of neighbourhoods, towns and cities siding with trump/pence. Mixed deeply and deliberately into this “issue” in the public mind is the injection of words like ‘antifah’ and Proud Boys, representing the far left and the white supremacists respectively. Even the degree of importance placed on one or other of these forces by prospective voters, signals their tilting toward or away from trump/pence, and toward or away from Biden/Harris.

Polling having become so prevalent by so many different organizations, universities, corporations and media outlets, cataracts of data flood morning television screens, shouting, for example, dramatic shifts in popularity among seniors toward Biden, or tight races in states like Florida and Texas. Each talking head pays attention to a selected range of polls, while ordinary political amateurs are left pondering the philosophic and ideological underpinning of those polling agencies, including the development of their specific questions, the size of their sample and the statistical reliability and validity of their calculations.

Thundering phrases, like “a change election” or “I am a transitional candidate” or “stop this clown” or “shades of Mussolini on the balcony” or “a fight for the soul of this nation,” while evoking intense emotions on all sides, may or may not have a direct and measurable impact on the result.

For some time, the question of the health of the economy had a rather significant role in voter preferences, now seeming to be replaced by the health of the president, the White House and Pentagon officials, and the spread of the lethal and ubiquitous COVID-19. And of course, the personalities and character of the competing candidates for the Oval Office, as well as their respective ages, factors into the intimate, and often unconscious motives of the voters.

Compassion v narcissism, stability v unpredictability, thoughtful v impetuosity, moderate v extreme, dependable v unreliable….these are just a few of the bandied-about comparative emotional and somewhat thoughtful measurements used by voters to align with or refute their choice of president and vice-president.

Having watched much of the coverage, this scribe’s concerns are drawn to the question of the importance, subtlety and seduction of “religion” on the voters in a nation that champions itself as a ‘christian nation’.

Claiming that God is on “my side” is a traditional and even pervasive cliché among military generals, dictators, revolutionaries, and even democratic candidates for election. Endlessly attempting, in a flowing white-water of polls, events, speeches, tweets, and mis-steps, each political candidate flays away in hope that s/he will not flounder on the rocks, or drown in the eddies. Each candidate also brings his/her own religious experience, teachings, values and perceived identity to that “flaying”.

We all recall Obama’s igniting a storm of political backlash when he mused that many people who are frightened turn to the Bibles and their guns. While his headline was guaranteed to ignite intense, reactive and even defensive emotions among many Americans, it is my personal experience that millions of Americans, sadly and ironically, deny their fears, their insecurities, the anxieties and protest far too much in bravado to convince an “alien” clergy of their sense of wellbeing, confidence and hope. Invariably, those things we are especially committed to ignore, deny and cover up, nevertheless, exert an even more inordinate impact on our lives and on our culture. That is not ‘my rule’ but rather an inescapable truth in which we are all embedded. Truth is that those willing to unpack those previously denied, ignored and covered-up traits, including those willing to talk openly about how such ‘demons’ have reared their heads spontaneously in our private lives, are demonstrating and modelling a courage and a confidence that so far escapes those in denial.

Integral to the development of a mature confidence among adults who have and continue to face the hard truths of pain, loss, failure and desperation is a notion of the nature of “God” in that journey. If, for example, the deity is attributed to be a punitive, wrathful, unloving God but also one who is not usually involved in human affairs and is seen as impersonal and distant, and religion may be seen as a means to other goals (like eternal life), according to the research of Spilka and others, many of those who share this view seek money, prestige and power. (The Psychology of Religion, Eds. Spilka, Hood, Gorsuch, Prentice Hall, 1985, p. 28)

Over against this perspective, is an orientation based on “interpretations (attributions) of self, God and the world as nonthreatening and positive. Personal capability parallels a sense of trust in others and the deity.” (op. cit.)

Perceptions of how “God-fearing” a candidate is, projected onto that candidate, and by comparison, withheld from his/her opponent, is a phrase that emerged from the recent “evangelical” rally on the Washington Mall, headed by vice-president pence, the man adjudged to be a ‘man of God” by interviewed supporters. Some present even went so far as to claim that “trump was sent by God” and therefore he must have qualities approved by and congruent with what God wants. Biden’s comment, in reference to anyone who next questions his faith, (as a presumed comparison to pence or trump), “The next person who questions my faith, I am going to stuff my rosary down his throat!” rings like a deeply personal plea for fairness, even among Roman Catholics. Biden’s faith, according to his own account, has sustained him through several deep and painful tragedies in his life, as it continues to do.

In America, in this time period, when crass brutish, seemingly immoral and highly unethical and destructive attitudes and behaviours are on display, at the highest levels of the government (read the White House), the question of how human beings are to be treated, considered and supported has risen to the top of the agenda totem pole for millions of voters.

“No theme expresses the spirit of religion better than the identification of faith with humanity and community. Whether the term describing this relationship is love, justice, compassion, helping, responsibility, mercy, grace charity, or a host of other similar sentiments and actions, the message is one of positive feeling and support for others. Niebuhr tells us that ‘Love is, in short, a religious attitude.’ It is the essence of interpersonal morality—a free giving of aid, of sympathy, of the self to realize the highest ethical ideals of religion. In a similar vein, Pope John XXIII wrote in his noted encyclical Pacem in Terris, that ‘the social order must be a moral one.’ Judaism also speaks of the ‘right of our neighbor and his claim upon us.’ The Western spiritual tradition continually stresses obligations and duties to others as fundamental moral imperatives. These are ideals. (op. cit. p. 274)

The target, subject, object of the compassion, responsibility, mercy, grace and justice, as perceived by each voter, will, whether consciously or not, play a significant role in the choice each voter makes on November 3 (or before). Similarly, the target, subject, object of “anxiety, contempt, fear and loathing, or even disdain and disrespect will also play a role in the decision. For those who argue for hope over fear, they have to rest their own vote in the possibility and potential that hope will overcome the national fear and angst. On the other hand, for those who believe that the current upheaval, unrest and disarray is a sign that things are so bad only the act of God can rescue the nation, their choice will likely favour the trump/pence ticket.

Projection of ideals as well as fears is only one of the less reported ways by which voters express their attitudes and their beliefs. I have been struck by my own consistent contempt of the attitudes, words, actions and obsessive needs of the current president, likely unaware of what in myself that I cannot tolerate is to be found in him. Similarly, I have found the moderate, temperate and measured attitudes, words, actions and lesser need for attention and acclaim in the Democratic candidate to be reassuring, confirming what I consider to be those traits I like to consider part of my own temperament. Nevertheless, I am less conscious of how much calculating ambition, creative strategy and demonic tactics it truly takes to win the office of the president of the United States.

And, my deepest anxiety is that a pastiche of respectability, responsibility, moderation and gentility will drown in what could become a tidal wave of hate, anger, white supremacy, sexism, racism and a flood of undetected cash from sources too illicit to reach public scrutiny. The Mueller Report, ostensibly generated to rein in the president’s obvious culpability on more than one front, failed both in its execution (seemingly based on a fair and limited assessment of the role of the special prosecutor) and in its public release, under a Barr-cloud of disparagement. The again respectable and responsible pursuit of a “COVID-Relief bill, by the House Democrats, has been blocked by both the president and the Senate Republicans, (and just yesterday scuppered by the president, to be reclaimed as his personal prize today). And the infamy of bribing millions of literally hungry and hopeless Americans with a personally signed cheque of $1200, over trump’s signature is the most blatantly hucksterish, mobish, scurrilous and reprehensible campaign tactic.

However, is it just possible that the Americans who have already been seduced into the trumpcult will convince too many others of their quiet desperation to provide a skin-of-his-teeth victory, or worse, a hotly contested legal process that ultimately results in a Supreme Court ‘win’ which can only be seen from history as a profound and damaging tragedy to the nation?

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