And God’s Choice For President Is . . . .

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Which candidate does the creator and ruler of the universe want as president?  As has been noted elsewhere, at least five of the Republican presidential hopefuls have each claimed that a universal creator/ruler they all call “God” commanded or suggested [1] that she or he get into the race.  Conversely, no candidate has disavowed divine intervention in that decision.  And certainly no one who entered the race has told us that “God” advised staying out.  In other words, it appears that the candidates are convinced of the political importance of having been chosen, or at the very least tolerated, by “God.”

Now these five claims of divine selection raise some obvious possibilities:  1. All of these candidates are lying;  2. All of these candidates are delusional;  3. All but one of these candidates are lying;  4. All but one of these candidates are delusional;  5. “God” is entertained by a good tussle and doesn’t actually care who wins;  6. “God” wants to see how the various possibilities will  do in competition before finally choosing the one who will take on Obama;  7. Each of these candidates is actually a divinely chosen one but there are five different gods doing the choosing.  And there may be others.

Following David Hume, the above list is roughly in descending order of probability. [2]  The lying-or-delusional call is a tough one because, as Franklin Graham intermittently grasps [3], none of us knows what’s in another’s heart.  If, as Julian Jaynes hypothesized, what we characterize as external supernatural entities may actually be communications between our right and left brain hemispheres, is Rick Santorum lying  if he perceives this intra-brain chatter and reports that a god talks to him?   Would David Berkowitz, in his “Son of Sam” phase, have failed a polygraph exam on his claim that a demon ordered him, through his neighbor’s black Labrador, to select and gun down random strangers?  Is it only coincidence that Berkowitz, perhaps still hearing those voices, became “a born-again Christian” in prison and now provides religious counseling to other prisoners?

Well, these speculations are interesting (at least to me) but the subtext of this is sad and dangerous.  Here we are in the twelfth year of the 21st century and to be a player in the presidential-candidate game you have to claim the approval of a god.  This is a claim that anyone and everyone can make, and that no one can disprove.  It is an utterly empty claim; it has no substance.  And yet it is deemed to be important to the electorate.  The sad danger is what this says about our culture.

We expect politicians to lie to us, but we want them to lie convincingly, to make us believe the lie.  In this post-fact world, it almost doesn’t matter what that lie is as long as it disparages the other side.  Our credulity seems boundless.  We appear to have arrived at a point where we can’t be convinced of anything that “feels wrong” or disabused of any notion, no matter how absurd, that “feels right.”  An enduring example I have referenced before is the belief that President Obama wasn’t born in this country.  A more recent one may be candidate Santorum’s claim that in the Netherlands euthanasia accounts for 10% of all deaths, that half of those are forced because the victims are old or sick, that the elderly won’t go to hospitals out of fear of euthanasia and that they wear bracelets reading “Don’t Euthanize Me”.  All of these are lies, promptly refuted with actual true facts by the Dutch, and too understandably offensive to them to be truly laughable.

We can understand the Catholic Santorum’s motive to tell such lies:  the Catholic Church condemns euthanasia; therefore euthanasia is wrong and all efforts to discredit those who permit it are right.  Factual accuracy is irrelevant; the “facts” must be made to serve the belief.  The feeling engendered by the fiction of these frightened Dutch senior citizens, almost helpless before the murdering power of the state, is the feeling Santorum is aiming at here.  But instead of saying it forthrightly – “I feel that euthanasia is wrong because my religion says it’s wrong”, a potentially true statement – he asserts demonstrable falsehoods that are intended by him to appear to his listeners as truths.  Santorum seems to think of himself as an honest man, but the result of his elevation of feeling over fact, intended or not, is inevitably deception.

Why this matters, indeed whether it matters, is at the center of our cultural divide.  This inherent tension between feeling and fact is the broader, underlying theme of the First Amendment and it is the explanation for performative language, language as purveyor of feeling, not representer of fact.  The First Amendment recognizes that people have feelings, often strong feelings; that they will express those feelings in language; and that the most appropriate way to accommodate those feelings is to allow their expression and to remove government from any role in judging that performative language.  Feelings move people; religious feelings move people in unaccountable and dissimilar directions and thus must be kept separate from any government that seeks to unify dissimilar people.

This seemingly intuitive truth of human nature was understood by the men who crafted the First Amendment.  And it was understood by that other Catholic presidential aspirant of more than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy.  In his indelible speech to the Southern Baptists JFK articulated that understanding:  “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…”  That the sad danger of divine intrusion into our choice for president has grown markedly since I was in high school is demonstrated by Santorum’s reaction to his fellow Catholic and presidential trailblazer JFK.  Like a vampire made ill by exposure to sunlight, Santorum “almost threw up” when exposed to the light of reason in JFK’s speech.

Much of the media response to Santorum’s deeply ignorant rejection of the necessary separation of religion and government has been a just-politics one.  He’s just rallying his base, the pundits say.  Setting aside the bottomless tolerance for cynical lying countenanced by that assessment, do the pundits think that Santorum thinks that he would be able to walk back his public yearnings for a theocracy if he were the Republican candidate?  That would be a flip of Romneyan proportions.  No, the more likely explanation is what “lamestream” media pundits who want to continue their employment cannot say:  Rick really believes the sad and dangerous stuff he says and he thinks a workable majority of Americans believe it too.

Is he right?  Do most voters want politics to be a matter of which religion can garner the most, or most powerful, adherents?  (Or have they noted how well that’s worked out in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, etc.?)  Are we ready to jettison the embedded wisdom of the First Amendment?

It is true that the craftsmen of the First Amendment lived in a conceptual world fundamentally different  from the one many people live in today.  They understood that there is an underlying reality that is essentially impervious to our wishes, hopes, desires, beliefs.  While most of them likely had a largely Biblical view of reality, that was because the Bible was often the best authority available; it conflicted minimally with their understanding of other available explanations.  Geology, biology and even astronomy were inchoate sciences, their great  meaning-of-life explanatory successes mostly in the future, but the process of science, and the rational worldview required by science, were not alien to the First Amendment world.

They are alien to Santorum and much of the 2012 electorate.  A part of me wants Santorum to be the Republican nominee, not because Obama would beat him like the proverbial rented mule, but because the full national jolt from Santorum’s personification of the theocratic urge may be exactly what we need to take that first important step away from the divine in government.  Santorum may be the bitter medicine required to make it counterproductive to claim that a voice in your head told you to run for president.

ARC, 2/25/2012


[1] And how would those two types of communications differ?  Bob Dylan recognized that this is a distinction without a difference in, as I recall, the opening stanza of “Highway 61 Revisited”:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God said, “No.”  Abe said, “What?”
God said, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
[Brief instrumental interlude]
Well, Abe said, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Do it out on Highway 61.”

[2] “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

[3] He knows what Republicans believe, but isn’t sure about Democrats.

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