IF YOU HAVE EVER found yourself in a political argument perhaps you realized, as I did, how tiresome, sticky, and counterproductive they can be. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the religious argument. There is a reason for their similarity. Before going any further, however, a distinction must be made. This article is not about religion and politics, nor is it about religion in politics. As entertaining as either of those discussions might prove to be, this is simply an observation about the religion of politics. What I mean is this: both politics and religion are faith based. Both demand an investment of belief.
Not long after the inauguration of our current president, I found myself in the middle of a political discussion, one that degraded into something crude, angry, and “colorful.” Afterward, I wanted to slap something, anything, for what it made me feel, for what it took from me. The argument had teeth, and many of them sharp. We were both immovable, both convinced of the certainty of our “truth.” But such arguments are not, nor cannot be based on truth, or at least on anything we can know with absolute certainty. It was fueled by something much older and deeper, more primitive.
To the religious, because God is unseen, because he, she, or it is elusive, because the very essence of deity suggests the unknowable, that he/she/it cannot be confined to thought or image, faith is necessary. The same is true for politics. We are free to “believe” a candidate/office-holder or “facts” surrounding them, but we cannot know for certain. Again, it demands a measure of faith. And in a culture where “truth” or “facts” are estranged, obscured, diluted, or held suspect, belief is all we have left. We may argue with heat and conviction on behalf of something or someone, but that argument is driven by faith alone, that is, by an opinion that lives outside certainty.
Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.
―Michel de Montaigne
It is faith that binds us to a particular candidate or office holder. To challenge that faith most often serves to make that attachment stronger, more resilient, the argument and the defense of that argument harder, less civil. That is how “belief” operates. The politically savvy not only understand this religious element of politics, they depend on it, exploiting it with as much finesse and poise as they can muster.
This brings us to one of the more puzzling aspects of faith, both in religion and politics.
For the same reason one will overlook flaws or conspicuous/proven falsehoods in a political figure, the religious will overlook elements of their particular religion that seem bizarre, or circumspect to others, those elements that exist outside logic or science. Whether Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and survived to tell about it is fact or not is irrelevant to the believer whose faith is bound to that narrative and to the metaphor it illuminates. The religious are convinced simply because his or her Bible/Qur’an says so. The same thing that causes the religious to dismiss certain contradictions in their faith, to deny science, or ignore some scandal associated with his or her favorite religious personality, the political devotee will dismiss their candidate/officeholder’s latest bonehead comment, the occasional 180s they pull, the outrageous behavior, or some other indelicacy. Either way it depends on faith alone.
Political and religious arguments can go nowhere. The end is all noise and volume. Faith does not depend on reason, logic, fact, or any of the usual measures by which we judge. Listen closely the next time you find yourself arguing politics—note the tone, how the pitch alters, the velocity and heat that drives the words, the animus—and see if it doesn’t have the effect a religious argument. The extremes in either politics or religion offer frightening possibilities. It is in the extremes where the monsters live, where faith is most deaf and blind. As Christopher Hitchens postulated, to get an otherwise moral person to do an evil act, you need religion. Or politics.
Being aware of the religious nature of politics not only brings clarity, it makes healthy detachment much easier, and healthy detachment is the only real medication. As a nation, we are divided, and down the middle, so it seems, a divide perpetrated and strengthened by faith. Yet, in spite of what any of us believe, or the intensity of that belief, half a nation cannot be all “right” any more than the other half can be all “wrong.” There are truly wonderful things to be discovered both red and blue, deeply American things. But such discovery takes not only clarity, it takes sobriety, courage, and a kind of evolved civil self-awareness, a grownup kind of patriotism. That, and a pioneering spirit (which itself is written in our national DNA). The rewards are plentiful. If there is a lesson in any of this, it may be this: faith, by its very nature, suffers unavoidable irrationality, and the irrational never argues well. To close, to make a little sense of the image above, and to quote a neutral, more human scripture (Shakespeare), “Truth hath a quiet breast.”