On “Capturing the God Vote”


…he must appear to all who see and hear him to be completely pious, completely faithful, completely honest, completely humane, and completely religious. And nothing is more important than to appear to have that last quality.

Niccolò Machiavelli
The Prince

And there was Obama– grim faced, nervous, fumbling his words and wearing his American flag pin — letting Romney, confident and aggressive and in control, roll right over him at every turn.

But the God thing clinched it. If Obama wants to win the next debate, he needs to wear God, as much as it offends him to do so, the same way he captured the flag for this one.

Sally Quinn
On Faith: “Romney Captures the God Vote”

Sally Quinn’s brief, at times infelicitously worded observations on the first Romney-Obama debate have received a broadly contemptuous response. In an influential tweet, Zack Beauchamp of Think Progress, formerly of the Daily Dish, called Quinn’s post “the stupidest thing you’ll read on the debate.” Steve M. of No More Mister Nice Blog stood up for atheists and others he saw as “insulted” by Quinn. As for members of Quinn’s presumable target audience, the religiously inclined blogger Kyle Cupp declared himself stumped in his effort to “think of a more superficial assessment of American religiosity.” His post closes with a recitation from the liberal liturgy: “[I]f this is a free country, as we like to believe, then politicians shouldn’t have to be ‘believers’ to win elections.”

What if, whether or not American politicians should have to be believers, they cannot win without appearing to be? If so, then they will indeed have to “wear God.” To say so might seem cynical, but that conclusion would depend on a set of dubious and criticizeable left-liberal presumptions about the proper relationship of faith and politics, presumptions that may simply cede vital political ground to the other side. In that case, the stupidest thing that Obama and his team could do would be to listen to the likes of Zack Beauchamp, Steve M., and Kyle Cupp.

The criticisms of Quinn by Lee M. at A Thinking Reed elevate the discussion above ridicule, anger, and not very subtly self-contradictory assertions of belief in non-belief. He associates Quinn’s views with “a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a ‘Christian nation’ and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.” From there he proceeds to the fundamental political-theological questions, questions that ought to be more important than victory in one or another political fight, even a presidential election:

Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.

In other words, religion-infused hyperpatriotism constitutes the most fundamental violation of the First Commandment, making the “limited group” into a false God. For Lee M., still following H.R. Niebuhr, this blasphemy also violates the basic American egalitarian ethos precisely where, as a universal rather than parochial standard, it can be connected to religious faith without injustice to either:

[W]hat Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.

Lee M. closes his critique with an explicit charge of “idolatry,” but he does so without having considered how these “Americanist Christians” might respond to, or indeed have anticipated, his arguments. In this respect like much less reflective critics, he merely turns away from their position, and by extension from Quinn’s, without actually addressing them.

In short, Americanist Christians, whose assumptions may extend far beyond the religious right, would reject Lee M.’s characterization of their beliefs. Strictly as a matter of logic, their position, which the right takes to be the authentic American position, would be necessarily idolatrous, or “henotheistic,” only under the presumption that Americanism is not or cannot also be an expression or embodiment of Christian universalism. Yet for these believers the two ideas, American and Christian, if properly understood and realized, are mutually reinforcing, complementary, and bi-conditional. For them, and in their view for all of us, Americanism embodies the Christian mission as viewed from a world historical perspective, with an expanding democratic community of free, equally infinitely worthy individuals being the purest implication in social, economic, and political terms of Niebuhr’s radical monotheistic proposition. Ardent American patriotism would in no way require or imply a subordination of the deity to the “limited group,” since it would be a response to divine providence, in support of a universal missionary project.*

This insistence on the actualization via politics of divinely ordained essential or moral equality is also, of course, found clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence – as parsed by Romney in the key debate statements cited by Quinn. Romney was asked to describe his views on “the role of government,” and, first referring directly to the debate backdrop, decorated with language from the American covenantal documents, he gave an answer worth reading in full as an example of American political rhetoric. The key lines for our purposes begin after a reference to “that line [from the Declaration] that says we are endowed by our creator with our rights”:

I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can’t care for themselves are cared by — by one another.

We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same god and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled. We care for them. And we — we look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.

But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a — a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.

Nothing in Romney’s statement should have struck anyone as unusual. Its key terms, including its references to the deity, are staples of American politics, but he masterfully molded them to his and our current purposes, as typified by the obviously planned line on “trickle-down government” and the claim that our difficulties both originate in and effectively are punishment for a betrayal of our founding principles.

Quinn’s critics might respond that it was not the short God-bothering passage in particular, but Romney’s entire debate performance that seemed to defeat the President, but “charisma” is the appearance of divinely conferred talent – put simply, a wearing of God. Quinn’s argument is simply that a successful response will have to comprehend rather than merely deny and avoid the political-theological impulses to which Romney sought to appeal in literal word as well as in self-presentation.

None of these observations ought to imply an endorsement of the politics of the Trinary Covenant** – of an absolute “theodemocratic” commitment to an aggressive and exclusionary Jewish-Christian-American fusion. All the same, anyone competing for electoral victory will have to cope with the material of democracy as found, that is, with the people as they are. In part, Quinn is speaking of a profound desire on the part of the people, and that also means the presidential electorate, to sanctify their political identity – directly, unambiguously, unashamedly.

In general terms, Quinn is much more right than her critics about what the President must do – if he wants to win. On her specific claim, it may not be impossible to win over the electorate without invoking the deity by name, just as it may not be impossible to please a lover without saying “I love you,” or to work magic without a spell, or to meditate without a mantra, but the strain will tend to be evident, will tend to awaken suspicions, and may generally increase the likelihood of failure. Being seen as unwilling or unable to assume the mantle of faith, in faithful service to a faithless left-liberal faith that does not even know it is also a faith, will tend to be disqualifying – that is, unless American elections, debates especially, not merely should be but are grand exercises in ideal public reason after all; unless they are wholly or chiefly determined by the careful comparison of policy prescriptions rationally considered in factually accurate and consistent detail by highly informed and intellectually very highly engaged citizens.

On that basis, we could safely conclude that President Obama destroyed the upstart Mitt Romney in their first debate. By some political alchemy that judgment may someday become supportable. At the moment it is by far the minority position.

[wpspoiler name=”*” ]Indeed, many outsiders view precisely this lack of limitation in Americanist Christian ambitions as the most dangerous thing about them. Setting secondary terminological and cultural differences aside, the true believing members of the neoconservative, social conservative, and constitutional conservative coalition envision the American polity as a blessed or favored community awaiting the universalization of a sacralized ethos, “the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” The “prophetic call to extend,” rather than tempering patriotic enthusiasms, augments them: On a spiritual level, it may place the individual believer and the community before a task endlessly beyond their capacities except by the grace of God, but in concrete political terms it is a call to a missionary project that begins at home, but should and must be carried beyond all geographical and cultural boundaries.[/wpspoiler]

[wpspoiler name=”**” ]More to come on this.[/wpspoiler]


9 comments on “On “Capturing the God Vote”

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  1. True, as much as it’d be preferred from some (including myself) that the nonsensical self-congratulatory mess of “Americanism” (nice term for it) & its ironic, rather transparent parallel of Islamist “Allah is on our side” talk were stricken from political necessity, it’s easier to wish for a top-down repudiation of it (and assume that’d be the end of it) rather than go out and convince enough people to stop requesting it.

    I just hope that convincing process succeeds before we end up destroying humanity itself with our inherently doomed efforts to save it.

  2. I just posted a comment that seems to have disappeared. Weird. I’ll try again…

    In other words, religiously-infused hyperpatriotism constitutes the most fundamental violation of the First Commandment, making the “limited group” into a false God.

    Great sentence. I think all hyperpatriotic behavior is religious in the worst sense of that classification. In Russia, for example, belief in Stalin replaced belief in Jesus. But then it’s really cultism. Dictionary definition of religion: belief in a superhuman power. So when people go from belief in superhuman Jesus to giving over their power to a man, it’s cultish rather than religious. Religion can work. We don’t know what gravity is. It’s a superhuman power. Belief in it is religious. No one goes to war because of ideological differences in their belief in gravity.

    • actually just changed it to “religion-infused,” which I think is grammatically better. Of course, I go on to argue that the Americanist exception is, from the Americanist perspective, an especially exceptional exception. What gives it somewhat more weight than most other exceptionalisms, at least from the perspective of self-consistency, is that its materialism has received a materially favorable verdict – so far. Up until tomorrow’s papers, Judeo-Christian-American Democratic-Capitalism has fared rather better, by its own standards than its main world historical competitors have, either by its standards or by their own.

      • I agree that there has been a creepy “self-consistency” to Americanism. I’ve been rereading a lot of what I still look at as facts in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and it is remarkable how consistent the materialism has been and still is. There has always been this corporatist interest driving every supposedly political liberating or non-liberating American project. What I see as the facts are the letters. If the letters he posits in the text aren’t fabricated, then the consistency tracks back without gaps from our time to Columbus. It’s funny because I know you you know your communist perspective. Nothing I get into can be anywhere near as radical as the stuff you used to believe, right? Or maybe the fact that I wish I were strong enough to live in a cave with no nothing makes me more radical than them. Maybe that’s true.

        • Scott Miller: the consistency tracks back without gaps from our time to Columbus.

          Why not to the origins of civilization? Why not to the origins of life? Why exactly should we imagine that European Humanity, an “invasive species” in the vulnerable North American ecosystem, wouldn’t overwhelm it like kudzu, or like the very microbes the immigrants carried and that are thought to have done the main “work” of genocide against natives who had never developed resistance? A civilization establishes itself and expands by a process of millions of fatal decisions, the vast majority of them, if not all, according to pre-adapted or -evolved stimulus-response reflexes, hardly decisions at all, much less the reasoned application of ideal moral constructs that typically are developed and refined when there’s no other work to do – after the massacres are done. This goes to the frustrating argument we had a couple of weeks ago, and I’m hesitant to start it up again, since you don’t like it when I seem to be making excuses on the basis of nihilistically low expectations. I’ll just suggest when you take someone like Zinn one step too far, you’re no longer deconstructing a false or gravely incomplete narrative, but constructing one of your own, a counter-idolatry always ready to become someone else’s cover story for a set of counter-atrocities.

  3. CK, I love that Machiavelli quote. But I think we forget that a nation is more than the sum of its laws and its people need to believe they’re on the side of the angels. Well, at least the descendents of the Judeo-Christian heritage of his time, and whatever fumes what’s left of Western Civilization is running on in our time.

    What is missing here is the “Wearing of God” Barack Obama has done with the “brother’s keeper” riff he’s used several times, and the “social Gospel” aspect of left-liberalism that’s at least a century old. [By 2012, “social gospel” seems to have lost its capital “G,” just as what was known as Christian charity for millennia seems to have lost its metaphysical dimension shrunk to “social justice.”]

    I think you’re doing a faithful job of arguing a certain Christian perspective of the sort you find at http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/ partigularly Daryl G. Hart, an eminent scholar and a disciple of J. Gresham Machen, a Calvinist so principled even HL Mencken spoke well of him. Hart and his crew think ill of the Religious Right in particular, so you might get a nice Mencken-Machen love affair going there.

    • Tom Van Dyke: What is missing here is the “Wearing of God” Barack Obama has done with the “brother’s keeper” riff he’s used several times, and the “social Gospel” aspect of left-liberalism

      Quinn refers to it. I expect that in a simply more vigorous performance, his version of “the God thing” would emerge spontaneously, along with the detail work that the wonkier left wants, and the energy that Tomasky or the panicky Andrew Sullivan are begging for… unless, of course, Heaven really is in the process of re-directing its light from Barack to Mitt. Works in mysterious ways, I’ve heard.

  4. Tom Van Dyke: I love that Machiavelli quote

    You’re probably aware, then, that in the immediately following lines he strongly reminds the Prince that, however successful he is at fooling the people with his show of piety, he will have to proceed right to the evil work of actually governing.

    Will check out the front porch. Always wanted to have a front porch, or a balcony. Have had to make do with patios mostly.

  5. Yet for these believers the two ideas, American and Christian, if properly understood and realized, are mutually reinforcing, complementary, and bi-conditional. For them, and in their view for all of us, Americanism embodies the Christian mission as viewed from a world historical perspective, with an expanding democratic community of free, equally infinitely worthy individuals being the purest implication in social, economic, and political terms of Niebuhr’s radical monotheistic proposition.

    This idea seems to have a lot in common with (what I understand is) Jeremy Waldron’s thesis in God, Locke, and Equality. I’ve never read it, but you might find it a useful mine.

    In the more specific context of presidential politics: I think it might be valuable to talk about how the ecumenicism of Mormonism relates to American ideals of religious liberty. Mormons view the precepts of their faith as constituting some natural order of the universe, and believe that even non-Mormons can access them. Modern Mormons distinguish between “The Holy Spirit,” who can inspire anyone no matter their religion, and “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” which is conferred upon Mormon baptism. There are even stories in the Book of Mormon about how the pre-Colombian Native American Mormons (Nephites) periodically had to called to repentance by righteous non-Mormons (Lamanites).

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