Religion and the presidency
The most telling statement on presidential politics in the last few years was written in a book on religion (or, more accurately, against religion):
“Of course, religious moderation consists in not being too sure about what happens after death. This is a reasonable attitude, given the paucity of evidence on the subject. But religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others. As a consequence of our silence on these matters, we live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of ‘knowledge’ that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his
trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy – those whose decisions will inevitably affect human life for generations – are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs.” Sam Harris – The End of Faith, p 39, paperback edition.
Any doubt as to his accuracy is blown away by the importance religion has played so far in this election. The charismatic Barack Obama has faced his toughest roadblocks from his religious choices, not his political ones (although we probably have not heard the last about William Ayres).
I’ve made it clear hear that I prefer John McCain as president, mostly because he seems the most centrist of the candidates, and that is my particular raison d’étre. But, honestly, if either Obama or McCain wins, I will not be crying in my electoral soup.
Although I try very hard not to let the political smear attacks affect me, I have to admit that I was a little shaken in my beliefs that it was all nonsense, when I saw the videotape of Father Pfleger mocking Hillary Clinton in Obama’s church.
First, just to get it out of the way – what is the matter with that guy? Was he raised in a black family or neighborhood so that his mannerisms and vocalizations have become an homage to black preachers? He reminded me of young white kids who emulate black culture and call themselves wiggers. He and they are free to do what they like, and he might even have a lot of good things to say when he is not being political, but it just seems so contrived and silly. Not to advocate even more sensitivity in our wacky culture, but if blackface is considered offensive, why isn’t mimicking the voice and mannerisms of black preachers?
But, sitting here in my chair, listening to Father Pfleger mock Clinton, and carry on to the cheers of the congregation, I did start to think – wait a minute, so it is not just Jeremiah Wright being “bombastic”. This seems to be the tenure of the church. They congregation is cheering. Now, I actually have all the respect in the world for blacks feeling that they have gotten the short end of the stick, more so than other minorities in America, and I would understand the pride they would feel if a black man was elected president.
Although I will not cast my vote on race, I admit I would feel good if Obama won to the extent that it would say something about the growth of America racially. Somewhat defensively, I add my recognition that some people would not be able to read that sentence without forgetting the first part of it, but, that’s what happens when you write about politics.
Still, I would not want to have Obama win if I have the feeling that those he would choose to be around him, even if out of patience and sympathy, would have the bitterness and lack of reason demonstrated by Wright and Pfleger. In no way do I believe that Obama, who has denounced (and rejected) those statements, actually endorses either man’s comments. Nor does it necessarily raise questions as to his judgment. But, it does raise questions about his patience and closeness with some people who may be well outside of the mainstream of American thought. Having said of myself on many occasions, that I have an amazing capacity for people who do me no good whatsoever, I know from what I speak. Some of us have difficulty ridding ourselves of pests, and, it is especially problematic with presidents.
And, of course, I realize that this is what partisans on McCain’s side want me to think, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be true.
I understand why Obama had to distance himself politically from his church and also understand why he did it in a very political way (acting as if it were non-political). But, it just shows how presidential politics twists people. Who leaves a church by press conference? Why didn’t he just stop going to that church and start going to another one without comment? Isn’t that what most people, almost everyone, would do?
Obama is in a religious pickle which will be preyed upon by Republican partisans. He cannot trash the so-called “black church” or even people like Wright or Pfleger (who apologized, but clearly was not truthful in saying he meant no offense) with abandon because he cannot risk losing the support of much of the base that won the Democratic nomination for him. To the contrary, he hopes, by greatly increasing their participation in voting in the general election, to build upon it.
On the other hand, he cannot just allow white voters, not including those suffering from “white guilt” or young men and women instilled with the ideology of change for change sake, to loathe him either for not rejecting these men in some respects. Politically, he has handled it well, perhaps better than anyone else can. As a matter of character, though, he has failed, and it must gall him. He has had to choose politics over his friends, and that can never be an act without consequences.
I do not mean to suggest that Obama is alone with his religious problems. Our national obsession with the religion of our leaders has caused a similar problem with John McCain, which however, he wisely handled before the campaigns really heated up.
Like both Obama and Clinton, McCain has come out against gay marriage while supporting civil unions. Civil unions are meant to be legal equivalents to marriage. The objection to them seems to be religious and cultural ones. My personal belief, without any fact to support me other than my own impression of the candidates, is that they are all lying to us, and possibly, just possibly, to themselves about their true position. I just don’t believe that any of them really cares if two men or two women call their relationship a marriage. It goes against the general tenor of their beliefs. However, they all have probably heard from advisors that backing the very unpopular gay marriage would be a big mistake polically. McCain has the worst problem as his many in his own party doubt him on social values.
McCain was a life long Episcopalian. However, that church has begun to support the idea of gay marriage. Quietly, at some unknown point, McCain switched his church to that of the anti-gay marriage, Baptist church. Smoothly, quietly and under the radar. Now, of course, I cannot say for a certainty that there were not other factors. But one need not be more than the tiniest bit cynical to believe that his switch before a run for president to a church popular in the south that is known to be more anti-gay marriage (like the majority of Americans) was politically motivated, no matter what he tells himself or us.
A campaign based even in part on religion will bring out the worst in Americans. Because Obama is bi-racial (which I have come to belief is a political, not scientific term) race will also play a big roll in the campaign. I spent most of my life on relatively liberal Long Island. Yet, I know people there who have already openly determined not to vote for Obama just because he is black, or, heavens to Betsy, because it might make black people think “who they are” (sorry, but that is the expression I’ve heard – it seems to mean “think they are something special”).
I don’t want to say that I’ve heard many people say things like that as it has only been a few. But since I don’t talk to all that many people about politics, you can probably extrapolate it out to our voting population. It will add up to a lot of people.
I also know people who admit they will not vote for him because he has an Arabic name. Now, I listened to Jeremiah Wright speak and he said a lot of wacky things, but one thing he said that made sense I (and that was about it) was – “Arabic is a language, not a religion”. There are, as we know, some people who have no trouble juggling the ideas both that Obama is a Muslim (gasp) or a terrorist sympathizer, and, at the same time, a racist and intolerant Christian. We can safely assume that those people were not going to vote for Obama anyway unless he was running against Osama bin Laden.
Racism and religious mumbo jumbo on both sides of our political spectrum will not only rear its head, but like a hydra monster, grow two back for every one cut off. From watching the primaries, we know that many Obama’s supporters will challenge any criticism of him as racist, will use his ethnicity for their purposes, but cry “code words” or “hate speech” if McCain supporters mention it, and will insist that racism was the main reason if they lose (it might be one reason). We also know that McCain’s supporters will play up Obama’s Arabic name and his relationship with Wright and Pfleger, prey upon white people’s fears of a black president and suggest, or actually say, that he will have too much sympathy for America’s enemies, if not be an outright Manchurian candidate.
They both know better, say they want something different. Sadly, they have already started unfairly attacking each other and it will just get worse. Whoever wins (and I still believe it will be McCain) will end up tarnished by a large percentage of the population when he is sworn in. But, isn’t that the way if usually goes?
THE VP DECISION
There is rarely such hoopla about nothing than who will be the vice presidential nominees. If the popularity or good reputation of presidential candidates were important, then Mike Dukakis, who picked Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, would have beaten George H. W. Bush, who chose Dan Quayle, a young running mate who was quickly turned into an iconic laughing stock by the media.
The media loves the guessing games. It takes months of air time where every barely employed pundit on the Beltway takes a few guesses. Some of their premises amuse. Often they try and pick someone who they think will help them win some small state even though they have learned time and time again that it doesn’t work. Sometimes they try and pick someone who brings something to the ticket that the candidate doesn’t have, like foreign policy experience or economic experience. Not only do voters generally not care, but everyone knows the president has many foreign policy and economic advisors and doesn’t need a vice president expert in either field. All that is important is that the VP candidate not be offensive to anyone who doesn’t already hate everyone not from their party, and be loyal. So, who cares? Only the media.
Resurrecting a past prediction, Mike Huckabee might be a good choice for McCain given his better conservative credentials. I use to think Duncan Hunter would be too, but his campaigning for president showed him too dour. There is the problem of evangelicals staying home on election day. However, for the sake of the independents both sides are fighting for, the Republicans don’t need two old white guys in the election of “change”. Still, McCain’s best choice would be Michael Steele of Maryland, the chairman of the RNC and a past candidate for Senator (he lost, but beat expectations). This intelligent and genial man also happens to be black, which would be a terrific antidote to those who want a minority to have a shot at a major post. Please don’t tell me that any candidate is above that.
Democrats have a tougher problem. Initially, I thought that Bill Richardson, accomplished and personable, would make a good VP selection. He thought so too, no doubt. However, he has now alienated the Clinton wing of the party and would present a ticket with two minorities. Probably not a good idea.
Who else? Sam Nunn’s name is being batted around. Has anyone asked him? A former senator from Georgia with loads of foreign affairs experience and respect from both sides of the aisle, he might be considered just too conservative by many Democrats (plus, he is almost as old as McCain). For me, his non-partisan ideology makes him desirable, but many people don’t look at it like that.
For similar reasons, Jim Webb of Virginia would probably make an excellent choice. Military man, former Reagan appointee, Southerner and reputation for toughness. He might do the trick.
Get ready for fights at gas stations, gas lines at places selling discount (I’ve already waited ten minutes a month ago at a large supermarket chain gas station) and price gouging, always discovered too late, but inevitable.
What’s the answer? Everything. More drilling (hopefully with environmental care, but that is the risk we take for having a petroleum based society; we can always stop; no one wants to), conservation (isn’t that what you do personally?); a stronger dollar – the weakness in the dollar helps our exports but hurts with imports; investment in alternative energy - even enemies of nuclear energy now concede it may be the answer for the foreseeable future unless you are willing to pay $6 a gallon; reasonable supervision of energy companies forming cartels, or cornering the market, without insane overregulation of investors trying to make money by being smarter than other people.
Many chickens are coming home to roost, but not the chickens Jeremiah Wright was talking about. It is the belief in American “exceptionalism” in areas where we are just not exceptional, a feeling of entitlement on the part of many citizens to a level of luxury that is not reasonable or sustainable over the long turn, and refusal to sacrifice, address our culture of leisure, and lack of serious educational ambition by American parents, that will undo us. Gas prices are a symptom. In order to pull itself out of this funk, America either needs a true cultural change and probably much upheaval.
Well, I almost give up. I used to watch CNN years ago, but it just got so boring. Then I watched Fox until I just couldn’t take the partisanship anymore. Switching to MSNBC, I was delighted that they actually seemed to balance the ideology. However, since the rise of uber-liberals, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, it is getting more like talk radio all the time (her real job). Add Chris Matthews, another interesting guy, but who is so anti-Clinton, he can’t see his own bias. Moreover, his beating up of his guests with glee isn’t interesting or fun. It’s painful to watch. And then he replays it over and over.
All of them are talented (Olbermann and Maddow, for instance, can riff on Bush pretty much forever) but just so partisan that I have the same lack of patience for them that I do with Rush Limbaugh. Fun for a little while and then . . . oh, come on.
This mixture of ideologies has created a lot of tension on screen. Chris Matthews had a meltdown with Joe Scarborough’s co-host, Mika Brzezinski, one morning (she annoys me sometimes too, but she was right -- it did seem he was endorsing Obama). Keith Olbermann supposedly refuses to do the lead-in to Dan Abrams’ show and Scarborough clearly despises Rachel Maddow, once doing a psycho-bolt off another show during a break after feuding with her. That sounds like it might be fun, but I find it embarrassing and awkward as they don't let you know how the conflict was resolved, if at all. I've even emailed MSNBC about it. No answer, obviously.
Moreover, the obvious desire to show respect for minorities has led to a bizarre situation where some hosts treat every idea by a black person, even patently ridiculous ones, seriously. The idea that minorities can't say something idiotic is its own type of racism.
However, MSNBC still my favorite station. Ironically, the conservative ideologues on the station are so pleasant, and have so modified their rancor at most liberal ideas that they are interesting and charming. And there are still moderates on the station who make it bearable.
Still, there are good reasons to watch – Morning Joe Scarborough, who has morphed into a fun loving talk show host that createst the best three great hours on television every morning (although he is absent too often); Pat Buchanan - I know some Jews and liberals will never forgive him, but he is like your grandpa now, and still the sharpest debater and most knowledgeable guy on almost every show he is on; columnist Eugene Robinson is a frequent guest and usually a steady, reasonable voice; Chuck Todd -- the rising star; Tucker Carlson, now a guest (I still can’t believe they took a show away from the best prime time host on cable news, but he was too nice and reasonable); and the charmingly snarky Willie Geist, formerly the comic relief on Tucker and now Morning Joe, where they are expanding his role. I leave out some of the others (I imagine I've been disrespectul to Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, Mike Barnicle and others who neither inspire me to watch, nor upset me when I do -- sorry).
Post publication note - Editing this post this next morning, I must add one note. Gen. Wesley Clark's attack on John McCain as being untested for the military aspects of the presidency is just so ridiculous on so many levels, you just have to shake your head and wonder. Two, questions that he was, of course, not asked on the friendly shows he was on -- 1) Who is more prepared to be president from a military/foreign affairs point of view - John McCain or Barack Obama. 2) Which president have we had who had more military and/or foreign affairs experience since Eisenhower. Answer to 1 - Please. You can argue that Obama should still be president despite his lack of experience, which pails compared to McCain, but . . . . 2. Maybe George Bush I, and arguably Nixon, but that's it.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .