Convictions are Killing Us

"One Nation, in Jesus' Name, with God's Justice for all."

The second Republican presidential debate confirmed all suspicions that we are confronted by intellectual pygmies vying for the chiefdom of the American tribes.

The promised entry of Rick Perry into the race, and if we’re lucky (and her van stops long enough for her to make further wowsers about American history) Sarah Grizzly-Mom Palin, won’t substantially raise the intellectual ante or the tone of discussion.

"The British are coming! Oh, you are British..."

What all of these aspirants have in common besides being emblematic of how easy it is to succeed  in American politics  is that all claim to have convictions. Lots of  ’em

We’ve all seen small candidates in our time.  We’ve even seen an amazingly stupid underachiever hold on to the office of president for eight interminable years, once presumably because he won the election. But we’ve never seen it this bad.

And the reason we’ve never seen it this bad is because three, at least, of the wannabes keep talking about their convictions–not ideas, but beliefs they hold doggedly and think other Americans, as Americans, should hold them too.

Some of these convictions are religious. Some are economic, and some are social.  But their classification doesn’t matter: there is no high falutin’ epistemology involved in having these core convictions, because,  according to this troop, convictions are what made America great and what keeps America going–one nation under God, in whom we trust.

In the Republican debate, when she wasn’t just venting gas about making Obama a One Term President, an idea overwhelming in its piscatorial crassness, Michele Bachmann said a number of times that she  has more convictions than any of her competitors.  “I have demonstrated leadership and the courage of my convictions to change Washington, stop wasteful spending, lower taxes, put Americans back to work and turn our economy around….”

She also has convictions about lightbulbs, fuel emissions, gays, the “unborn,” as she sepulchrally calls fetuses, the nature of marriage, and a dozen other things that flow from her weird teaology.

Michele Bachmann and some of her two dozen foster convictions

She’s doubly dangerous because like a lot of people with convictions, she can’t admit when she’s wrong: take the “Our founding fathers worked night and day to abolish slavery”- comment.  Not only historically outlandish but perverse in her attempt to defend her wrongness.  The “founding father” she tried to name (9 years old at independence and 19 when the Constitutional convention was convened) was the son of a real founding father whose views on God, religion and the Bible Michele Bachmann would find disturbing, if not incomprehensible.

On Saturday, the cast of this folies bizzare will be joined by an aging fraternity lout who is not only unimpressed by the concept of separation of church and state but frankly can’t bother to make the distinction.

That would be a scandalous posture if most Americans cared a farthing about the Constitution, but polls have repeatedly shown that if the document were up for grabs today it wouldn’t look much like the Enlightenment icon we possess, warty amendments, like the Eighteenth, and all.

No one really wants to contemplate what a President Perry would say if a committee of Pentecostal ministers suggested  amending “We the People” to “We the Christian People of the United States,” or putting a tasteful cameo of Jesus in the center of our currency to mark us out as a holy nation of God-fearers, beloved and protected by the Almighty.

Two of the contenders, Romney and Huntsman, are Mormons, a group so strange in its beliefs that the best that can be said about them is that they aren’t scientologists. The remainder, in  shades of ecclesial gray are simply losers, though “Rick” Santorum is also a religious nutcase and Catholic pro-life extremist who refuses to attend any Masses that aren’t in Latin.

In additon to the six children Santorum holds up as proof of his commitment to the Gospel of Life, his wife Karen in 1996 gave birth to a son (Gabriel Michael) when she was twenty weeks pregnant. The dead fetus (born with a closed posterior urethral valve) was brought home and “introduced” to the other children as their brother.  The couple slept with the fetus overnight before returning it to the hospital the next day.  The story is told in lurid detail by Michael Sokolove in his 2005 New York Times Magazine feature “The Believer.”  In the same piece, Santorum is quoted as saying that in his view George W. Bush was the first “Catholic president of the United States,” and that John F. Kennedy “shed his Catholicism.”  Convictions.

The Republican race for the nomination is not about choosing the most qualified candidate but about trying to determine who’s the least crazy.

Unfortunately, the American people have a huge appetite for crazy–prime time Jersey Shore and Biggest Loser crazy. Their political focus on winners and losers, American idol-style, is so far removed from the debates, the ideas, the burning issues that formed the republic that history is only considered a distraction, and a boring one at that.  I can easily imagine viewers who wondered if, at the end of the debate, the participants would be called over in small groups by Tyra Banks.  In my mind, she’s wearing something silky in red, white and blue, with dangly silver star earrings:  “Jon, you’ve got a lot of talent. I really expected you to shine out there tonight.  But you just didn’t come through. Your sentences were too long and I just felt you were holding back.” —Or maybe that wouldn’t be a worse process than the one we have.

We liked your number--we really did--but you just didn't, you know...

As it is, in the discounted political process we’re stuck with, convictions matter more than facts and looking decisive carries more weight than being right. The media calls it optics.  Winners and losers are determined by how tenaciously wrong opinions and worthless convictions can be defended.  Who cares when John Quincy Adams lived?  It’s my conviction that my contempt for pro-choice Americans is the real American value: end of story. The optics of conviction-holding may be the most serious threat democracy has ever faced.

There are certainly things that disappoint me about Barack Obama. But I sense that he wouldn’t lie to me about history, or claim to know something for certain that he doesn’t know.  Maybe that comes from his being a college lecturer, or just a nice guy, since truth-telling and history were not his predecessor’s strong suit.

But unless history proves me wrong (and not his slanderers) Obama is as close as we’re likely to get in the twenty-first century to a politician still in touch with the spirit of the founders, still interested in the American experiment as an experiment and a work in progress.  As a matter of experience he understands that America isn’t finished.  As a matter of dogma, his opponents believe that America reached its pinnacle of perfection in some golden age, whose mythical history they have substituted for the far messier but real story of America’s past.

That “scholarly,” tentative view of democracy as an idea in need of exploration and improvement is a dangerous one in Rick Perry’s done-deal Exceptional America, where God is king, presidents are his stewards, and only men with strong religious convictions are entitled to serve.

The political free fall in which we find ourselves is frightening enough without the supernatural maps being offered by the Republican horde.  This is too far down the road from John Kennedy’s most famous dictum about religion for any of us to feel complacent: ”I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” Where did we make that wrong turn? And where did these guides come from?

22 thoughts on “Convictions are Killing Us

  1. Jesus on the bill isn’t too far fetched for these nutbags; after all, money is indeed “the principle God of this world”.(not to mention for them).

  2. As a matter of experience he understands that America isn’t finished…
    And republicans, especially those running to unseat the President, think America was perfect back in 1776, and that we need to go backwards.

  3. I’m shocked Bachman polls so well. I think the press has low expectations, if doesn’t do anything batty, they think she’s done well but her answers were vapid. And I know it is not polite to talk about the ladies features, and maybe the grass was distorting my perceptions, but she looked a little like the predator. For balance Tim Pawlenty is just to goofy looking to be president, we decided that back with Dukakis.

    I like candidates that actually articulate ideas, which seemed like to domain of Gingrich (also not a handsome man) and Paul. Paul, while consistent and bold, is also wackadodle.

    On the positive side, most of the discussion of social issues was coming from the single digit candidates, and I presume most of them will be packing up the campaign on Monday as only one will be able to claim the ever shrinking moral majority vote.

    It is unfortunate that the Democratic candidate will not have to explain himself to fellow democrats this year, it is always nice to at least feel their are options.

  4. And here’s one to match your theme today: “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”
    H. L. Mencken

  5. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Ironically an American diplomat H.M. Browne, was posted to New Zealand as an ambassador for Reagan. Browne owned a racehorse called ‘Lacka Reason’. Our Prime Minister noted the fact that the name appropriately reflected Reagan’s foreign policy. Things have only got worse.

    These Republicans are surely certifiably insane by normal standards. I can’t distinguish between them. They’re all far gone. The prospect of Republican leadership is unbearable and our hearts break for you and the planet. Please America, Obama has only been there one term. He’s educated, he has hope and ideas, and he’s not a liar. He didn’t fix everything in his first term, and you haven’t even got free health care … yet. But you never will if the Republicans hold the purses. Obama is playing a game with atrocious rules. Isn’t it the current structure of American government that needs to change, not the leader or party? Countries change electoral systems all the time by referrendum… but I’ve read so many people blaming Obama for everything, calling him vile names and promising not to vote at all. Please give him a chance. If the tea drinking lunatics take over the assylum, the flood gates open and the Exodus begins, when we take you into our homes, I hope you can say you voted. Don’t give up, kia kaha…

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    (The Second Coming W.B. Yeats)

  6. Your dismissive comments about Mormons probably play to your audience, but may undermine an otherwise interesting essay for more educated readers. Mormons tend to be highly educated, and work very well in most academic, political, and business arenas. The religion is built with an adaptive element (similar to the Catholic Church, as opposed to “Book” Protestants) that can serve it and society very well. Unfortunately, in the last few (10-15) years, that has also allowed it to do a cultural retrenchment started by Nutcase Cold Warrior Ezra Benson and some others around him. Romney and Huntsman (even more than Romney) represent a much more liberal straing that still survives. Probably the most liberal strain to survive in the current GOP. I think they’d both be decent choices for a good campaign and election, much more than Mama Grizzly was. What, specifically, about Huntsman’s political ideas do you find crazy, ridiculous, or dangerously reactionary?

    • Let me hear Romney and Huntsman say about Mormonism what Kennedy said about Catholicism; then we can talk “adaptation”

      • Unfortunately, the religious right support they desperately need won’t let them say anything like that. They’re left trying to NOT say that, while at the same time trying to promise to the religious right that what they will push is a Bible Belt Jesus that the right can support. And the Jesus taught in the Mormon Church is extremely white-bread, probably more so than in at least the Pentecostal wing of evangelical Christianity. If anything, your dismissive mockery and comparisons to Xenu would likely help more Evangelicals to see that it’s not very strange compared to their beliefs, especially not when you plot $cientology on the axis.

        Both Huntsman and Romney are in the liberal wing of the Church, although Romney started trying to sound wingnutty in 2008. But near as I can tell, they’re both using wingnutty words to try to get those votes, but they’re still both preaching mostly what’s left of the liberal side of the Republican party. Huntsman is doing that much more than Romney; he’s really the only major candidate who sounds like a liberal Republican. It’s a part of the Republican Party I’d like to keep alive, because I think the spectre of Palin really allowed Obama to get away without clarifying any positions at all, except “I’m not Bush!”

        I don’t want the religious games, especially ignorant religious games, to remove the chance to get a more moderate, reasonable candidate for the GOP. I’m fairly terrified that this sort of brinksmanship will end up letting a kook like Bachmann in, then it would just take a bad month in the stock market, bad unemployment, or a foreign adventure to sink the current president, and we’d have an Evangelical Dominionist slouching us off towards Bethlehem.

  7. I have no sympathy for those who whine about the Right, and at the same time cast doubts about the historicity of Christ. Even the Republicans’ distortions of Christ’s doctrine are better than the baloney of the Christ mythers. The Christ mythers are trying to strip us of the very best weapon we have against the Right, namely, Christ’s life and words. Shame.

    • I think they like to be called “Jesus mythicists”. This label is precious to them. There is a difference however between historical arguments for a man called Jesus and a Christ myth which has evolved out of arguably earlier tradition and “doctrine” of the Christian church and your allusion to a “doctrine of Christ”. However I’m not sure what ‘mythers’ you’re referring to. And I have a suspicion that genuine Jesus mythtics represent a very minor group in America and aren’t very noticeable anywhere else… They live on the internet, or inside it.

      • I don’t mind the “Jesus mythicists.”
        It’s those “Apollonius of Tyana” mythicists who really get under my skin.

    • I see no connection between the myth discussion and this post. Most of what passes for the teaching of Jesus is just what his advertisers think he said or would like him to say anyway.

      • There isn’t any connection at all. And we don’t know Jesus’ life and words and the best ‘weapons’ against the Republicans are common sense and voting against them withOUT religion.

      • I see no connection between the myth discussion and this post.

        No? You state that some religious beliefs are ridiculous, and imply that this has a bearing on the political situation. I am merely stating that some of the beliefs that one finds on the other side of the political divide are at least as ridiculous; and some, like mythicism, are downright dangerous.

        Most of what passes for the teaching of Jesus is just what his advertisers think he said or would like him to say anyway.

        This is the kind of casual cheap shot one would expect from anonymous web trolls, rather than from someone who evidently takes great pride in some kind of Oxford connection. It is further proof of the spreading cancer of ignorance of Biblical literature and history. There is effectively nothing to distinguish your position from that of the New Atheists whom you pretend to decry.

      • Barrett–I do apologize: I really didn’t mean what I said as a cheap shot. And you know that I’m opposed to the short cuts used by the mythtics. It has become almost impossible to have a sane conversation about the topic, and I have noticed, like you, a convergence of dogmatism and bigotry on the subject between new atheism and mythticism. I’m interested in the reasons this is happening, because the question of God’s existence and the question of the historical Jesus are widely different questions at a procedural and even 9especially?) epistemological level. I would never say that we cannot know anything about a historical Jesus; I do say that informed skepticism is a valuable mindset through which to develop procedures.

  8. I’m glad I cancelled my cable subscription and went back to a roof antenna, so that I don’t have to be a witness to this three ring circus.

  9. A fair number of comments about “going backwards”. There’s certainly no way we can go backwards; the better question is in what direction we’re moving into the future. Does everyone want a more centalized society or is more personal freedom of greater importance?

    • Scott: do you mean we’re stuck in reverse with nowhere “back’ to go to, or that in general it’s impossible to repeat what we;ve already done?

  10. There’s no going “back” like some, if not all of the Republican contenders (pretenders?) want us to believe. Yes, we want to preserve, or perhaps better stated “conserve” some things; just exactly what to conserve is an excellent question.

    Repeat what we’ve already done? We’ve been doing that and continue to do so. For example: lots of people think socialism is good, many think it’s great. Looking back at the past century, however, is enough to give one pause; about 100,000,000 lives of pause. We keep repeating many of the same things, we just try to tweak them and think they’ll work better. Not that I’m opposed to tweaking, but tweaking in human matters sometimes leads to some rather disastrous results.

    Slow gradual change is usually the most beneficial way to go about things. Yep, this is my conservative side (:

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