Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On faith, reason, and government

Okay, so a lot has been made of religion lately. First came the Edwards campaign and Amandagate ("OMG Amanda Marcotte hates Catholics!!1!!one!"), and then came the Religious Right's inability to find a suitably religiously righty candidate, at about which time Mitt Romney ("OMG Mormon!!!1!!eleven!!") came out with the statement that only a "person of faith" should be president.

First of all, let me just say: Mitt, honey, the evangelicals have been saying that for years now, 'cept when they say "person of faith," they mean "not you." You're kind of like the geeky kid who manages the equipment for the football team; just because you go to their practices doesn't mean you can start saying "us," just because you go to their parties doesn't mean they aren't laughing at you, and just because you're running as a man of deep Christian faith doesn't mean they don't think you're a cultist.

Beyond that, though - I've got a lot of feelings on this subject as a liberal and a feminist and a practicing Roman Catholic ("OMG papist cult!!!111!!!"). One is that nothing that Amanda Marcotte says has ever offended me half as much as the way Jerry Falwell bastardizes the Christian faith on a daily basis. Another is the thought that specifying "person of faith" is a fairly wussy attempt at circumventing the issue; it's a nice way of pretending to be inclusive while overlooking the fact that, say, a practicing Wicca or devoted Hare Krishna would be an unlikely presidential short-lister on the basis of their faith (and so, for that matter, would a Roman Catholic. Or a Mormon).

The other thought I was having was confusion over the idea that being a "person of faith" should be seen as an asset to the role of public servant. 'Cause honestly, we're pretty darned irrational where faith comes into the picture.

Stay with me here.

Pretty much all religious traditions have a strong basis in faith, that is, believing stuff that completely defies any kind of logic. If you're a Catholic, f'rinstance, you believe that some really nice guy who had a lot of good stuff to say about the less fortunate got nailed to a cross (which caused an earthquake), died, woke up three days later, walked out of his tomb (unstinky), hung around for forty days, and was then bodily assumed into the sky to hang out with his dad, who was also him (as well as a friend of theirs, the Holy Spirit) and who planned the entire affair. Moreover, you believe this in spite of all scientific evidence and theory that would declare it all impossible - and you take great pride in this fact.

Now, don't think I'm trying to deride anyone's religion here. The tenets of any belief system are dead serious to practitioners thereof. A believer of Shinto is just as serious about the divinity of his houseplants as I am about the resurrection of Christ. But I will guarantee you one thing: If you follow any kind of organized religion, there is someone out there - probably a lot of someones - who thinks that your belief system is hilarious.

And they're right.

Religious tolerance is important. Freedom to practice religion is crucial. Respect for others' beliefs is a really good thing. But for some reason, we in this country (and the rest of the world, even) feel the need to take it further, to insist that others embrace our faith and to take it as seriously as we do. We want you to praise us for having faith at all.

Sorry, folks, but nothin' doin'. Of course discrimination on the basis of faith and harassment on the basis of faith are wrong and, rightfully, illegal. And the polite, nice thing to do is not to poke fun at a person's religious beliefs, just as the polite, nice thing to do is not to poke fun at someone's oddly-shaped birthmark. But I don't expect a cookie for believing that a dude held up a stick and split an entire sea straight down the middle, and I have no intention of giving anyone else a cookie for their similarly irrational beliefs.

Faith is personal. It's deeply-held and inexplicable. It's the willingness to say, "This story is ridamndiculous and goes against all logic, and I can't tell you why I believe it, but I do, right down to the core of my being." It's a personal decision to set aside reason in the name of religion, and it's not likely to make sense to anyone else. I don't know why I believe that some all-powerful dude in the sky cares what I do with my life, I just do, and if your beliefs are different from mine, I have no reason to declare mine any more valid than yours. Faith is personal - not public, personal.

And that's why I think that, if we're going to declare any belief system to be a recommendation for public office, agnosticism is the only way to go. Who wouldn't rather have an elected official who depends on logic and available evidence to make important public policy decisions? Why would we say, "No, actually, I think it's more important that we elect someone who's able to ignore carbon dating and millions of years of fossil record to think that the earth is 6,000 years old. I think that's better"?

I don't think that a Christian or a Mormon or a Jew or a Hindu - or an atheist - would make a better or worse candidate simply on the basis of their religious beliefs. In fact, I think that's a fairly crappy way of choosing someone to run a country. Maybe, just maybe, we can start judging our elected officials not by what they do on Sundays, but on what they do Monday through Friday. And maybe if we do that, we can pick a government that isn't so consumed with righteous fervor that they can't run the country equitably and fairly for all citizens, regardless of belief system.

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