Flipping through the channels just now, I come upon the latest Republican version of that spectacle we call the presidential “debate”.
If you cut your teeth on constant kaleidoscopic multimedia and had internet in your kindergarten class, as today’s young voters did, you probably won’t feel the queasy dizziness, as I do, as the winding yellow and blue lines cross the candidates’ faces giving us instantaneous audience reaction to each word of their carefully vetted and memorized comments. Perhaps the networks are worried that the American citizenry of today, accustomed as we are to the substanceless sound and fury that passes for news, don’t have the patience to just sit down and listen to the candidates without all the bells and whistles.
Admittedly, the squiggling lines are entertaining in a disconcerting sort of way. They show, for example, that when John McCaine flatly repudiates torture, Republican men’s reaction plummets — the only combat veteran on the stage is not man enough, evidently. But the blue line perks up right quick when the other armchair warriors get chesty and start cranking up the war-on-terror talking points. Interesting also that Governor Huckabee’s response to a question involving same-sex marriage has a much stronger effect on the women’s reactions than the men’s. I wouldn’t have predicted that. On the other hand the audience reaction comes from a sample of 12 men and 12 women. Is this representative — who knows?
Then for comic relief there’s Ron Paul, who occupies the Republican equivalent of Dennis Kucinich’s position as court jester in the Democratic camp. At least he riles things up a bit on those occasions when he gets a token crack at the microphone.
But here is the question that was on the screen when I happened to land on the channel, and which caught me:
Do you believe every word of the Bible?
We’ve already seen in a previous debate some of the silliness that this question leads to. Is this really what the American people (or at least the roughly half of the population that is Republican) want to know from the prospective leader of the free world? Is this really what the citizenry considers a critical test of a candidates’s suitabiliy for the job?
We’ve come a long way since 1776, and it’s not necessarily upward on the ladder of (political) evolution. Do you believe every word of the Bible? Actually the real issue is the implied question: Are you committed to using the Christian Bible (presumably King James Version since we are talking about individual words here) as your central guiding policy document?
It seems appropriate to turn for guidance on this question (as I have before) to some of the visionary men who actually built this country, wrestled with the profound dilemmas posed by putting democracy into practice in the real world — inluding the religious extremism that threatened democcracy in that age as it does in every age — and successfully created a nation that has weathered 200 years of storms and appears so far to be surviving even the current administration’s sustained and systematic assault on democracy:
“Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”
“There is a germ of religion in human nature so strong that whenever an order of men can persuade the people by flattery or terror that they have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, violence, or usurpation.”
“We can never be so certain of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. nature’s God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten Us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary.”
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial . . . What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
“I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments without reflecting on them for those that appeared unsupportable and even absurd. All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them with subscriptions for building their places of worship; and, as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.”
These quotes, along with many more and a penetrating analysis of the faith (or lack thereof) of the founding fathers may be found in Brooke Allen’s excellent book, Moral Minority.
But would this crop of candidates be good Natural Patriots? One noteworthy impression from the debate: not a word from any of the candidates about our energy future or the broader environmental crisis that poses the single greatest challenge facing America and the world. Perhaps not coincidentally, there was a bright flashy commercial advertising . . . coal. Here’s hoping that that’s what each one of these guys finds in his Christmas stocking from the American voters this year.
To see what the presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle plan to do (or not) about environmental issues, and the record of what they’ve done (or not) in the past, check here.