Many of us who live in the blue states, and most who are in this room at this moment, I suspect arose Wednesday morning after Election Day with a sense of upset, deep disappointment, perhaps anger. I have felt all of these. I have also felt more alienated from my fellow countrymen than ever before. By contrast, though the United States was deeply divided in the 1960s during the Vietnam War (and let’s not forget that it was an era in which national leaders were assassinated, and urban riots fueled fears of chaos) that era, seemed like an episode to me. Despite the folly of that war, the president at the time had also ushered in the Great Society program and had met with Martin Luther King at the White House. The liberalism of the period and the promise of the civil movement imbued progressives with the sense that beyond the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, a time of greater proposerity and social harmony lay ahead. The results of last Tuesday’s presidential election expressed not merely a passing episode on the American political landscape, it seemed to reveal the way America predominantly is, and as a result the despair is that much deeper.
Perhaps the gloomiest aspect of Bush’s victory lies not with the victors, but with the American people. In a democracy the last defense of democracy itself, and freedom, is vested in the people as a whole. Our democracy is predicated on the assumption that if our leadership goes bad it is the right and responsibility of the people to rise up and set it straight. Our founders, Jefferson, Madison and company made it clear over and over again, that the democratic experiment they were creating required an intelligent, educated and informed populace in order to safeguard against tyranny. Consequently, I find it both depressing and unsettling that the American people are so easily manipulated and swayed by the cunning, aggressive and
duplicitous tactics employed especially by the Bush camp. I say “especially” because I need to underscore, as I do, that there are no angels here, and political competition tends to bring out the worst in all parties, so that truth and honest discourse are always the losers.
Take the issue of the role of “values” in the election. This is something in which we as Ethical Culturists should have an especially keen interest, and which I will talk about at greater length in my address next month. I am amazed and despair at the lack of reflective and analytical abilities of large swaths of the American electorate. Exit surveys had indicated that “moral values” was the most important issue for the voting public, ahead of the economy, and the war in Iraq. And of those who proclaimed moral values most important, 80% voted for George Bush and only 20% for John Kerry. And what are the moral values that so preoccupy conservatives voters? It’s unclear but certainly among them are three, — which have been exhaustively pumped into the consciousness of Bush’s supporters, — prohibition on abortion, banning gay marriage and free access to own guns. This in great measure frames the meaning of values and morality for many voters.
Why is it, I would ask, that when Steve wants to put a marriage ring on Bob’s finger, this is a moral offense of horrid proportions, but somehow killing over 100,000 Iraqis, many of them totally innocent men, women and children, and ordering to their deaths over 1,100 young American servicemen and women, in a mistaken, misguided war brought to us by a coterie of a dozen ideologues in the Defense Department, — a mistake which many of those same voters themselves understand as a mistake – is somehow not a moral issue? What does morality mean in the minds of these people? Where is their morality? Where is their ability to reflect on the bill of goods that they are being sold? Never mind, just as long as the messenger who is bringing those goods is a genial fellow, who like you stumbles over his words while exuding confidence, and whom you would love to invite over for your next barbecue. The fact that he is not running for president of your bowling league but for the presidency of the United States doesn’t seem to enter into the calculus very much.
Garry Wills, a man of essentially centrist instincts, who himself is a devout, church going Catholic, I think got it just right in an op-ed piece in the New York Times last Thursday, entitled “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out”. Wills wrote-
This election confirms the brilliance of Karl Rove as a political strategist. He calculated that the religious conservatives, if they could be turned out would be the deciding factor. The success of the plan was registered not only in the presidential results but also in all 11 of the state votes to ban same-sex marriage. Mr. Rove understands what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth that in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Wills goes on to say, “Respect for evidence seems not to pertain anymore, when a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75% of Mr. Bush’s supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.”
Those words “respect for evidence seems not to pertain anymore” is, in my view, the most damning thing one can say when freedom and democracy are at issue. For if people have no respect for evidence, and cannot deliberate between facts and illusion and between the truths and falsehoods which are spewed at them from their political leaders, then there truly is no future for democracy and for freedom. Without the desire or ability to weigh evidence the people become malleable puppets, passively and unreflectively imbibing the dogmas of leadership, and any dissenting word, if there is any, becomes treasonous.
If this anti-intellectualism, which is deep in American life, and seems to be growing deeper, is raised to the level of a virtue and is celebrated by Americans, then we have no better role model than the current occupant of the White House.
Friends, my concerns today are not merely political. They go to the heart of what we want America to look like, what we understand is required of a society in order to be civilized, and what, ultimately, it means to be a human being possessed of dignity.
There has been a great deal of attention given of late to the president’s decision making style, a style which seems to have become more strident and inflexible since 9/11. That George Bush is not a deep thinker is something has long been commented on by his supporters and adversaries alike. And it must be mentioned that not being a deep thinker is not necessarily the same thing as being unintelligent. It’s now generally appreciated that intelligence is a broader phenomenon that previously understood, and that there are many different manifestations of intelligence and kinds of intelligence. Whether George Bush is an intelligent man in some sense or not is not the issue.
What is at issue is Bush’s method of decision making and its implication for his leadership. What is becoming clearer is that evidence – facts — plays a disturbingly minor role in how Bush comes to decisions, and he is, after all, the most powerful man on the face of the earth.
By his own admission, and as we all know, Bush is a man of “faith.” He has also confirmed what many around him have noticed, that when coming to decisions, Bush, as he himself says, relies on his “instincts” and on his “gut.” This approach to decision making also defines leader who is known for “certainty”, “moral clarity”, a commitment to absolute stands in the face of complex issues. These qualities of character and mind, which many of his followers find admirable, comforting, and applaud as decisive and strong leadership, I would argue, should lead us to be vigilant, for they are, in fact, very dangerous.
So here we have a constellation of “faith,” decision by “gut instinct” resulting in “certainty” as hallmarks of the president’s leadership. I want to examine these concepts a little more carefully, by speaking about them generally with regard to how they apply not only to president Bush, but how others relate to and make use of them, also.
Let’s start with the issue of “faith.” “Faith” itself is a broad-reaching and not very clear concept. There are in fact many kinds of “faith.” In broadest terms, there is religious faith understood in traditional ways, and what I would call “rational faith.” I would argue that all people rely on some kind of rational faith in order to get by everyday. What I mean by faith here is the trust we have that something will eventuate even when all the evidence is not at hand to immediately support that trust. So, for example, when I promise to visit you next Friday in your home, I have a certain faith that I will not die before then and will be able to keep my pledge. Each time I step onto a jetliner, I have a certain trust, or we might say, faith, in the engineers, construction crew and pilot who built and fly this machine, whose working and control I understand only in the vaguest and practically useless way. These examples of faith do not signify blind, irrational faith, because they are based on successful empirical experience which I have had in the past and which I project into a somewhat uncertain future in order for me to make that promise or take my seat on the plane. I cannot be certain that I will not die before next Friday, nor that the plane I board will not crash on take off. It is my faith, a “rational faith” which enables me to act at all. If I did not possess this faith, I could not act, I could not get on with life, as I would spend every moment in anxious preoccupation and research into my medical condition or into the arcane physics of jet planes and the environments in which they fly, before I would make any move at all. This, of course, would be impossible if I wanted to live a life. In this sense, faith rounds out, extends and completes evidence and reason, which are limited, but it does not violate evidence and reason. Such a rational faith outruns present evidence, but it is kept responsible to evidence and to reason.
I believe that my commitments and actions as a humanist also involve faith. I have a faith based on some experience, but not on certainty, that if I behave toward other people in a way that respects their dignity, and which strives to bring out what is best in them, I stand the best chance of eliciting that respect and bringing out what is best in them in return. Can I be certain of this? No — it is very possible, that I can strive to treat the other with the greatest respect, kindness and support, indeed it is possible for everyone to do so, and the person on the receiving end of all this
positive regard will turn out to be a nasty s.o.b. To act with respect and so forth, I believe, maximizes the chances that such positive conduct toward others will elicit such positive responses in kind. But of this, I cannot be certain. All I can say is that I seen it happen before, and the importance of the task makes it worthwhile that I undertake it. It also helps me confirm the type of person I want to be.
But there is a difference between this kind of rational faith, which we apply to everyday life and to our human relations, and religious faith as traditionally understood. In theological speculation, the concept of faith is very complex and so I will only attempt to sketch some of its outlines.
For people who are religiously minded in the traditional sense, there if what we might call “teleological faith.” Teleological faith presupposes that there is an agency outside of Nature, a personal agent in fact, a divine custodian, who cares about the world He has created, and in some sense guarantees that all of human striving, all of human suffering, all of human efforts, with its foibles and limitations, will at the end of time, somehow, in some way, work itself out for the best. The man or women of such faith, understands his or her life to be part of God’s unfolding plan and in a certain sense entrusts his life to God’s benevolent care. For the believer, such trust enables the person, so he believes, to become fully human. In stronger forms, the person of such faith may feel that the hand of God has a grip on his life which gives his life direction. Faith, for the believer, can also be sustaining because it reinforces the conviction that one’s life is imbued with purpose and meaning which is bestowed by the Creator, and in that sense is stitched into the very fabric of the cosmos. Moreover, such faith, such cosmic trust, can shore up confidence in the face of adversity because it vouchsafes that adversity, suffering, illness is not meaningless, put serves a purpose and at the end of time, as mentioned, it will become clear that all was for the best. As William James elegantly put, it, “For the person who is truly religious, tragedy is only provisional.”
If such faith is a matter of shoring up moral conviction, of sustaining confidence in oneself and the world in the face of absurdity and evil, then there is very little in it that violates reason, science, or arguably, evidence. I say “arguably evidence” because the major difference between such a person and faith and the secularist, agnostic or atheist is how they perceive the evidence for such a divine custodian. The agnostic does not see it; the theist maintains that the world provides “clues” to the existence of a Creator and Supreme Being who lies outside it and governs it. Perhaps these clues are nothing more than a feeling, a presentiment that the finitude and limitations of human beings presuppose the existence of an infinite, Supreme Being on which we are ultimately dependent. These are interesting and frankly endless and irresolvable debates, but I raise the issue of teleological faith, primarily to contrast it with another kind of religious faith, which, in technical language is referred to as “fideism.”
What is fideism? Fideism is faith in which the person commits himself to belief despite reason and despite evidence. It was best summed up in the declaration of the early church father, Tertullian who said “I believe because it is absurd.” In other words, if reason could get us to where we want to go, if the evidence were always crystal clear, there would be no need for faith.
In religion, fideism has had its sophisticated defenders. It makes the assumption that reason cannot reach far enough to give us knowledge into “Truth” as it really is. Furthermore, fideism proclaims that having faith is not a matter of reason and evidence, but is a matter of the passions and of the heart. It concludes that our passional nature is non-rational, in fact, irrational, and the rational enterprise which attempts to frame our lives within reason is to, in a sense, cut us off from our life energy, it is to damn the flow of life, which only affirmation of non-rational beliefs such as immortality and the love of a God who cares for us can bring. Among noteworthy fideists were the Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard and the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno. While, again, fideism has a history of sophisticated defenders, the major problem with it is that it can be used as a refuge for ignorance. For fideists, faith (including what we might say “blind faith”) trumps reason. In the hands of a crude fideist, because fidesim is skeptical of reason, one can feel free to reject reason and evidence altogether. From what people close to him, and from what I have read, this seems to be George Bush’s understanding and employment of his religious faith. Perhaps even more disturbing it appears to be the faith of many of his followers.
In his biography A Charge to Keep, Bush recounts his decision to “recommit my heart to Jesus Christ.” The story has often been told, and no doubt, is legend among evangelical followers that Bush walked along the beach in Maine with Billy Graham, and, in his own words, “was humbled to learn that God had sent His Son to die for a sinner like me.”
Bush presents himself as person who simply believes what he is told. I think we would suspect that before appropriating a new belief a person would reflect on it and question it. Indeed, I will hazard the arrogant conclusion that people who come to a mature religious faith, go through a period of examination, reflection, questioning and doubt.
But none of this seems to be constitutive of Bush’s religious faith, and that is what is very unsettling, among other things. Faith alone cannot tell us what is good or bad right or wrong. Only reasoned reflection can help us do that. After all, Osama bin Laden, also bases his actions on faith, and we cannot assess the rightness or wrongness of their respective faith without critical reflection and deliberation.
George Bush’s approach to his religious faith seems to parallel his way of making decisions altogether. He is confident and he is certain, but his confidence and certainty do not appear to arise from weighing conflicting positions, looking hard at the evidence, or by virtue of probing examination. As he says, they are based on his “instinct” and on his “gut.”
Bush’s decision-making approach was documented in a much-publicized article by Ron Suskind, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in the New York Times Magazine of October 17th. In that article, Suskind writes, quoting Bruce Bartlett a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan, “I think a light has gone off for people who have spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.”…”He truly believes he is on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.”
Suskind confirms that Bush’s faith has shaped his presidency in profound, non-religious ways. As he says, “The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican party. Once he makes a decision – often swiftly, based on creed or moral position – he expects complete faith in its rightness.” Suskind continues by saying that “Bush intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased since 9/11, and few dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility – a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains- is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House.” Christy Whitman reported, “ In meetings I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that” she says, “I was accused of disloyalty.”
But the real zinger in Suskind’s documentation is revealed in the following:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community, “ which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.. And while you’re your studying that reality – judiciously as you will—we’ll act again, creating the new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
If these are the assumptions on which the Bush administration truly operates, the implications can only be chilling. It feels like megalomania writ large. It feels like the absolute blindness and corruption that comes with the possession of absolute power, a condition which ultimately leads, along with the arrogance of empire to one’s own down fall. If George Bush were a religious person in the mature sense he would also recognize that the misidentification of man’s power with God’s – as manifested in the concept of “we are an empire now and we create reality” is to commit among the most grievous of sins, that of idolatry. But the Christianity of George Bush is not the Christianity of Jesus the peacemaker, the protector of the poor and the outcast, despite all the pious talk of wanting to support “a culture of life.” It is rather the Christianity of Constantine, whose cross is turned into a sword, and whose religion is identified with the dominions of power. One has to hope, and I do hope and believe, that there are those in the administration and outside of it, and this includes us, that can put the breaks the excesses of this administration, and work to ensure that the next time around we have leadership that is guided by greater reason, sanity and moderation.
At its best, an address on Sunday morning, should not present merely challenges, but hope as well. Here I have to veer toward partisanship a bit. Those who despair at the state of American politics need to take the long and the nuanced view. Those maps of red and blue states, which are seared into out political consciousness are misleading. Walking around and intermixed with those wide swaths of red are many blue individuals. We must also remember that had 70,000 more people in just one state voted the other way, today the conservatives would be wringing their hands and asking themselves “where did we go wrong?”
There has been much talk about the conservative camp co-opting the discourse of values, and the Democrats not quite getting it, and thus ceding that ground. I think there is considerable truth in this. It is a challenge that humanists and Ethical Culturists and others of like mind are well fitted to engage. Progressives can and should appropriate the language of values. Why not talk militantly about the value of fairness, and then apply to the unfairness of the tax breaks for the wealthy at the expense of the poor? Why not talk about the unfairness of 45 million Americans who have no health coverage, and the unfairness of the middle class, which works harder and harder while seeing their dreams slip away? I would have no problem invoking biblically derived values of our responsibility to the poor, the homeless, the marginalized in society. Implicit in every progressive program is a universe of values. The task is to unearth those values and make them explicit and creatively communicated. Such an approach, without pandering to religious doctrines we don’t believe, or tearing down the wall of separation of church and state can help heal the breach which so divides America. We need to transform despair into a challenge and a creative political opportunity.
In closing. let me say that all of us color own decisions with our pre-suppositions, our prejudices and our ideological biases. And as we strive to make decisions, at some point we cannot help put a stop to open inquiry, lest it go on forever and we never be able to reach a decision. And at some point, we may also invoke and rely on our “faith” our “gut” and our “instinct” to help us move toward a decision. As limited human beings, and not as rational calculating machines, we cannot help doing this. But at what point you cut off the inquiry is the crucial question.
As humanists we should cherish the open mind. We should cherish opposing points of view as a vehicle to help clarify our own. While at some point we need to end that process, as humanists, we should not close it prematurely. This willingness, to base one’s opinions one facts, on evidence, on reason, on open deliberation, and a willingness to entertain doubt, — as opposed to the person who does not –is to differentiate the mature thinker, from the person whose confidence is sustained by ignorance. It is also to differentiate oneself from the fanatic who fears doubt and refuses all criticism and dialogue.
The values of open inquiry, deliberation, and decisions based on evidence and reason, are not just salutary for us as individuals. They are the wellsprings of a free and open society. They provide the best approach on which we fallible human beings can strive to avoid error, and on which we can make the best policy decisions.
In the final analysis, democracy and freedom are based more on a commitment to openness, and free inquiry than they are based on certainty. For as judge Learned Hand once observed, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure it is right.”
Dr. Joseph Chuman 7 November 2004