I’ll wade into some deep territory here, and possibly kick over a few hornets’ nests. I am that allegedly rare beast: a liberal Democrat who is also a believing Christian.
What do I mean by a “believing Christian” anyway? For me, it means that I believe in God. I believe in the basic tenets of the Christian faith, including the notion that the man historically identified as Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnated Son of God, and that his death on a cross provides my own redemption for any offense I may commit against the Creator. I could go on, of course. I suppose I could spend this entire piece rambling on about what I believe. That really isn’t the point.
The point is that it is belief. It is faith. I have no idea whether the things that I believe to be true about the Universe and God are true. There are tons of apologists who have tried to prove it with philosophy. I am sure that someone along the line has tried to use math or science to prove it. I am satisfied with believing even without proof, knowing that I could be gloriously, spectacularly and completely wrong. I could try to explain why I made a choice to believe, but that really isn’t the point, either.
And when I talk about “people of faith” here, I am not just talking about Christians. Because Jews and Muslims have faith just like I do. I work in an interfaith bookstore owned by practicing pagans. They too, are people of faith. Just because the object of faith differs from my own, it does not change the fact that anyone who believes, no matter what the subject of the belief, is a person of faith.
The fact is, there are all kinds of things that one believes without tangible proof. Anyone who pursues love does so without tangible proof it exists. At least, until they find it. And even then, there is no proof it is really there. Only belief. Anytime we choose to put faith in another human being, most of the time, it is done without any real proof we won’t be disappointed. Democrats are putting a hell of a lot of faith in Obama. We don’t have a whole lot of proof that we won’t be disappointed, that he will prove to be everything we hope he will be. When you stop to think about it, we take a lot of things on faith alone.
Democrats have had such a hard time trying to get Christians, particularly evangelicals, to vote for their candidates in part due to wedge issues that have been cultivated by the GOP, like abortion and gay rights. But there is a deeper, more fundamental reason – a good portion of the liberal movement in this country holds the notion of faith in great disdain.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered it – the smug assertion that anyone who believes must be crazy or stupid or both. That somehow choosing to be a person of faith makes you deluded and untrustworthy, because really you must be mentally weak to require belief in a God in the first place.
This is wrong is so many different ways.
First off – many of the most learned thinkers throughout history have been people of faith. Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Blaise Pascal, Carl Friederich Gauss, and many others were both fathers of modern science and engineering as well as being people of faith. I’m not sure if I have the arrogance to assert that any of these men were somehow mentally deficient because they were people of faith. Because compared to most of them, I’m Verne Troyer to their Yao Ming.
And let me be clear about something – having faith is not for the mentally weak. Certainly it is easy to profess faith, and there are a great many people who profess faith who do not endeavor to live by it. But living your faith like you mean it is a totally different experience. C.S. Lewis had an analogy that he used in his book, “A Grief Observed.” Trust is like a rope. It is one thing to look at the rope and hold it in your hand, give it a tug, examine its construction and pronounce it a solid, well-made rope. It is another thing altogether to tie it around your waist and hang yourself off the side of a cliff.
To live a life of faith is to undertake an enormous responsibility. Because if you are doing it right, no act or thought you have will remain unexamined. If you are truly living what you believe, then everything you do becomes subject to the question: “Does my belief require something of me here?” If you are living as if your belief is real, then it is not something you trot out only at religious services and when you wish to feel pious and holier-than-thou. It is something that never stops being relevant, no matter where you are, who you are with, or what you are doing. It is in fact the absolute antithesis of weakness – it is deep vigilance and strength.
Then there are the people who see faith as something evil, something insidious. Faith is something that leads people to do terrible things to their fellow man, they say. They are not entirely wrong, of course. People have done plenty of evil in the name of serving their faith. But that is not really a statement about faith as much as it is a statement about human frailty. Some of the most nefarious things ever done have been done in the name of serving “reason” and “reality.” One of the most brutal political regimes ever was that of Josef Stalin, an atheist. That humans should use whatever justification they can (be it based in faith or reason) to pursue power, ego, wealth and dominance should come as no surprise.
The wedge issues certainly in the evangelical community are for many the deciding factor, the first and the last question asked as to which candidate they will support. But what Democrats often forget is that evangelicals do not comprise the majority of Christians in the United States. They are certainly not the majority among people of faith. While some statistical analyses list evangelicals as the largest group in the United States, Catholics are a close second, and other mainline Protestant denominations are not insignificant. Taken together, Catholics and mainline Protestants outnumber evangelicals. For these Christians and other people of faith, political affiliation is less guided by the great wedge issues. But that doesn’t mean that these voters cannot be swayed by issues of faith – or more specifically, by the issue of who respects their faith and who doesn’t.
For a long time, Democrats conceded the votes of “people of faith” to the GOP without a struggle. The Democrats weren’t just underrepresented stumping politically from the pulpits of America’s churches, they were very nearly absent. And when the subject of faith is raised in Democratic circles, there is nearly always some atheist with a hard-on for debunking Christianity who interjects their disdain. They almost always paint believers as deluded, crazy, simpletons who are to be pitied, or worse yet, ridiculed. *
The point I am getting at is this – even if they don’t make their choice of who to vote for based on wedge issues, people of faith still have a need to feel that what they believe is, at bottom, respected. And given the choice between a party that is catering to you and a party that is condescending to you, the choice becomes just a little easier in the wrong direction.
Back during the primaries, when Obama made his “guns and God” gaffe at a San Francisco fundraiser, it confirmed for many people of faith their worst fears about Democrats – that we really don’t understand or respect believers. The McCain campaign has not yet trotted out the old soundbyte, but you can bet it’s coming.
Obama went a long way in the right direction Saturday night at the Saddleback Civil Forum just by being his thoughtful, reasoned self. He possessed none of the elitism of which he is frequently accused. Although the pundits are lauding McCain’s performance with his pat answers and his “grandpa-sit-by-the-fire-please-tell-us-about-the-war-again” stories, Obama was the one who got personal. Although he talked about things from his stump speech, unlike McCain, he was not stumping. Obama was the one who talked about why he believed what he believed. Obama was the one who pulled the curtain back and let America see how a person of faith really thinks about the issues of our day.
The pundits were focused on the evangelicals present in the church and in the wider audience, the ones who are all about the wedge issues, the ones who want pat answers about gay marriage, abortion and “activist” judges. And McCain gave them all the GOP gospel they could handle. But Obama knows the truth – that there are other people of faith out there, beyond the evangelicals. There are people of faith who are looking for something more. They are looking for someone thoughtful, who is examining the whole of his life in light of what he believes.
If Obama succeeds in connecting to those people of faith, we may win this election yet.
* It is ironic that should be the case. Because quite frankly, I view atheists as people of faith, every bit as much as me. After all, it is every bit as impossible to prove God doesn’t exist as it is to prove that he does. The deeply-held and cherished choice to believe that God does not exist (despite the absence of concrete proof) is, in fact, an act of faith. The fact that the object of faith is a belief in the non-existence of something is immaterial. If one wishes to really be faith-free, one would have to be an agnostic. I happen to like agnostics. I actually agree with them. I don’t know whether God exists either. The only difference between us is that I’ve made a choice to act in the absence of perfect information. That doesn’t make me superior or less rational. It’s just a choice, one of many equally valid choices that a person can make about how to live their lives. Something that is entirely one’s own business, really.