The Self-Victimization of the Religious Right

In the Washington Post’s “On Faith” forum, columnist Paula Kirby takes politicians to task on their use of person suffering, or that of loved ones, as an appeal for being elected. The piece is a bit old, and partly references the GOP faith forum held in Iowa back in November, but its message is no less relevant:

Imagine that the year is 1932 and presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, instead of addressing himself to the economic paralysis that has gripped the nation, talks endlessly about the polio-induced paralysis of his own legs as some sort of unique qualification for the presidency. He blathers on about his deep faith in God as the reason he should be elected, weeps at the memory not only of his struggle with polio but of his own sins, and generally talks to the Americans as if they were choosing a Confessor/Penitent-in-Chief instead of a president.

That was exactly the spectacle presented last Saturday by Republican presidential candidates at a forum stressing faith and family in Des Moines, Iowa. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rich Santorum and the pizza impresario Herman Cain broke down when they spoke, respectively, about the brain tumors of a friend’s son, the birth of a daughter with a severe genetically determined disability, and being diagnosed with cancer.

Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.

The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics. President Obama’s refusal to engage in this kind of faith-infused psychological exhibitionism is one of the main reasons why the media (and not only conservative media) have tagged him as a cool professorial type who does not know how to make a connection with ordinary people. . .

Suffering does not always ennoble but, on the contrary, can sometimes create a grandiose sense of entitlement. . . .

While I would never advocate a return to the days when photographers would, out of misplaced deference to the office of the presidency, agree not to take pictures of the president in a wheelchair, being in a wheelchair (metaphorically or literally) tells you nothing about whether a man is an effective leader. It reveals a good deal about the character of a candidates, however, when they think that they deserve votes because they’ve had cancer or a brain-damaged child. This use of personal faith and personal suffering in politics is nothing less than an obscenity.

Kirby then contrasts this view of suffering with the GOP’s increasing diffidence towards alleviating, or at least properly acknowledging, the suffering of other Americans (though some would disagree with her prescription of government intervention).

I’d also add that the problem is hardly unique to religious conservatives – just about everyone in a position of power tries to play up their “credentials” as a man (or woman) of the people, since they ostensibly endured the same experiences and suffering. Some of it is clearly opportunistic self-promotion, but a lot of it may be a genuine attempt  to convince oneself that they aren’t as disconnected or selfish as they’re made out to be. 

But from the way the Christian Right portrays it, one would think this country was enduring some atheist-led witch-hunt against the religious. Religion is under assault, the values we hold dear are being eroded, and some sinister cabal of secular-liberal elites is out to destroy Christianity, it’s values, and with it, America. This mix of paranoia, intransigence, and self-victimization has become the bedrock of religious conservative rhetoric and identity.

Never mind that Christians comprise the overwhelming majority of the population, that a good chunk of Americans define themselves as moderate to conservative, and that religious convictions, though greatly secularized, are still strong. Apparently, Christianity is an oppressed minority that must fight for its survival.

Granted, some of this is partly drawn from some understandable concerns about this country’s future prospects and the grave problems we face. But clearly it’s being taken too far. Comparing our president to murderous dictators, and invoking notions of revolution and war (sometimes explicitly) lead us down a very dangerous path. At the very least, we’re polarizing society to the point of political and ideological stagnation.

Leaving aside the political basis for this mentality, it’s clear where the religious sentiment is drawn from – the fact that religion no longer has a monopoly on public opinion and social values. To be sure, Christianity remains influential and well-resourced, especially in the realm of politics (where you have to feign piety just to get elected). By some accounts, the Christian Right is growing in both numbers and power, just as the liberal Mainline Protestants continue their precipitous decline.

But a growing number of Americans, especially the younger generations, are starting to move away from established Christian mores – there is greater acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage, other faith traditions, and non-traditional families. Attitudes towards sex, marriage, and religious doctrines have liberalized. Religion is still influential, but comparatively less so, especially as it’s taken on a more spiritual, non-denominational, and individualized character.

So for the most part, all of this thundering rhetoric is reactionary. Any time a dominant institution finds itself the least bit threatened, especially after a long period of privilege, it starts to become fearful and indignant. Raising so much ire about a loss of sociocultural hegemony is not a sign of confidence and security.

In all fairness, however, this mentality isn’t limited to the Christian right. Both leftists and atheists are prone to this behavior as well, albeit not with the same sense of flair or rhetorical skill (the political right is far better at framing issues or invoking the powerful symbolism of the Bible or American history). Everyone feels threatened, and the mood in this country is of palpable and intractable conflict between hardened factions: left vs. right, religious vs. secular, 1% vs. 99%, and so on. I discussed most of this at length several posts back.

I think that the same problem afflicts part of the atheist movement, the part in which any real or ostensible offense— offensiveness being the mildest form of suffering — is seen not only as a badge of honor, but as a plea for self-affirmation, a kind of affirmation that, I think, detracts from the goals of our movement.  How does it advance our agenda to heap tons of opprobrium on a misguided purveyor of gelato—especially one who immediately apologized—or to blame our personal failures on discrimination against atheists?  We know we’re a reviled minority, so let’s accept that, call it out when it seriously impedes our mission, and get on with the job.