Convictions are Killing Us

"One Nation, in Jesus' Name, with God's Justice for all."

The second Republican presidential debate confirmed all suspicions that we are confronted by intellectual pygmies vying for the chiefdom of the American tribes.

The promised entry of Rick Perry into the race, and if we’re lucky (and her van stops long enough for her to make further wowsers about American history) Sarah Grizzly-Mom Palin, won’t substantially raise the intellectual ante or the tone of discussion.

"The British are coming! Oh, you are British..."

What all of these aspirants have in common besides being emblematic of how easy it is to succeed  in American politics  is that all claim to have convictions. Lots of  ’em

We’ve all seen small candidates in our time.  We’ve even seen an amazingly stupid underachiever hold on to the office of president for eight interminable years, once presumably because he won the election. But we’ve never seen it this bad.

And the reason we’ve never seen it this bad is because three, at least, of the wannabes keep talking about their convictions–not ideas, but beliefs they hold doggedly and think other Americans, as Americans, should hold them too.

Some of these convictions are religious. Some are economic, and some are social.  But their classification doesn’t matter: there is no high falutin’ epistemology involved in having these core convictions, because,  according to this troop, convictions are what made America great and what keeps America going–one nation under God, in whom we trust.

In the Republican debate, when she wasn’t just venting gas about making Obama a One Term President, an idea overwhelming in its piscatorial crassness, Michele Bachmann said a number of times that she  has more convictions than any of her competitors.  “I have demonstrated leadership and the courage of my convictions to change Washington, stop wasteful spending, lower taxes, put Americans back to work and turn our economy around….”

She also has convictions about lightbulbs, fuel emissions, gays, the “unborn,” as she sepulchrally calls fetuses, the nature of marriage, and a dozen other things that flow from her weird teaology.

Michele Bachmann and some of her two dozen foster convictions

She’s doubly dangerous because like a lot of people with convictions, she can’t admit when she’s wrong: take the “Our founding fathers worked night and day to abolish slavery”- comment.  Not only historically outlandish but perverse in her attempt to defend her wrongness.  The “founding father” she tried to name (9 years old at independence and 19 when the Constitutional convention was convened) was the son of a real founding father whose views on God, religion and the Bible Michele Bachmann would find disturbing, if not incomprehensible.

On Saturday, the cast of this folies bizzare will be joined by an aging fraternity lout who is not only unimpressed by the concept of separation of church and state but frankly can’t bother to make the distinction.

That would be a scandalous posture if most Americans cared a farthing about the Constitution, but polls have repeatedly shown that if the document were up for grabs today it wouldn’t look much like the Enlightenment icon we possess, warty amendments, like the Eighteenth, and all.

No one really wants to contemplate what a President Perry would say if a committee of Pentecostal ministers suggested  amending “We the People” to “We the Christian People of the United States,” or putting a tasteful cameo of Jesus in the center of our currency to mark us out as a holy nation of God-fearers, beloved and protected by the Almighty.

Two of the contenders, Romney and Huntsman, are Mormons, a group so strange in its beliefs that the best that can be said about them is that they aren’t scientologists. The remainder, in  shades of ecclesial gray are simply losers, though “Rick” Santorum is also a religious nutcase and Catholic pro-life extremist who refuses to attend any Masses that aren’t in Latin.

In additon to the six children Santorum holds up as proof of his commitment to the Gospel of Life, his wife Karen in 1996 gave birth to a son (Gabriel Michael) when she was twenty weeks pregnant. The dead fetus (born with a closed posterior urethral valve) was brought home and “introduced” to the other children as their brother.  The couple slept with the fetus overnight before returning it to the hospital the next day.  The story is told in lurid detail by Michael Sokolove in his 2005 New York Times Magazine feature “The Believer.”  In the same piece, Santorum is quoted as saying that in his view George W. Bush was the first “Catholic president of the United States,” and that John F. Kennedy “shed his Catholicism.”  Convictions.

The Republican race for the nomination is not about choosing the most qualified candidate but about trying to determine who’s the least crazy.

Unfortunately, the American people have a huge appetite for crazy–prime time Jersey Shore and Biggest Loser crazy. Their political focus on winners and losers, American idol-style, is so far removed from the debates, the ideas, the burning issues that formed the republic that history is only considered a distraction, and a boring one at that.  I can easily imagine viewers who wondered if, at the end of the debate, the participants would be called over in small groups by Tyra Banks.  In my mind, she’s wearing something silky in red, white and blue, with dangly silver star earrings:  “Jon, you’ve got a lot of talent. I really expected you to shine out there tonight.  But you just didn’t come through. Your sentences were too long and I just felt you were holding back.” —Or maybe that wouldn’t be a worse process than the one we have.

We liked your number--we really did--but you just didn't, you know...

As it is, in the discounted political process we’re stuck with, convictions matter more than facts and looking decisive carries more weight than being right. The media calls it optics.  Winners and losers are determined by how tenaciously wrong opinions and worthless convictions can be defended.  Who cares when John Quincy Adams lived?  It’s my conviction that my contempt for pro-choice Americans is the real American value: end of story. The optics of conviction-holding may be the most serious threat democracy has ever faced.

There are certainly things that disappoint me about Barack Obama. But I sense that he wouldn’t lie to me about history, or claim to know something for certain that he doesn’t know.  Maybe that comes from his being a college lecturer, or just a nice guy, since truth-telling and history were not his predecessor’s strong suit.

But unless history proves me wrong (and not his slanderers) Obama is as close as we’re likely to get in the twenty-first century to a politician still in touch with the spirit of the founders, still interested in the American experiment as an experiment and a work in progress.  As a matter of experience he understands that America isn’t finished.  As a matter of dogma, his opponents believe that America reached its pinnacle of perfection in some golden age, whose mythical history they have substituted for the far messier but real story of America’s past.

That “scholarly,” tentative view of democracy as an idea in need of exploration and improvement is a dangerous one in Rick Perry’s done-deal Exceptional America, where God is king, presidents are his stewards, and only men with strong religious convictions are entitled to serve.

The political free fall in which we find ourselves is frightening enough without the supernatural maps being offered by the Republican horde.  This is too far down the road from John Kennedy’s most famous dictum about religion for any of us to feel complacent: ”I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” Where did we make that wrong turn? And where did these guides come from?

The Stealth Theology of Michele Bachmann

The media likes simple analogies.  That’s why when (rarely) the question of Michele Bachmann’s religious beliefs comes up, they immediately think Kennedy 1960–the Catholic thing.  Soon they will have the voting public believing that Michele Bachmann believes the same thing about religion and political life as JFK did: that they are oil and water, and must be kept strictly apart, as the Constitution decrees.  For her part, Bachmann doesn’t care what you believe as long as you don’t look too closely and permit her to win.

But she doesn’t believe in the wall of separation. Nope, not even a lace curtain.

Michele Bachmann believes that faith is a key element in politicial decision-making:  “I became a Christian when I was 16 years old,” she says. “I gave my heart to Jesus Christ. Since that time, I’ve been a person of prayer. And so when I pray, I pray believing that God will speak to me and give me an answer to that prayer.”

To be clear, we have moved in fifty years from Kennedy’s belief that  religious faith should not be an impediment to holding elective office to Bachmann’s eerily commonplace view that strong, active and directive  religious faith is an indispensable virtue in elected officials.

In addition to being a staunch defender of such evanglical idiocies as creation science and the hoax-theory of global warming, she has also heard voices: “That’s what a calling is — if I pray, a calling means that I feel like I have a sense from God. … It means that I have a sense of assurance about the direction I think that God is speaking into my heart that I should go.”

Bill Prendergast has called Bachmann a “stealth evangelical”– dangerous precisely because she is pretending to be something else, anything else. There is a word for this tactic: it’s called dissimulation, but because it is five syllables it’s above the SAT-level of most media analysts and probably won’t be used much.

Instead Bachmann will continue to deflect the more superficial charges of her “flakiness” when the real issue–the real challenge to her constitutional suitability–is her explicit denial of the purport of the First Amendment.

This is a woman who asks for Americanism tests for members of government, but like so many religious nutters has no idea that the Constitution was designed to protect the civil body politic from religious zealots like her.

She is already perfecting the shill: How can I be a flake when I have “a postdoctorate degree” from William and Mary in federal tax law.  (Translation: She has a degree beyond her basic law degree from Oral Roberts University, where she was a member of the final  graduating class of its failed law school. It got her a job with the IRS.  A cursory check of the William and Mary site shows that the LL.M. degree is no longer offered, except to foreign students.)

Her only other education is from Winona State University.  Except for her gig with the IRS, she has never practiced law.  Whatever the case about her meager accomplishments outside the church, get ready to hear a lot about her “postdoctorate” in the coming months.  It’s her surest protection against the charge that she is a screaming  fundamentalist loon with no education–a virtue she shares with sibling loonies like Sarah Palin, her rival for the Bible Knowledge award.

Bachmann and her husband Marcus, whom she met at WSU in the Christian Intervarsity Fellowship, run a Christian counseling service in Stillwater, Minnesota.  She is a vicious opponent of abortion rights and symbolizes her right to life philosophy by being the foster parent of 23 children.  For a decade, her home has been recognized as a “treatment house.”

Since 1988, when she became infatuated with the Christian exceptionalist theology of Francis Schaeffer, she has prayed outside clinics and provided counseling to girls and women seeking to end their pregnancies.

Prendergast writes that Bachmann’s threat is a life or death battle for American democracy. I agree.  Some of us believe that this battle may already be lost in the faith-sodden atmosphere of this perishing republic.  But insofar as some threats are more worthy of attention and response than others, consider this:

“It’s great to be a ‘stealth evangelical political movement politician’ when it comes to media news coverage. The state’s political media must help you out there by downplaying your ties to politicized religion, because if the voters at large pigeon-hole you as a Dobson puppet, you’d never get elected to anything. …If [Bachmann] ran openly as a candidate of the Christian conservative party (which she is), she’d take her ten thousand votes and get sent home on election night. But if the very same Christian conservative party candidate runs with the label ‘Republican,’ she takes all the Republican votes. It’s the branding, see? That’s why she (and plenty of other evangelical conservatives) run as local ‘stealth’ candidates, claiming to want to represent ‘all’ the voters in district–but actually moving in concert with this national politicized religious movement.”

In general, as everyone knows, the media doesn’t “do” religion well.  The only thing it does worse is science.  And it especially doesn’t like to be openly critical of the religious beliefs of political aspirants unless something really juicy–like the “anti-Americanism” of a Revd. Jeremiah Wright–rears its head.  Remember Obama’s rather pitiful and halting performance in the NBC-sponsored Faith Forum, hosted by evangelical teddy bear Rick Warren? –Now imagine Michele Bachmann in the same setting.  The larger question–why such a “forum” should have any bearing at all on the electoral process in a secular democracy–went virtually unasked.

Meanwhile, the stealth movement has learned a few lessons since the good old days of the Moral Majority and the explicit Christianism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.  Political groups like Focus on the Family, the Council for National Policy and the Family Research Council have their teams and fundraisers at work in every state.

Since the stupidity-induced implosion of Sarah Palin on Bunker Hill (the irony should not escape us), the darling of the stealth-religious conservatives is Michele Bachmann. Yet one of the grievous flaws of the American media, as opposed to enlightened bloggers and observers like Michelle Goldberg,  is that big media frankly doesn’t know how to frame a story like this.  They still labor under the  assumption that equal time means that good and bad ideas, true and false ideas, should get a fair hearing.

That’s why the same media that’s often assumed to be liberal and lame has actually been complicit  in the survival of anti-science absurdities like the belief that global warming is a socialist conspiracy and that the cosmos is between 5700 and 10,000 years old rather than 15-billion years, the number generally accepted by scientists as “the point of infinite density”–the conditions for the Big Bang.

More and more people are recognizing that Bachmann’s struggle is not just political.  She believes she is engaged in spiritual warfare.  She is an angel of light fighting the powers of secular, atheistic liberal darkness.  Her view of every significant social and moral issue is largely framed in language that Francis Schaeffer (the son of the more famous Christian dominionist)  himself has termed “familiarly Evangelical.”  Look deeply into those sort of scary eyes and you will see Jesus.

She is able to signal her Christian followers by using language familiar to the born again, but totally strange to secular listeners and viewers.  Goldberg writes,

“On Monday [the first Presidential debate], Bachmann didn’t talk a lot about her religion. She didn’t have to—she knows how to signal it in ways that go right over secular heads. In criticizing Obama’s Libya policy, for example, she said, “We are the head and not the tail.” The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 28:13: “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail.” As Rachel Tabachnick has reported, it’s often used in theocratic circles to explain why Christians have an obligation to rule.” Voices.

This is a long way, brothers and sisters, from Kennedy’s pre-election assurances to suspicious protestants,

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.” (12 September 1960)

Just look at how far we haven’t come in fifty years.

Defending Sarah

“Poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society… Social and linguistic order are not the sole products of the rational faculty, as language is ‘arbitrarily produced by the imagination’ and reveals ‘the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension’ of a higher beauty and truth. In short, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”(A Defence of Poesy, Shelley)

“English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!'” (Of Refudiation, Sarah Palin)

Frankly I am sick of the blood libel being hurled at Sarah Palin. I don’t know whether it comes in buckets or baggies, but enough is enough.

Following the shootings in Arizona, it should be clear to anybody who cares about the English language, the future of democracy, and the subtle allure of pencil skirts over yummy black tights that what America needs, Sarah Palin is.

I used to admire her mainly because she knew her way around a moose and had failed, like many of us, at teaching our children good abstinence habits. Ever since I saw her grit when she wrestled John McCain for the microphone during his concession speech in 2008, she has been my uncrowned princess of the rough and tumble American Dream, a spacious and verdant field where every man hopes to train his plow, elbow deep in grizzly grease on a Saturday morning, but, by golly, soaped up, perfumed and ready for business at the Mat Su Family Restauarant LLC on Saturday night. I knew I wanted in.

That’s where Sarah and I met–the Mat Su in Wasilla, I mean, and where she asked me to become her official poetry and General Culture Advisor. “I can’t pay you anything,
she said, winking, “but there are perks. Can I call you Joe?” “Of course,” I gasped, almost overcome with surprise. “Can I call you Governor?”

Since then we have spoken directly by phone whenever questions about poetry come up. Not all that frequently really–until the shootings in Tuscon last week.

She told me that the Lame-stream media was at it again, only this time they were “pulling no prisoners,” and saying that she may as well have pulled the trigger. She said she was besides herself, mad as heck and smoking like a seive. Someone “would have to hang from the yardstick for this and they want it to be me,” she said.

I told her to calm down, catch her breath and tell me what she was wearing. After a few minutes she said that she had no choice but to grab this bull by the horns of the dilemma and run with it even if it meant eating humble crow.

She was planning to make a speech, and naturally wanted to hit all the right punches. Bristol was home for the weekend and was arguing in the background with Piper over how many smores to make for a camping trip to “Russia” as they call their back yard. Sarah shushed them saying that as the road unfolded before them and they confronted new horizons, yes even in the future, they would have to learn to get along whether it was skinning an elk or making cookie treats, and now Piper is learning from Bristol that no one will buy the eggs if they can get the cow for free. It’s life I said.

But then to business:

“Joe,” she said a little shakily, “I need to make a statement about this Tuscon thing. People are you know whatever pointing fingers and saying it’s all about things I have said. And I’m afraid this is just the tipping of the iceberg.”

“I’d do anything to help, Sarah:You know that,” I said. “I’m always here for you. Especially in matters of state. Just tell me what you need.”

“Ok, for starters, They say this is all about my rhetoric. What’s rhetoric?”

“That’s easy,” I said, “It’s the language you use for a specific purpose. For example, if you say in a public place, ‘This man is a wife-beater and should be driven out of town on a rail,’ that’s rhetoric.”

“Who?” she said searchingly.

“No, Sarah, that’s just an example of inflammatory rhetoric. I don’t know any wifebeaters in Marblehead. Maybe a few drunken sea captains in the last century. That’s just an example.”

“Then why did you bring it up? I’m talking about these people who got shot in Tuscon. I can’t very well say that they should be driven out of town on a rail. Some of them are dead for Pete’s sake. People will think I’m nuts.”

“Don’t listen to people Sarah,” I said serenely. “Driving someone out of town on a rail is a metaphor.”

“A metawhatchit?” she said.

“It’s a figure of speech–like saying lipstick on a pig. Remember that one?”

“Well, take it from somebody who tried, it’s easier to do that than get it on a caribou.”

In the background, Piper had decided that they would need at least one hundred smores and that they would give all of them silly African names beginning with O.

“No, Sarah, I mean when people are saying rhetoric caused this to happen, they mean language you used in the political campaign. Comparisons. They think you’re intemperate, that you use language without thinking about the consequences. Maybe–and please understand, this isn’t me talking–that you’re reckless. If a guy did get run out of town because I said he should, it’s a problem I caused. And some people might say that by putting Ms Giffords in a crosshairs helped to get her shot, especially when you made that don’t retreat reload comment…..”

“Listen, I don’t like where you’re going with this metaphor stuff. We talk the talk up here In Alaska. We keep our eye on the price and our finger on the trigger. And we don’t shoot that bridge until we come to it, otherwise we’re just, so to speak, throwing the house out with the baby.”

That reminded her that Trig had to be fed. “Todd,” she yelled in a soft way, “When you finish replaying Bristol’s concession speech on Dancing with the Stars can you put some smashed nannners in a pan on the stove.” Todd’s unmistakable voice in the background affirmed he would.

“I still cry when I think of it,” she said. “If her name had been Obeejobee Obama you know she would have come in first. But heck, I’ve raised my kids to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When the going gets tough…”

“The tough get going, ” I said, trying to be helpful.

“You never make any sense,” she said. “I was just about to say you don’t bite the hand that rocks the cradle.”

I smiled. All I wanted was for her to go on spinning her magical web of words. Was I in love with her? Maybe.

Finally I said, “Sarah:you think in metaphors, beautiful images, almost snowflake-like in their intricacy and lightness. And no one can blame you for what you don’t mean literally. Just like my example of the wifebeater.”

“Well, up here in Alaska which is a great and worthy part of this sublime and scrumptuous landscape we call America, we shoot wifebeaters. We don’t want our dirty laundry coming home to roost. Anyway, Joe, I need some language. Some language that will let people know that when they say I caused the shooter to do this they’re barking up the wrong whatever. I need to drill that message home.”

“What’ve you got so far?” I asked.

“Well. What I said is that nobody worth heck would believe the trash these liberal pundunts are talking about me and my family and they had better shut up or they’ll find themselves on the business side of my Glock 19. But the ones on my side, I want them to know that just like this wonderfilled beautiful land we call home I have a heart as big as gold.”

“That is nice and direct,” I said. “It has punch. Especially the last part about wonderfilled. But, Sarah, here’s the problem: some people won’t know you’re speaking in metaphors. They’ll think you mean it.”

There was a long pause; Sarah was asking Todd if he had ever heard the phrase Blood Libel. “Nuh-uh” came a voice in the background.

“One other things. I want to work in the word blood libel. This person who got caught in the crosshairs, she’s a Jew right, so this is just another case of Jews trashing on Christians. I have to make that clear to my people.”

I paused. To correct Sarah is to betray her confidence in me, ruin any chance there might be that she could truly love me. I had to be careful–deft even. “Gabby Giffords is Jewish, that’s right,” I said, “but a blood libel refers to the legend that Jews used the blood of Christians in their preparation for Passover meals. It’s just a legend. But even if it was true, it wouldn’t make any sense–it’s like mixing a metaphor. I think it might hurt, to be honest.”

“Exactly. Mixing metaphors. That’s what we’ll do. Whaddya get from mixing: Cake, that’s what. You’re thinking just what I was thinking. It gets into the Jewish thing and the Christian thing in a good way that let’s people know that you can’t trash Christians just because you get shot by some rogue maverick crazy man. I’ve been taking notes and I think I’ve got it. Thanks for your help, Joe. It’s always nice to talk to you about these language things–helps me spew it off your chest and see light at the end of the rainbow. Anyway, I’ll get Todd to write this up and text you. Right now I don’t have two minutes to rub together.”

There was a click–the sudden climax of hopeless love and a busy woman. The message came about an hour later.

“I implore you to avoid casting aspersions on any individual or group for influencing alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision,…If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundunts should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

Brilliant. No matter how hard I try, she’s always ahead of me.