Some people think that faith makes people more discerning, more willing to subject contemporary life to a higher norm. A while back, Ross Douthat picked up on this and Rod Dreher extended the conversation in reference to Charles Taylor’s account of secularity. In essence, Douthat was arguing that a secular outlook was more limiting and narrower than faith or religious experiences because it cut off certain perceptions and simply reinforced its own preferences.
That may be, but the question that Douthat and Dreher failed to address is the problem of civil religion. When the Bible tells Christians to put no hope in princes, why have Christians been some of the most gullible in seeing divine significance in political movements, and why have they been willing to overlook huge enormities in specific politicians in order to believe that said rulers are doing the Lord’s work?
Consider these comments by Gary Scott Smith in a review of a book on presidents and religion:
Presidents, like other politicians, use religion to further their own purposes—to gain the approval of various groups, enhance their popularity, win elections, fortify their claim to be virtuous and honest, and increase support for their policies. They employ religious and moral rhetoric to defend their own policies, programs, and actions and to criticize those of their opponents. Religious and moral appeals connect particular policies with transcendent principles, elevating them above mundane, pragmatic concerns and sometimes helping strengthen citizens’ commitment to them.
O’Connell maintains that presidents in earlier periods of American history probably used religious rhetoric more frequently and successfully. And, as noted, he focuses only on presidents’ use of religious and moral language to achieve their policy aims. My research indicates, however, that most post-World War II presidents regularly and effectively employed religious and moral rhetoric to help justify their policies. Examples abound, including Harry Truman’s approach to the Cold War and decision to recognize Israel, Nixon’s campaign to further world peace, Carter’s quest to advance human rights around the globe, Reagan’s endeavors to pass a school prayer amendment, secure tuition tax credits, and oppose communism, George H. W. Bush’s effort to gain support for Operation Desert Storm, Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty and attempt to reform welfare and resolve international conflicts, George W. Bush’s backing for faith-based initiatives and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and the use of new embryonic stem-cells in research, and Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and homosexual civil rights.
Why don’t Christians find such a utilitarian approach to Christianity objectionable? Why no cries of blasphemy, taking God’s name in vain?
Conversely, why are Christians incapable of thinking about George Washington the way that H.L. Mencken did:
If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign entanglements, and denounces their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whiskey whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors.
Why does faith make Christians (some anyway) dumber?