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Leah Anthony Libresco: Have a Very Merry [redacted]

December 25th, 2009, 09:12 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments
According to Eamon Javers at Politico, Barack Obama has explicitly referenced Jesus Christ more frequently as president than George W. Bush ever did. Over at the Yale Political Union blog, my classmate Matt Shaffer wants to know why this news hasn’t driven atheists round the twist. Given that it’s Christmas Eve, and my secular family has already taken care of our main holiday traditions (watching The Muppet Christmas Carol and reading David Sedaris’s “The Santaland Diaries”), it’s as good a time as any to have a discussion about how political leaders talk about religion.

The problem isn’t when politicians simply reference a personal faith. As an atheist, I neither expect nor require religious friends or leaders to share my unbelief, nor do I bar them from making reference to something which is an important part of their lives. The comments that Obama has made which were cited in the Politico article don’t fall into either of the two categories of religious references that really frustrate me:

1. Politicians who deny atheists legitimacy as moral actors (cf. Mitt Romney in his ‘forgive me for being a Morman’ speech). He said,

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone” [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16969460].

2. Politicians who use faith, rather than empirical facts, as a foundation for policy (cf Dubya many many times). Just one example:

I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa].

Both of these are hugely inappropriate, since they explicitly cut people out of the national conversation about politics. In the first case, unbelievers are dismissed as incapable of being a part of the political process, due to supposed ethical deficits. In the second, crucial justifications for policy choices are based on evidence that is not capable of being questioned, proved, or sensed by a large slice of the voting public.

If Obama has steered clear of these egregious transgressions, he may still not be innocent of contributing to the more subtly suppressive effects of the pervasive use of religious language in the public sphere. Religious metaphors and stories are useful for politicians because they tap into narratives many people already feel emotionally connected to and cause voters to respond favorably. Indeed, in Drew Westen’s handbook for aspiring demagogues, The Political Brain, he repeatedly emphasizes that religious references pay off for politicians.
The trouble is, these highly efficient strategies systematically disadvantage atheists. When Westen gave a lecture at Yale University a year ago, I asked him what he thought atheist politicians should do, given that so much of his advice presupposed an ability to tap into the religious feelings of voters. He said, essentially, that atheist candidates were out of luck and that this was a factor in his own decision not to seek office.
The more frequently religious language is used by politicians, the more embedded in our discourse becomes the idea that atheists are missing something essential for leadership and ethical living. Even Obama’s restrained references help to set a standard that atheists cannot hope to meet.
This is not to say that Obama should stop mentioning Jesus for the sake of atheists like me. Religious references are not the only political tool that is used to distort discourse and obsure facts. Watch any campaign ad, and you’ll see the unfettered use of anecdotal evidence, meaningless snapshots of Americana, and emotionally evocative music. Just as the use of religious rhetoric weakens the position of atheists, these contentless arguments weaken the position of reasoned discourse in the public sphere.
The power of these appeals develops from systemic flaws in our reasoning and the way we approach political discussion. If Democrats were to unilaterally disengage from this emotional arms race, the underlying problem would persist while Democrats lost election after election. If the system is broken, we can’t sit out the game and complain. It’s worth playing ball when the results of participation are taking back control of the Presidency after eight years of torture and human rights abuses, creating a stimulus package to get us through the Great Recession, and passing the most significant health care reform since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.
Given the way the American people feel about the irreligious, Obama never could have achieved all of these triumphs without frequent and vocal professions of faith, and I’m satisfied with the trade. It just bears repeating, especially at Christmas, that I prioritize the protections of human rights and human dignity Obama is winning over my discomfort with the effects of the religious language he uses because of the moral values I hold. The moral values that this style of rhetoric denies I am capable of understanding.

Happy holidays.

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