Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
The United States is not a theocracy. Priests are not elected to govern. So what does it mean when a politician goes straight to “God” for help with the social problems he or she is tasked with addressing?
Governor Rick Perry (R-Tex.) displayed what was perhaps one of the most outward expressions of such divine appeal two summers ago, when he held a monumental prayer rally on August 6, 2011: The Response. His response further generated a number of other prayer rallies through the end of last year, “to call on Jesus on behalf of America, that He might hear our cry and that we would see a revolution of righteousness in this country.”
It appears the citizens of this country will witness a similar sort of confluence of socio-political policy and that of a particular faith next month: WND’s Joseph Farah’s call for a National Day of Prayer and Repentance on September 11th in an effort to “save America” in the “battle” against various sociocultural and political issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, gun control, foreign policy, and the diminished role of “God” in the public sphere, among others).
Though Joseph Farah is not a public official, the shared leadership and support he has been given by individuals such as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who many recall stating in 2011 that the major east-coast earthquake, and Hurricane Irene’s subsequent wrath along the same coastal area, were both warnings from “God,” calls into question the adequacy with which those supporting individuals approach their public offices. According to Bachmann, this September 11th will be a day of reflection “on the things we, as Americans, have done to cause God such disappointment that he would choose to punish our country twice [2001 and 2012] on the same date.” “Is there anything better that we can do on that day rather than to humble ourselves and pray to an almighty God?” she asks. View the soon-to-retire Minnesota Congresswoman’s official endorsement of the event in April’s Congressional Record here.
When elected political leaders resort to divine intervention, i.e., when they pray to their respective deities for official assistance on their behalf, they appear to be engaging in a unique form of what psychologists call “spiritual bypassing.”
The term itself is described as a particular psycho-emotional defense mechanism whereby an individual embraces “spiritual” beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with pain, suffering, or developmental needs. Spiritual bypassing is the attempt to rise above suffering and ignore its actual presence.
The problem is that the neglect of these issues results in their repression, rather than their resolution. They are never reconciled, and are instead rejected as something that can be dismissed via a proper “spiritual” mode of thought outside the realm of that very suffering and pain.
Unfortunately, circumventing the issues and deferring to a deity seems to be a consistent theme in the public life of many United States politicians. Connecticut residents likely recall the startling remarks made by former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee (R) in December regarding the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the apparent inability of politicians and lawmakers to adequately address gun control and regulation on their own: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage…Maybe we ought to let him [God] in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done and at the back end.”
By Huckabee’s reckoning, not calling on “God” for assistance, or involving him enough in elementary education, resulted in the shooting. When these figures refer to problems that are admittedly beyond their control, emphasizing “the role God plays as the supreme authority in the lives of free people,” they are enlisting a particular understanding of an implied deity – one with which others living in the same country might not agree. As Farah states: “This is a matter between God and His people.”
But what about those who are not His?
There is a big difference between praying to one’s god for guidance and explicitly asking that god to step in and do one’s dirty work. It appears American citizens will witness the latter take place again next month, during an event whose driving impetus is the humbled repentance to the deity Bachmann claims enacted judgment upon this country’s citizens in 2001 and 2012.
The particular blend of religiosity underlying these types of rallies and “calls” is hardly the general, vague notion of “civil religion” that many would argue made itself known throughout the pages of this nation’s founding documents. Indeed, Bachmann’s own words regarding this proposed “day for personal prayer, reflection and fasting, for ourselves and for our nation,” clearly displays this particular detour in its reference to an explicit biblical passage:
At this time of national mourning, as we search for comfort in the aftermath of this loss of innocent life, we would be wise to consider afresh 2 Chronicles 7:14…As we humble ourselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from our wicked ways, we can take assurance from the Holy Scripture that God has promised to hear from heaven, will forgive our sin, and will heal our land.
Another one of Farah’s supporters, David Barton, the evangelical minister who has infamously insisted that the separation of church and state underlying the United States Constitution is a “myth,” and whose The Jefferson Lies (2012) received the designation of “least credible history book in print,” has stated that “sincere and humble prayers” are “what America needs most right now.” “It’s not too late for God to heal our nation,” he adds, echoing Bachmann’s own statements. “But we can’t do it ourselves without His mighty hand.”
However, assuming that what is right for a particular demographic is right for all living in our pluralistic society does little to unify and ameliorate the problems facing a nation that is experiencing “violence and immorality, envy, hatred and avarice.” This type of rhetoric – that our problems can only be overcome by “humbling ourselves and seeking the mercy of [a very specific] God” – simply perpetuates the separatism and exclusivism already dividing this country.
Spiritually bypassing the issues we are facing and turning one’s face towards a transcendent reality does not justify the turning of one’s back on the people looking to those leaders for answers – tangible and practical answers. We are thus left asking ourselves how contemporary issues can be adequately addressed when their cause and concern is displaced onto an external reality.
Psychologists and spiritual leaders do maintain, however, that authentic forms of spirituality confront and address such calamities, reconciling them as particularly meaningful, insightful, instructive, and beneficial. They do not disregard them as mundane and irrelevant hindrances along one’s spiritual path. Unfortunately, this authenticity seems to be absent among many public leaders.
Events such as “The Response” and Farah’s so-called “9-11 Pray” misidentify how solutions to contemporary problems should be addressed. The message, then, risks becoming far too inadequate and naive: “We have too many problems that cannot be easily addressed or managed. Let us indirectly disregard these issues and cast them onto the ‘to-do’ list of the deity. The problems are not our concern anymore. We can leave them alone and let our god handle them.”
A more significant problem with this mentality is that while it may indirectly disregard societal, economic, and ethical concerns, it directly encourages the supporters of the ones professing this understanding to engage in a similar sort of bypassing alongside them, and incidentally recruits even more bypassers in the process. The obvious and alarming problem associated with this, of course, is that it conditions the populace to engage in similar sorts of activities throughout all private and public spheres: the escape from, and dismissal of, anything under the guise of a less-than-good-time, in favor of a more promising ethereal reality.
When individuals encounter onerous sociocultural dilemmas, it is, perhaps, much easier and much more efficient, following politicians such as Perry, Huckabee, and Bachmann, to simply bypass them and pray rather than attempt to execute any sort of resourceful engagement. But, is this how they should officially and formally be approached?
The dangerous thing about these types of political figures is that their incessant reliance upon transcendent entities to do their work for them, or serve as the main component in the rationale for certain calamities (such as the events on 9/11 and the shooting this past December), reveals, perhaps, not only an explicit level of a certain amount of incompetence, but an official, preemptive resignation on their part to uphold the duty of their offices and directly address the various societal matters for which they have been elected.
However, the problem is not that politicians and elected leaders are public about their religious beliefs. They, of course, have that inherent right. The problem rests in the improper and unhealthy balance they risk when attempting to reconcile those private beliefs with their jobs in public office. Thus, next month’s “9-11 Pray” should be a stark reminder to the citizens of this country that they elected particular officials to serve as their governmental representatives – not the deities of their choice.
Seth M. Walker is a Visiting Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. He also teaches part-time in the Religious Studies Department at the University of South Florida, and is one of the founding editors of Nomos Journal - an online journal engaging the intersection between religion and popular culture.More Seth Walker.
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