We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, April 16, 2012

Revivalism & the Way We Elect Presidents

2008 National Democratic Convention
In a posting replete with partisan rancor, entitled, "With 'hope and change,' Obama misled America," the chair of the National Republican Committee observes that presidential candidate Obama fooled the electorate into thinking that he is a moderate when in fact he is a flaming liberal. In the process, he has failed to keep his promises and has turned into an ugly partisan politician. Talk about the pot complaining about the soot on the kettle! Supporters of the president have another set of talking points in defense of the president, and most of the time it is impossible to tell that Republican and Democratic partisans are even talking about the same man.

That being said, there is apparently a measurable decline in enthusiasm for President Obama, which is hardly surprising given the revivalistic style of electioneering expected of all presidential candidates. The only viable path to election is to create an unrealistic, emotion-charged atmosphere of enthusiasm promising a level of change no president can actually achieve in office. Once elected, reality sets in, and it is a battle-scarred incumbent who must come back to seek reelection. President Obama, in fact, has kept many of his promises including winding down the Iraq War. In other cases, circumstances have frustrated his attempts to keep promises, some of which proved unrealistic to begin with. If we step away from the atmosphere of hateful political rhetoric of our day, we have seen him make mistakes at points, do exactly the right thing at others, and grow into the office. The same could be said for both Bush presidencies and for most others.  The thing is that we can disagree with a president's policies without demonizing the president and engaging in the politics of polarization in the process.

What has happened is that we have appropriated the American revivalistic tradition, grounded in religious zeal and fervor, for the conduct national political campaigns. Where nineteenth-century revivalists appealed to the hearts of their congregations while excoriating the devil, politicians now appeal to the emotions of their followers while demonizing their opponents. Whatever its uses religiously, revivalism is not a healthy model for deciding who should be president, and it is bound to lead to disappointment and a disillusioned electorate.  It is also one of the sources of the poisonous political environment we are struggling with today by which candidates cannot concede the goodness of their opponents or their own limitations.  They instead must play this game in which one side is virtuous and the other evil.  It is not a coincidence that some of those who overtly draw on religion as their motive power as politicians are also among the most able demonizers of their opponents, witness former candidates Santorum and Bachmann and almost candidate Palin.

It's been said before and will be said again: there has to be a better way.