Friday, April 01, 2005

Faith-based politics

The New York Times reports on people mourning the death of Terri Schiavo.
After word spread that Ms. Schiavo had died, the dozens of demonstrators outside the hospice did not erupt in violence or anger. Many simply prayed and sang and cried. And many people, including some prominent religious advocates, were quick to portray Ms. Schiavo's death as a beginning, not an end. They described it as a moment of transformation, for themselves, perhaps, but also for their supporters nationwide.

"I hope it will serve as a wake-up call to the people of God to become active in the cultural life of the nation and in the political process," said Joe Rogers, 61, an engineer from Dayton, Ohio, who arrived on Wednesday. "There's a great number of people who truly say that they feel helpless. They need to take a stand when they can, even if it feels futile. That's why I came."
These people didn't know Terri Schiavo. They had no connection to her. She has been essentially dead for 15 years. Why is the cessation of her bodily functions so important to them? If they are truly concerned about life, there are so many other things they could do than make a scene in Florida. How about Darfur, to take an example of something that has much less domestic political charge? If the people who claim to want to establish a culture of life put as much energy into eliminating the killings in Darfur, perhaps some actual lives would be saved. Why don't they do that?

I ask this question, not as someone who has spent much of my time and energy on Darfur. I ask it truly as a question. I just don't understand what drives them. The cynical answer is that it is all hypocritical politics. Perhaps they are really just dupes of their manipulative leaders and are so foolish as not to understand that they are being used. That is apparently how Bush won the election. That's essentially the thesis of What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank.

From The official Thomas Frank website
Over the last thirty-five years the Republicans have transformed themselves from an aristocratic minority into the nation's dominant political party, a brawling, beer-drinking buddy of the working man. The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it's sometimes hard to believe it's actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the 'silent majority,' or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the 'regular Americans,' or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the 'red states.'

And then think of the political changes that this sappy stuff has helped to sell: Privatization. Deregulation. Monopolies in every industry from banking to radio to meatpacking. The destruction of the welfare state. The beatdown of the labor movement. The transformation of the Midwest into the rust belt. And, shimmering in the heavens above all this, the rise of a new plutocracy, a class of overlords so taken with their own magnificence that they are moved to compare themselves to the Almighty.

What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly-a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy 'elite' while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.
The Terri Schiavo case demonstrates yet again why this strategy has been so successful. Apparently there is a segment of our society that is simply begging to be manipulated, a segment of society that values belief and faith above all else and that will give itself uncritically to anyone who claims to speak for belief and faith. The Republicans have figured that out; they have identified a power vacuum (the political faith-oil salesman); and they have decided to fill that vacuum.

The Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for their dishonesty. But the people who are allowing themselves to be manipulated are ultimately responsible for their own decisions. It is they who as sheep (probably an image of themselves that they like) are allowing themselves and this country to be driven down a path toward destruction. If by putting one's faith in faith, one gives up the right and responsibility to think for oneself, it is likely that someone will take advantage of that. And the Republicans have done just that.

On the other hand, the polls do indicate that a majority of the people do not buy all this faith-based politics stuff—at least not in this case. So perhaps there is hope.

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