Sunday School Logic in American Politics

I recall sitting at a bierhaus in Germany in March of 2004 and trying to explain to a group of appalled German graduate students why George W. Bush would be re-elected later that year. At that time, many, many Europeans loathed Bush as a corncob-piped simpleton with a unilateral, shoot-first-aim-later foreign policy. These Germans were deeply troubled that Americans would ever, ever elect—much less re-elect!—that dummkopf.

I found myself neck deep in a moment of cultural translation. I tried to explain the significance of the evangelical bloc in American politics and Karl Rove’s alignment of compassionate conservatism with an aspirational image of that electoral demographic. I talked about the fact that all foreign policy is, for many Americans, merely a prequel for Armageddon. We discussed the sweeping significance of Roe v. Wade and how it disables subsidiary issues for many voters. Without defending Bush’s policies or actions, I tried to explain how they might make sense from a particular cultural perspective.

Fast forward four years. John McCain selects Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. I was as impressed as anybody with her style, confidence, and timing at the Republican National Convention. She made an amazing first impression on America. But then there were the second and third impressions. It became clear with every subsequent interview and speech that this woman lacked basic civics and geography knowledge. The more she spoke, the more she sounded like Miss Teen South Carolina. And here’s where it got interesting (to me, at least): her winking ignorance was interpreted by her supporters as proof of her fitness for office! She wasn’t, it was clear, one of these policy wonks spoutin’ their gobblety-gook about diplomacy and triangulation and stuff like some Fancy Nancy. This was a woman who thought, spoke, and acted like a hockey mom and who was best qualified to represent a nation of Joe-the-Plumbers because she was a female Joe-the-Plumber.

So, out of 300 million Americans, how did George W. Bush and Sarah Palin bubble to the top of the political stein? One reason for their success is that they imbibed and dispensed Sunday School logic.

I’m a proponent of Sunday School and think it has been a useful means of religious education over the last couple of centuries. With that said, let me illustrate what I mean by “Sunday School logic” with a caricature:

When you’re sitting in Sunday School with your flannelgraphs and memory verses and Saltines and popsicle-stick-God’s-eyes, you learn a particular mode of thinking about hard questions. The trump card, as preschoolers learn early, is to just chirp “God” or “Jesus.” You’ll never be wrong, but answering too quickly could lead to uncomfortable follow-up questions.

A second principle of Sunday School logic is that the correct answer is always simple and neat. Jesus may have made a scorching rebuttal to an interrogator, but he remains glossy and benign and symmetrical in the Sunday School bubble. Noah may have been naked sloppy drunk in the biblical account, but in Sunday School logic, the story ends with promise-rainbows and doves and matching giraffe necks.

A third and final principle of Sunday School logic is that points are deducted for demanding proof. Doubting Empirical Thomas wanted to see and touch the resurrected Jesus and, after having his request granted, got a ribbon for participation while the unseeing would receive a three-tiered mahogany and brass trophy.

In secular education, “seeing is believing,” but in religious education, “believing is seeing.” There is a reasonable and, if you will, logical genesis for this dichotomy: when we are discussing matters of faith, facts are immaterial. “Without faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “it is impossible to please God.” Moreover, faith is defined in the same chapter as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” This is an excellent principle for living a life of faith, hope, and love in the midst of a incredulous, cynical, narcissistic world.  The principle doesn’t translate as neatly into other domains of our lives.

You want the pilot to set the coordinates and check the fuel gauges rather than to put blind trust in God to land the plane where, and if, it should land. You want the pharmacist to validate that she gave you the right medicine rather than just to believe that she did. You do not want your boss to trust that you will get paid on Friday; you want your boss to make sure that you get paid on Friday.

These examples are caricatures as well. It is possible, even preferable, for an astronaut and a surgeon and a teacher to do their jobs with a commitment to excellence and an attitude of faith. But in a major strand of American politics over the last several years, the caricature has become the portrait.

It used to be said that anybody could be president someday, but now it is reckoned that everybody should be president today. What’s so tough about being president anyway? The shaking hands or the signing your name or the reading from teleprompters? C’mon!

There is a genuine sentiment among a large number of Americans that understanding the nuances of the political process, the breadth of the US Code, the history of foreign policy, and the systemic interdependencies of economics are liabilities and even disqualifications for the presidency. We don’t want some highfalutin know-it-all; we want a biscuits-and-gravy working man. We want our ill-informed opinions to be represented and validated, not our interests protected and enlarged. We have the answers already (got ‘em on cable), and we just need a handsome puppet in a tailored suit to sign the bills into laws.

We have lost not only our ability to make reasoned public judgments; we have lost an intellectual framework that shows us why reasoned public judgments are necessary. Sunday School logic is essential for wing-and-a-prayer governance. While Sunday School logic has its place (i.e., in Sunday School and in personal devotional practice), it is dangerous as a theory of government. When you tell me that scientists have amassed mountains of proof that anthropogenic climate change represents a serious threat to humanity, I can tell you that I trust the God of the oceans more than your fancy-schmancy data. When you tell me that geopolitical tensions between China and Japan over maritime rights represent a grave threat to American trade with both countries, I can tell you that I think American factories are better anyway. And when you tell me that our children are falling further and further behind other developed nations in science and mathematics, I can tell you that I believe the answer is a goal of 100% proficiency by 2014. Because I believe that even the most severely disabled student can pass that benchmark test. Can you prove he can’t?

The fewer the facts, the bigger the faith. When the baked-in logic of faith and politics becomes indistinguishable, then our culture is nearing the end of reasoned public argument. Whether you believe it or not.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

Comments

  1. To say that “when discussing matters of faith, facts are immaterial,” is illogical. I have faith that my car will start. I cannot prove it 100% until I turn the key. But I have logical facts to support my faith. The facts are very material to my faith. We all make faith-based decisions every day based on the facts we have gathered. To say that those who have religious faith are basing their faith on faith alone without any facts is a biased statement of faith and not fact. Rusty

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rusty. I guess I would add that your car example is one of logic and reason, not faith. Atheists and skeptics start cars everyday sans faith. Do I think that logic/reason and faith can co-exist? Yes. But, in this essay, I was trying to very carefully dissect the faith part from the logic/reason part. Logic/reason would have led Abram to stay in his comfortable situation in Ur, while faith propelled him to an unknown land and an unknown outcome. He had faith in that instance because his actions defied reason–at least from a social and economic perspective.