Buddhism and horse-race politics

Campaign journalism is a favorite of reporters and readers alike. I am not a fan, finding the horse-race coverage to be frustrating. But with just one campaign of national interest right now, it’s bearable.

The Associated Press reports:

It’s now up to voters render a verdict on former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s quest for political redemption, as one of the more unusual political campaigns in a state known for rough and tumble politics draws to a close.

Sanford, once mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender, saw his political career disintegrate four years ago when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit he had been in Argentina with his mistress – a woman to whom he is now engaged.

Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife Jenny divorced him.

Now Sanford is trying to stage a political comeback by winning the 1st District congressional seat he held for three terms in the 1990s when the conservative coastal district had a somewhat different configuration.

The race has had quite a few ghosts in it, what with Sanford’s public moral failings. He faced a tough primary and his entire campaign was walloped with the recent news that he’d trespassed on his ex-wife’s property, in violation of their custody arrangements.

And yet, somehow, he’s actually still a contender. Today’s election day, so we’ll know more soon.

So, what does this have to do with GetReligion? Well, tons of campaign reporters are down in South Carolina covering the race and I rather enjoyed Yahoo News’ update from the road (literally!):

Between stops around town, Sanford ditched his campaign driver and started hitching rides with reporters. He asked to ride in Yahoo News’ rental car and we zoomed off toward the next event. On the way, I asked him about his unorthodox campaign tactics. After all, Sanford was meeting only a couple people at each stop. The entire exercise seemed grossly inefficient.

“My view is, bigger the crowd, the fewer the votes,” Sanford said. “If you can just keep moving as an individual and you’re present–I don’t want to sound Buddhist on you–but you’re in the moment. You’re present with them, you actually can have a real conversation. You can talk about issues that they like, what they don’t like, in a way that you can’t if you have a crowd.”

I asked him about Buddhism. (Let’s face it, it’s not every day that a southern candidate for national office will drop a Siddhartha Gautama reference in casual conversation.)

Sanford told me that his interest in Buddhism stretched back three years, when he retreated to his remote family farm after the scandalous end to his term as governor when he secretly left the country to have an affair with an Argentine woman who he now plans to marry.

While in exile, Sanford began studying meditation, a practice he continues to this day.

I just love that we get a Buddhist campaign strategy. Finally a fresh angle on these stories! Reporter Chris Moody asks some more questions about the Buddhist practices, some of which Sanford declines to answer, but he does get some meaningful discussion of Sanford’s perspective. For instance:

“A buddy of mine said, Mark, you’re becoming a Buddhist Christian. I come from the Christian faith. That’s my faith tradition. But what I do like about Buddhism is the idea of being present,” Sanford said during the car ride. “I think that that’s missed in Western culture, where we’re so busy looking a week out, two weeks out, a month out, a year out and we’re hurried and we’re busy. And I think if there’s any one thing I learned from that year I spent on the farm in the wake of getting out of office and just having a very, very quiet year, is the importance of stillness and quietness. And that extends beyond just the physical location. It extends really into the moment of, Are you really with that person or are you thinking of the next thing you’ve got to do? So I do like very much that part of Buddhism. I think it’s right.”

Not all politicians will talk about their interpretation of Buddhism, but I bet there are a thousand easy and interesting stories about how religious influences shape a campaign. Kudos for bringing out one small story in this horse race.

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  • Bison70

    I doubt anybody would ever report how a person’s devout Christian or Jewish beliefs positively impact a politician’s life. They might speak how a church or synagogue supports a person, but nothing about a relationship with God would ever be mentioned.

    And frankly, Sanford seems to be more engaged in a “pop Buddhism” with no real understanding of the teachings of any specific form of Buddhism. Buddhism seems to be a meaningless term because it describes such a variable set of worldviews.

    • MollieZHemingway

      I actually suspect (given my admittedly cynical view of 100% of all politicians) that all politicians engage in “pop religiosity.” Still, so do many non-politicians. It’s not necessarily the place of the reporter to judge orthodoxy so much as let the individual subject discuss his or her own views. Again, for more in-depth pieces, a look at orthodoxy would be in order.

      • Bison70

        Agreed. It’s easy to report the superficial benefits of religion (i.e., a supportive community, some helpful habits). It’s much harder to report on the benefits of religion that only come about through thoughtful pursuit of truth.

  • Daniel F. Crawford

    I’d be far more interested in how he reconciles his new-found “Buddhist Christianity” with his moral turpitude. I’m not sure I understand why Mollie believes a rather superficial article deserves “kudos”.

    • MollieZHemingway

      Well, I just like that the angle was explored, and would hope for something *much* more substantive in a non-campaign update type of piece.

    • Bison70

      I played football at a Christian college. Our strength and conditioning coach led some yoga sessions, but asked us not to call it yoga because some of the faculty and administration would not like the influence of another religion. However, yoga as practiced by most Americans is far removed from any worldview-level thinking and is essentially a low-impact martial art.

      I feel comfortable implementing superficial practices into my life that are not contrary to my beliefs, but I suspect Sanford is simply merging the superficial aspects of Buddhism (meditation) with Christianity (community).

  • Jerry

    I basically agree with you about horse race coverage. And I agree that here we have something new. I’m familiar with Jewish-Buddhist mashups (to use the modern word) from That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist and other sources, but I’ve not heard that expressed very much in a Christian-Buddhist context before this.

    I also appreciated that this story was not about religion being used as a club to beat up someone or as a rationale for assuming someone must be virtuous and worth supporting because of their beliefs. Rather this was a human story.

    What we think of him as a political candidate because of his actions is a separate story to me.

  • Pingback: God’s role in Mark Sanford’s redemption story


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