The Generic God of the Stump Speech

Patheos bloggers are roundtabling on issues of faith and politics in the run-up to the election.  This week’s prompt is: “What’s wrong–and what’s right–with the role of faith in American politics today?  For instance: How should church and state be separated, and how should they work together? Does one side manipulate faith more than another? How do you see you the candidates appealing to voters of faith?”

I was ticked off during the Democratic National Convention when the party crowbarred a reference to God into the party platform.  And not just because it was a blatant abuse of parliamentary procedure (look at the video below and tell me with a straight face you hear a two-thirds voice vote).

YouTube Preview Image

Here’s the plank that was apparently worth ignoring Roberts Rules to insert:

“We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”

Good thing we stuck a theological seal of approval on that bit of pablum.  When you’re writing, an adjective should constrain the noun it applies to.  A sickly smile means we’re considering a lot fewer cases from the set of all possible smiles.  But in this plank, I challenge you to name a kind of potential that God-given excludes; it’s a contentless addition.

This is how faith often surfaces on the national stage.  The emphasis on the God of vague, inoffensive things seems well nigh taking the name in vain.  But pundits keep assuming that any use of the word must be a cause for rejoicing for the religious.  The only quasi-religion that’s strengthened by this kind of praise is moralistic therapeutic deism.  Why should we give people points for this?  There’s a big difference between the via negativa, where our inability to talk about what God is points to inability of human language to contain Him, and the genericization of God that seems to point to apathy about who He is and what He wants.

So, when politicians tell us they love God, we should take it about as seriously as we do when they tell us they love America, or freedom.  Remind them that love is something you do, not something you feel, and ask them to be specific about what service they offer their beloved.
 

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.lesswrong.com/user/MBlume Mike
  • Kevin

     “The emphasis on the God of vague, inoffensive things seems well nigh taking the name in vain”

    Excellently said.

    And it is a sin second only to turning away from him entirely.

  • Martha G

    Huh. Seems to me that “God-given” here is used like “innate” – but with the inherent exclusion of, say, “murderous potential” or “rapey potential” or other negative/evil potentials. The adjective “pleasant” before “smile” would be less interesting than “sickly,” but that does not invalidate its use. What you seem to be advocating is that instead of talking about faith and God in an inclusive (and general) way, a politician/someone on a political stage should (“is morally obligated to”?) make clear the particular religion they ascribe to and the particularities of Their God. The place I see God being invoked the most in that non-inclusive and particular way is in the ‘definition of marriage’ campaigns around the country. Is that the sort of political speech re: God you’re advocating for?

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    Blatant corruption in American politics? I’m shocked.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    The difference between when they use words like “God” and when they use words have specific meanings like “I will lower the deficit” is that we can sometimes tell they are lying in the ladder case. I would tend to say to say that all words used by politicians have become meaningless, not just that one. Just look at their actions. How did they vote?

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    But in this plank, I challenge you to name a kind of potential that God-given excludes; it’s a contentless addition.

    That seems easy: God-given potentials would be those potentials which ultimately have, in some way, God as their cause. At that point it’s little more than metaphysical statement, but the difference is still there.

    This is how faith often surfaces on the national stage. The emphasis on the God of vague, inoffensive things seems well nigh taking the name in vain.

    As much as I love to argue and provoke arguments – hey look, I’m trying to do it now! – I can’t get behind this. So it’s taking God’s name in vain if God is invoked in such a way that’s vague and inoffensive? Why? Did it fail to be so at the DNC, on the grounds that apparently quite a lot of people (yourself possibly included) found the invocation offensive, if for various reasons? And if people would be offended by something inoffensive, isn’t that actually a good reason to do it?

    That seems to be the issue at the DNC platform. The reference to God, at best, is a nod towards an extremely broad theism/deism. But what’s wrong with that nod? And clearly some people find things wrong with it, since there was such a push for removing it.

    The only quasi-religion that’s strengthened by this kind of praise is moralistic therapeutic deism.

    This reminds me of a semi-common complaint I hear about apologetic arguments. A philosopher or apologist or theologian will present, say, Aquinas’ five ways, or Kalam, or some other argument, and the atheist will reply ‘That has nothing to do with your God! At best, that God gets you to a mere deism or theism – not the God of the Bible!’ And there, the reply is obvious: yes, but I believe these arguments establish God or something about God that is also true for the God of the Bible.

    Something similar is going on here. Oh, a given invocation of God isn’t supremely detailed? It’s only picking out an extremely, extremely broad aspect of God? A God whose existence is morally therapeutic and benign and little else? Alright. But the God of the Bible can be said to be those things as well in part, so there’s no conflict. Not every invocation of God has to be supremely controversial and specific, as if the Our Father should go something like, “Our Father who Art in Heaven – specifically, the triune God of classical theism argued for by Thomas Aquinas, established by the Five Ways and not William Paley’s watchmaker argument, and certainly NOT identical with the God with univocal properties a la Duns Scotus, and…”

    I agree that people can be supremely vague about God, just as they can be vague about freedom. When appropriate, they should be pressed on just what role they see God playing, what God they actually believe in. But I see nothing wrong with the simple reference to God, especially when we consider the role of culture. Culture matters, and little things like this matter too.

    • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

      I think the blasphemous part is using God as a nod. That is, invoking God for instrumental and cynical purposes. That doesn’t seem to me to be beneficial to culture at all.

      • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

        I think the blasphemous part is using God as a nod. That is, invoking God for instrumental and cynical purposes. That doesn’t seem to me to be beneficial to culture at all.

        Token gestures aren’t just beneficial to culture – in some important ways, they are culture. They’re small reminders of the values and concepts that are taken as bedrock in the culture.

        As for ‘instrumental and cynical’ – as much as I’d like to bash the DNC for it, I fail to see how the invocation here qualifies in any particularly offensive way. Is it that the Democratic party is essentially the Atheist Party, so invoking God is hypocritical? Okay – but that’s going to be news to a lot of their constituents, and certainly isn’t the tack being taken in Leah’s OP. If it’s that God is being invoked, but in far too broad and general away, I already discussed that in my last comment – I don’t find that too worrisome.

        Really, I find it strange to even call the platform entry an ‘invocation of God’. It’s not even that – it’s a claim that, in some ways, human potentials are God-given. It’s not as if the DNC said ‘If you love God, you should vote for Obama’. Not here, anyway.

      • grok87

        +1

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    I’m not sure about this, it could be because of the cut focusing on the Arab-American delegates, but it looks like they’re fine to suspend the rules and then get angry when they realize there’s a second amendment.

    That actually would be a lot more reasonable. If Jerusalem should stay both the capital of Israel and undivided that’s not so far from “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel”. Now don’t get me wrong, if there ever is a final status agreement I too would expect it to turn out that way, but unlike some empty deist words this is actually genuinely controversial, no?

    • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

      There’s no way Jerusalem will stay united in a two state solution. The Israeli’s have evicted too many Palestinians unjustly for the Palestinians to be okay with that.

      • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

        So do we Germans get back Silesia because the Poles unjustly evicted its population? Their organized decedents are still pissed about the cession treaty we (rightly) signed as part of the reunification deal. Or do Native Americans get back basically the whole continent? I think most of the time that kind of thing doesn’t get undone.

      • Mark D

        Uh, I think you need to study up on how Jerusalem was reunited. Start with: Isreal was attacked.

  • Ted Seeber

    I am convinced that the God of the freemasons is the very God that atheists have, and should, reject. Just as Catholics already have.

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    So, when politicians tell us they love God, we should take it about as seriously as we do when they tell us they love America, or freedom. Remind them that love is something you do, not something you feel, and ask them to be specific about what service they offer their beloved.

    Eh… I’m not so sure “love” is a well-defined enough concept to make this claim. The Catholic conception of love might be theologically expansive (and constrained to actions rather than feelings), but the American conception of love isn’t. Love is a really fuzzy word, and it means different things to different people and in different contexts- a politician saying they “love” America means something very different from a politician saying they love their spouse, or they love pizza.

    I’ve recently been frustrated enough by the underspecificity of the word that I’ve tried to temporarily taboo it from my vocabulary. But if there exists a word that for all intents and purposes means “GOOD FEELING AND THINGS!”, it’s neither surprising nor bothersome to me that politicians use it as an empty platitude.

  • jose

    That adjective is not void of content. Its meaning is “remember, I’m one of you”. Nothing to do with God. Everything to do with establishing a sympathetic connection with the intended constituency.

  • deiseach

    Every politician of whatever party will turn up at a church or meeting hall or soup kitchen and give a speech or be photographed shaking hands with the minister. It’s all about vote-grabbing and very damn little to do with actual religion. Not being American, I have no preference for one of your parties over another, and politicians on this side of the ocean do it as well (unless they calculate that it will harm them; see Alastair Campbell interrupting Tony Blair in an interview with “We don’t do God” when the Prime Minister was asked a question about his own faith).

    What really annoyed me, though, was John Kerry’s photo-op at Mass when the picture was taken of him receiving Communion on Palm Sunday. It annoyed me because (1) either Mr. Kerry and his campaign knew and approved of this or (2) the photographer did it off their own bat, but either way – shoving your way into the line to receive and sticking a camera into the moment which should be treated with decorum and respect and reverence (if you actually believe you are doing what you say are doing – receiving the Body and Blood of Christ), and treating this as a chance to publicise how good a Catholic you are to gain the votes of your co-religionists, that would have lost my vote had I had one in an American election.

    Most of this kind of thing I treat as politicians making a nod to civil religion; I don’t think they intend a particular strictly denominational interpretation, which is why they’re careful to only say “God” or “Lord” or “Heavenly Father” and keep it as vague as possible so as to reach the maximum possible audience and avoid giving offence. To be honest, I wish they wouldn’t do it because it’s got little or nothing to do with genuine belief and is more of the package of “Mom and apple-pie and the flag and the American Way” (substitute national qualities of your own country as applicable) in order to win support and represent themselves as ‘sharing the same values and accepting what is valuable as you, dear ordinary voter’.

    • deiseach

      Having bashed John Kerry, I’ll give you a local example. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Enda Kenny, comes from Mayo. His bio on the party website is careful to include the fact that “He has climbed Croagh Patrick over 100 times and Kilimanjaro for charity.”

      Climbing Croagh Patrick is a religious event – the Reek Sunday pilgrimage (though he has done it on other dates for charity fundraising, not for the religious feastday). So this is Enda assuring the Plain People of Ireland that he is a good Catholic boy who remembers his roots and hasn’t lost the run of himself up there in the Big City and associating with all those city types. However, he has also been videoed checking his phone during a speech by the Pope to a European political grouping. So – paying lipservice to local pieties in order to stump for votes, but not that impressed by actual ceremonies? Check!

  • A Philosopher

    When you’re writing, an adjective should constrain the noun it applies to.

    In fussy linguist mode here: that’s a bad (or at least overly narrow) theory of adjectives. Consider cases like:

    The beleaguered French president today defended his policies on Greek debt control.

    Here beleaguered doesn’t serve a restricting function, because French president has already guaranteed a unique denotation for the definite. Its semantic function is instead similar to that of appositive phrases.

    (Also, speaking as an atheist, god-given does serve a restrictive purpose — it restricts to none at all.)

    • Owlmirror

        “(Also, speaking as an atheist, god-given does serve a restrictive purpose — it restricts to none at all.)”

      Well, if you were willing to redefine “God” broadly and impersonally, as being more-or-less synonymous with “all of reality”; (the patheistic concept), and didn’t particularly care that most humans interpret “God” to mean some sort of person, you could still use the term. If you were the sort of person to play word games, which I understand most politicians, like most theololgians, are.

  • Owlmirror

    There’s a big difference between the via negativa, where our inability to talk about what God is points to inability of human language to contain Him, and the genericization of God that seems to point to apathy about who He is and what He wants.

    Hm.

    “God is completely ineffible and undefinable and utterly uncontainable by anything humans can possibly say — but you should totally believe us when we tell you that God is specifically male, and that we know specifically what he wants, and you should totally care deeply about what we tell you, too. Because we say so.”
    /sophistimacated Catholic apophatic theolology

    • JE

      +1

  • deiseach

    “when we tell you that God is specifically male”

    Sez who? “370 In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.”

    Why do we refer to God as “Father” and say “He”? Because this is the mode in which Jesus spoke; of His Father, the One who sent Him. We are taught to pray “Our Father who art in Heaven”. The disapproval of inclusive language or references to God(dess) or God our Mother is because of the potential for confusion with pagan deities (particularly when we get the ‘Divine Feminine” as popularised by the Dan Brown type novels, which ends up with the notion of fertility goddesses and sex) and because that is not how the examples given by Jesus were phrased.

    There’s nothing stopping you from believing that the Third Person of the Trinity is female or represents the feminine aspect of God, Owlmirror.

    • Owlmirror

      I’d be willing to modify that to: “when we tell you to speak of God using specifically male terms”

        “God is pure spirit [...] the infinite perfection of God”

      So much for apophatic theology.

        “Why do we refer to God as “Father” and say “He”? Because this is the mode in which Jesus spoke; of His Father, the One who sent Him.”

      Ah; so “Jesus says” trumps apophatic theology. By magic, presumably. God is completely ineffable, but the magic man in our fairy tale effs the ineffable.

        “The disapproval of inclusive language or references to God(dess) or God our Mother is because of the potential for confusion with pagan deities”

      And presumably the confusion with male pagan deities just doesn’t matter.

        “which ends up with the notion of fertility goddesses and sex”

      Which would be bad because God is infertile, sexless, and pleasureless?

        “There’s nothing stopping you from believing that the Third Person of the Trinity is female or represents the feminine aspect of God”

      Nothing except for my belief in rationality and empirical reality, I guess.

      • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

        Apparently this extraordinarily vague, nondescript, and unevidenced “belief in rationality and empirical reality” doesn’t prevent you from spouting uninformed gibberish. Your comment, despite not having much content, nonetheless manages to make several elementary mistakes, of which two are particularly notable.

        (1) Apophatic theology is a collection of approaches, not a monolithic approach; it is a label for a kind of methodology, and like methodologies generally (and all practical approaches generally) it does not rule out other methodologies, depending on what, exactly, you are doing. In fact, all the major apophatic theologians explicitly discuss and approve of other kinds of method: cataphatic theology, symbolic representation, etc. Each method is good for some things and not others, so one uses the method appropriate for what one is doing. Nor is this difficult to figure out; apparently this vague belief in “empirical reality” doesn’t involve actually picking up a book and looking with one’s eyes to see how people actually use the term. And, indeed, if you actually had bothered to find out anything about apophatic theology before talking about it, you would have seen immediately that deiseach’s two examples, pure spirit and infinite perfection, are standard examples used in talking about the method of remotion, which is one of the things that people often mean when talking about apophatic theology. Failure to recognize this is evidence of a clear failure to understand what ‘apophatic theology’ even means in the first place.

        (2) “And presumably the confusion with male pagan deities just doesn’t matter.” — It matters, when it comes up, but historically it has in fact rarely been a problem on the level that syncretism with Great Mother paganisms were. There is no in-principle problem with talking about God in feminine symbolic representations, and it can be done in ways generally recognized as entirely orthodox, as in the works of Julian of Norwich. The restriction is purely practical, based on long historical experience, and, as deiseach noted, there are independent constraints on the use of it in liturgy (and practices closely related to liturgy), given that liturgy for practical reasons requires sticking to certain historical precedents. That is all. The real problem here is your implicit assumption that linguistic usages can be completely divorced from their history, when as a practical matter they cannot. And that is all it is: a practical matter.

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  • Erick

    The primary complaint here is that the Democratic party platform refers to God (any “God”) exactly one time — only in the above noted example. The Democratic Party basically inserted the word “God-given” here, so that they wouldn’t come under attack for not having “God” in their platform. The Republican platform mentions God 12 times. The word “God-given” had been removed the day before, and was re-inserted only because it became politically-expedient. To not include God would risk losing the religious vote totally.

  • Mary

    The bigger problem for me at the DNC, was lumping this issue with something re: support for Israel…considering all of the Palestinian Christians who have moved to the USA (and how poorly the state of Israel has treated them and their families who have been left behind) the issues needed to be separated… support for Israel is eroding imho.

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