The “Calling” as Cover for Raw Political Ambition

Texas Governor Rick Perry

Jon Perr of Crooks and Liars, has this to say about the rash of pledges that Republican party purists have recently required their presidential candidates to take: (Read the entire article here.)

For weeks, Republican presidential candidates have been a running a gauntlet of ever-more draconian pledges put forth by party purists. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax oath, the Susan B. Anthony List anti-abortion manifesto , the “Marriage Vow” and the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge are just some of the multiplying litmus tests now demanded by social and economic conservatives alike.

But as the 2012 primaries approach, another de facto requirement for GOP White House hopefuls is emerging. That is, candidates must not only (a) proclaim that they have been called [by] God to seek the presidency, but (b) declare that divine intervention is the cure for what ails America. Call it the Divine Right Pledge. And so far, it’s one [that] most of the GOP field seem more than willing to take.

Takers, so far, include …

  • Rick Perry (“This is what I’ve been called to do.”)
  • Michele Bachmann (“I’ve had that calling.”)
  • Rick Santorum (“We have prayed a lot about this decision, and we believe with all our hearts that this is what God wants.”)
  • Herman Cain (“God said, ‘…I’ve got something else for you to do.’ And it might be to become the president of the United States of America.”)

What is going on here? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Christian god is real, that He is watching over America, and that He has personally encouraged one of these candidates to enter the presidential race (He would have selected a Republican, of course). Let’s even assume that He makes His wishes very clear to this Chosen One during their daily conversations together: the candidate is “called,” like the prophets of old, to serve the Lord by leading the nation out of moral relativism and iniquity. The Lord will provide strength and guidance, because it is His will that a righteous man or woman should sit in the Oval Office.

Christians who know their Bible stories will resonate to this trope and perhaps recall Moses or Jonah, or indeed Jesus. All three at some point argued with the Lord, claiming they were not worthy or that they did not relish the task the Lord had set for them. Moses protested that his stuttering made him ineffective as a leader. Jesus prayed to his Father to “let the cup pass” from his lips. Jonah even went so far as to flee, thinking God would not find him.

In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, Rick Perry made a point of his indifference to the allure of power:

I’ll be real honest with you. I don’t wake up in the morning–never did and still don’t today–and say, ‘Gee, I want to be president of the United States.’

The prophet’s reluctance is an essential component of the myth insofar as it reminds us that what the Lord requires is not always easy and that we are only His “servants.”

Our presidential candidates would have heard these stories countless times from the pulpits of their churches—so often, in fact, that the concept of leadership is now firmly linked in their minds to that of “calling.” They have become so marinated in religious myth and metaphor that they have no other language to use. The God talk just keeps pouring forth, even in the public sphere of our secular society.

But this is not to suggest that any of it is inadvertent or miscalculated. The “calling” trope—together with its “reluctance” (or “indifference”) component—serves an important political purpose and has proven its worth over time. Naked political ambition is repugnant to most Americans, and we prefer to think of our leaders as public “servants,” not overlords or masters. The claim of a “calling” and of one’s reluctance to answer it is reassuring to nervous voters.

Michele Cottle, writing about “Rick Perry’s Divine Calling” in The Daily Beast, finds a touch of political genius in the “calling” trope:

Thus the genius of being “called” to run. It allows [the candidate] to commit himself wholeheartedly, even passionately, to a presidential bid, all the while saying it’s not a job he’s ever personally desired.

For some, the strategy works its magic on a subliminal level. Fundamentalist Christians are more easily conned because they cannot think critically about religious faith or its expressions within the cohort. “He’s one of us,” is all they need to know, and then any sort of outlandish claim will be taken at face value as long as it is correctly and familiarly framed. To any sort of logic-based question like, “Why would God “call” all the candidates simultaneously?” the answer will predictably be, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Who are we to know His purposes?”

Moderate Christians may be less impressed by the candidate’s claim to a divine calling, but they are, after all, still Christians and are thus prone to believe that God intervenes in human affairs. One of the candidates making this claim might, after all, be right! Or God might be working more discretely with a candidate who refuses to play this particular political game. However, these moderates won’t have ruled out the possibility of divine guidance for one or more of the candidates.

Then there is the vast and more-or-less secularized “middle” stratum of Americans—the folks who attend church twice a year and generally avoid being pinned down about their beliefs. Their reaction to the Divine Right Pledge will range from indifference to mild annoyance, and if they have any stronger feelings about the matter, they’ll keep them to themselves.

The free-thought community (atheists, secular humanists)–or those who have dedicated one partition of their brain to free thought—are likely to recognize the Pledge for what it is—a litmus test for the Republican candidates—and to regard the pledgers as either dangerously delusional or cynical, mendacious, and hypocritical. Either of these possibilities should put American voters in a heightened state of alarm.

If this particular pledge is a litmus test for religious conservatives, it can also be one for the rest of us, including the moderates. It identifies candidates who are either so delusional that they believe God talks to them or are so unethical and opportunistic that they would lie about the matter. Unless we have become totally numb to political shenanigans and faith-based craziness, our alarms should start to sound. The election of any one of these candidates could have appalling consequences for those of us who value separation of church and state and responsible leadership.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, looks forward to the day when all faith-based claims—those not supported by either reason or evidence—will be treated with the same suspicion—or wariness—that we now exhibit toward those who claim to have sighted Elvis or to have been abducted by aliens. Such claims are almost universally recognized to be delusional, and anyone making them will not be taken seriously. If you happen to mention during a job interview that you’ve been conversing with the ghost of Jimmy Hendrix, you’re not likely to get the job.

So what are we to do? How are we to restore some sanity to our political process and flush out the charlatans, the opportunists, the liars, and the crooks–starting with those who wrap themselves in the mantle of religion?

A first step might be to deprive hyper-religious candidates of their cover. Expose their language, give no quarter. Laugh them off the dais when they claim to have talked to God or received instructions from Him. Don’t just “let it go” or “play along.” To hell with accommodation. Put them on the defensive. Keep asking them to explain themselves on this point, and don’t hide your contempt for their claims.

A more radical step might be to encourage an end to all “God talk” in the public sphere. Let’s revive the ancient Judaic tradition that prohibits saying or even spelling G-d’s name. How, indeed, did we ever wander from that precept? Those of us who have had profound and transformative experiences should immediately stop framing them in religious terms. If we must describe what we have experienced, we do so without any reference to ancient traditions, or we draw our images from so many traditions that no single one of them can lay claim to our experiences. The word “God” has been so co-opted, exploited, polluted, and debased that we should no longer use it at all. Let’s go “cold turkey” for the rest of the millennium, until the word “God” has been thoroughly cleansed.

Then we really start treating politicians who claim to have had conversations with God as one-short-of-a-six-pack. We banish God from the public sphere by means of ridicule, and He will go back into the hearts of believers where He belongs, and there He will remain nameless and unnamable as He always should have been.

Is such a proposal so radical as to be useless? Not entirely. Sometimes we are “called”—by our conscience—to change our own behavior even when there is little or no chance others will come along with us. We do the right thing not because it will “change the world” but because it’s the right thing to do.

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2 Responses to “The “Calling” as Cover for Raw Political Ambition”

  1. Leslie Robinson Says:

    On the question of why God would call so many candidates at once, I’m guessing He feels there must be a minimum to stage early Republican debates. After that, the candidate He really wanted all along gets the nomination–to go up against the Democrat, otherwise known as the devil’s candidate.

  2. thebentangle Says:

    God–the ultimate political strategist! How can He go wrong?

    Thanks, Leslie, for your insight into the Divine Will. This just shows how cautious we should be about second-guessing God! I’m truly humbled.

    Your friend,
    Doughlas

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