Sam Smith, 2007
I recently quoted from correspondence I had as a 20-something with a born-again Christian. In one of my letters I wrote:
“You have a clear understanding of what you believe to be the nature of God and Christ. I have not. Does that set us so far apart? I believe not, for if God is the kind of God that I would wish him to be, he will accept my lack of understanding of the infinite and settle for a human attempt at carrying out his dictates as I am able to comprehend them. Whether a man is a missionary of God, as you are, or a human involved in worldly affairs, like myself, the task remains much the same. We each in our way, bungling as we go, must make a brave effort to elevate the human race an inch to two.”
Last night, browsing through Sartre before bedtime, I came across this:
“Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God does not exist. Rather it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. . . Not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the problem of His existence is not the issue.”
It struck me as I read this that here was the key to the currently inflated battle between church and state: in the end it doesn’t matter. The moral Christian, Jew or Muslim and the moral rationalist will follow much the same path. Keep them away from the pulpit and you may not be able to tell them apart.
The difference lies not in their actual life but in what they believe about it. The existentialist, for example, believes that existence – and behavior in it – precedes and defines essence. The religious true believer thinks it’s faith, or what is known in science as speculation and, in gambling, a bet.
Now one can have an interesting debate about this, but the point here is that as far as politics and social policy are concerned the difference should make no difference once it moves to the level of actually doing something rather than just talking about, celebrating or praising why you’re doing it.
Of course, politically, it does make a difference. One reason is that there are a hell of a lot more registered practicing Christians than there are registered practicing existentialists. Another is that politicians, aware of this demographic, find it much easier to pander to the faith that drives these voters rather than to the works the faith demands.
Thus, whether in the White House or in Selma, you never hear politicians described themselves as “works-based Christians,” because it is much easier to associate oneself with unchallengeable holiness than with intended products too simple to observe and assess.
There was a time when there are a lot more works-based Christians around to serve as models. At one point, for example, we had Father Drinan in Congress, Father Baroni in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Father Kemp on the DC school board. During the war on poverty I found myself constantly in the company of preachers, some of whom became close friends. When I asked myself why, my answer was in part that while the engines driving us were different, our intended routes were the same. We accepted uncertainty, honored inquiry and persisted in the hope that what we did that day might make a difference.
Today’s obsession with faith is driven by a number of causes, among them the deterioration of American culture and democracy, a desperate searching for certainty, evangelical abuse and heresy, political cynicism and deceit, as well as a media that perpetuates the illusion that it is better to raise one’s hands in prayer than to use them for good in this life and on this day.
Of these forces, it is the media that often wields the greatest clout – a media that pretends to be fact-based and objective yet all but writhes in the aisle, screams Hallelujah and shouts Jesus’ name when a fraudulent pol mounts the pulpit or a president declares some carefully concocted connection with the Almighty for his war or budget policy. This adulation of false faith and the indifference to true works is not only cynical but is helping to destroy America.
It has also helped turn the press from being reporters to being mere acolytes at the holy communion of America’s powerful. If, on the other hand, the media followed the lead of Sartre, it would do us all a great service. Instead of telling us what politicians pretended to believe it would report on what they actually did. . . moving, one might say, from faith-based to fact-based reporting