Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No Atheists in Fox News

Last week, Senator Barack Obama provided some material for controversy-addicts awaiting their next fix: he suggested that people suffering economic woes for a long period of time become bitter and therefore cling to religion, guns, and anti-immigrant/outsider sentiment. Before long, both Hillary and McCain pounced on these statements as evidencing Obama's elitist and patronizing view of the world. Hillary produced the memorable one-liner, "people embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich." Right-wing columnist William Kristol then published an op/ed in the New York Times on Monday insisting that Obama's statement mattered (and should accordingly be discussed and fretted over some more) because it unmasked him -- he pretends to respect faith, gun rights, and working class concerns about immigration, but when he faces an audience of friendly listeners at a San Francisco fundraiser, he lets his hair down and admits that he holds the Marxist view that religion is the "opium of the people" (as translated from the German by Kristol).

If I were a more cynical person, I would suspect that William Kristol -- like John McCain and Hillary Clinton -- has his own reasons to be eager for a Clinton/McCain race and therefore hopes to persuade people (the superdelegates? the remaining voters?) that Obama could not win in November after having said what he did. Going with this cynicism, I might question the good faith of a right-wing columnist urging Democrats to steer clear of a particular candidate. In any event, I believe that Obama's comments do not "matter" and do not evidence anything but the most unremarkable realism.

There is an expression which says that "there are no atheists in foxholes." Atheists have, in fact, reacted to this expression with offense, indicating that they do not intend to believe in God, even when mortality is around the corner. It is accordingly religious people -- people who believe in God -- that draw the connection between dire circumstances and faith. How many people suffering an illness or the loss of a loved have said, "I don't think I could have gotten through this without my faith." Though it may be "spiritually rich" people who believe in God, as Hillary claims, religious people themselves do not dispute that faith can be very comforting during difficult times. This is presumably why believers prophecy that once in a fox-hole, the atheist tiger will change his stripes.

Like faith, people experiencing economic stress might find a release in "sport." I place "sport" (when referring to hunting) in quotations because I do not consider the use of weapons to kill defenseless animals a sport, any more than I consider robbery or kidnapping a sport, though all three admittedly require skill in selecting victims and carry the excitement inevitably involved in seeking a trophy from those who would prefer not to bestow it. To suggest that those suffering economic hardship might find comfort in "sport" should not be controversial.

And finally, the fear of the outsider is commonly associated with difficult financial times. It is no accident that large-scale economic distress has, in our not-so-recent past, provided fertile soil for the most notorious anti-semitic xenophobia in history. Barack Obama is not telling us anything we do not already know when he suggests that people turn against immigrants and people who are different from themselves when they are feeling frustrated and angry about their own wellbeing.

So why were people offended by his words? It is perhaps the worry that when we attempt to explain behavior we thereby deny that one could have a legitimate basis for engaging in that behavior. If you say that I believe in God out of frustration, then it sounds as though you are denying that I could believe in God because there is in fact a God. If you say that I hunt as an escape, that may suggest that I could not hunt simply because hunting is an inherently satisfying activity. And if you say that I want immigration reform because I feel insecure about my income, then I may understand you to be saying that I do not have a valid basis -- apart from my emotional needs -- for supporting immigration reform. It can be annoying, in other words, to have one's views attributed to one's emotional state rather than to the persuasive force of those views.

Despite this appearance, however, it is actually entirely coherent to say that God is awesome and also to observe that people tend to see how awesome God is when they are economically depressed (and thus need a relationship with someone who is awesome). It is also coherent to believe that hunting (or robbery or kidnapping) is fun and fulfilling while observing as well that a commitment to violent forms of fulfillment tends to rise when people are in financial trouble. And one can acknowledge valid concerns about immigration without negating the reality that anti-immigrant sentiment rises with economic hardship and that such sentiment contributes to the popularity of immigration reform.

Senator Obama has indicated no desire to do anything radical to interfere with religious faith, hunting, or immigration reform. On policy, his views resemble Hillary's, and he has shown an openness and a respect for those on the other side of the aisle that is quite refreshing and unusual. But he is also a thinking person, and when a thinking person ponders the popularity of God, hunting, and anti-immigration sentiment, he is likely to draw conclusions about the social facts that give to such popularity, quite apart from the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the underlying substance. That Barack Obama is a deep thinker is not a weakness but a strength. He should perhaps have phrased his words somewhat differently, but there is nothing disqualifying, alarming, or even especially controversial about anything that he said. To state what may be obvious to many, people who want to see the Democrats defeat the Republicans in November should therefore reject the advice of William Kristol and continue to support the best candidate for President, Senator Barack Obama.

Posted by Sherry Colb

14 comments:

Kenji said...

"He should perhaps have phrased his words somewhat differently, but there is nothing disqualifying, alarming, or even especially controversial about anything that he said."

My thoughts exactly!!

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Mine too!!!

My wife and I just had this conversation over dinner. We couldn't fathom what all the fuss was about.

heathu said...

Rather than trying to explain the literal truth Senator Obama’s statements, should we just take at face value Senator Obama’s statements that he didn’t phrase this as artfully as he could have? He begins by observing, correctly, that many working Americans have seen their economic fortunes decline (or at least not improve) through multiple administrations of both parties. When he then says they become “bitter” and “cling” to guns and religion, he did not mean cling to guns and religion as an opiate, as Bill Kristol will have us believe, but they cling to guns or religion as the main political issues during elections. They do this because they have become cynical (as the better term than “bitter”) at politicians’ willingness or ability to revitalize jobs or industry in their geographic area.
Granted, I am taking liberties with the transcript of Obama’s statements. I replace “bitter” with “cynical” and add “as political issues” to “cling to guns and religion.” But since Senator Obama himself has said he didn’t phrase it as artfully as he could have, it seems the interpretation above is the more artful version of the point he was trying to make, and may make more sense than trying to parse some literal truth out of the words he used.

Carl said...

It is perhaps the worry that when we attempt to explain behavior we thereby deny that one could have a legitimate basis for engaging in that behavior. If you say that I believe in God out of frustration, then it sounds as though you are denying that I could believe in God because there is in fact a God.

The problem is that Obama is suggesting that these people do not believe in God or oppose immigration for one of these theoretically legitimate reasons but because they are bitter.

Imagine that Bill Clinton explains to his supporters that the reason his wife is lossing to Obama in inner cities with large minority populations is that blacks are racist and prefer to vote for other blacks. The fact that Clinton may believe that their are legitimate reasons to support his wife's opponent does not make his explanation of Obama's popularity among blacks any less offensive.

It's possible, of course, that Obama meant (as you are suggesting) that poverty and bitterness enabled people in small towns to recognize legitimate reasons for believing in God, guns, and immigrant free societies. If that's the case, however, then his "thoughtful" explanation of why people cling to such things undermines itself. It's not bitterness and poverty that explains their belief in gods and guns and things, but these legitimate reasons that you think exist.

By distinguishing between the justificatory and the causal senses of "reason," you may make his claims less stupid and offensive, but you simultaneously deprive them of any significance.

His implication clearly was that if these people had hope of emerging from poverty, they would abandon god and guns and vote Obama, and that is what people find so offensive - that their deeply held beliefs are not only caused by their poverty and bitterness, but that these beliefs would lose their force if only they could place their faith in the Obama hope train.

Tam said...

People of low social economic status vote against their best economic interest. This is a fact.

Two possible reasons are that they (1) are particularly susceptible to the political pandering of the neoconservatives based on faux religiosity; and (2) have given up hope of attaining financial stability.

Why are people's anger directed at the deliverer of this message? Do they get angry at the doctor and accuse him of being a medical elitist or health nut when he tells them that they have cancer?

Sobek said...

"If I were a more cynical person..."

You left out two equally plausible explanations. First, Kristol might believe that it is in the Republicans' best interests to keep the Democrats divided, and therefore to attack whoever is perceived as the stronger candidate. The other is that Kristol might genuinely believe that Obama is worse than Clinton, and that he might see an advantage in getting independents to drop their support of the former.

As for the rest of your argument (essentially, it's uncontroversial because it's all true), your explanation is at odds with Obama's own explanations. He claimed over the week-end that he really meant his comments as a compliment, because, you see, when people fall on hard times and lose their faith in government, they turn to institutions that really work. Like religion. And, uh, guns. Which I guess you could call an "instutition." And, uh, racism.

Carl said: "His implication clearly was that if these people had hope of emerging from poverty, they would abandon god and guns and vote Obama..."

That's pretty much right, and it's both offensive (you rednecks only believe in God because you can't afford to live as well as me) and highly inaccurate (does he really think rural Pennsylvanians weren't gun enthusiasts during, say, the early 90s?).

All that said, a man who has sat through as many of Rev. Wright's sermons must be an authority on people clinging to racism out of bitterness.

egarber said...

All that said, a man who has sat through as many of Rev. Wright's sermons must be an authority on people clinging to racism out of bitterness.

In a way, this might be true, but not in the snide way you pose it :). Given what Obama said in his race speech a while back -- that there are white folks who don't feel "privileged" by their race -- it almost becomes understandable that a certain backlash might emerge against say, immigrants, amid economic struggle. And it's ok to talk about that.

Anyway, as I understand it, the premise among some on the Right is that Obama thinks religion only exists because of struggle (if all was well, they wouldn't need to "cling" to it). Well, take a black church with members from the Jim Crow generation. Would any reasonable observer say that Obama believes faith in that context is a mere creation of the struggle and nothing else? Of course not; instead, he’d say that minorities facing that pain naturally sought comfort in a pre-existing core value – faith in God, etc. I think this is all the same dynamic.

Of course, McCain doesn’t need to do any lifting for the distortions to grow; Hillary is doing the work for him in throwing Barack under the bus.

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