In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.
Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.
Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information: religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.
And, in a way, maybe they are.
During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.
So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.
But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community: if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.
So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.
“There are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country and we have got to have the guts to stand up and say ‘No.’”
By now, Newt Gingrich’s comments at the first New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debates have made the rounds, spreading across blogs, mainstream news outlets, and, of course, The Daily Show. Positioning Muslims alongside Nazis and Communists as those who would infiltrate our country, Gingrich has once again invoked anti-Muslim sentiment in the name of patriotism.
Although Gingrich’s polemic likely raised a few eyebrows, it was admittedly not all that surprising given his recent stance on the subject; highly visible in a movement that would label American Muslims as forever foreigners, Gingrich seems to have crafted himself into a candidate who is willing to engage with the popular topic of American Muslims. Despite the recent spate of coverage, Justin Elliott notes that the mainstream media has generally shied away from what might very well be the real story: the evolution of this particular brand of rhetoric by Gingrich.
Perhaps the American public is partly at fault as it clamors for briefs primed to incite moral outrage and hungers for stories that whet an appetite for spectacle. Yet, as we know, journalism also has a role to play and it is perhaps neglecting its duties in this regard. An issue larger than a simple lack of coverage, there seems to be a fundamental absence in the training of many journalists who would cover religion.
And yet religion continues to have a large presence in the current state of politics, manifesting concerns separate from the intricacies of traditional voting demographic blocs. With Rick Perry hosting an event for governors named The Response, and Reverend Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance calling for a reduction in religion’s political presence, it appears as though this upcoming race will see the resurgence of a negotiation between the public and private aspects of religion that was recently highlighted by the Ground Zero mosque.
But it’s not only politicians who struggle to understand how religion figures into the everyday, with salvation to be had at venues unlikely as cowboy church. However, despite the potential collapse of the private/public dichotomy, are we really encouraging people to think about the role that religion plays in both of these spheres? Has our news coverage been affected by an upswing in atheism’s popularity? Religion, faith, and spirituality all bridge the gap, with values formed in private undoubtedly affecting actions displayed in public. Why, then, do we hesitate to engage in meaningful discussion of religion’s potential political impact, focusing more on what a particular individual’s religion is in lieu of an attempt to understand how and why that particular philosophy permeates a candidate’s positions? If we are content to simplify our interest to buzzwords like “pro-life” or “against gay marriage,” never challenging ourselves to understand the root causes of the issues we hold dear, how can we ever hope to convince the other side that we may in fact have a point? We insist that others see it our way and never take the time to talk to them in words that they might actually be receptive to. Rather than avoiding the issue entirely, perhaps we should encourage people to make the discussion of religion a routine practice—and provide them with the information and rhetorical tools they need in order to facilitate intelligent discussion.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he is pursuing media/cultural studies with a concentration in Gothic Horror as an articulator of cultural anxiety. A biologist by training, Chris currently endeavors to understand transformative bodies through lenses as varied as narrative studies, media, and religion, a process that has resulted in an upcoming chapter in The Hunger Games and Philosophy focusing on issues of authenticity in celebrity. Follow his quest to find the perfect cup of coffee on Twitter at @TrojanTopher.