Monday, July 23, 2007

Better a "religious" fake than an honest atheist

BBC: Must the US President believe in God?

As a practical matter of electability, yes.

Gordon Allport did a study many years back about religiosity. By polling regular attendees of religious services about why they attended, he found they fell into three broad categories. The intrinsically oriented attended services for emotional comfort, inspiration, and an inner feeling of closeness to the Divine. The extrinsically oriented attended as a social outlet, means of making business contacts, being active in their community, etc. For these people, the 'intrinsic' benefits were secondary. The third group, the indiscriminately pro-religious, tended to agree with any statement in favor of religion and disagree with any statement critical of it. So, for example, given the statements:

a. Going to church is a good way to make business contacts.
b. Going to church is a good way to improve one's personal morality.

An extrinsically-oriented person will agree with a and disagree with b.
An intrinsically-oriented person will agree with b and disagree with a.
An indiscriminately pro-religious person will agree with both.

(Incidentally, neither of those statements are actually taken from the instrument Allport used; I just made up the example for illustration.)

Anyway...the electorate appears to be indiscriminately pro-religious. As long as a candidate is seen as religious, and that commitment is seen as sincere, they're seen as acceptable. ("The key is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you've got it made.") Any candidate who said "I'm really not sure about the whole God thing" wouldn't make it past the primary. Heck, they wouldn't be able to raise enough funds to make it to the primary. Either party.

Actual attendance at services isn't required; Reagan hardly ever went to church. But he was seen as believing, whether he went public with it or not. Likewise, Joe Lieberman's Orthodox Judaism was seen as a plus.

Of course, only certain religions count. Romney is getting some heat because of his Mormonism (though my impression is that he's getting more because of his flip-flopping on the issues). There's probably a large chunk of the Republican base who simply will not vote for a Mormon, period.

And likewise, I can't help wondering how well a candidate would do who was a proudly observant Muslim. Given our current polity, my impression is...not too well. After all, when we have a large chunk of the punditocracy keeping the base riled up about the Islamic Menace (TM), I can't help thinking it'd have an effect.

But as it stands now, no admitted atheist could be elected. The Constitution is specific, there can be "no religious test" for any government office or post. But in practice, only the religious, or those willing to pretend they are religious and good enough liars to pull it off, need apply.

Not that there's anything new here, of course. Machiavelli said a prince must not be religious, because religious scruples can get in the way of doing what must be done, and a religious prince will take more advice from the Church than he should. But a prince should make it a point to appear religious, as the populace is more likely to go along with someone they believe is pious, no matter how impious his private deeds or public policies may be.

Application of this observation to our current administration is left as an exercise for the student.

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