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SEPARATING
CHURCH & REALITY

By Sam Smith

The Progressive Review

The mythological miasma in which America finds itself and its inability to face reality or use common sense has many contributing sources including advertising and propaganda, the entertainment industry, endless military fantasies and an intelligentsia that can't distinguish between theory and fact.

But America's denial of the real is also being fueled by a media driven conviction that faith is a superior route to the truth than evidence, history or experience,

As a result, the religions that are soaring in the public's mind are those that extend faith's turf beyond matters unknown or unprovable in the secular world and that treat spiritual conviction as a more than adequate substitute for reason, empirical analysis or scientific conclusions.

The great irony is that this is happening even as we loudly and repeatedly declare our major enemies to be those who have taken precisely the same approach towards their own Muslim faith.

This is not to say there is no place for faith, but only to accept the dictionary definition that faith is a "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." Such a belief can fairly exist only when proof and evidence are unattainable and not when they are plainly visible on each night's evening news.

As a one-time anthropology major, I am far less hostile to faith - including religious faith - than many of my cynical ilk. Once, while visiting Italy, I found myself staying in a room with a picture of the Pope over the bed. My reaction was a multicultural truce; I simply removed the picture after the house cleaner had left and put it back before she returned the next morning. I have also left the mezuzah on the front door jam of the house we bought some years ago just to be on the safe side.

I know of no culture and no time that has done without faith. Journalists, for example, put almost religious faith in what they call objectivity. And even Einstein had a horseshoe over his door, explaining to a friend that while he did not believe in it, "they tell me it works."

The fair use of faith fills the gaps of human knowledge with beliefs that help people keep going without harming others. These beliefs can create wonderful children or they can deny them needed medicines. They can create honorable, caring people and communities or they can lead to wars and cruel prejudice.

Without some form of faith, many humans easily become depressed, anti-social, confused, immoral or suicidal. Faith may be no more than a natural form of Prozac, but if it works for the individual and doesn't hurt the believer or others, it's a respectable way to get through life.

It is also true - and overwhelmingly ignored by the media and politicians - that religious belief is only one variety of faith. The poker player can have a completely secular form of faith as can the basketball player or hard working individuals whose faith is based on the effort they have expended. People can be guided by deep faith in their family, community, nation, moral standards, teachings and philosophies, art or music. And one of the most common forms of faith among politicians is in themselves rather than in the God of whom they speak so often. Restricting faith to its religious manifestations thus is one more way the media has trivialized and distorted the topic.

The media has also widely accepted the notion that there are identifiable "people of faith" - again meaning only explicitly expressed religious faith. These people supposedly stand taller because of their belief in a certain God. And the media accepts without argument that having faith is more important than witnessing it, an assumption that gives the fundamentalist religions a leg up, say, on activist Jews and Presbyterians or Catholic practitioners of liberation theology. In short, the media has been suckered into a trite and provincial definition of faith useful primarily to slimy politicians and evangelical hustlers.

A recent example of this toadying to certain religious assumptions was a recent Anderson Cooper show that included the following:

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sometime between the last campaign and this one, the Democratic Party woke up and saw the light. . .

MARA VANDERSLICE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It was almost like it was a joke, that you couldn't be a Christian and be a Democrat.

KAYE: These days, she's on the vanguard of Democrats' expanding effort to connect with people of faith. The reason? A big God gap between the parties.

A big God gap between Democrats and Republicans? It's hard to have more biased media coverage than that.

In fact, the NY Times recently published a statistical analysis of how the God gap has actually changed in the Congress over the past forty years. Here is the real politics of religion as it has played out in a body supposedly equal to the White House in power. In Congress, between 1964 and 2006:

Roman Catholics have increased 46
Jews have increased 26
Baptists have increased 12
All others have increased 12
Mormons have increased 5
Lutherans have stayed the same
United Church of Christ have declined 17
Episcopalians have declined 31
Presbyterians have declined 32
Methodists have declined 33

When was the last time you heard any media discussion of the increase in Catholic or Jewish power in Congress? Or that the off-beat and non-believers are doing as well as the Baptists?

Now take a look at the Supreme Court. Five of the nine justices are Catholic, two are Jewish and the other two are Protestant. There are no Southern Baptists on the court. The Catholics on the court represent 45% of all Catholics ever to sit there, again suggesting that the topic deserves at least as much attention from the press as does pimping for Protestant preachers of the evangelical right.

The media's faith fraud adds to a fantasy that the only things that matter politically are those that don't matter in real life. Loudly speculate on what's going to happen after you die and you will get far better coverage than knowing what to do in Iraq or with the economy next month.

As for the politicians, whether it is the sanctimonious pomposity of Obama or the sleazy hypocrisy of Clinton, it is hard to see why any sane religious person would fall for such cynical professions of belief. In fact those raised deeply in a faith usually don't talk about it all that much. John Edwards, for example, has been far more restrained on the topic than the two front-runners.

Asked about gay marriage, Edwards mentioned his personal reservations but added that it was "absolutely wrong as president to use faith to deny anyone their rights and I will not do that when I'm president." Alone among the major candidates, Edwards seems to understand the line between faith and reality. Obama and Clinton, on the other hand, are perfectly willing to trade the latter for the former whenever it looks like it'll add a few more votes.

It is the line between religious faith and reason - not the line between religious faith and non-belief - that ultimately matters. The question is not one's faith but whether it is used to override, ignore or pervert the facts and whether it is used to help or hurt others. We have had more than enough pain and suffering due to the abusive application of faith substituting for reason and decency. What this country needs now is not more people of faith but more people of reality and common sense. Especially among those running for office.