As a long-time student of civil religion (I co-authored a book in 1988 entitled “Civil Religion and the Presidency” that the publisher quickly took out of print because the evangelical audience to which it was directed was [and still is] unwilling to face up to the matter), I stayed up last Saturday night to watch the show in California. I found it profoundly disappointing, even though Rick Warren tried to be “an honest broker,” a term German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck used about himself at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
The evangelical (and overwhelmingly pro-McCain) audience was brought face to face with a man, Barack Obama, who clearly and effectively articulated his Christian faith, as opposed to McCain, who only used evangelical buzzwords and the old melodramatic anecdote of his prison-camp experience, now given a more personal Christian twist obviously as a result of critiques of its blandness. The audience was clearly not interested in nuanced and thoughtful arguments on the vital issues of the day. McCain’s repetition of slogans and easy answers (passed off as “straight-talk”) and which were roundly applauded greatly disturbed me.
The question about moral failures in their lives was particularly revealing. McCain just tossed off the example of his failed first marriage as an uncommented-upon one liner. He didn’t deal with his conduct that led to its failure, how his first wife suffered or any discussion about how he established the relationship with his second wife–obviously (that is, it ought to be in the eyes of the “pro-family” evangelicals) a moral failure that is as great in magnitude. On the other hand, Obama explained some of the struggles of his youth, where he went wrong, and how he has struggled to rectify these. He did not slough these off in the cavalier manner than McCain did his failure.
The abortion controversy was yet another disturbing aspect. McCain dismissed the deep moral conflicts that women face in this crisis with the flip comment that he is pro-life from the point of conception, which the crowd greeted with loud cheers and acclamation. Obama honestly affirmed his pro-choice stance, but he tried to fathom the issues surrounding such a crisis and the need for a social system that does not leave a pregnant woman with the sense that she has no other way out. These people, who for the most part believe the right to life ends at birth–after that you are on your own–simply did not want to face the complexity of the whole situation.
Moreover, one of the great “pro-life” issues of our time, the war in Iraq, was given short shrift by McCain. He heaped praise on General Petraeus, repeated his promise of staying the course until “victory” is achieved, and promised he would hunt down Osama bin Laden, something President Bush seems to have lost interest in. Obama again tried to deal with the complexities of the war and its impact on our country and its place in the world, but the audience was hardly moved by this.
There are other things about the presentations I could mention, but I think my point is clear. The American people have a choice. One candidate gives easy answers and slogans that tickle the ears of the populace. It’s a case of “everything is all right–just pretend;” we just need to stay the course. The other candidate recognizes the enormous problems we face, the effort it will take to deal with them, and his willingness to confront them. For him there are no easy answers.
As our economy and international reputation crumble around us, we are facing the greatest crisis since 1860. Do we as a people follow the do-nothing path of slogans and buzzwords, or do we make the hard decisions that will redirect us from the path of destruction we are now following. The choice lies in the hands of every voter.
Richard Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University.