Monday, March 17, 2008

Pious Politicians

Here's a civics question: What successful candidate for President of the United States, when news leaked that he had never been baptized, announced that he'd get to it when he could - probably after the election? Hint: This didn't happen yesterday.
No recent presidential contender could have gotten out of the starting gate with such a casual attitude to the most basic ritual of Christian faith. The correct answer is Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Baptized or not, Ike considered himself a Christian, and it was he who signed off on inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.) In the half-century since the Eisenhower years, voters have come increasingly to expect candidates to fervently profess a personal relationship to the Almighty, in the form of the Christian God.

How did it happen that such public religiosity became a prerequisite for high office? This question is tackled in a recent book called “God in the White House,” by Randall Ballmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College. A self-professed evangelical Christian, Ballmer is also a firm supporter of the separation of church and state, and no fan of what he calls the “religionization” of the Oval Office.

It has been argued that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind, that they believed their new nation would be Christian in spirit. Some did, some didn't. Some did one week and didn't the next. Their writings can be (and often are) selectively quoted to favor either side of this issue. But the law of the land which they wisely chose to put in place holds that the institutions of church and state are to remain separate.

I am very uncomfortable when candidates push the God button. Presidential contenders do this while at the same time

November in My Soul

Two guys walk into a bar. One says to the other, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet… “ And especially on those days when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off. . . .” Well, then it's time for a change of scene.

Know how you feel, Ishmael. I get a little moody myself sometimes.

Moby Dick might not be high on anyone's list of beach reading, but it's hard to deny that Melville is a master at evoking melancholy. I thought about Ishmael recently because my own frame of mind has been none too sunny, a fact I've tried to hide from all but my nearest and dearest. This is as it should be, I've always thought. Who wants to be called upon to commiserate right and left? It's not as if I'm suffering from anything major enough to qualify for the Life Events Stress Scale. More a generalized gloominess that is hard to explain, let alone justify. Best keep it to myself.

Yet I recently saw a friend take a different approach, and I learned something from it. We were at a cocktail party, and when I asked how things were going, she told the truth. Though she was surrounded by cheerful party chatter, she allowed that her life had lately been seeming like ashes, just ashes. Nothing was actually wrong, she said. There were minor complaints, as there always are. But mainly she was just going through one of those phases, one of Ishmael's drizzly Novembers of the soul.
There was nothing depressing about hearing this. Quite the opposite. My friend's candor freed us both. Cocktail party or no, we were released from the stultifying obligation to pretend. I did hear a few of her minor complaints, but there was no hint of whining. I listened -- no commiseration requested or given. We both knew that her unhappy state, though troublesome, was temporary.

This exchange, I later decided, was a model for how to conduct an authentic life, with all its ups and downs, in a social setting. Step one: Tell the truth about how you are feeling. Step two: Do not try and rationalize it, or explain it away. Step three: No whining. Step four: Stress that what you are going through is a passing phase. Step five: Don't ask for, or entertain, advice.
As remedy for my own low spirits, I am planning to try the Ishmael Cure. He is describing my downtown Manhattan neighborhood, when he observes that “right and left, the streets take you waterward” toward the Battery. You will find there “crowds of water-gazers,” all of them getting “just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.” The water-gazers are still there and I mean to join them.