Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why I Can't Be President

There are a lot of reasons I don't want to be President, among them that the pressure of the job would kill me and that you must mold your thought into one of the two major political parties, neither of which I'm terribly enamored of. 

There are also several reasons why I would never be elected President. The one that perhaps disturbs me the most is that I'm not a Christian. How did we ever get to a point where, in this day and age, you must pass a litmus test for religion in a country that specifically allows you complete freedom in that regard? 

Even in Eastern Oregon, you apparently have to pass that test to be mayor. Recently, the mayor of Arlington was voted out of office, ostensibly for having posted pictures of herself in a bra and panties (and looking quite cut) on MySpace or some similar social networking site. I suspect that there was an economic issue as well involving a local golf course, but I don't know that she would have been removed from office quite so easily had she not also identified herself as an atheist. 

While I am not an atheist, as astute readers of my ramblings know, I am about as close as I can get without making an actual leap of (non)faith. I find it logically and empirically impossible to believe in the Christian God, personal and involved in day to day life, omni-this-that-and-the-other-thing, apparently unable or unwilling to correct the flawed beings he/she/it/they created but perfectly willing to make them suffer eternally for the results of those flaws. At the same time, I can't say there is, with 100% certainty, that there is no divine presence. As I've said, when I perform music I'm fairly certain that my experience is similar to that of prayer in the devout, although I obviously can't state that categorically. At the same time, it may just be an endorphin rush. Or both. Or something completely different. I'm happy to enjoy the experience and share it with others and leave it at that. 

Apparently, however, the electorate takes a dim view of someone like me running things. I've puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler is sore, and I think there are a few reasons why a devout agnostic like me could never be President:

First, and this is the shallow end of the opinion pool, I think that when you have a belief system that is based on very little if any physical evidence (as pretty much every religion is - in fact, it seems like some spend a lot of time fighting physical evidence to make their case - the whole "we had dinosaurs for pets" argument of some Christians is an excellent example of bad reverse engineering) it becomes very easy to hang your hat on the flimsiest of arguments because, frankly, you're used to doing just that. As such, anyone who threatens to bring down any of your beliefs is in themselves a threat. 

Second, the Republican Party climbed into bed with conservative Christians more than a quarter century ago and declared themselves Annointed of God despite the fact that their main goal is to let American business run unchecked. I speak of the Party insiders here, not of average Republicans. As such, the Republicans have been able to leverage utterly ridiculous issues like gay marriage (how this becomes a major issue is beyond me) and also more important issues like that of the freedom of choice vs abortion is murder debate (which is worth having, although I haven't heard an intelligent conversation on the subject yet) because it speaks to the fears of conservative Christians. 

In a word, they have used American Christians to get to power. Aside from a few bones tossed their way, abortion is still legal in the US and gay marriage is legal in at least one state and will be national law within the next ten. What the Republicans have done is let business run amok for eight years, acting in a very non-Christian way. 

My point is that Christianity is required because of the leveraging of Christianity into politics at exactly the time when we could have gotten away from religion in our government. Both parties are now guilty of this, but the Republicans have been at it and are better at it than the Democrats.

Finally, and this is I believe the main reason, is that for some people it is incomprehensible that anyone would behave in a "moral" manner without a reason to, and the only reason they recognize is punishment. This is a very small way to look at human behavior, although there is a lot of evidence that it's effective in some cases. At my daughter's church, religion is seen as a way to control men, especially young men. If God isn't in your heart, you're out drinking and screwing anything that moves, and thus God better be in your heart. 

Interestingly, I was taught a differing view by a Holy Cross priest in my Judaeo-Christian Culture class way back when I was an undergraduate. While I can't recall the philosopher that came up with this hierarchy, I'm sure one of my astute readers will know who I'm talking about. In this hierarchy, there are three levels of motivation for behavior. The first level is that of a child, who does things because he wants something and is willing to do whatever he can get away with to get it. There are many adults who have never gotten past this stage, and I'm related to a couple of them. In role-playing terms, this is called "evil". 

The second level of behavior is that of doing things because the law says so. In this class, Judaism was painted this way, and it's easy to see why even if it's slightly patronizing. Strict Judaism has a long list of laws covering dress, diet, and other elements of life that aren't directly associated with behavior, but by covering as many aspects of life as possible it makes it easier to direct the population to the behavior the religious leaders want. It's much easier to simply follow all of the laws rather than take the time to figure out which make sense and which don't, after all. To be more specific, the idea is that if you follow the law (doing something good), you are rewarded, and if you don't you are punished. The Book of Job is a rather convoluted attempt (This is God. This is God making a bet. This is God making a bet that he can screw with your life and you'll still love him. This is screwed up.) to reconcile the simple observation that - surprise! - people are rewarded for doing very bad things. 

The third and highest level of behavior is that of doing things simply because they are the right thing to do. Not because you'll be rewarded, not because you'll be punished if you do the wrong thing or don't do the right thing, not because someone said you should or shouldn't, but because you can see that an act will benefit others (or that not doing an act will prevent harming others). In an interconnected world such as ours, this becomes quite complicated. For example, you drive a hybrid to try to preserve oil and also to pollute the environment less, but you still end up with a bunch of batteries that are going to pollute the environment and you're still using oil. Maybe it's a net improvement, maybe not, although it's sold as nothing but improvement. 

And that's why so few people seem to operate on that third level. I do. It seems like the only thing between us and dictatorship, between us and chaos. It seems like long-term survival to me. I don't consider myself altruistic, I consider myself interested in seeing people not only getting along and working together for the common good, but also thinking about the consequences of their actions. This idea is the bedrock for the social contract, the implicit agreement that I will watch out for you if you watch out for me. Like the Prisoner's Dilemma, however, it only works so long as both of us refuse to rat out the other, and for some of us that's a bit of a trick.

Maybe that's the problem, then. It's not so much that people don't trust me, it's that they don't trust themselves to behave without external motivations. As the youngest of four kids (and youngest by a good 15 years - I'm what they call an "oops" baby), one of my prime motivations as a child was stability and calm. When you're the littlest, conflict is Bad. At the same time, I grew up with my sister's kids, who were close enough in age to me that I was in effect the oldest sibling. As such, I have a somewhat unique sense of myself as both oldest and youngest. Perhaps that experience has allowed me to take a different tack in the world, one that you don't see too often. I'm clearly an intelligent man, at least as measured by standardized tests. I have a wide range of life experiences including international travel at a young age, exposure to a wide range of socio-economic conditions, what I like to think of as a pretty open mind. At the very least, I'll let you hang yourself with your own rope in an argument. 

But I'm never going to be President. Major portions of my fellow Americans would not vote for me simply because my high standards don't come with any reprisals for failing to live up to them.

Except, of course, for the part where I have to look at myself in the mirror every day. I'm nowhere near perfect, but I'll put my ethics up again anyone else's any day of the week. I may not win, but I feel good enough about my personal rules of conduct that I'd  for the world to see. 

So why can't I be President?

Good thing I don't want to be, I guess.

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