Friday, July 6, 2007

"Faith without Works is Dead"

The New York Times has a lengthy article today on Hillary Clinton and Faith. It basically gives a history of her background as a Methodist (often modified by the adjective "liberal") and how that drives her social and political activism. Much of the article talks about how her increased references to her religious background during her campaign have been interpreted (from calculated, politically motivated, and convenient to sincere). I do not think I am one to judge; only she knows her sincerity. I would say the same thing about W. Of course, faith and politics is a huge ball of yarn that is difficult to untangle, but here is question concerning just one strand of it: Cannot a politician of any persuasion have a sincere faith (whatever that means) even if it is exploited for votes? Or, put another way, just because a politician's faith is invoked to get votes, does that make her or his faith less sincere?


James said...

Does sincerity even matter? I don't think that it's a valid political category. What matters is what a politician says and does? It's just a distraction to start talking about "sincerity" and "authenticity." And for some reason, right wing politicians seem to be much better at that game. There seems to be a well accepted narrative that religious faith leads to particular right wing views, so religious people who have different views--as you observe--have qualifiers inserted in front of mentions of their faith.

If Hilary Clinton has changed the way she talks about religion, that is news. We should discuss the reason for the shift without pretending to be able to get at whether she is sincere or not. We can also talk about her policy proposals, her voting record in the Senate, etc. in relation to her discussion of religion. Whether she is sincere or not seems to me to be irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

I thought it appropriate to check the meaning of "sincerity". Included in the meaning are such words as "absence of pretense" and "freedom from hypocrisy". With these definitions in mind, I think it very difficult for a politician in our media saturated world to be "sincere".

Jared said...

I tend to agree with James that religious sincerity is irrelevant in the political arena. I hinted at this in my post when I said that sincerity is ultimately unknowable. If it is unknowable, then it should not play a part in political elections. But, I think, James takes this a step further. I think implied in his statement is that even if it were knowable, it is still irrelevant (but I do not want to put words in his mouth). I personally agree that it SHOULD be irrelevant to voters, that what matters is her voting record in the Senate and her policy proposals (that is how we should evaluate every candidate), but I recognize that to many voters, it is not. And people, largely her opponents, are trying to judge her (and, for that matter, the other contenders') sincerity if and when they invoke their faith. Let us not forget that the last five presidents all claimed to be "born again" Christians.

The New YOrk Times article implied two different indicators for sincerity: longevity of belief/religious behavior or perhaps consistency and, closely related to consistency, shifts in rhetoric from pre-campaign to compaign. Concerning the former, the article has noted that she has been an active "liberal" Methodist from childhood to the present, that even in the Whitehouse she met with more conservative women for religious purposes, and that she currently attends the weekly (or is bi-weekly?) Senate prayer breakfast. These practices and their consistency seem to be invoked in favor of sincerity. The recent increase in speaking about her religious beliefs and practices (such as quoting James--the book, not my respondent: "Faith without works is dead") has raised suspicion among her detractors of insincerity (defined in terms of using religion for political gain must be insincere). We could just as easily note Barack Obama's discussions on his adult conversion to Christianity. My posting was to challenge this assumption. The actual rebuttal to this charge, however, rests partly on the former indicator: that people of her religious tradition prefer to keep their religious preferences to themselves and not speak publicly about it, but, in allowing the public to get to know her better, she is disclosing this part of her that has remained private--basically, her previous silence indicates her faithfulness to her tradition and, therefore, her sincerity. Even with these indicators (and we should note that the use of these indicators is part of the political game), I maintain that sincerity is unknowable, and I would follow James in its irrelevance, but it remains a rhetorical category that is and will be deployed on all sides throughout the election. And I think it is important for us (particularly those of us who study religion) to follow how sincerity is employed and understood not only by the candidates, but also by the media.