President Obama’s Christian faith, or the Mormon faith of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, did not become important issues after the primaries of election year 2012. Even the fact that Romney is a significant leader in the Mormon Church did not really emerge as noteworthy after he was selected as the GOP nominee.
There was, of course, faith activism all over the political and faith landscape. But the real “religious” questions of 2012 were theological. To me, the most important theological questions were: Are women fully human or not? Does lying matter and why? Is there one nation, or are there 47 percent of Americans who don’t matter?
All of these questions were highly politically contested and religious interpretations figured prominently in those ideological struggles.
Sex: War on Women
In 1949, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir analyzed the persistence of women’s inequality, calling women “The Second Sex.” In the 2012 election year, this is better termed the “War on Women.” The “War on Women” is a political designation for a host of Republican initiatives at the local, state and federal level to restrict women’s rights, especially but not exclusively women’s reproductive rights, that took central stage in 2012.
The “War on Women,” however, is also a theological issue. The underlying presumption of those who would pursue policies that limit women’s reproductive choices, or allow it to be legal for women to be paid less than men who do the same job, is that women are not of equal dignity and worth. They also presume that women do not have “freedom of conscience” and can exercise it equally well as men.
The important visual for the idea that 2012 was a year when the GOP was conducting a “War on Women” was the photo of an all-male panel on contraception conducted in House of Representatives. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University Law School Student, was excluded from the panel because, it was said, “the hearing wasn’t about ‘birth control,’ it was about ‘freedom of religion and conscience.’”
So, for me, as a Christian, that became a core theological question: Don’t women have consciences? Don’t women have religious freedom too?
The “War on Women” is, at its base, an attack on women’s freedom and dignity. It had, however, so many manifestations in the 2012 election year, it is difficult to name them all. From Romney’s promises to defund Planned Parenthood, to the huge struggle in Virginia over an internal ultrasound procedure, the “trans-vaginal probe,” being required for women seeking an abortion, to how rape is “defined” as in the infamous comments by Rep. Todd Akin that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy that became such an issue in that Missouri Senate race, and beyond, there were numerous examples.
Theological polarization ran in parallel to political polarization and this was well illustrated per Akin and his views. Progressive and moderate Christians contested Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments and the religious right supported him. The religious right is credited as the force that kept Akin in the race.
But the “War on Women” is not confined to reproductive rights issues. Workplace discrimination, and equal pay for equal work as now required in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed by President Obama, is another collection of political issues that are also theological issues. Are women human? Are they equal in theological dignity and worth?
At the end of the day, the host of issues dubbed “The War on Women” are theological issues having to do with, as in the Christian tradition, “male and female” being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Theologically speaking, then, I believe women are equally and fully human in dignity and worth, women do have consciences, and they can act on their religious consciences and make informed moral choices about their reproductive lives.
Lies: The “Post-truth” election
It is scarcely unusual for politicians to frame events and policies so that they can be claimed to support their views. Thomas Jefferson, for example, in part interpreted prohibiting “establishment” of religion as a tax issue and got it included in the Constitution. Politicians have been widely known to state opinion as “fact” and ignore facts not of their liking. Yes, politicians have even lied to get themselves elected. No one is shocked to hear this.
Election 2012, however, was the year of “post-truth.” For the first time, the idea emerged that political lying simply didn’t matter. This is a profound theological issue.
One political party, the Republican Party, put out statements and ads that were lies, that is, proven to be factually incorrect, and simply said it didn’t matter. And they did it over and over again, while denigrating “fact-checking.” The Romney campaign declined, as one surrogate said, to let their campaign “be dictated by fact-checkers.”
A false equivalence emerged, where media outlets often chose not to pursue the policy of repeated, systematic and deliberate lying by the Romney campaign and chose instead to focus on ‘they both do it.’
Politicians lie. It’s the case. But that’s not the story of the 2012 election. The story is the complete contempt Republicans showed for being caught in lies, and instead of issuing “corrections,” merely repeated the lie. An example of this kind of lying is the canard that after being elected, President Obama went on an “apology tour.” This lie was repeated over and over again, with relative impunity from the press. President Obama himself called out this lie as a “whopper” in the last presidential debate with Mitt Romney.
It’s not just hamburgers and fries that are supersized in America these days. The lies have been supersized as well. But it is not the size of the lie that is the deeply troubling theological issue. The issue is a spreading contempt for the idea that truth versus falsehood even matters.
In my view, this is the first “post-truth” election, and if it is allowed to continue, “Be warned: ‘post-truthfulness’ will inevitably bleed into all areas of our lives as a result, from intimate relations to our social and work lives. It is the essence of the amoral, where individuals or whole nations are unable to perceive or are indifferent to questions of right or wrong.”
Political lying as deliberate strategy, one can argue, was first crafted by Richard Nixon. Nixon developed the art of political lying throughout his campaign and his presidency, and continued to tell lies despite corrections. Richard Nixon began this as a candidate and pursued it through his deeply destructive presidency. According to Rick Perlstein, in “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” lying was Nixon’s default, as “Nixon would lie about anything.”
“Post-truth,” defined as ‘lying doesn’t matter,’ needs to be called out and explicitly rejected as Republican policy. This needs to be done without false equivalence. Now, of course, any politician or party who deliberately lies should be called out and forced to issue a correction.
The future of “post-truth,” however, is not in the hands of politicians of either party. It in the hands of the electorate and each voter needs to examine her or his conscience on this development.
Ask yourself this: don’t I, at some level, want my preferred version of reality to be true, even if it’s not? “Post-truth” works because people desire their own version of reality, and in the age of the Internet, you can get it if you want it.
Moral reasoning should lead you to reject that temptation.
Videotape: the 47 percent
Election 2012 was the year Americans stopped being one people. Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement begun in the fall of 2011, contributed the language of the 1 percent, the American mega-rich, versus the rest of America, called the 99 percent. This language has entered the American lexicon and is the greatest success of Occupy.
The “47 percent” burst upon the 2012 political scene with the now infamous videotape of candidate Mitt Romney telling attendees at a “$50,000-a-plate dinner that 47 percent of Americans—those who back President Obama—are ‘victims’ who are ‘dependent upon government’ and ‘pay no income tax.’ He noted: ‘My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.’” The video went viral and added the language of the 47 percent to the election lexicon.
This videotape summed up the deep, deep polarizations of the American political landscape today, a polarization that is, in fact, approximately 50-50.
Now, of course, the idea that Americans have always been ‘one people’ and suddenly we stopped is a myth, in fact itself a big lie. For nearly the first century of the democracy, we were legally a slave society and after that a nation of racial discrimination codified in laws called “Jim Crow,” as documented in an excellent PBS series, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”
In the 2012 election, a host of voter disenfranchisement legislation enacted at the state level in the 2012 election season is bringing back the era of “Jim Crow.” It is an effort to deliberately create barriers for racial ethnic minorities and younger voters to able to legally vote.
Women were not part of “one people” until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1919 gave them the right to vote. The “Equal Rights Amendment” that would have prohibited unequal treatment under the law “on account of sex,” was not ratified, so it can be argued that women are still not fully part of one people. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender Americans are legally discriminated against today despite the language of the 14th Amendment that guarantees “equal protection under the law.” Equal unless you are gay, that is.
The language of the 47 percent captures some of this broader American fragmentation in a better way than the 1 percent versus the 99 percent.
But beyond these specific divisions, a broader gulf is opening. It is the “makers versus the takers” ideology that reveals a morally untenable split in the nation.
In this emerging view, there can be no “war on poverty” argument where the idea is taking hold that those who are in need, who are elderly or very young, who are disabled, out-of-work or underemployed, or who are discriminated against deserve their unequal treatment. These “victims” deserve their victimization and unless help is denied to them they will not “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
In this perverse view, “helping the poor” will only harm them.
In my Christian faith, however, Jesus teaches that in caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner you “did it to me,” that is, to Jesus himself. (Matthew 25:41) And when you fail to care for these, the poor, the sick, the suffering, you will be judged and condemned. (Matthew 25: 45-46)
It is a perversion of the Christian faith to argue that the “poor” deserve their fate and helping them is immoral. That is deeply, even profoundly, morally perverse.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a significant Hispanic woman theologian, would frequently say, “La vida es la lucha.” Life is struggle.
This is the basis of the theological interpretation I bring to Election 2012. My Christian faith teaches me that history is a struggle between good and bad, between selfishness and generosity, between cruelty and compassion, and thus between right and wrong. I think an uncritical equivalence, whether political or theological, hides this struggle.
You have to choose.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress .