Imagine that the year is 1932 and presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, instead of addressing himself to the economic paralysis that has gripped the nation, talks endlessly about the polio-induced paralysis of his own legs as some sort of unique qualification for the presidency. He blathers on about his deep faith in God as the reason he should be elected, weeps at the memory not only of his struggle with polio but of his own sins, and generally talks to the Americans as if they were choosing a Confessor/Penitent-in-Chief instead of a president.
That was exactly the spectacle presented last Saturday by Republican presidential candidates at a forum stressing faith and family in Des Moines, Iowa. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rich Santorum and the pizza impresario Herman Cain broke down when they spoke, respectively, about the brain tumors of a friend’s son, the birth of a daughter with a severe genetically determined disability, and being diagnosed with cancer.
Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.
The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics. President Obama’s refusal to engage in this kind of faith-infused psychological exhibitionism is one of the main reasons why the media (and not only conservative media) have tagged him as a cool professorial type who does not know how to make a connection with ordinary people. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, who were not present at the
faith-and-suffering group therapy session, are also bad at exploiting whatever sorrows lie in their past to advance their candidacies. That’s probably one of the reasons Republican voters aren’t enamored of Romney and barely register Huntsman in their polls.
Gingrich, of course, chose to discuss his friend’s son’s brain tumors as the big trauma of his recent past and fudged the little matter of his being a serial adulterer who dumped two wives (one while she was in the hospital recovering from breast cancer treatment). Now that Gingrich has converted to Catholicism, he told the audience, he is much happier with his third wife. “All of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply,” he acknowledged. “All of that has required going to God to seek reconciliation, also to seek God’s acceptance that I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on him.”
One wonders whether Gingrich considers himself “limited” for dismissing the Occupy Wall Street protestors before the godly crowd at the First Federated Church of Des Moines with the admonition, “Go get a job right after you take a bath.”
Actually, I felt like taking a bath after hearing Newt, the two Ricks (Perry and Santorum), and Cain talk as if their religious beliefs and their personal hardships somehow make them presidential material. Santorum, after acknowledging that he had failed to love his stricken baby properly in the first months of her life because he knew she was destined to die, then lashed out at the sexual revolution. “This is not our founders’ vision,” he said. “It’s a corruption of liberty. Our founders understood that liberty is not what you want to do but what you ought to do.” And who defines what we ought to do?
Santorum then made the most revealing comment of the evening, linking the candidates’ brand of far-right Christianity with their the right-wing position maintaining that government has no responsibility to attempt to alleviate the misery of its citizens. “Suffering is a part of life,” he mused, “and it’s not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life.” That suffering is a part of life is indisputable but there is a difference between the suffering that comes to all in the natural course of things -- say, death and illness -- and the suffering that human beings create through inept actions and institutions.
The former category includes events like the birth of a severely disabled child or the loss of a lifelong partner to Alzheimer’s disease. The latter includes looking for a job for nine months (while well-scrubbed behind the ears) and not finding one; lacking money to pay for decent medical care, going hungry in an obese society, and having to choose between paying for food and medicine in advanced old age.
Government can do something (though certainly not everything) about the latter category of man-made suffering but in the Christian universe inhabited by the Republican candidates on the stage in Iowa, neglect of the earthly suffering of others is actually a virtue.
The way humans cope with hardship and suffering does help shape their character, but not in the simplistic way suggested at the Republican debate. Suffering does not always ennoble but, on the contrary, can sometimes create a grandiose sense of entitlement. During his campaign in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary John Edwards used his wife’s cancer, and the death of their teenage son in an automobile accident, to present himself as a worthy aspirant for high office. We all know now about the double life he was leading even as he was using the rhetoric of Christianity to further his candidacy.
Honest candidates, men and women of genuine virtue, do not present their own suffering as a qualification for public office. The American public knew that FDR had survived polio, but it did not have any idea of the full extent of his disability while he was president. It is only with historical hindsight that we now understand the pivotal significance of his struggle with paralysis. It is generally agreed by historians that his battle with polio helped turn Roosevelt from an ambitious lightweight into a public leaders whose empathy for the sufferings of others was greatly enlarged. The same events might turn another person into a politician who says “you’re on your own” to his suffering fellow citizens.
While I would never advocate a return to the days when photographers would, out of misplaced deference to the office of the presidency, agree not to take pictures of the president in a wheelchair, being in a wheelchair (metaphorically or literally) tells you nothing about whether a man is an effective leader. It reveals a good deal about the character of a candidates, however, when they think that they deserve votes because they’ve had cancer or a brain-damaged child. This use of personal faith and personal suffering in politics is nothing less than an obscenity.