Conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, undoubtedly guffawed at this New York Times headline: “Poll Finds Faith in Obama, Mixed With Patience.” Faith belongs to God, they probably said, not to Man, and certainly not to a man as untested, lightweight, and liberal as Obama.
Scorn for the media’s Obama worship is understandable; the press has abandoned any pretense of neutral reporting in favor of all-out wallow. But I doubt whether conservatives would object to similar treatment, however unthinkable, of a Republican nominee; they themselves have turned Reagan into a patron saint, to be invoked for protection and guidance at every setback.
Whether or not Obama deserves the people’s faith—I myself am moderately heartened by his bipartisan overtures– I don’t see why it is more appropriate to put one’s faith in the unseen and unknown rather than in human capacities. It is human beings who have conquered God-given disease, famine, and what were once fatal birth defects; human engineering prowess protects children fortunate enough to be born in developed countries from God-tolerated earthquakes and floods; human wisdom created the American constitutional framework that has progressively enlarged our freedoms and prosperity. When human ingenuity or responsibility fails, we can correct the failures and hold the relevant parties accountable. Not so with God. The passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 were right to put their faith in the pilot, his training, and their aircraft. The passengers on TAM Airlines Flight 3054, which overshot its runway at the Sao Paolo airport on July 17, 2007, killing nearly 200 passengers and pedestrians, were wrong to have put their faith in their pilot and crew. Ditto the passengers on UTair Flight 471, which crash-landed in Russia on March 17, 2007, killing six passengers. But those deceased passengers of TAM Flight 3054 and UTair Flight 471 were also wrong to have put their faith in God, presuming that what they asked or would have wanted him to do was to save them from grisly and premature death. The human failures behind those plane crashes can in theory lead to reform, assuming accountable bureaucracies. No reform of God, however, is possible.
God apologists will come up with the usual justifications: “He has given the deceased passengers something much better than life—eternal residence in heaven.” “We cannot know his ultimate plan for us; if early death is part of it, it is for the best.” I’d be more persuaded by those defenses if I ever once saw someone pray to God to strike his child with fatal leukemia so that the child may join God sooner in heaven.
Outsized faith in political leaders can be merely silly, as Obama worship has already become, or can lead to something far more dangerous. Ideally, Americans would realize that no one has as much power over the course of their lives as they do themselves. But if appeals for salvation we must have, I would rather they stay within the human realm than leap into the imaginary divine one. The inaugural prayers tomorrow will ask for God’s protection. I will instead be hoping that during this time of growing economic stress, Americans continue to play by the rules, treat each other with respect, and seize the opportunities available to them.