Deeply disturbing factoids

By Sean Carroll | February 10, 2006 12:27 pm

The point about George Deutsch, NASA’s self-appointed enforcer of theological correctness (now ex-), is not that he was an ambitious young political hack who embellished his resume and overreached his authority. It’s that the particular type of behavior in which he engaged — imposing a faith-based worldview where it is completely inappropriate — is a singular hallmark of this administration, and one that originates at the very top. Ezra Klein points to just one example.

I want to highlight this graf from Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Bush-speechwriter Michael Gerson:

“The President can’t imagine that someone who is President of the United States could not have faith, because he derives so much from it,” Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said. “I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don’t appear to be grounded in some faith,” he said. He added, “The President doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.”

That’s a deeply disturbing factoid. Bush, after all, isn’t traipsing around the world calling for testimonials, but meeting with fellow heads of state to discuss world affairs. It’s not clear where religion would figure into the conversation. Moreover, the emphasis on faith as a general character trait rather than Christianity as a foundational world view is even less explicable. If Bush believed so deeply in Jesus Christ and an intelligible God that he couldn’t relate to those without the same worldview, that would be parochial and worrying, but understandable. Simply lacking comfort with those who haven’t decided to trust in a higher force, however, belies a real insecurity with the very concepts of self-determination and free will, not to mention a fear of making decisions unaided.

“The President doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.” I’m trying to wrap my poor faithless noodle around that one, and not quite succeeding.

  • Elliot

    Simply a bold faced lie. Islamic fundamentalists have “Faith”. Bush does not even begin to try to understand their belief system and gives them the blanket label of “terrorists.”

    Make no mistake “Faith” means “Christianity”.

    Elliot

  • macho

    As a psychologist friend of mine explained, people generally act in ways that will reduce their anxiety level. Bush realizes (at some level) that he is not personally competent to run the country. Thus, he is comforted by the fact that he doesn’t have to be — he is merely the vessel through which a higher power is carrying out its plan (although I suspect that he doesn’t realize that the small still voice belongs to Dick Cheney and Karl Rove). Such a world view is threatened by counterexamples, or by people who can engage in a rational discussion. Explaining that your decisions are the results of following God’s plans for you and your country is easier if the person you are talking to also believes that his God is directing things on their side (even if at heart they also believe that their God is mightier than yours, or that it’s all one God and you just haven’t quite gotten it right yet). Offering the same explanation to someone who thinks that humans need to hunker down and do the hard work and thinking for themselves is likely to be much less comfortable — you know they won’t buy it and will probably insist that you engage in an actual discussion in which a command of the facts and issues are kind of essential. He probably feels a level of anxiety similar to that when you walk into a classroom to take a test you know you didn’t study for. Such a situation reactivates that deep down fear that you really aren’t competent to hold your present position, and that this interaction might expose you to ridicule.

    I disagree with Elliott — preferring to deal with other people of faith doesn’t mean that you understand or care about their beliefs. Ultimately, all fundamentalist religions come to the same point — you’re either with us or against us. Convert or die — or just die if conversion isn’t part of the fundamentals. (Whether you’re shot to save your soul or because you’re an infidel is of little practical interest when the gun is pointed your way). Further, a world divided into various fundmentalist religions becomes simpler in a way for those with these beliefs. Enemies are clearly defined, easily dehumanized, and thus can be cheerfully blown to bits with none of those annoying feelings of guilt or doubt. It’s the same reason that some of the wacko fundamentalist Christians in this country support some of the funadmentalists in Israel.
    Playing pretend only works if everybody plays. It’s an extremely unstable game and requires strict enforcement of the rules. A contest to decide which emperor is wearing the more beautiful garments can’t be held if that wretched little boy is allowed to speak. Once all the non-believers have been silenced, then the real contest can begin. Won’t that be fun.

  • Sam Gralla

    I would be much more worried if Bush had the “parochial” view of Jesus = truth and other religions = all wrong, and was finding that it was this that hindered his ability to do diplomacy with foreign leaders. Because, as you said, Jesus should *not* figure in a policy discussion. But “faith” here is not a code-word for Jesus or any particular faith; it is just a shorthand for “belief in objective values”. Bush and others of faith believe that one can do good in the world, and that this good is independent of what people think of it. If the whole Arab world and most of Europe disapproves of an action of Bush’s, yet he believes that his action was good (i.e., he has used his faculties of reason and emotion to the best of his ability to discover that it was good), then he can be happy with his action. A moral relativist in general cannot be. It is the basic approach of a man of faith to try to discover–with the help of others, of course–what is good and right, and then to do it. Bush isn’t the best at making decisions with the help of others, but even if he were, he would find little common ground with a person who denies the very idea that there is a good one can discover. This denial is the root of the (mainly) European “live and let live” argument of intervene only when you are threatened–your good is different from their good, so leave them separate–and the cause of “faithless noodles” all over the world being totally unable to comprehend Bush’s actions.

    I am not a man of faith myself (nor am I a supporter of Bush), but I have spent enough time with men of faith, and read enough of the philosophical works of men of faith, to understand them to some degree. If you can’t wrap your mind around what it means to have faith, you are just as limited by your ignorance as those who can’t wrap their minds around what it means to be faithless. Not only will you be incapable of understanding neoconservatism, but you will also be incapable of understanding most of the western canon. Personally, after having been raised in a godless household, this estrangement from what most of western civilization has thought since it’s birth led me to aggressively try to understand faith. I consider my efforts ongoing but successful; if you are in the boat I once occupied, I suggest you try the same.

  • Redshift

    Sam Gralla:

    Faith does not equal morals. The idea that it does, and that nonreligious people are rudderless relativists who are making it up as they go along is one of the biggest falsehoods perpetrated by people who make much of calling themselves “people of faith” (a group which does not encompass all religious people, many of whom I count among my friends.)

    We “faithless noodles,” as you would have it, do not deny the idea that there is good (what a bizarre idea! Wherever did you get that?). Bush’s actions are incomprehensible to us because he does great evil while being utterly convinced of his own goodness, because he brags of being a devout follower of Jesus, while constantly engaging in actions that bear no relationship to his teachings. Moral absolutists do far more harm than “faithless” people, and refusing to change in response to the ill effects of your actions while remaining serenely convinced of their goodness is insanity, not morality.

  • Chris W.

    The preceding comments are hard acts to follow. I’ll limit myself to mentioning a segment I once heard from an interview with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach party in Israel, which both came to be generally recognized as extremist organizations. Kahane said that he and his opponents on the Palestinian side understood each other; his real disconnect was with Israeli liberals and peace activists. I see in this a significant parallel with Bush’s attitude, as summed up by Andrew Card.

  • Elliot

    Chris,

    I tend agree. I see both Bush and Bin Laden more alike in world view than either of them with myself. Silly me, I think violence is wrong.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Maybe Mark Morford, the San Francsico Chronicle columnist, can help put Bush and the religious right in perspective. (His zingy way with words make me laugh too.)

  • A condensed matter theorist

    Still though, it plays politically for Bush to say those things. I mean, how else is he supposed to appease his base yet not cause an international incident in the Middle East by testifying for Jesus Christ on CNN?

    The truth is, this is a political statement and not a personal statement the president may have made. “Faith” is religious enough to mean “Christianity” to American christians and nebulous enough to mean, well, something to muslim fundamentalists.

  • Elliot

    Theorist,

    You hit the nail on the head. “Faith” is a code word for the american religious right.

    You at least have to give them credit for creative and effective pandering.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~jcgonsowski John G

    The left is against violence unless you happen to be Lieberman or an unborn baby. One should define faith as a noticing of signs from God aka Jungian synchronicity aka Hawking top-down cosmology.

  • Elliot

    John G.

    Leiberman is not part of the left. He is not even a real democrat. We don’t need to replay the abortion debate here unless you want to include economic violence which is the proximate cause of the majority of abortions. I will grant you however that the abortion issue is troubling which is why I think everyone should work together to reduce the number of abortions. Unfortunately that would require a fairly radical redistibution of wealth. One I’m sure a lot of those oppose to abortion would find unpalatable.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~jcgonsowski John G

    Hi Elliot, the Catholic Church is very against abortion and very for redistribution of wealth so there’s at least one block with leaders who agree with you (individual Catholics have their own opinions of course). Worldwide I’m not sure there’s enough wealth to go around so I still think social values are the big thing. China obviously has a huge social problem to overcome abortion-wise and at least in theory they have wealth redistribution, a bad one of course. One always has to be careful with wealth redistribution or you end up with West Germany vs East Germany. You don’t want to lower the total wealth too much. Ms. Clinton’s health care plan was killed a lot by Moynihan (the Democatrat who had Ms. Clinton’s NY Senate seat before her). The plan apparently created way too big of a change to the economy.

  • Elliot

    John,

    Which Catholic Church are you referring to? Last time I checked they were the 2nd or 3rd largest holder of real estate on Manhattan, and they have billions of dollars in art objects. Give me a call when they sell those off and give the money to the poor.

    But I agree that simply suggesting that wealth distribution is a solution to abortion is a bit flippant. But the number one reason that women get abortions in America is economic not as many would like to believe convience.

    Cheers,

    Elliot

  • http://angryforareason.blogspot.com Burrow

    The more educated women are the less babies they have, although this would require something other then abstinence only programs in our schools, which would make God angry at us and he might smite us.

    Simply lacking comfort with those who haven’t decided to trust in a higher force, however, belies a real insecurity with the very concepts of self-determination and free will, not to mention a fear of making decisions unaided

    This is the best explanation for Bush’s insanity (outside a few wingnut theories about tertiary syphillus) that I’ve heard.

    Off subject: How much do you think we could get for the Pope’s Prada shoes on ebay?

  • http://home.comcast.net/~jcgonsowski John G

    Well at least if they don’t sell it’s not like the leaders are living off the assets. I personally think caring for ancient art and running churches and schools are noble things but if there’s a better asset structure that still lets them do this I wouldn’t complain. They have to close schools a lot so it’s not like the current method works perfectly. Even if everybody was middle class, raising a child is still a huge economic impact, plus what about adoption? I sort of think the economics will always be there and that social values and messages like adoption are quite important.

  • http://ofteninerror.blogspot.com/ Urbano

    Completely off topic:

    This is probably the very first time a blog is cited as a “formal” reference in a paper, isn´t it?? You should start putting volume and page in your posts :-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Urbano, are you saying that is a deeply disturbing factoid?

  • http://ofteninerror.blogspot.com/ Urbano

    What is a “deeply disturbing factoid”: The idea or the blog?? ;-)

  • http://blog.360.yahoo.com/gglvr8 Harry Springer

    “Faith” is indeed a code word to certain extreme political groups.

    Let that not mask the larger truth that it is a most forcefully a code word for churchgoing members of all American congregations, letting them know that their intentionally limited agendae of trying to raise successful kids who are not sexualized at an early age, or led into criminality via drug and/or sex delinquencies, will be bumped to the front of the queue, ahead of what they view as marginalia: assistance for AIDS victims, or living stipends for unfortunate youngsters who DO reproduce before attaining economic self reliance, or even social engineering, like open borders initiatives, or marriages between unorthodox partner sets. These they see as unneeded, frivolous, unworthy, and the “Faith” word ensures a middle-of-the-road societal perspective, focusing on America’s great success tactic–marriage.
    So it enfolds much within its 5 letters, and excludes much.

    America could indeed be a secular, mainly Darwinian Atheist open ground, accepting and nurturing the numberless agendae of all the world’s disenfranchised, including their tribalist baggage, their retrograde folkways, their riots, hungers, sexual eccentricities and even their malice towards America. The constitution allows almost any type of society to hold sway here, and rather than to grudge-fight each & every gripe in an endless set of neo-Marxist anti-majoritarian jabs, stabs , & blabs, the simple monosyllabic battle flag of normalcy, sexual fruitfulness within the nurturing fold of economic & familial success, freedom from treasonous external mimeses, and a willingness to not overturn the American applecart in the name of millennial chimera, are all neatly summed up by the F-word.

    And there is absolutely nothing malicious, less than worthy, or controlled by a fringe party about it.
    After a young life seeking the freedom of the aquarian age, and a middle life relearning the lessons my parents & teachers tried in vain to make me hear in youth, I see more clearly than anyone the values of the staunchly ordinary, the helpful, the law-abiding, the loyal-to-the-USA, the life with ethical limits, sexual limits, economic limits,
    sans the gaudy, the intentionally grotesque, the perverted, the libertarian, the excessive, or the criminal.
    Late in life , I’ve gained the wisdom to reject the false, and embrace the good.

    In a word—– Faith.

  • Elliot

    Harry,

    How nice for you. But don’t judge others. Morality is not some wonderful realization that you have come to by your mistakes. You sound like George Bush when he says it was O. K. for him to carry on with alcohol and “whatever” when he was young, because now he has found his faith, but as Governor of Texas wanted more jail time for youthful drug offenders.

    As the good book says… Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

    I have faith myself. Faith that my own children will be able to figure out and find their own path through the admittedly confusing and complex world, without my imposing artificial limits on their behavior. In other words I trust them to think for themselves.

    But I do have to compliment you on your flowery prose. Very well written.

    Elliot

  • Harry Springer

    Eliot:

    I’m sorry.
    Did I appear to judge others?
    My writing must be not that good, then, For I judge nobody. Those who indulge a bohemian impulse, have every right to their (pick one): illusions/delusions/realities.

    But when you choose the difficult-to-manage, you eventually find the wheels coming off.

    With family (as I had)
    the rescue can be seamless, fun, even.

    Sans family,
    the inevitable cleanup work
    devolves onto the common weal.
    Is that where it ought be foisted?
    (No judgement here, just a question)

    The “F” word sums up much of this Socratic tough-work,
    in a disposable 5-letter container.

    Believe it or not G.W. knows this.
    52% of the electorate do, too.

  • Harry Springer

    Sorry, guys, I’m over-posting, but I just had some coffee. I promise, no more after this today.

    In all their lack of brilliance, and drunken hunting trips, this administration is aware of a deep yearning for American solidarity, and understands that people will sacrifice some ultimate Marxian analysis to attain the critical mass of the American Minion.

    The American what?

    You can’t be America, if you don’t have a quorum.
    You can be a shell of America, as France was a shell of France pre-WWII, fighting its own government tooth and nail, until Shicklegruber, who DID have a Deutschlandic minion, ended their bickering, by putting Vichy in charge.

    The great American (and west European) conceit, is that we will always be victors, always important, and so we can indulge our differences to the nth degree of our personal cleverness, and the latest exciting millennial dream we hear, all without crapping up our viability, and getting colonized.

    Colonized? Not here….
    According to the Minutemen,
    we ARE being colonized right now.

    Wait till your nice monetized blog gig is outsourced to a believing Pakistani genius with faith,
    faith and a solid world community to back his particular viewpoints up.

    People always want the solidarity, and the deeper analyses are beyond them
    (as they are beyond Bush/Cheney/Rice).
    I say (Harry speaks!) I say, the solidarity, the minion,
    is worth a few FDR pearl-harbor lies, a few holy roller indulgences,
    a little intentional slowness, just to not outrun your own generational peers,
    who were not granted time to think, means to think, and means to be different, as you were,
    and as I was.

    Don’t hate your own.
    Others will always see you as them, no matter how you outstrip their accomplishments.
    So you see, you ARE G.W. Bush.

    How’s THAT feel?

  • Elliot

    Harry you are right. You have had too much coffee :)

    I agree there is a yearning for “something” but I think that the Bush Regime agenda is to exploit that yearning for there own self serving interests not for the larger good.

    I have faith that the rest of the world sees this illegal and unjust regime for what it is. Not a reflection of the American people, but a greedy and morally bankrupt temporary placeholder who got away with a big one when nobody was paying attention.

    Cheers,

    Elliot

  • Harry Springer

    No more morally bankrupt than 20 other administrations.

    Do yourself a favor, respect our commonweal by respecting the office,
    (if not the incumbent),
    gather all your thoughts, and vote your conscience in 2008,
    and find some world peccadillo not so close to home
    to exercise your blogpower upon.

    All the rest of them (China… Iran…. etc.)
    just see Americans attacking Americans…..
    it gives them bad ideas.

  • Elliot

    Harry,

    You really don’t want to get me started on the Israelis

    :)

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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