THE BLOG
10/12/2012 03:22 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2012

Joe Biden and Paul Ryan: They Take It on Faith

I was happy to be interviewed recently for a future edition of the "Possible Architect" literary podcast, when the conversation turned toward the speed by which I (and the host, Trevor Dodge) listen to audiobooks. We double and triple the speed of the narration so as to cram as much as possible into the shortest listening time.

My rationale: Each time I hear a ZZ Top song on a classic rock channel, a part of me dies. Whereas, so goes my current thinking, listening to Philip K. Dick (this week) in frenetic fast-forward carries me to a reflective literary space, or at least some facsimile thereof.

I am under no delusion about how this type of consumption is a function (for me) of a smart-phone -addicted existence where I want everything to happen all at once. I recognize that this may not be the best choice for others. In fact, I sincerely crave some sort of stillness that I might use a way of slowing down. I find this, in small measure, in various places: most often with my daughters, and when I can, in the vast reflective nothingness of Lake Michigan (which I am beginning to see as not only the subject of my 2010 novel Drain, but also my 2011 blank novel, BLANK).

What's interesting, then, perhaps, is the way the 2012 presidential election is often constructed in a similar manner -- as a dance between 1) public policies and duties and the slavish fidelity to a particular party ideology moving at the speed of the 24-news cycle, and 2) a set of private articulations that supposedly undergird these positions and provide a still center from which our politicians might defend and reinforce their external actions (and votes).

Put another way, are politicians ever allowed to have beliefs that are not bolstered by some private system that provides the secret "key" to their actions? Party ideology in today's America so often must stem from a certain type of private nationalism or self-contained religious feeling so that we try, with sustained fervor, to discover what really motivates our candidates.

This, after all, is the root of claims of Obama-socialism: that Barack follows the lodestar of Marxism as he decides, presumably, which breakfast cereal to eat and which segment of the economy to scuttle. Mitt Romey's LDS religious affiliation is subject to these same claims.

This brings us to vice presidential debate on late night:

I watch Vice President Joe Biden (maybe sponsored by Red Bull?) shout his way through the debate with his usual mix of intensity and content that at its best moments demonstrated a boiling resourcefulness, and at its worst a PTSD senatorial pit-bull with visions of Robert Bork -- the 1987 Supreme Court nominee Biden famously help to torpedo -- as a chewed-up bone whose mewling essence might be recaptured, for a brief salivating moment, once again in rough jaws of the Scranton-bred bruiser.

I know less about Paul Ryan, yet I always seem to picture him wearing a slightly over-sized suit (a diminution of David Byrne from Stop Making Sense? -- sans infectious rhythm), as he proffers an Ayn Rand below-the-surface glow that he keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?

(In my junior year at Penn State, a woman begins talking to me in our Shakespeare course. What is she saying? She's president of the Ayn Rand club on campus and would I like to read, not these pamphlets, but these giant tomes to personal happiness she's pulling from her bag? Um....)

This all seemed-to-be politics as usual, until something happens. Sort of.

I actually perk up a bit and even put down my iPad, computer, phone, Kindle and mp3 player when moderator Martha Raddatz asks the vice presidential candidates about their views on abortion -- in terms of their Catholicism. Here we are, for a moment, at this precise intersection of the intensely personal and the politically public. Is there a key, here, finally, to unlock ideology? Are either of these guys going to say what they would do when we give them all this power, without trying to tell us how their personal faith provides the key to their actions?

Unsurprisingly, the two men articulate their positions as expressions of their faith. Ryan tells the story of how his oldest child is nicknamed "Bean" because of her relative size at the moment an ultrasound first detected her heartbeat. He uses this anecdote to strengthen his life-begins-at-conception argument, citing also, directly, "reason and reason," and, indirectly, whatever the strange blotch on his over sized American flag pin might be. It looks, to me, like an enormous Sacred Heart, capable of attributing proto-sentience to, under the right medical conditions, its own gleaming metal substance.

Biden, for his part, charts his personal belief as a Catholic in a similar manner, with the caveat that he would not push his personal views on the electorate. USA Today's Cathy Lynn Grossman reports that the website Pray for Paul's Change of Heart is indeed praying for both men to change their views (Ryan on a budget that would hurt the poor; Biden on his public abortion stance to better protect "the born and preborn.")

I'm not sure which position is more unsettling: the belief from Ryan that politics should be an articulation of faith (when of course not everyone he would represent shares the dictates of that particular faith), or the statement from Biden that despite his defense of a women's right to choose, everyone should know, wink, wink, that in his heart of hearts he is a man of deep faith and conscience.

Yes, full disclosure: I prefer Biden's position, but I wish there were a third way. I don't mind if politicians are religious, just as I wouldn't mind if politicians were not. The level of religious belief one assumes seems to me to a choice each person may make, and re-make, over the course on a life.

Rather, I don't want our elections and our political system to be based upon a need to constantly have politicians justify their votes based upon (Ryan) or against (Biden) their private beliefs.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had leaders who made choices based not upon a secret code of ideology or moral principle -- on a faith that provides their guidance system -- but upon the actual conditions of an issue as it expresses itself? However one constructs their position in terms of personal faith, the idea that one's government duty must take explicit direction from that faith is a bit like having Grover Norquist checking passes at the gates of Heaven. That guy?

Abortion is obviously a highly charged issue, but could we ever even imagine politicians discussing it without having to constantly explain how what they say conforms to a set of moral guidelines?

Maybe in a Philip K. Dick novel. Maybe not.

This isn't an argument against faith or against my own desire for stillness, but a call for recognizing the world we live in the actual place where we must make and defend our decisions... not in a separate and imaginary "center" that we think will provide us with a blueprint for living.

On the beach at Lake Michigan the other day, with my oldest daughter, Athena, 6: "Daddy, take this stick and draw the other half of this heart in the sand." I do. She writes the word "LOVE" inside. "This," she says, "is you and me."

I'm going to try to see this for what it is: the greatest thing in my life, right there, happening on the beach, at that very moment. It's not a private confidence in my daughter's love that calls the drawing into existence out of thin air. It's the fact that we live together in the world, and that we walk the beach together, as a way to make space for our hearts to speak.

It would be nice if our politicians -- no matter how fast they must move, even at three times the speed -- would listen more closely to the waves breaking around them.

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