This weekend, Jon Stewart held "a rally to restore sanity" on the mall, two months after Glenn Beck's religion-infused "Restoring Honor" rally. Beck said he was called by God to hold the rally. Now atheist groups are planning to use Stewart's event to promote "reason." Are "reason" and "sanity" the opposite of religious belief? Is taking religion out of the political debate the answer for restoring reason? Or do we need more faith?
Jon Stewart's laudable Rally to Restore Sanity is a welcome message aimed at bringing calm and moderation to the overheated political debate that Glenn Beck has ginned up with the Tea Party. Glenn Beck's power over the Tea Party is the power of unleashed emotion. He converts uncertainty and frustration into anger and fear. These emotions allow frustration to be channeled. In a sense, that process of expressing frustration and anger is more suited to rallies than sanity -- sanity doesn't need a rally. It's a steady state that prevails every day in most people's lives. The atheist group, the Coalition of Reason is looking for new members and has decided that if Jon Stewart's rally for sanity is in contrast to Glenn Beck's religious rally, then that must mean it will be full of atheists. The implied step of logic is that sane, reasonable people don't believe in God. But the heart of the issue is not really between believers and non-believers, rationality and faith.
Emotion cannot be separated from reason, and every effort on the part of psychologists to find a way around this fact, to initiate totally reasoned choices, has failed. It has to, because in those rare cases where a person has lost brain function in the emotional centers of the lower brain, decision-making didn't improve. It became nearly impossible. Beck's motives do not reflect religious ideas, unless your concept of God is as a being who wants anger, disorder, and mob reactions to prevail over peace and harmony. Yet every observer who stands back from the Tea Party movement has no difficulty seeing that it is chaotic. Fear and rage are terrible foundations for problem solving. Which is why the Tea Party's agenda is rife with self-contradictions. Its supporters want more jobs but don't want government to spend anything to provide jobs. They want Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment without paying for these benefits through taxation. They want to decrease the debt while lowering taxes, a clash of opposites.
The reform movement that elected Barack Obama was essentially a fix-it program buoyed by tenuous optimism and a general disgust with the failures of the previous administration. Conventional wisdom would have it that the country has turned on reform because of high unemployment and the failure of bailouts and recovery initiatives to solve our economic woes. Here is one area where faith has collapsed, but not faith in God. It's collapse of faith in ourselves. Societies plunge into discord for various reasons: when there are unmet needs, declining economics, social rifts, racial divides, and a general sense of threat. Right now we have a perfect storm of all these ingredients. Most politicians see no recourse but to weather the storm. Few are willing to rebuild trust. The president is one, but with demagogues bringing out the worst in public disgruntlement, his success has been limited.
Behind all this lies twenty years of reactionary politicking from the right, stoking distrust in government -- which can be a healthy thing, of course, but not when it is carried to the point of a blanket rejection of social coherence. Glenn Beck and other right-wing demagogues are so obviously irrational and self-serving that it's not their message that is troubling; the message will never prevail in an advanced industrial society that depends on maximum coherence to keep functioning. The troubling aspect, which is uniquely American, has to do with keeping a pluralistic society together. The Tea Party cry of "let's take our country back" is code for "let's give control back to WASP males," since they form the bulk of the movement. The fabric of a pluralistic society is always fragile. The melting pot can boil over at any minute. You must create a story based on "we're all in this together" instead of "every group for itself, damn the others." The final question of faith rests there, in a common will to live together for the benefit of everyone. We are going through extraordinarily tense times right now, and economic recovery, however slow or patchy or unfair, will eventually occur. But in the meantime the rise of demagogic xenophobia, religious intolerance, class strife, racial distrust, and unleashed anger threatens the core of society, which is faith in ourselves.
Published in the Washington Post