Last winter, Pat Robertson claimed that God had assured him George Bush would be re-elected. The role of God and the polls in this election deserves scrutiny.
Polls focus on likely voters. Fifty percent of the electorate doesn't vote. Unlike most of the world, non-voting here is concentrated among the poor. Though nonvoters are not automatically radicals, there is more disenchantment among them.
The Bush administration also badly serves the working-class Americans who do vote. Although the clerks, secretaries, lobstermen and boat builders in Southwest Harbor are losing from Bush's agenda, a majority will probably vote for him.
Part of the problem lies in the Democratic Party's decade-long retreat to a corporate economic program even as it continues to pursue a modestly liberal social agenda. Older cultural norms respecting gender and race were challenged just as economic insecurity increasingly afflicted the working class - a recipe for backlash.
Nonetheless, economics is not the whole story. In "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore suggested Americans are an extraordinarily fearful people. Despite or perhaps because they are so fearful, they are violent. The wealthy live in fear of the poor, with gated houses and private guards. And paradoxically, as the physical and psychological walls grow, so does the fear even when crime rates are low.
Fear of the poor or of those who are different invites comparisons with Medieval Europe. However hierarchical Europe may have been, its conception of an orderly chain of being, with God at its apex and hereditary social classes in descending order, at least implied that all social beings are worthy of some recognition. Protestantism and its modern offshoots, so crucial in our founding, regarded such static hierarchies as a challenge to the primacy of God. They replaced a hierarchical but diverse social and natural order with a belief that God - and eventually man - can bring all aspects of the world under control.
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James Morone, author of "Hellfire Nation," reminds us that the Puritans came to a new world to escape the persecution of the old, to build a society in direct contact with God. Yet paradoxically in a land where all save the Native Americans were from away and freed from persecution, it became hard to build and sustain a coherent identity. According to Morone, "The Puritans groped back to the tried and true - they found terrible new enemies to define them. The saints constructed their us against a vivid series of immoral them: heretics, Indians, witches. Each enemy clarified the Puritan identity."
But religion can take other forms than offered by Robertson or early Puritans. A 2002 guest on Bill Moyers' PBS series "Now," Paul Woodruff, author of "Reverence: The Forgotten Virtue," suggested that: "one of the most devastating ways to be irreverent is to think that you know the literal mind of God and that you are carrying out God's will. ... Oedipus and the other tyrants are not in trouble because they didn't sacrifice enough chickens. ... It was about their attitude toward themselves and their failure to realize that they were not truly godlike. ..."
The social world may not be amenable to comprehensive understanding or unitary control. Every effort to order our lives leaves some aspects that just don't fit. These remainders in turn occasion anxieties and periodically lead to overwhelmingly imperatives to suppress cultural differences. Woodruff cautions us against the dangers of succumbing to the anxiety life's inevitable gaps may cause and seeking false security in comprehensive ideologies that regard all difference as a threat. He inspires us to cultivate a capacity to take joy in a social and natural order that may always be more variegated and unpredictable than anything we can ever imagine.
Walt Whitman recognized that healthy democracies must remain perpetually receptive to the multitude of subterranean voices and lifestyles that sporadically arise both in others and ourselves in response to even the most thoughtful and broad-based public policy. In a contemporary setting we might begin by bringing NASCAR dads into a progressive coalition not by pandering to their worst fears and prejudices, but by acknowledging that their cultural, economic and educational opportunities have also been limited. As they are pushed to acknowledge injustices to minorities, so too the stereotyping to which they have been subjected can also be redressed. They need the time, resources, and cultural space for a range of habits and practices, like NASCAR, on which mainstream liberal culture often looks down.
Unless we can combat the deep economy of fear that Bush so skillfully exploits but did not inaugurate, even a progressive economic agenda has little chance of success. America will remain a fearful nation vulnerable to the spokespersons of a vindictive God.