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It may seem that the Republican world view has become increasingly faith-based.  If so, this has happened before, and that occasion can provide some useful insights into our situation today.

The ancient, pre-Christian, Roman world had restricted uses for faith.  Individuals believed in gods who could be propitiated by sacrifice and perhaps swayed to help out hapless mortals.  There was belief in an afterlife, but not much else.  Romans were a practical sort, putting their trust in what they could see and feel.

The Christians brought a new perspective to life, one where much of everyday realities were underlain by a belief system.  For them, faith explained, it justified, it predicted.  As the new church rose to dominance and allied itself with the government during the fourth century, the use of faith increased exponentially.  Extensive debates on the "correct" beliefs ensued, resulting at times in harsh persecution of those on the losing end.  Before too long, churchmen saw the ancient philosophers, the Sophists, the Epicureans, the Platonists, and others as competitors to be pushed out.  In the sixth century, the teaching of philosophy was banned by the emperor Justinian, and the curtain came down on rational inquiry for many years.

The centuries which followed were called the Dark Ages, and they were dark not only because of the invasions of barbarians, the destruction of international trade, or the depopulation of the cities, but also because of the cultural decline caused by the substitution of faith for learning.  Only after the Crusades was an interest in the ancient classics renewed, and this momentum increased during the thirteenth century, leading to the Renaissance.

These days, a great many Republicans appear to have something amiss.  They believed the jiggered polls which indicated that their man would win in a rush.  They discount global warming because they don't believe in it or in the data supporting it.  They don't believe in evolution; they do believe in intelligent design.  They disbelieve all evidence which contradicts their prejudices.  The funny thing is that they can get away with it for long periods of time.  Every so often, however, reality jumps back in, such as on November 6th this year.

How are rational folks to deal with these individuals?   Should they be considered as merely witless dilusionaries or people with a mental aberration requiring treatment?  I suggest neither.

Faith has an important function in human life, and each of us exercises it to a certain extent.  We trust that the earth will continue to rotate so that the sun will appear above the eastern horizon in the morning.  We believe as we pull onto the freeway or turnpike that no damn fool is going to cross the center median and hit us head on.  Many people have a personal faith in God, and it gives them much comfort.  No one should have a problem with these exercises of belief, but the examples of "something amiss" mentioned above all have a common characteristic which we should evaluate.

Belief, like any other tool for penetrating the mysteries of life, has its proper domain.  The mischief arrises when it is overused to make proclamations about physical reality which potentially can be refuted by observation or experiment.  One can disbelieve that the polar ice caps during summer are shrinking year by year, but that belief can be refuted by hard evidence.  One can disbelieve in evolution, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the ever increasing store of data supporting it.  One can believe that it is possible to walk on the ceiling, to hold this faith against all argument -- right up until the time when it is actually tried.

Certainly we have here something which needs to be counteracted, but carefully.  Faith is not at fault, nor the people who make use of it, merely its excesses.  

So OK.  This is a political site, and how does the history lession and the brief lecture on faith pertain?  

The example of the Romans shows what can happen when an excessive version of faith takes over the political machine.  It required centuries to begin to reverse the damage.  The same intrusion of faith based anti-intellectualism into our own political apparatus could lead to the same result if we don't realize it for what it is and combat it.

In the classic movie, "Inherit the Wind," William Jennings Bryan was much respected by the local Tennessee crowd as a man of faith.  He sat on the stand being questioned by Clarence Darrow with supreme confidence, fanning himself in the heat.  Darrow cleverly got Bryan to state that his assurance in his own rightness came from his perception that God spoke to him personally, and instantly he was busted.  This was considered excessive even by the fundamentalist bunch in the audience, and they turned away from him.

It is not difficult to describe politicans like Alan West.  The term "nut job" comes to mind.  The man actually thought that he could prove that about eighty "Democrat" members of congress were members of the Communist party by an exercise of faith.  No proof, just faith.  Patrick Murphy was able to sell rational to a bunch of Republicans in a red district and oust the wild man.  Representative elect Murphy has the right mojo, and we need more candidates with it because there are more than a few nut jobs still running loose in congress.

The counterpoint to a perspective which is faith-based is one which is reality-based.  Democrats have to become known as the party of reality -- real people, real needs, real problems, and real solutions.  If we campaign not against faith but against its excesses, we will put a lot of faithful people at ease long enough for them to see that we would represent them best.  Win those people over, and the Republican party will become a back page in an unread history book.

Originally posted to TCG on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 12:07 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and PaganKos.

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