A pervasive need among Americans to demand certainty from their faiths leads to a political culture of certainty as well, according to Ira Chernus, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
For that reason, it is unlikely that President Barack Obama will do much to raise doubts about the decades-old notion that America is the absolute power for good in the world.
|Ira Chernus, Ph.D.
Photo by Janet Sassi
“So many Americans look to the political arena to find a sense of absolute truth and certainty, an unshakable foundation of values to build their lives on,” said Chernus, author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin (Paradigm Publishers, 2006) on Feb. 6 at the Rose Hill campus.
“Obama knows he’s got to look tough on national security, because that’s the place, above all, where people look for that moral absolute, that boundary between right and wrong,” he said.
To that end, President Obama has assembled a National Security team that includes Bush-appointed Robert Gates for Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones for National Security Advisor, to fight the war on terror, he said.
As a good politician, Obama understands the relationship between religion and politics in America, Chernus said. He pointed to the much-criticized comment Obama made in the spring of 2008: when people feel no economic certainty, they often “cling to guns and religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
“Obama told a New York Times reporter that he felt people misinterpreted that quote,” Chernus said. “He is really sympathetic to those people because in a certain sense he was one of them; he understands.”
Yet Chernus sees hints from Obama that he understands an atypical view of faith—one that includes room to question.
Chernus invoked the teachings of 20th century theologian Paul Tillich who said that genuine faith opens a person up to “unlimited reality,” where one can never be absolutely certain his or her religious symbol is guaranteed to be effective.
“Belief is something you know to be empirically true; two-plus-two is four,” said Chernus. “But faith does not deal in empirical knowledge. Tillich is saying that if you exclude doubt [from religion]then you are dealing not with faith, but with belief.”
The development of America as the leader of the free world came about, Chernus said, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. At that time, when Roosevelt was building the case for entry into World War II, he demonized the enemy in order to rally support toward more war expenditures. The federal budget began its shift to the side of high defense and national security spending that it maintains today.
“Are we actually more secure?” Chernus asked. “The mood in this country is to be more afraid of our enemies than the power of our enemies really justifies.”
The more the U.S. pursues national security, Chernus concluded, the more “we end up digging ourselves deeper into this sense of insecurity.”
“Politically, Obama is forced to be a symbol of certainty,” he said. “[But] what if we accepted the fact that we are not sure that we have the truth and that all the right is on our side?”
Chernus’ lecture, “Faith, Doubt and the War on Terror in the Obama Era,” was sponsored by the Department of Theology.