Faith and Politics

Don't Forget the "Faith Factor"

Anthropologists are not quite certain when early humans began to develop religion, though it was at least 100,000 years ago. By contrast, the scientific method is a relative newcomer to the scene, having been developed by the Ancient Egyptians (and others) about 5,000 years ago. Still, this means that for at least the last five millennia—and probably longer—human culture has had a dichotomy between two different systems for discerning "the truth": Faith and fact-based analysis.

Some scientists and some religious leaders would have you believe that, particularly in the modern world, the two world views are fundamentally in conflict with one another. Jerry Coyne, for example, author of the bestseller Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Or Richard Dawkins, well-known scientist and anti-religion activist, and author of such works as The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True and The God Delusion. On the other side is someone like Henry M. Morris (now deceased), whose 1961 book The Genesis Flood was the founding text of modern-day creationism (despite the fact that Morris was an academically-trained scientist and engineer).

However, "faith or science" is something of a false dichotomy, as even Pope Francis would tell you. It is a rare individual who dwells at either end of the spectrum 100% of the time. Nearly all people—and, therefore, nearly all Americans—juggle the two, privileging faith in some cases, and facts in others. A recent poll confirms this, with respondents expressing the view that there is a conflict between science and faith in American culture, but that the conflict has been overblown.

Whether or not the faith vs. science narrative has been exaggerated, it is certainly the case that it has been misrepresented or misunderstood. 'Faith' has two meanings, the first of which is "belief and trust in and loyalty to God; belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion." When Americans speak of "faith" in politics, this is generally the definition they are using. The influential book The Faith Factor, from which the title of this post comes, focuses exclusively on religion and its place in American politics. And if we limit ourselves to religious faith, then the most obvious modern-day cases of that faith trumping factual evidence—denial of global warming, rejection of the theory of evolution, etc.—are associated with Republicans, particularly those of an evangelical Christian bent. For that reason, the GOP has acquired a reputation for being the anti-science party.

Mischa Fischer, writing for the Atlantic, has argued that the "anti-science" label is unfair. Fischer is a Republican operative, and his piece reads like something of an apologia, but he is nonetheless reminding us of an important point. The second definition of 'faith' is "a firm belief in something for which there is no proof." If we think in terms of this broader definition, there is no question that evangelicals and Republicans do not have a monopoly when it comes to ignoring evidence. Most obviously, excessive trepidation about nuclear power and genetically-modified organisms, overstatement of the health benefits of a vegan or organic diet, and the belief that vaccines cause autism all run contrary to scientific evidence, and all are to be found more commonly on the left side of the political spectrum than the right.

Americans, particularly those in the media, definitely tend to overlook the importance of faith—which could just as easily be labeled 'instinct' or 'gut feel'—when the voter in question is not an evangelical Christian. For example, political analysts—both inside the beltway and out—are presently tearing their hair out (or furiously combing it over) trying to make sense of Donald Trump. There is virtually no evidence that he can win an election or be a good president, while there is overwhelming evidence that he will be a disaster as a candidate (and, should the apocalypse come to pass, as president). How could voters possibly line up behind him? What can be their reasoning? For many there is no reasoning, because they do not care about the evidence—they are gravitating towards Trump because of their gut feel. If Trump's base of support was 95% evangelical Christian, the commentariat would immediately "understand." But because it is not, he seems to be a mystery.

Similarly, the single-most important science in election season is not chemistry, or evolutionary biology, or earth sciences—it's math. We have already noted many times that it is necessary to be wary of pollsters in 2016, even those who are trying to do an honest job, because of the challenges of polling in an era of cell phones and people who do not want to be bothered. But it is also necessary to be wary of those who reject what the numbers tell them, and decide to tweak the numbers to match their beliefs, thus disguising faith in the guise of evidence. The most notorious example of this in 2012 was Dean Chambers, who "unskewed" polls at his whim, making Mitt Romney look stronger and Barack Obama look weaker than was actually the case. When the returns came in, Chambers—and Dick Morris, and Karl Rove, and others who allowed their feelings to overrule their facts—were stunned and disappointed. These distortions had real-world consequences: Mitt Romney was so certain he was going to win that he didn't bother to write a concession speech.

Already, we are seeing examples of what might be called psuedo-polling in this election cycle. About a week ago, an obscure blogger conducted an "analysis" of Real Clear Politics' polling data and concluded a Trump-Clinton election would see the Republicans taking a staggering 70% of the vote, capturing all of the red states plus such Democratic strongholds as Oregon, Maryland, and Connecticut. The blogosphere quickly picked up on the piece, and it has gotten wide circulation on conservative websites and on social media. Of course, the author's conclusions are utter nonsense. No presidential candidate (outside of the unopposed George Washington) has ever come close to winning 70% of the popular vote—the three best finishes are LBJ in 1964 (61.05%), FDR in 1936 (60.8%), and Richard Nixon in 1972 (60.67%). Further, it is easy enough to check RCP's database, which has 22 polls pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. In those, there has been one tie, while Trump has come out ahead twice, and Clinton has come out ahead 19 times. Clinton's average margin of victory is plus 2.5%, which is quite a bit better than minus 40%. The author's numbers are so fishy, it is obvious that something is wrong, but more subtle manipulation—which could also happen on the Democratic side—could easily fly under the radar if we are not careful to look closely.

The point of this: As we try to understand and make sense of the 2016 elections, we should always be on the lookout for "leaps of faith" of various kinds, regardless of a voter's demographics. When we ask ourselves the question, "What possible rational (in other words, factual) explanation is there for __________," there may not always be an answer.

-- Zenger