The Defining Question of the 2016 Election

Lately I’ve been doing something that a lot of idealistic young people do. I’ve been thinking about what it means to live a good life. Sample questions include: am I a bad person? How can I contribute more than I consume? What’s the point of anything? Who is Harambe? And so on and so forth.

I’ve always had a desire to be at the center of things. It’s one of the reasons I moved to New York. I was desperate to put a finger on the heartbeat of humanity. I wanted to be in thick of it, to try to get to the heart of this thing we’re doing called being alive.

One of the great things about living in the city (I could go on for years about how much I love New York, but part of being a New Yorker is playing it cool at all times so I’ll refrain) is that it is difficult to feel numb.

I have always been terrified of a life spent commuting from car to cubicle to couch, devoid of any real relationship with reality. It is difficult to ignore poverty and homelessness when I am brutally confronted with their devastating effects on a daily basis. It is difficult to ostracize people and pretend they don’t exist when I live in one of the most diverse places on the planet .

“I used to want to travel the world,” a friend once told me. “Then I moved to Queens and realized the whole world is here.”

I need it to be difficult for me to ignore these realities, I need to have no choice but to experience the depths and widths of the world, because if I have a choice, personal comfort becomes the driving force of my life.

The first time I realized this was in high school. I was in the car with my dad telling him about my ideal night. It involved takeout Chines food, elastic waistbands, our couch, and The Godfather. What he said has stuck with me ever since.

“You sure like being comfortable don’t you?”

I sure do. My desire for comfort is the reason I refused to wear pants in high school (uniform pants do not have elastic waistbands). It’s the reason I coat my walls in Christmas lights and avoid introducing myself to people and am cowardly in almost every way.

I know that comfort isn’t the goal, but I long for it anyways. Living in a place like New York is helpful because it makes this comfort more difficult to attain. But not impossible.

One of the not-so-great things about living in the city is you learn just how much you can ignore. You can easily become desensitized to poverty and human suffering when you encounter it on every block, of every street, on every hour, of every day. You learn that you can walk by a man being strapped to a gurney and not be too concerned. That you can live in the most diverse neighborhood on the planet and still only speak to people who look like you. That there can be a bomb scare and your primary concern will be how it affects your commute. That you can make see a man lying on the ground, screaming for help and look away.

The comfort monster inside of me wants to feel superior because I am not hiding in the suburbs or obsessed with making money or able to hide from the reality of the world. But mostly I feel desolate. What good does this knowledge do me if it doesn’t change a thing?

Say what you will about the overall sketchiness of Westernized Christianity, the best part about my upbringing was how much it focused on my own insignificance. Over and over again I was told it was not about me. That I was here to serve. That I was not the center of anything. I still walk to this philosophical drumbeat—It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you—even though I have no idea what it really is.

I’ve been thinking about living a good life and because it is an election year, I’ve been thinking about voting and Democracy and what it means for that good life. The things that color how I perceive the election are the same things that color how I perceive the world and my place in it.

As I’ve read and discussed and bit my tongue until it bleeds in trying to make sense of this election, what’s emerged hasn’t been about candidates or republicans or democrats. It’s been about my neighbors.

That drumbeat that compels me to unravel myself from the center of the story is itself compelled by the most beautiful principle religion has ever gifted to us. Love your neighbor.

Simple. Aspirational. Impossible.

But the consequence of moving from carefree California to one of the most segregated states in the country to the most diverse place on earth is that all of my neighbors hate each other.

The people who inhabit my world are racists and people of color, homophobic church goers and the LGBT community, the affluent and the impoverished. They are feminists and complementarians, atheists and the devoutly religious. Sexists, victims, surivors, and attackers. Democrats and Republicans. Trump supporters and Sanders fanatics and Hillary devotees. Educated, ignorant, citizen, immigrant. Neighbor.

Who is my neighbor? The better question would be who isn’t my neighbor, or better still, who would I prefer not to count when I consider those I am supposed to respect and love and serve?

I was confused when I woke up one morning last week and saw that the current internet outrage was over Jimmy Fallon rumpling Trump’s hair because this “humanized” Trump. I find this interesting because I was unaware we were laboring under the illusion of an inhuman Trump.

My neighbor isn’t only the oppressed but the oppressor. The one percenters and the marginalized. I cannot stand for the oppressed by hating the oppressor, or fight for justice by Othering those who have made attacking the Other their constitutional right.

You know what feels comfortable? Separating myself from evil by making it faceless and inhuman. You know what is uncomfortable? Accepting that the face of evil is usually banal and average and looks disconcertingly similar to my own.

It’s no secret that I have a tendency toward intellectual paralysis. I write to exorcise this icy fear from my limbs, but the thawing is slow. One thing I’ve never doubted is the importance of voting. Participating in democracy if you have the opportunity to do so seems to me to be a bare minimum action in an attempt to live a good life.

And here’s where that drumbeat of my own insignificance becomes a hallelujah chorus. I am not a politician or influential person. My vote doesn’t count for much. What matters far more is how I treat my neighbors.

In politics it’s easy to slather people into masses and dissect them into rigid categories. In real life we interact with these people one on one and it’s far more difficult to generalize them into safe stereotypes.

It feels good and comfortable to say the problem is over there with those people. This is where the principle of neighbors is key. Because those people are actually my people, they are my neighbors, which means the problem isn’t over there with them. It’s over here. With me. What wonderful news then that it—whatever it is—is not about me.

 

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What Does it Mean to be Liberal?

Earlier this week I tried (and mostly failed) to make sense of conservative political theory. In this post, I’ll try to get to the bottom of what we mean when we describe something as liberal.

The first thing I learned in researching the history of liberalism was how skewed our current perspective is. The current understanding in America of liberal politics is relatively new and at odds with how other countries understand the term. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be using liberal as it is most commonly understood in the United States, a country with a long and glorious history of cannibalizing and regurgitating languages for our own amusement.

Here’s what being liberal appears to mean in culture, practice, and ideals:

Culture:

  • live in urban areas
  • vocally support open-mindedness
  • comprise more women and minorities
  • generally younger in age
  • less tied to traditional morals and religion

Practically:

  • support gay marriage and transgender rights
  • advocate for intersectional feminism
  • support restrictions on guns
  • favor more government programs to create more equal economic playing field

Ideally:

  • the government bears the responsibility to legislate more equal, fair, and just life for everyone in the country

Definition of liberalism according to Merriam Webster’s:

belief in the value of social and political change in order to achieve progress

And here’s Paul Shlichta’s definition from American thinker:

  • Conservatism – all men are equal but not necessarily good
  • Liberalism – all men are good but not necessarily equal

Liberals have made the shrewd rhetorical move of claiming compassion and empathy as the motivations for their political beliefs, but this year several high profile pieces have chronicled how liberals can actually be more intolerant, close-minded and condescending than conservatives.

The biggest problem with liberal theory is the huge assumption it makes about the best way to improve the world. Most people probably agree that we should strive to alleviate poverty and ensure everyone has an equal chance for success, but liberals make a huge intellectual leap by placing the impetus for making these changes on the government.

The most simplistic way to explain this assumption is to correlate it with the relative lack of religious allegiance among liberals. The conservative base is largely made up of Christians, who also claim to want to serve the least advantaged, but believe the church is the institution that should deliver this aid.* Liberals have no other institutional allegiances but the government to see these changes through.

I’m driven by liberal motivations, but am unconvinced that the plans they propose to create an equitable, just future for all, are actually the most practical ways to achieve these means.

On the other hand, a conservative framework of government works for me personally because I am privileged in practically every way and do not need much assistance from the state. However, on the other-other hand, it would be naive to think that a governing system based on my own life experience is applicable and helpful for most Americans.

This is the impasse I find myself at, staring at two equally lethal political theories, attempting to stretch myself into a person wide enough to accommodate both. It is at heart, a desperate struggle not to let irrationality or fear or personal comfort dictate how I see the world.

There’s a lot of science indicating political affiliations are mostly determined by personality traits and environment. Science aside, when looking at the demographic makeup of liberal and conservative adherents, this personality bias is obvious. The conservative base is conveniently made up of people who benefit from conservative politics and the liberal base is made up of people who benefit the most from liberal politics.

But. Marie Konnikova of The New Yorker reports that these correlations do not have to equal causations. The race is not fixed. You can make up your own mind. You can still choose.

So in the exhausting question of liberal or conservative I choose none of the above.

I’m not alone in this choice. The Pew Research Center articulates a reality people are probably already aware of. Most of us aren’t liberal or conservative. According to their findings “18% are liberals, 15% are conservatives, 16% are populists, and 9% are libertarians.” What about the other 42%? The largest group of people in the survey defied categorization. The Pew Research Center labeled them “ambivalents.” The definition of ambivalent is “having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.”

That would be me.

Really though, when I think about what it means to be conservative and liberal and how a government should work, I’m driven by a much bigger question. On the surface it appears unrelated to politics, but I think the answer can guide me through my ambivalence: who is my neighbor?

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*If you want a broader understanding of the term liberal, Daniel B. Klein has written a helpful history you can find here

* The complete and utter failure of the church to do this is a topic for another time

 

What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?

For better or worse (mainly worse) when it comes to working American theories of government there are two lines of thought that have dominated the political arena.*

One of these belief systems is tied to the Republican Party, but as this election has demonstrated in painful detail, people are at odds over what being a conservative Republican actually means.

I’ve written before that political loyalty is more determined by personality than chosen intellectual beliefs. With this in mind, I’ve broken down what we typically mean when we describe someone as conservative using the umbrellas of culture, practice, and ideals.

What being conservative means culturally:

  • Christian (or religious)
  • Morally traditional
  • Higher income bracket
  • Typically reside in less urban areas

What being conservative means practically:

  • Supporting gun rights
  • Support of a large military
  • Oppose gay marriage and abortion
  • Skeptical of political feminism
  • Oppose illegal immigration

What being conservative means ideally:

  • believing the government should leave people alone with their bad selves

Here’s the official definition of conservatism  according to Merriam Webster’s:

  • belief in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society
  • dislike of change or new ideas in a particular area

Paul Shlichta,  writing for American Thinker, puts it this way:

  • Conservatism – all men are equal but not necessarily good
  • Liberalism – all men are good but not necessarily equal

I asked the Twittersphere what they thought being conservative meant. Here are a few responses:

Nowhere is this desire for a return to the way things were more evident than the Republican Presidential candidate’s slogan. His entire campaign is based on the belief that America needs to return to a lost state of greatness.

This nostalgic desire for a distant past is practically inseparable from the modern Christian perception of original sin.* The conservative struggle to return America to a former state of greatness mirrors the current Christian understanding of fallen, sinful humans trying to get back to a perfect God.

This election has helpfully boiled down this narrative and clarified what conservatives truly value by highlighting what they are willing to compromise. Morals have become less important than strong, vocal opposition to liberal opponents. It appears that conservatives are willing to compromise on abortion, gay marriage, and international trade policies as long as they maintain the right to free speech and can prevent immigrants from entering the country.

The contradictions between what conservatives claim to believe in and the realities they vote for makes it difficult for someone like me—young, trying to make informed political decisions—to align herself with them. As a group, conservatives currently stand for nothing but dissatisfaction with the current form of government. This stance does little to differentiate them from liberals who are also extremely unsatisfied with the government.

As an ideal, conservatism rests on a hesitation to place too much trust in the government. It’s an ideal that makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m hesitant to prioritize voting for an ideal rather than a reality. American conservatism in practice is a hot mess I want little to do with. I’m wary of the contradictions and mindless outrage it encourages.

What I find most depressing about all of this is our apparent inability to change. A tenet of both conservative and liberal theories is ensuring freedom—of course, the details of this are drastically different on both sides, but most would agree that a crucial part of this freedom is choosing a political belief system in the first place.

But if our political associations are indeed motivated primarily by innate personality traits, then this foundational choice is nothing but a mirage. I have a natural tendency to trust my own conscience and question authority. It’s a personality trait that also leads me to distrust government institutions. Accepting this natural tendency as the foundation for my political beliefs means I don’t have to assess these sociologies honestly. It also means there’s little reason to worry about changing people’s minds because the political party that can attract the most common personality traits will win regardless of the strength of their political platform. I find this unacceptable, but just because it’s unacceptable doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

In my next post I’ll be looking at what it means to be liberal. Got thoughts? Comment below or send them to thinkcuriouser@gmail.com.

*There’s many more complex and nuanced political theories that get less attention for a lot of reasons, one of the most interesting being that the most partisan are also the most outspoken

*It’s important to acknowledge that this is the current Christian perspective, but is certainly not the only historical view Christians have taken

What Can We Learn From the Controversial Sainthood of Mother Teresa?

On September 4, Mother Teresa officially became a saint. Not in a “bless your heart you’re a saint” kind of way, but in the real, Pope approved, miracles verified, legitimate kind of way.

If you’re not an expert on Catholicism or India’s economy (hello, most of the world), Mother Teresa is probably a vaguely mythological creature. She’s known for her tireless work serving the poor, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and the many, many inspirational quotes attributed to her.

But she is not without controversy.

Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, a physician who works in England, has spent years criticizing Mother Teresa for her coercive conversion tactics and accused her of providing subpar medical care to those she served. He also objects to the image she popularized of Kolkata as an overwhelmingly destitute and impoverished city.

For the most part his criticism of the most beloved woman to have ever lived was met with silence or contempt. This has only intensified Chatterjee’s attempts to shed light on what she actually did. One of his most well known attempts to shed some light on the work Mother Teresa actually did is the documentary, Hell’s Angel, which he worked on in the 1990s with Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens wrote scathingly about Mother Teresa, criticizing her frugality (it could be excessive), her condemnation of abortion and contraceptives (she was Catholic), and her fetishization of poverty.

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa as saying. “I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

It was this glorification of the destitute that led Hitchens to conclude:

“She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.”

Hitchens and Chatterjee both believe people should be more skeptical of the media image they have been fed of Mother Teresa. Krithika Varagur of The Huffington Post agrees, arguing her reputation was “basically the result of a forceful media campaign from an ailing Catholic Church.”

Whatever the cause of her angelic reputation, on September 4 it was permanently immortalized.

During her lifetime and even more so after her death, Mother Teresa has existed to most of us not as a person, but as a figure of speech. The official canonization of Mother Teresa does officially what most of us have done unofficially for years. It makes her something other than human.

There’s no doubt Mother Teresa was an enigma. She felt like God told her to quit her job and serve the poorest of the poor and so she did. Then she didn’t hear from God for forty years. She took money from sketchy donors and refused to disclose what happened to the millions of dollars she received. She claimed to treat everyone like Jesus and criticized the luxuries that insulate people from suffering.

She was, like all humans, contradictory, infuriating, alive. Now, she is no longer a person and we can boil down the narrative of her life to one word: Saint.

Calling her a saint allows us to distance ourselves from the magnitude of her life. Quitting your job to serve the poor, shunning common luxuries—these are not things normal people do, they are what saints do. We should reject this idea entirely. The uncomfortable truth of her failures existing alongside the otherworldly perfection she exhibited proves a saint is the perfect category for Mother Teresa. She earned it not because she was perfect, but because she was perfectly human.

What does it really mean to be open- minded?

Or: What is the Purpose of Government? Part Two

In my last post—after a lot of moaning and groaning about Cats and assumptions—I concluded that the most basic belief about the purpose of government is that it is an institution that exists to protect people. The real question is who people need protecting from. Each other? Institutions? Dancing humans dressed in spandex pretending to be felines? The possibilities are endless.

(Read Part 1 here)

I started researching and writing this piece with the goal of analyzing our current political system, but quickly got distracted by the idea of polarization. It’s a scientific principle only recently adapted to political lingo. In the social sciences polarization describes sharp divides between groups who go to the extremes (opposite poles if you will).

This study found that the more the media talks about polarization, the more people believe it exists and try to dissociate from it by adopting moderate views. Sounds good, right?

Wrong. It also makes people more likely to dislike those opposing them and perceive opponents negatively. Good times. Perhaps this is why a Pew Research Center study from earlier this summer found 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans claim to fear the opposing party.

So what are these poles people keep heading toward? Why are they there and what direction should they give us?

One of the trickiest things about assessing these beliefs is how intricately they are related to cultural standards. Conservatism is more than a political theory. It’s deeply tied to a version of Christianity in the same way that Liberalism is tied to academia and a certain set of moral standards.

Chris Mooney, writing for the Washington Monthly, reports the difference between these schools of thought probably has more to do with personality than belief. The science supporting this idea is strong but as Mooney points out, has had little effect on how individuals approach politics. In his words:

“We run around shutting down governments and occupying city centers—behaviors that can only be driven by a combination of intense belief and equally intense emotion—with almost zero perspective on why we can be so passionate one way, even as our opponents are passionate in the other.”

Emphasis completely mine, because this is the kind of perspective I am looking for—one that understands the validity and value of people who disagree with me.

It is the lack of this perspective that leads John C. Goodman to argue theories are not ideologies but sociologies.

“Neither view provides a coherent approach to politics, built up from first principles,” he writes. “Instead, they both reflect a process that is akin to picking items from a dinner menu. What is chosen is a matter of taste rather than a matter of thought.”

My goal this election season is to ditch the buffet and spend time in the kitchen seeing where these theories come from, what they’re made of, and how they’re packaged.

The Pew Research Center reports “ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past.” This means it is now more likely for people to identify their political beliefs within the context of a political party.

The survey also found that those who identify with a particular political sociology tend to associate primarily with those who identify with the same sociology—63 percent of conservatives and 49 percent of liberals say most of their friends share similar political views.

We give a lot of lip service in America to the idea of being open-minded. We like to say we agree to disagree. In practice, this appears to mean we pretend those opinions don’t exist by surrounding ourselves with people who think just like us.

I am terrible at forming opinions. I have a bad habit of taking the opposite stance of whomever I happen to be talking to. Someone should give me an Academy Award for my lifelong role as Devil’s Advocate. But this is something I have a strong, deep, and wide opinion about.

If we hope to make the world better, we must engage with those who think radically differently from us because if we speak only to those who are inclined to listen we are not communicating, we are self-soothing.

It is this belief that drives me to speak with patriarchal men who tell me I should submit to male leadership and Nationalists who think diversity is the cause of the world’s problems. I do not start these conversations because I think either of us will change our minds, but because I want to understand. Only by understanding the concerns of those whose life circumstances have led them to different ideas about how the world should work can we hope to find solutions. This is not accomplished by calling people bigots or socialists, or by giving them the national silent treatment. It is accomplished by inviting strangers into conversation and taking the existence of opposing views seriously.

I don’t want to waste my life in a walled fortress of constructive criticism. I want deconstructive criticism. Tear down my ideas, poke holes in my arguments, tell me how I am wrong. If my beliefs about the world are formed from an insulated place populated only by those whose lives were shaped by similar forces then I am living in a fantasy.

Reality is too spectacular a place to abandon for such a cheap façade.

Want to know another troubling fact from that Pew Survey? The most active people in the political sphere are also the most partisan. We have created a system that “[amplifies] the voices that are the least willing to see the parties meet each other halfway.”

Those with the most extreme views are the ones who are heard because they shout the loudest and have the confidence to demand a microphone.

Enter me.*

I am here to say loudly and unequivocally that I don’t know and I am not sorry for not knowing. I am here to say that the Nones should have a voice and it should be loud and you should listen to it. I am writing because I want to be the one responsible for my choices and beliefs. Not society, not a political party, not cultural norms. Me.

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* If you have not listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, stop what you are doing, repent, and then listen to it immediately.

What is the Purpose of Government? Part 1: Abandoning Assumptions

On my list of things that are actually the worst, assumptions rank somewhere between the musical Cats and wet napkins. Unfortunately, unlike nonsensical musicals and damp paper products, assumptions are necessary for the world to function.

It’s impossible for one human to know everything so we rely on others to fill in the gaps. I have to assume history books are accurate, teachers are trustworthy, and journalists are honest to create a belief system. This is how we function efficiently in the world.  We take people at their word.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in an election season. Most of us haven’t been to a campaign rally or personally met a candidate. We form our conclusions second and thirdhand—from televised debates, news coverage, and conversations with friends.

The assumption the two largest political parties are making in this election is that if they lose, the results will be catastrophic. There are a few problems with this line of thinking:

  • It demonstrates a profound lack of faith in the American people, and places an extraordinary amount of rhetorical power on the office of the President
  • It encourages dichotomous thinking by branding anyone who votes for the opposite side as ignorant
  • It fails to offer compelling reasons to choose a candidate, instead relying on the weaknesses of the opposition to encourage participation

At the core, these apocalyptic pronouncements stem from a firm belief that there is a right and wrong way for the government—not just an individual politician—to work.

This apocalyptic line of thinking is completely unconvincing for those these campaigns most need to sway. People who have spent years entrenched in bipartisan battles are unlikely to be moved. It is the young, the undecided, and the unaddressed who need to be motivated, and these groups require something more than broad assumptions to base their vote upon.

If Hillary Clinton is so obviously evil, Bernie Sanders so obviously delusional, and Donald Trump so obviously incompetent, why have millions of people voted for each individual? Why do the American people have such different ideas about what will bring on an apocalypse? To argue without evidence that these millions are ignorant fools is to insult the intelligence of those entrusted with voting and decidedly unhelpful for those who have yet to pick a side.

I’ve decided to write through these questions on this blog. I want to move beyond the assumptions I’m routinely fed and look at the foundational beliefs propping up these assumptions.

To begin, I decided I needed to create a working theory of the purpose of government. I put the question out on Twitter and received mixed responses:

 

These responses give a glimpse of the tools people use to talk about government. We make jokes because it’s an impossibly divisive subject matter. I don’t like talking about politics because it’s difficult for me to come to any conclusions. Also, I have a bad habit of making people cry at the dinner table so it’s much more comfortable for everyone if I stay silent.

However, personal discomfort and a lack of conclusions is not a good enough excuse to  ignore the intellectual responsibility of voting. Thought without action is vanity, and action without thought is selfish. It is action-oriented critical thinking that has the potential to produce meaningful results. This is one attempt at achieving this goal. 

To start off, I surveyed what some of history’s most revered political thinkers have theorized about the purpose of government:

Aristotle

“When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people become a monarch… such people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master.”

Plato

Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.”

 

Alexis de Tocqueville

“Our contemporaries are constantly wracked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once. They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with popular sovereignty. This gives them some respite. They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors. Each individual allows himself to be clapped in chains because that the other end of the chain is held not by a man or a class but by the people themselves.”

George Washington

“The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.”

Thomas Aquinas

“But public authority is committed to rulers in order that they may safeguard justice. And so they are permitted to use force and coercion only in the course of justice, whether in wars against enemies or in punishing civilian criminals.”

Thomas Jefferson

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.

James Madison

“The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

David Hume

“We are, therefore, to look upon all the vast apparatus of our government, as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice.”

Alexander Hamilton

“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

The general consensus is that government exists to protect its citizens. Later this week, I’ll look at the reason citizens need protecting and how this protection should be delivered is up for debate.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the purpose of government, and if you have any questions about the election you’d like to see explored please let me know.

PS: Keep up with the latest Think Curiouser posts by subscribing to our email list here.

 

What’s Up With all the Olympic Athletes Thanking God?

When interviewed immediately after completing an Olympic event, athletes usually don’t say something profound. They heavy breathe a lot (understandable) and make broad statements about doing your best before thanking their competitors. In Rio, quite a few have also taken time—either right after their event, or on social media and in later interviews—to give God a shout out. You can find an exhaustive list of the religious ties of athletes here. I’ve compiled a few of the highlights below.

David Boudia, USA

Won: Silver in Men’s Synchronized 10m platform

“When my mind is on this and thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy,” Boudia, who wrote about his faith in his book Greater Than Gold, said. “But we both know our identity is in Christ.”

Steele Johnson, USA

Won: Silver in Men’s Synchronized 10m platform

“The way David just described it was flawless – the fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace.”

Wayde van Nierkerk, South Africa

Won: Gold in 400m sprint

“The only thing I can do now is to give God praise,” van Nierkerk told BBC after the race. “I went on my knees each and every day and I told the Lord to take care of me and look after me every step. I asked the Lord to carry me through the race and I am really just blessed for this opportunity.”

Brianna Rollins, USA

Won: Gold in 100m hurdles

“I can’t honestly remember the race, really,” Rollins said. “I do know that I hit quite a few hurdles, but I didn’t let that mess up my composure. I was able to continue to stay focused and make sure I got across that line, make sure I saw my name on top of that board. I’m so glad that God was able to guide me through that race. I couldn’t be more happy.”

Simone Manuel, USA

Won: Gold in 100m freestyle

“All I can say is all glory to God,” Manuel said. “It’s definitely been a long journey these past four years. I’m just so blessed to have a gold medal.”

The entire Fiji rugby team prayed after winning their gold medal match and Michelle Carter Instagrammed a “thank you Jesus” message after winning gold in shot put.

Similar displays at the 2012 Olympics in London left a lot of people scratching their heads and questioning the motivation for these public displays of religious devotion. Here are some of the more popular theories:

  1. Faith is a central part of the life of these athletes, so it’s natural that their first reaction is to acknowledge God
  2. Most religions emphasize evangelism and some may view the Olympics as their best chance to spread their faith. This definitely seems to be the case for divers Boudia and Johnson who literally used their platform to talk about Jesus (I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to come up with that pun)
  3. Giving credit to a being other than themselves is a way of celebrating their success without putting down the people who lost

None of these reasons deal with the theological problem presented by these statements.

In 2010, CNN questioned if God cared about the outcome of sports. What they were really asking is a variant of one of the biggest spiritual questions human beings have ever faced: if God is good, why do bad things happen? Caring about sports seems like a terrible waste of divine resources when there are so many horrible things happening in the world.

“Athletes who publicly thank God for victory are often calling more attention to themselves than their faith,” William J. Baker, the author of Playing with God says in the article. “They are selling their goodness, and their brand of faith, to a captive audience. It’s an athlete using a moment to sell a product, like soap.”

Baker sees this as a bad thing, but as noted above, for people trying to spread their faith, using their bran to sell God is the whole point.

Perhaps the most cynical perspective on commentary from athletes comes from the writer David Foster Wallace in his book Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. He argues the discipline needed to reach the highest levels of athletic excellence requires intellectual numbness.

“We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think… the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to life in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.”

Hypothetical childlike worlds aside, it’s not an athlete’s job to be eloquent or intelligent, it’s their job to win., and it’s possible religion could help them do just that. Kimberly Winston, writing for Religion News Service, questioned whether religion gives athletes a leg up on the competition, and while the data is inconclusive, there may be a psychological benefit to faith.

“Faith is not a substitute for hard work, perseverance or talent,” said  Joel Fish,  director of Philadelphia’s Center for Sport Psychology, in Winston’s piece. “But when those bases are covered, I believe faith, for certain athletes, can be a source of comfort, of motivation, of consistency.”

Boxer Edward Latimore III believes the real reason athletes thank God is to demonstrate humility.

“I guess when you can do things that make you look God-like, the only way to remain grounded is to say that it’s God’s fault,” he wrote in a post on his website.

Michael Medved, a radio host and author, sees this attempt at humility in a positive light.

“If a champion wins an Olympic medal, an Oscar, a Super Bowl, or even a significant political campaign, and celebrates the triumph with invocation of the Almighty’s reign, that victor doesn’t claim supernatural favor but rather recognizes mortal limits to his own power,” he wrote in a piece for The Huffington Post.

Most people have probably wrestled with this question at some point. Why me? Hard work and circumstances are not enough to explain why some people succeed while others suffer. There’s an element of fate, luck, blessing that we cannot quantify or articulate.

I wrote last week about the miniscule difference between athletes at the highest levels of competition. Maybe in some way, acknowledging the role of God—a being beyond human control—is the athlete’s way of acknowledging this absurdly small differentiation.

Perhaps what these athletes are really doing when they thank God is shrugging off the heavy questions that accompany victory and attempting to make the weight of those medals a little easier to bear.