I've been doing some thinking, from my churchless perspective, about the controversy over Barack Obama's remark that people in struggling Pennsylvania towns are bitter and cling to religion (among other things).
And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Clinton has seized on the words "bitter" and "cling" in blasting Obama for his supposed elitism. On cable news today I kept seeing her new ad being played.
In the ad a Pennsylvania woman says that she doesn't cling to her faith out of frustration and bitterness; she finds it very uplifting.
Well, maybe that's true. If so, she's rare.
How many people are drawn to religion purely out of positive motivations, not because they're looking for solace, salvation, or some sweetness that life hasn't been giving them?
Very few, I'd say.
Buddhism teaches that life is suffering. So does country music. Where do you turn when your woman has left you, your dog has run away, and your pickup's been repossessed?
Beer – that's one option. Or, religion. "Jesus has a plan for me." That thought takes some of the sting out of a sucky situation.
Here's my advice for Obama: use this controversy as an opportunity to start a dialogue about religion, just as he did with the topic of race after Rev. Jeremiah Wright's comments set off a firestorm.
In his race speech, Obama painted the subject with a pleasing shade of gray. He talked about religion also, but didn't address why people are so attracted to religious belief. This is a sensitive subject. But it needs to be brought out into the open.
There's nothing wrong with someone clinging to religion because it makes him or her feel better. I've done that myself – for a long time.
I've never been conventionally religious, but when times were tough, I found myself praying in my own non-Christian fashion. When my mother had a major stroke, before I could get on a plane to see her I pleaded with Whoever is in charge of such things to give her whatever good karma I had.
Ditto when I feared that my wife had a serious health problem. My faithlessness temporarily turned into faith as I asked for some sort of divine intervention. I knew I was almost certainly talking to myself, but I was drawn to do the asking anyway.
If Obama would speak honestly about this, it would resonate with most believers. Something like…
"I realize that when I said people cling to religion to explain their frustrations, that rubbed some the wrong way. They feel that their faith springs from love, from devotion, from a desire to serve God – positive motivations.
Sometimes this is true. However, religious belief also helps us cope with pain, suffering, disease, death, unemployment, poverty – the negative side of life. When we're looking for answers, for reasons, and none are forthcoming, it's natural to find solace in our faith.
Life is tough. Some people get through it without religion. They're sustained by something else. But we all need support from somewhere when what we thought we could count on, no longer does.
I'm not ashamed to say that I've clung to my faith in those times. And neither should anyone else, including the Pennsylvanians I've been talking to these past weeks."
Understand, I'm not going soft on churchlessness. To me, it's preferable to see problems as they are in their naked reality, without viewing them through a prism of religious belief.
Losing one's job can be just that – a stint on unemployment and little cash in the wallet. It doesn't have to be suffused with divine meaning ("God is teaching me a lesson.")
However, if someone feels better by framing their problems within a religious belief structure, that's fine. Feeling good doesn't need any justification. Like I said before, it's when we say "I'm right" rather than "I like" that problems arise.
Along that line, I like that a recent poll is showing that Obama is actually gaining ground over Clinton in Pennsylvania and Indiana. This seems to show that voters aren't upset with Obama's "clinging to religion out of bitterness" remarks.
Probably, because they realize what he said is true.