My circuitous path to Cornell included two-year stops at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Island of Borneo, where I served as a Mormon missionary. My cocktail hour inquisitors often focus their questions on the discipline and adventure of that period in my life. They want to explore the differences between Cornell and life in uniform — military or priestly. What was basic training like? How about the guns? Did you meet a headhunter? (In order: awful, awesome and I think so, but Borneo is the same as America in at least one way … you don’t just ask a guy if he’s a killer.)
The main feature of life that distinguishes this place from those is far less sexy than courage under fire or a meeting of the minds with Chief Jepitan Anak Jaban. It’s politics. For four years straight I was isolated from the soap-operatic cycles of the country’s politically minded. More to the point, I lived in cultures of exquisite ambivalence about where you stand, from left to right. But here, at Cornell, much of what is interesting is political in nature.
I wondered, then, during my first lonely weeks in #221 of Carl Becker House, what is the role of faith in this place? What is my faith permitted to accomplish in a land of towering Darwin posters, Human Ecology and Republicans vs. Democrats? A land of “I Heart Female Orgasm” and Religulous. After some time for observation and reflection, I’m prepared to answer a sliver of this very broad question, then dream that things might be different.
Faith, specifically the faith of others, seems to be a source of mistrust on campus. That mistrust takes two general forms. For one, the faith of others is used to wholly discredit them based on their conclusions. Think creationism. Think Palin vs. Damon (and the various iterations of their spat that occur locally). Her faith in creationism — a doctrine taught and defended by at least one faculty member at Cornell — is the reason many consider her silly and stupid. She appears to reject the science of evolution. Only someone who is silly and stupid would reject science. Her silliness / stupidity would probably spill over into various key policy areas, and we don’t want a vice president like that. Worse still, religion was the cause of all this silliness. A sound roasting, indeed!
The other form of faith-based mistrust has to do with reasons. Even if someone is guided by her faith to hold the same opinion as a nonbeliever, her reasons are taken as arbitrary if they rest on the Deity. If Professor X asks me why it is wrong to lie, and I cite divine prohibition, the opinion is somehow of diminished worth despite its agreement with the so many -isms. Try another example.
A few weeks back I wrote a snarky piece about how life in the Ithacan oasis skews our view of what’s possible in healthcare reform. A few of you wrote in to tell me I was very astute, but most (including family members) felt otherwise. It made me reconsider the political stance I took against universal health care.
My mind leapt to a verse of scripture found in the Book of Mormon. And the prophet says of life after death, “it meaneth the reuniting of the soul with the body … and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:18-23). It is clear from the verse that part of heaven’s being heaven is freedom from physical pain and suffering of the very kind universal health care would ameliorate. To sweeten the deal, universal health care wouldn’t make us wait until the end of the world to be free of all that pain (although emergency room waiting times are projected to increase dramatically). Let’s take as a given that we have a general duty to make this world look as much like the next one (ideal, heavenly etc.) as possible. From there, it’s no stretch to believe in a Christian duty to provide health care to everyone.
The major difficulty I see in arguing this way publicly is that substantive disagreements become intractable. To convince me I’m wrong on my terms, the nonbeliever could do one of two things. He could dismantle my entire belief system, or he could prove that a tenet of my faith must be to leave faith out of political discourse. Good luck! In trying to convince the nonbeliever he’s wrong on his terms, I could use reason, data, etc. But on moral issues such as a right of health care I might feel deprived of my best argumentative tools — the religious beliefs that influence my political ones.
This perennial problem isn’t going to get worked out in 1,000 words. I hope to have made clear, though, that faith provides me, and perhaps thousands of others on campus, with reasons to hold all sorts of political beliefs — progressive and conservative alike. While nonbelievers may have overcome the “God delusion,” it is entirely possible that their beliefs are equally sentimental (or just plain misguided) in nature. Indeed, it’s a short trip from the mendacious Sicko to joining a rally for universal health care at Capitol Hill, a quick jump from a wacko libertarian tract to a tea party.
It is an unfortunate and very real feature of our campus life that faith-based political beliefs are often rejected out of hand. Believers earn the general and deep mistrust of nonbelievers, who are coming to outnumber us, with regard to political matters. But anyone guilty of these common sentiments would do well to remember the following: Faith is very often the cause of political agreement among believers and progressive nonbelievers. Think civil rights, free speech and now (maybe) healthcare. To denigrate or diminish faith’s logical importance in our discourse would be to create more distance and disagreement between the two camps, not less. It would seem a cruel trick to accept faith as a basis for agreement on some issues, then toss it away as fantasy where it causes conflict.
Ultimately, we are all just people who have arrived at various beliefs. By one circuitous path or another we have come to say “yes” to this and “no” to that. So forget faith as a cause to mistrust unless you are prepared to throw it away as a blessed reason for widespread agreement.
Andrew Daines is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Right Stuff appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.