What is the key factor that divides the United States so sharply and yet so close to equally? It may well be that the issue most likely to bring opponents to blows (metaphorical, if not literal) is the dialectical opposition of faith and reason. Those who felt most strongly about the need for reason were also those most angered in 2000 when faith-based George W. Bush prevailed over Al Gore through a process that just about any "appeal to reason" would have deemed illegitimate. This engendered almost eight years of hand-writing despair, during which it seemed as if all the values of reason were mocked and eroded, if not flat-out discarded. This year the weathervane of the electoral vote system chose to reward a candidate with outstanding credentials of reason, probably the first since Jimmy Carter; yet, when we look at the popular vote, we see that this preference for reason over faith was anything but a landslide. The balance may have shifted, but hardly in a significant way and probably not for any reason directly concerned with a preference for reason over faith.
It is therefore no surprise that the faith-based are already preparing for the next battle; and there is a good chance that their anointed representative with be Sara Palin, whose primary qualification for serving as John McCain's running made appears the be the spirit of fundamentalism that supports her personal value system. Last night the BBC NEWS Web site filed a story based on a "wide-ranging interview with Fox News." Consider the following excerpt from that interview:
I'm like, OK, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I'm like, don't let me miss the open door. Show me where the open door is.
And if there is an open door in 12 or four years later, and if it is something that is going to be good for my family, for my state, for my nation, an opportunity for me, then I'll plough through that door.
I am reminded of Richard Nixon, whose conservatism had more to do with rabid anti-Communism (with a very strong anti-intellectual streak) than with matters of faith. Having lost to John F. Kennedy (whose Cabinet became a formidable gathering of intellectuals), Nixon's next major political move was to run for Governor of California, where he was soundly beaten by a liberal Democrat, after which he told the press that he would withdraw from politics, saying "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more." As we know, he rose from the grave he had dug for himself in the Presidential election of 1968, when the country was as torn apart over the new values that had emerged over the Sixties (particularly pertaining to opposition to our presence in Vietnam) and decided that it was time to bring back the "old guard," complete with its anti-intellectual roots.
Those interested in Palin's values are not interested in the powers of intellect or, for that matter, any other arguments of reason. They are not even interested in the impact of those values on how she would govern the country. The values themselves are all that matter, and those values are so entrenched that the very possibility of conversation about them has been thoroughly quashed. When conversation vanishes, reason vanishes along with it. Make no mistake: For the sector of the country that embraced Palin, reason, itself, will be on trial over the coming four years. If reason can ultimately heal the sick (by repairing a broken health care system) and restore hope to the poor (through a fairer distribution of wealth), those results may sway the convictions of many of the faith-based; but there will always be those who see reality itself as a test of faith. As I had feared, the plan to resurrect Palin seems to be under way, even before the Inauguration Day ceremonies have completed.