Saturday, September 13, 2008

Faith v. Reason

Eight years ago, Slate's William Saletan wrote this column titled "Why Bush Is Toast." An intelligent, articulate centrist, Saletan gave a compelling, logical argument, citing poll numbers and trends. He stated that, barring an unlikely event like a Gore sex scandal or electrifying speech by Bush, "...there is no reason to think Bush will recover. Ultimately, reasons drive elections."

Four years later, Saletan made a similar logical error in stating that the election was Kerry's to lose. He no longer covers politics for Slate. His "Human Nature" column covers science and health. I read it regularly, and I enjoy Saletan's wit and intelligence. His logical mind is better suited to science than politics.

Saletan's error, I believe, was in assuming that most voters make their decisions logically like he does. Certainly, facts and logic play a part in the decision-making process. However, emotions and faith play a larger part. I'm not talking necessarily about religious faith (although it certainly influences some voters). By and large, people believe what they want to believe. They have an enormous capacity to reject facts that are incompatible with their chosen worldview.

Transcripts of the Scopes monkey trial indicate that William Jennings Bryan was in over his head. He was ignorant about the relevant issues, even the theology he was supposedly defending. Clarence Darrow made a better legal case. However, the jury sided with the prosecution, because they wanted to believe them.

If Barack Obama wins in November, it will be largely because most voters want to believe he has the intelligence, vision and integrity to lead this country on a golden path back to peace and prosperity. If he loses, it will be largely because most voters want to believe that John McCain has the wisdom, courage and integrity to right the wrongs of the Bush Administration. Actual facts on the ground will have only a small influence on those beliefs.

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan posted this blog entry, in which he said "The McCain camp is in a death spiral." That sounds eerily like "Bush is toast."

Yes, McCain is now telling some boldfaced lies about Obama. However, he is likely to get away with it because people want to believe he is the straight-talking maverick he appeared to be eight years ago. The liberal bloggers will continue to be outraged, but will the general voting public conclude that McCain has sold out and is now approving dishonest messages?

They are more likely to believe that McCain's memory and judgement are beginning to slip, due to his age, past health problems and damage suffered while he was POW. That narrative does not challenge the belief that he has truly been a straight-talking maverick for all of these years.

The liberals who are trying to get McCain supporters to change their minds are going about it all wrong. When you engage in a faith versus reason argument, reason never wins.

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