(RNS) People need to believe in something, or someone, or Someone.
This human need to believe is a very powerful force. It can overcome a great deal of countervailing evidence. One place this is obvious is in politics.
You can see it on their faces.
It’s that look of Pure Rapture when the candidate speaks: “Here at last, is someone to believe in. Here is a person who will not disappoint. Here is the leader I’ve been looking for.”
I saw it personally in Denver in 2008 when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination. (If I were to be fully honest, I would have to say that on that magical night in the Mile High City I probably had that look of rapture myself. It was one of the last times.)
I saw it on TV this summer on the faces of Democratic and Republican True Believers.
You know the look — that focused gaze, that exultant trust, that surrender to hope.
You see the True Believers at the campaign rallies, positioned strategically behind Hillary and Donald. Look at those faces. They Believe. They truly believe that when Hillary is elected we will be Stronger Together.
They truly believe that when Donald is elected he will Make America Great Again. They really, truly believe it. Look at those tears trickling down their cheeks. Those aren’t pretend tears. They are Believing Tears.
People need to believe. They need to believe in those elevated above them as their leaders. But maybe also they need to believe in their party, which would certainly never give them a candidate unworthy to believe in, or their country, that transcendent reality of such high purpose and grand history.
If you tell the True Believer that this year their party put forth someone not worthy of his or her belief, they will scoff. The need to believe, especially in combination with a fixed political ideology, is stronger than any evidence to the contrary.
To find such True Believers in 2016 seems especially amazing. Ponder that for a moment.
Christians have theological resources for getting beyond True Belief in any human being or institution. We are taught that all persons are sinful and all institutions are collectivities of sinful persons and practices.
We do not, or at least we should not, need to believe fictions about human beings or institutions in order to have our world make sense or be tolerable.
Media are reporting a great deal of disillusionment as this disastrous election year comes to an end (we hope) on Tuesday night (Nov. 8). The manifest problems of both of these candidates, of their parties, and of the nation make True Belief much harder to sustain.
While there are a goodly number of Americans who have managed to retain True Belief despite all contrary evidence, there are also millions who will vote with no particular hope at all. This is a new and bracing experience for many.
Hopelessness is not generally viewed as a virtue. But in this context it is to be commended. Of course, I do not mean hopelessness in a general sense. I mean the loss of hope that here is a candidate in whom we can invest True Belief. I have come to believe that no political candidate is ever worthy of such belief.
Having lost unrealistic hope this time around, perhaps we will be forced to move to a more mature posture. Perhaps we will recognize that the future of our society, our institutions, and our politics rests in our own imperfect hands.
Working together, making the wisest decisions we can, mobilizing the best resources of our heritage and our people, we can move forward to make our country better. Not in mythologized True Belief, but in humble shared effort for the common good.
Maybe the disillusionments of this year will make us take upon ourselves greater responsibility for our country. This, I think, would be a very good thing.
(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia. He writes the “Christians, Conflict and Change” column for RNS)