[Originally posted 13 May 2007]
The United States is an overwhelmingly faith-based nation—a March 2007 Newsweek poll showed that 91 percent of the country believes in God.
Is anybody else bothered by an obvious difficulty with this statement? The conclusion (the US is an overwhelmingly faith-based nation) does not follow from the premise (91% of the country believe in god). Something is missing here. It reminds me of a time when I saw a guy on TV claim that 95 percent of the people of the United States wanted prayer in school. How did he get this figure? I wondered. When I looked up his source—he had cited a recent poll—I found his 95% figure—but it was not in connection with prayer in school. (As a matter of fact that topic was not addressed in the poll.) It was the number of Americans who claimed to believe in god.
This is a trick that has always irritated me. If you can't prove something, cite something different and move on. Quickly. J. A. T. Robinson, the Bishop of Woolworth’s, was fond of this sort of hit-and-run argument, which is the basis of his oddball book Redating the New Testament. My health sciences teacher in junior high—a coach who majored in public speaking—used to use it when teaching the required anti-drug propaganda. It always bugged me, and left me wondering what was being covered up.
So here, the question strikes me—what is a faith-based nation, anyway? It would be the opposite of an evidence-based nation, I guess, but that doesn’t get us very far. For the most part Americans seem to rely on a mixture of faith and evidence to make daily decisions. We trust that our food providers aren’t going to poison us with tainted tuna, for example—but we have the FDA and usually some kind of food inspectors to back it up. We have faith that our employees aren’t robbing us blind—but we audit the books nonetheless. We are, as a people, credulous while priding ourselves on our skepticism.
Now when I look around on the internet I find that “faith-based” is apparently being used as a weak synonym for “religious.” This is lame, and apparently politically motivated. It also displays a Christian bias. In Christianity belief without evidence—faith—is exalted. Remember the story in the fourth gospel about the unbelieving disciple Thomas? This was the fellow who refused to believe that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead until he felt the body of the reanimated corpse for himself. Thomas required evidence, you see. The author of the gospel, however, has Jesus condemn Thomas for this. Faith without evidence is superior to evidence-based faith—at least in Christianity. This is one reason why people speak of the Christian Faith.
But, on the other side of the same token, it is incorrect to speak of the Jewish faith, or the Buddhist faith, and so on. When anybody refers to world faiths, they are—whether they know it or not—restricting themselves in essence to the sects of Christianity and Islam (and the latter, as far as I can tell, appears to be little more than a heretical offshoot of the former anyway).
So if faith here is being (mis)used as a weak synonym for religion, then apparently “faith-based” means simply “religious.” But if that’s what the author meant, why not just say it? I suppose the fact that 91% of the people claim to believe in a god proves that they are religious, though that leaves out the possibility of philosophical belief. But why gibber when you don't have to?
In this case I suspect that it has to do with the fundamental dishonesty of the article in question, where the issue is not “faith”—dragged in arbitrarily—but bigotry. A small community of god-believing bigots tried to drive out an atheistic family rather than practice the virtue of tolerance, but you’d never gather that from this piece. The truth is, in most instances Americans are hostile to faith. Faith-based medicine or faith-based accounting gets its practitioners jailed, and rightly so.