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Supply and Demand

September 1, 2010

I paid little attention to the rally on the National Mall over the weekend besides noting that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin had managed to invoke the ire of those who consider the selected date and venue sacred. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech at the same venue marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and as such altered the arc of our nation’s history. I doubt Beck and Palin’s performance will affect much of anything despite the large number of angry, white, middle-aged and older people who turned out for a picnic in the park.

Among the few snippets of the speeches I caught, one remark from Beck stood out. At one point or another he is quoted as having said, “Faith is in short supply.” This statement presumably underscored his message that the nation needs to turn back to God, or at least the one Beck and Palin profess to worship.

Admittedly, my lack of rapt attention to Beck and Palin in this instance may lead me to taking this remark out of context, but I cannot help but question the premise itself. How can faith be in short supply?

The same neo-conservatives who support Beck profess almost limitless confidence in individuals and markets to make decisions without direction or assistance from government. As such, it seems absurd to me that they should confuse faith with a commodity like say pork bellies or petroleum. If  faith is actually in short supply, might that not suggest that individuals have inadequate need of it?

Under conditions of scarcity when demand remains robust prices rise. Has the price of faith gone up? If so, why have those with faith to spare refused to offer their surplus to others? Or is this what we were supposed to see in the weekend’s activities?

Beck and Palin seem to be suggesting something more sinister than the usual fluctuations of supply and demand are at work. They would have us believe that the market for faith has been altered or impeded by government intervention. According to this narrative, the Obama administration has placed restrictions on our national reserves of faith, leaving it unavailable to the market at any price. Efforts to expand access to health care, stem economic collapse, protect consumers from Wall Street and banking industry abuses, and work to curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons, they want us to believe, are the work of an authoritarian regime operating contrary to the Constitution of the United States and the will of free people.

Speaking of faith as if it were a commodity suggests that one group’s faith in our current leadership can only come at the expense of others who disagree with it and those adherents who support its programs. This makes anyone who follows Obama a heretic or worse yet a demon to be cast out of our midst.

Such rhetoric strikes me as childish and foolish, if not dangerous. Most of us understand faith as belief without need of evidence. To others it carries with it the additional connotation of loyalty to a certain set of beliefs, membership of a tribe or clan. Cultural norms and practices assert the need for faith in certain matters and provide opportunities for people to exhibit their shared understanding of or belief in concepts or ideals beyond rational understanding or confirmation. Despite  external reinforcement of such beliefs in this way, though, we are consistently reminded that faith is something we create and possess as individuals, not something created or destroyed by others much less something traded like baseball cards or marbles.

Despite Beck’s pronouncement, I see evidence that faith is in anything but short supply, especially among Beck and Palin’s own followers. People are all too willing to believe in things these days that simply beggar credulity — particularly as they relate to the President himself.

The sorts of rumors and innuendo circulating around the President’s own faith — lingering suggestions that he is a closeted or crypto-Muslim — suggest people are willing to buy into stereotypes and prejudices that justify their entrenched opposition to the his administration’s programs. Shared belief in such premises requires no evidence and readily dismisses statements to the contrary and any evidence that might arise.

This gives Beck and his followers permission to cast the President and his followers as evil. For me, this would be bad enough on its own, but it gives me added pause because it also gives them permission to anoint themselves as our nation’s prophets or saviors. Those who believe in them and their message will be saved, all others will suffer damnation to the eternal fires of hell.

I have little faith in hell. But I do believe in evil.

Beck and Palin may have stepped back from the precipice this weekend and softened their rhetoric rather than fan the flames of fury at the government as they have done at other times and in other venues. The crowd never seemed to approach fever pitch much less reach a rapturous frenzy. Beck’s call to faith seemed tempered much as Dr. King’s was to appeal in an effort to find favor with the broadest possible audience. Here’s hoping the faith he has in mind and the actions of his followers remains centered on the principles of peace, prudence and love of neighbor that informed the most memorable of the addresses delivered at Mr. Lincoln’s feet.

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