Placebos, Politics, and Prayer
Today is election day south of the border. I have been trying—mostly unsuccessfully—to follow this over the last few months and am glad that after tonight I will be relieved of this (imagined) burden. I confess that I find the whole business so spectacularly boring and predictable. Two rich men squabbling over power, spending obscene amounts of other people’s money to sell themselves back to these same people. It’s the same story every four years or so: we have laughably impossible rhetoric about “hope” and “change” and “rebuilding America” combined with the inevitable sloganeering and nasty attacks on the other guy’s character and intentions…. Yawn. Wake me up when it’s over.
(I hasten to add that I feel roughly the same whenever elections roll around here in Canada—it’s just that for Americans, this charade takes place on a much larger scale… and many of our TV channels here in Canada are American, so we can’t escape it :).)
In our more rational moments, I think most of us know that politicians cannot possibly deliver on their many and varied promises. They may claim to be articulating a vision for American’s future—they may even believe this themselves—but they are trying to get elected, plain and simple. And they will often say whatever they think they need to say in order to achieve this goal. Neither Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is going to fix the global economy or get every American a job or repair America’s global reputation or defeat terrorism or ____ in four years. I think if most of us cast even a cursory glance at history, we would acknowledge that very little will actually change for the average person, no matter who sits in the White House for the next term. Yet, I look at these political rallies, and I see all these thousands of people yelling and cheering and even weeping at the prospect of their preferred rich man gaining or preserving power. Why?
There are many reasons, probably. Too many to count. But I think at least one of these is related to what is often referred to as “the placebo effect.” Most of us are familiar with this. A patient is given a fake drug and told that it will make them well. Often, the mere belief that one’s treatment will provide a cure is sufficient to effect said cure. In a sense, we trick ourselves into getting well. Belief in this little pill is far more powerful than anything the pill might contain. Our minds bring about the change.
What is true in the world of medicine is, I think, true in the realm of politics as well. If we were to logically examine, say, even the last fifty or so years of election promises and campaign rhetoric alongside what actually happened in the subsequent four years, the results would hardly be shining. The impassioned, emotion-drenched speeches on the campaign trail, the exultant and expectant political enthusiasts that fill the arenas—these eventually give way to four fairly ordinary years of a fairly ordinary collection of mixed results. Economies are not fixed in four years, nor is global terrorism eradicated. Unemployment remains. Racial divisions, social injustice, and economic disparity persist. But we so desperately want change. And shrewd politicians (and their handlers) know that we want change. So, every four years they give us our shiny little pill and we dutifully swallow it, from mass media right down to the ordinary citizen. We buy into the hype that this really is a historically unprecedented moment of vital significance on a number of levels. Instead of a couple of rich guys squabbling over power.
But that’s a lot of political-speak. The preceding commentary has undoubtedly stretched against the limits of both my credibility and competence. For me, this talk about placebos and political rhetoric leads directly to the life of the church. If political language is crafted to give people what they want so that they can convince themselves of whatever they need to be convinced of, what about God-talk? Do we do the same thing in the church? Do those of us who regularly preach and pray in public tell people what is true or what is useful to believe and to do? Does all of our exalted language about God and prayer and ethics and discipleship make contact with what is real (independent of our needs and preferences) or is just one more shiny pill that is useful for taking the pain away?
Every Sunday morning, just before the service begins, I spend a few minutes in prayer with those who will be involved in leading our congregation in worship. Nearly every Sunday, I pray some version of the following: “God, please help us to speak truly of you today, in all that we do.” It’s not magic. It doesn’t infallibly protect me (or us) from error or manipulation. But I think, at the very least, it expresses a laudable desire. A desire that here, in this place where we speak of and live into deep mysteries about ultimate things, that we will be guided not by our preferences but by what is real. And a hope that our powerful and manipulable minds are preserved and guided by the One who is, finally, true, good, and just.