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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Yes, yes and yes (and all the other necessary assents required here 🙂 )…so why is it that the people who would strive, as you strive, to live out the last paragraph of this post, reject the task of creating a new Christendom? (I know I’m assuming your position here) What about a political Christendom that looked like this?

    1. I’m out of town for a few days and my internet access is pretty spotty, so I may not be able to respond as much as usual. I find myself largely in agreement with what Larry has written below. I, too, am somewhat pessimistic about human nature. We human beings don’t tend to do well when we mix religion and political power. Our record speaks for itself.

      Speaking truly of God does not require political power. In some ways, it may even require its absence.

  2. Paul
    I think it would end up looking like Calvin’s Geneva
    Lots of rules not much grace and eventually people In stocks.

  3. Paul. P.s. When it comes to human nature I am a bit of a pessimist. ( I like to think that I am just realistic)

  4. Hey Larry, I suppose both Catholic and Protestant history offers much to support your conclusion. And yet how exactly do we bring the Gospels to all people and remain outside the political square? How do we even retain our own commitments much less pass them on to our children? Don’t you feel like we are being marginalized and need to make some sort of political stand? What exactly does living like a Christian look like if our politics become completely divorced from Christ?

    I don’t know, clearly I have more questions than answers but I find it hard to believe that a truly Christian politic, manifest by a truly Christian government, would be offensive to God?

    PS. Nice to “hear” from you again. At times I can be naive and overly optimistic. What are ya gonna do? 🙂

    1. Paul some Ans to your questions, very brief. maybe I can ans more fully if Ryan so allows and if the ans aren’t clear enough.

      1. How do we bring the gospel and outside political square. Ans we don’t stay outside. We just don’t try to start xtiandom.

      2 . How do we retain our own commitments and pass them to the kids. Ans. by following Jesus, staying within Christian community, reading our bibles and trying to stay honest with ourselves and others.

      3. Do I feel marginalized and in the need to make a political stand. Ans. no

      4. What does living like a xtian look like if our politics are divorced from Jesus. Ans like some Hutterites, Amish and Mennonites I’ve rubbed shoulders with.

      Good to talk to u also Paul.

      This post sent via my IPad, pecked out in bed rather then reading “cities of God” by Rodney Stark

  5. ” 3. Do I feel marginalized and in the need to make a political stand. Ans. no”
    But Larry,with a messiah complex(Ego) as huge as mine is,the temptation to be ‘the one’ who save’s this world is overwhelming.The political arena is the perfect format to showcase MY talents and unveil MY plan to rectify injustice,overcome Evil, and make a heaven on earth…

    1. Wow Mike. Interesting push back. I/we are not your enemy. I/we are no less broken then you/they. I/we long for what you long for. We may disagree on means but surely not ends. Who knows perhaps in the discussions around “different means” we may learn something important from one another. Something mutually re-orienting and reconciling. (See above reference to naivety and optimism 🙂 )

      P.S. Truth be told everyone here recognizes I could write this and more from the other perspective. Hoisted on my own petard so to speak…interesting….. 🙂

      1. I apologize for the passive aggressive sarcasm..I’m trying to do better with’s cost me my spot on many a blog..

  6. Thanks for the replies, Larry. I appreciate you taking the time to answer a flurry of questions.

    I get the, “inside the process” but “outside the authority” argument. As best as I can figure this is more or less the position of my Catholic Church. But just how does this approach advance the Gospels and Christian life? How does a non authoritative “voice” not become marginalized in a political process whereby only those with authority effect change? Why is it right and just to claim that a Christian identity must always be filtered through a non Christian secular identity in order for a….what….A “true” expression of Christianity to be made manifest? A “safe” expression of Christianity? If a real expression of Christian authority isn’t true, isn’t safe then I am drawn to the conclusion that some of our enemies hold, that we are dangerous and need to be suppressed. At the very least we seem to be saying that only a secular interpretation of Christian ideals can affirm whatever is useful within the Christian faith? Wow, what a weak Gospel. What a weak vision of our Lord.

    And I don’t think it stops there, Larry. If Christian authority is deemed dangerous to the public sphere, inevitably it will be deemed dangerous to the private sphere. It is only a matter of time. The same logic applies public or private and eventually churches will not be allowed to govern themselves. It is already happening within the Catholic Church. Several constituencies are attacking the Church’s freedom to be the “Church”. If Catholics do not find the political will and necessary authorities to effect political decisions, I think within a few generations we will be some form of secular “state church”. It is also my opinion that what happens to us will happen to all Christians..eventually.

    Unless it is previously deemed that the few remaining Christian groups are already so marginalized as to be not worth the effort.

    1. Paul, I’m way tired. It could be a few days b4 I respond. And even then it may not be indepth enough to ans the issues u r raising. But u have an interesting view!

      A very brief response to your post would be to say that I’m not sure Christianity was ever designed to “authoritative voice” to society. I’m not sure what an Christian “authoritative voice” would look like. And here we would need to each define just what we mean by the term authoritative voice.

      That is about as good as I can do right now.

      1. I think your response would be the the intuitive response of most, Larry. I prayed about this issue and got back one word….consecration.

      2. ..Paul,is that anything like the “WORD OF KNOWLEDGE” (manifested Gift of the Spirit) that i used to witness in Charismatic/pentecostal meetings? 🙂
        we once had a pentecostal preacher tell the story of how he had locked himself in a room with only a Bible and fasted for 3 days,praying for God to reveal the ‘Truth’ of pentecostalism to him..and sure enough,god did.. 😮

  7. lol…no problem brother. I share your dilemma…I’m big on smiley faces 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  8. I’m not sure, Mike. It is definitely charismatic but in a Catholic sense. Our culture leans towards a contemplative experience of the Spirit. I’ve only had one personal experience with a Pentecostal charismatic meeting. It was both fascinating and to be honest somewhat overwhelming. There was a lot of shouting and swaying, people “slain in the spirit” one gentleman I remember was, for want of a better word, kind of barking. I speak in tongues also but clearly not as viscerally as the people I shared this experience with. This was at a Toronto location, near the airport, known as the “Vineyards”. It is well known for dramatic experiences in the Spirit. I never went back but to be fair it was only 1 experience.

    It is also true that many Catholics in our diocese have converted to the Pentecostal faith based on these types of experiences.

    1. Paul,

      One of the issues I’ve encountered with Internet discussions is that we really need to define our terms. We now have at least 2 terms to define: 1) what does ‘authoritative voice’ mean? And I suspect that you and I may use the term in two different ways. 2) and now we another word “consecrate” to define, along with the added complication of trying to figure out what God meant when he gave you the word.

      How’s this for a thought? Based on my understanding of what consecrate means – I think you should consider rather than reviving Christian empire aka Christendom – God may want you to consecrate yourself – that is become consecrated / or separated / holy unto him via joining a Hutterite or Old Mennonite Colony.

      God may want us to leave the heavy lifting of actually running the world to Jesus, at the end of time (the eschaton) when Jesus fixes things.

      p.s much of this post is sent in jest.

      1. Well, the ironies continue to abound. ( I like the one about me in an Old Mennonite community, though I’m not sure that would be fair to old Mennonites…thoughts Ryan?…I can probably find several who would witness to the fact that I ought to be separated though) I think Mike and I are past the point of “jest” perhaps you and I can achieve a similar end, Larry. 🙂

        In context of the prayer, I took “consecrate” to mean that our governments ought to be consecrated to the Lord. I must be honest and tell you that is a personal discernment only. Nor do I, at this point, have any wisdom to offer you regarding what form and content a consecrated government should have. I suspect we could literally write volumes. I am thoroughly convicted by Spirit however that “now is the time” for true followers of Christ to live a more “full measured” life in Christ. The “part measured” life will no longer survive.

        Politically, I would suggest an “authoritative voice” is one that finds consensus through freedom of choice or through force, imposes it’s will. In the end, for us, Jesus is the only authoritative voice. The question for me is what kind of government then, does a a citizen of a democratic society whose authoritative voice is Jesus affirm, build and defend? Or is he called to sit passively on the sidelines, indifferent to the machinations of culture and society? Is the eschaton now or later? The passive man, to my way of thinking, is nothing more than prey. The participant man will either help lead us to victory or give his life to the trying. Say what you will about the participant man and there is much to say and caution, his is a life worth living. He is the more fully alive man.

  9. ..Wow Paul,so you partook of the *Toronto Blessing*…I’m somewhat familiar with it,though not personally .That must have been a very exciting time for you spiritually…I’m curious as to how you’ve dealt with the discrepancies of having once been Charismatic/pentecostal (you speak in tongues) with your now present involvement in Roman Catholic other words ,you must be experiencing some degree of cognitive dissonance… I know i do…I asked a priest,who was himself FORMERLY a Charismatic,how he dealt with the conflicting (yet both authentic) experiences of God,He said that he did not disavow or discredit the former experience,but instead viewed it as a stepping stone along his spiritual path..

    1. Actually, Mike forgive my lack of clarity. I have been a Catholic charismatic since the early 90’s. The movement within the church, that would be most similar to the Pentecostal expression began to take shape (I am told) post Vatican II (late 60’s early 70’s). Since it’s conception the Catholic movement has always viewed itself as a renewal. In fact most formal titles I’m aware of refer to some form of Catholic “Charismatic renewal” prayer group. Catholics would claim a long standing history of personal relationship experiences with the Holy Spirit albeit in a more contemplative and less discursive fashion than perhaps the Pentecostals would describe the encounter.

      Though the modern Catholic expression does include the laying on of hands, tongues and other charismatic gifts the Catholic experience as I know it is a lot quieter, 🙂 than the night I experienced at the “Toronto Blessing”. ( BTW thanks for this, I couldn’t remember the name given the experience(s) happening there but I remembered that people called the place the Vineyards)

      So much so that our prayer group leadership openly questions the authenticity of continual “dramatic” displays. Our teachings revolve around the silence and serenity of a “Life In the Spirit”. A harmony that ultimately reconciles ecstasy with rationality and calm.

      In the end God honors what He will.

      So for me there was no cognitive dissonance as you describe it. Though I would also say that many non charismatic Catholics share a similar concern to yours.

      For me there was one place where I felt safe in the Spirit and another where I felt uncomfortable.

      So finally getting around to answering your question, 🙂 all I can say is that I understand the thought of “consecration” that came to my mind during prayer to be a word of knowledge. I’m really not sure how anybody else would view it.

      1. Paul,Thanks. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experience..I had no idea that you were presently still involved in the Charismatic renewal within the church…Actually ,i thought the movement had fizzled out years ago with the demise of The Fort Lauderdale 5 amid the ‘Sheparding’ controversy..The “Florida Outpouring” in Lakeland,a few years back,seemed as if it might.jump-start the old Charismatic movement, until the Bently’s scandal erupted…

  10. “the question for me is what kind of government then, does a a citizen of a democratic society whose authoritative voice is Jesus affirm, build and defend?”
    Well Paul,based on my present understanding of the Spirit of Christ and His desired intention for mankind,I would define the Ideal New Covenant government as more a Socialist Democratic could it be otherwise among Gods children..

  11. I respectfully disagree, Mike. Or at least say not without a radical re interpretation of the word “Socialist” (so much so, that to my way of thinking, all present understanding of the term “Socialist” need to be not just abandoned but forgotten)

    The first mark of the new “politic” would have to be about worship and relationship with God. I understand the hostile first response most would have to this notion, particularly in light of past human history regarding Christian expression and modern histories despair over many expressions of Islam. But, if in the end, if Jesus is the only “way, truth and light” I can’t see how this understanding of worship as a “first principal” is avoided. I’m trying here to make a distinction between what is a right principal and what have been at times horrific applications of said principal.

    Following this train of thought then, Socialism, as it is presently understood is an anathema. From the ‘getgo” it is purposefully anti-theistic. Further I would add (and a have to be brief…work beckons 🙂 ) even by wholly humanistic terms it’s generalization of peoples and classes of peoples is such that it can and does misrepresent what is it to be individual and human.

    Any ideology that disrespects the reality of the individual and the variance of human behavior individuals would naturally display, inevitably trends towards social engineering and totalitarian rule.

  12. ..hahaha…I should never have used ‘The Word’ Socialism ..people tend to automatically associate it with Communism…how about Democratic communialism,..MONASTACISM ON A GRAND SCALE.

    1. Well as much as I like your answer, 🙂 maybe just a culture that affirmed and encouraged monastic life would work.

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