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Mahalia Jackson described faith as “the vitamins of the soul.”
The power of faith is often understated today.
Of course, there is a biblical definition of faith:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” — Hebrews 11:1
Mahalia Jackson described faith as “the vitamins of the soul.”
At the end of the day, faith powers our cohesion as a society and as a species. It gives things meaning. It can be faith in God or faith in the laws of physics. Faith is what powers the engines of truth and accountability within our communities.
The abundance of bad faith today has created a cynical sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness. It challenges our collective ability to connect with other groups or maintain control over our own lives. In philosophy, bad faith works alongside existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre sees bad faith as a phenomenon that occurs when actors behave inauthentically. “External pressures” that cause a person to act and speak in ways contrary to their authentic choice — one being a response that is actually reflective of the current situation. Sartre understands this through existentialism because bad faith derives itself from a belief that circumstances trump free agency. So, one has finite control over the decisions one makes.
This applies to society today when bad faith arguments thrive off of each other. They create a shared reality and sense of powerlessness and collective oppression. Each argument or stance facilitates a “bunker mentality.” Thus, it perpetuates a cloud of bad faith and a cynical cycle.
Existentialism connects with our current state of affairs. In many parts of the world, there is a shrinking segment of the populace forcing another expanding segment to suffer. It happens through their narrow personal or cultural existential crisis. Usually, it happens with little self-awareness. The wide-reaching negativity and dysfunction that follows is often mischaracterized through gaslighting.
Existentialism starts with evaluating worldview, lived experiences, and even cultural blind spots of a person. People often undergo existential crises. It's reflective of their own hopes and dreams. We all have those. But, it also reflects their understanding of their place in the world.
For example, there is a large (and sometimes intentional) blind spot perpetuated by many politicians on the American Right. Their manufactured talking points constantly alienate many in traumatized communities and are false. Despite telling them this repeatedly, many of these bad-faith actors fuel their own existential crisis. They fabricate a racially, culturally, and economically changing America. They create monsters out of the opposition. Then, they convince followers that they must sacrifice their own morality. Of course, to fend off this "threat."
In the end, this becomes a doom loop of myopic condescension. It reinforces some people’s bad faith rationalizations. It causes one to falsely believe that one isn’t actually acting out of social animosity or malice. They are simply reacting to their detractors and are choosing to be ignorant of the bad faith as a consequence.
One will bring this warped mentality to high-stakes issues. For example, public health, racially-motivated violence, and voting rights. Consequentially, the discussion becomes morally repugnant. It is reflective of leaders (and followers) who feel there are no consequences. It is also reflective of a lack of seriousness towards a very serious Constitution and shared history.
Today's pronounced bad faith is an outcome of a general lack of faith within our citizenry. People view systems of power and accountability in a negative light. Societies always have bad faith opinions. Yet, if they are operating at a high salience, it can produce a dangerous decadence and apathy. This is (of course) not to push any specific religious doctrine.
Right now, “faith” is being defined as the kind of assurance one has in their ability to travel to the store safely. You can assume that traffic systems won’t break down and (we thought) that a hate crime won’t occur.
So yes, this is how fascism and autocracy come to fruition. Cynical people look for someone to confirm their bad faith. You know, fight the evildoers and the undeserved. Disillusioned people want a strong leader to establish “truth” even if it’s brutal and corrupt. The prevalence of bad faith spreads like a virus and mutates into a worse version of its prior self.
Solutions are easier said than done. We must build back faith in the dynamism of the American people and the American nation. This requires discipline and openness. This requires understanding some discussions and policies may be esoteric and challenging. There may be more trade-offs than one anticipates. Democracy is not easy to maintain, but its survival is our national gift to successor generations.
Most of all, let’s have faith in each other.
In my experience, those of us raised on tales of our grandfathers fighting fascism in Europe and the Pacific also tend to meld minds when observing the stark changes that postwar American society underwent. It’s enlightening to see how these societal shifts ease a nation that has built intense cohesion and consensus. The inevitable fallout was the unrealistic harboring of what the historian James T. Patterson called “grand expectations.” It encompasses our collective belief in the ability of America to fight wide-reaching problems like poverty, social animus, and the cycle of dictatorship. Historical forces, decisions, and revelations about our leaders challenged those expectations. Today, we face a much more informed, but cynical society. That makes it easy for disinformation to manipulate people's sense of existential security.
We study the past to gain more insight into topics like the Civil War and Watergate. We study philosophy to understand topics like “existentialism” and “bad faith.”
There is no one definition.
So, what’s happening in America is real and very scary, but it is also a call for us to rediscover the power of faith and wisdom.
Our faith in each other can create more angels than demons.
Our faith can prevent future existential crises.
Our faith can alert us to more dangerous attempts by bad-faith actors to silence American voices.
Original photo by me.