Sacred&Profane: Our Dirty, Lofty Election Season

Young people are becoming more and more engaged in this year′s presidential election, the news tells us; the economy will figure prominently, assert the bloggers; and the buzz about each candidate′s list of potential running mates continues to grow, according to the intrigued talking heads of television.

Is the election over yet? My God, it′s been dragging on and on and on. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania primary and the Guam caucus are on the horizon, which should ratchet up the excitement for a day or two, at the very least. The distance to the finish is still far, far off in the Fall—219 days or so. But who′s counting?

It is easy to predict the what, if not the who that lies ahead. Mudslinging and name-calling; resurrected scandals from the past, including allegations of drug use, racy affairs, and pecuniary impropriety—all are a must in contemporary American presidential politics. And of course we can count on at least one of them to claim the endorsement of God to reassure voters of their moral fitness to lead the nation. Starting to sound familiar?

The banalities of the formula and the predictability of the melodramatic gestures do not, however, lead Americans to completely ignore the campaign. The build up to the final, ultimate showdown, when the votes are (hopefully) counted and a winner is announced, is fraught with ambivalence, combining dread with curiosity. Think of passing a car crash and experiencing both the strong desire to look for bodies and the equal and opposite need to turn away. The presidential contest is unfolding like a long-running television series, magnetically sickening and revoltingly alluring; more akin to reality TV than, say, a Ken Burns documentary.

Like, say, American Idol, the presidential contest has become a pervasive feature of everyday life—a familiar, now run of the mill, media circus that entertains with a melange of reportage and speculation over Clinton′s tears, McCain′s senescence, and Obama′s faith. It can get tiresome to many. Millions of others, of course, are highly engaged in wholly prosaic forms of interactivity, from text-messaging to posting on YouTube to the ubiquitous sign stabbed into the front lawn.

The presidential election has so saturated national culture and consciousness—perhaps because of the web, perhaps because of the political mess we are in—that it seems especially tedious and tame, not in the sense of being utterly boring and inconsequential, but because it is so engrained in everyday life the process has become routine and rather humdrum. Hillary winks on Saturday Night Live; John swaggers on Imus; Barack dances on Ellen. Ho hum.

In other words, the combination of factors in this election—the length of time it′s been covered, the amount of media coverage and its all-encompassing nature, the expenditure of energies to support candidates—all lead to the conclusion that nominating and electing our next president is a normal, ordinary process not incommensurate with other kinds of habitual, everyday activities and investments. Running for president in twenty-first century America is, in a word, Profane; so much a part of the customary scenery of social life that it renders it downright commonplace.

Ok, that may be going a bit too far. Even as I write the words, and think through the critique, I′m left with a lingering sense that the analysis is not quite right; the conceptual fit placing presidential election into the profane category does not hold firm. Something more is going on than meets the eye, something a bit greater than ordinary and commonplace activities, though those qualities are no doubt present. In addition to the ordinary and banal is something extraordinary and ineffable in the collective act of campaigning and then voting for a new president. What may be appropriate in this case is nonetheless conceptually confusing, if not completely stupefying: the presidential election is both profane and sacred, simultaneously, congruently, at the same time.

The possibility that something can be both sacred and profane is blasphemy in the ears of strict sociologists of religion who venerate the foundational writings of French sociologist Émile Durkheim. In his famous and influential formulation, the sacred and the profane are two distinct categories that never mix together and must be kept at a distance: “In the history of human thought, there is no other example of two categories of things as profoundly differentiated or as radically opposed to one another”—or so says Monsieur Durkheim, anyway.

It is also blasphemy to many believers in general, from those who venerate the One God to those who worship multiple nature spirits. The sacred is traditionally understood as separate, set apart from the mundane, commonplace, routine, ordinary, and any attempt to bring the profane realm into the sacred is a sacrilege; indeed, a profanation of the highest order.

Yet the presidential election suggests otherwise and calls into question the absolute division between the two. Forget the orthodoxy of categorically distinct magisteria eternally kept apart, and see them as basic elements that blend and merge and interpenetrate in a culture where the secular can be religious, and the religious secular, where all blur together in a holy-unholy mix of passions and pastimes, faith and folly.

The presidential contest promises to keep one foot solidly grounded in the profane—fund-raising dinners and lunch at the local diner; pressing the flesh at rallies and attack ads; email blasts and blogging. But the other leg of this process is not planted in the profane soil of “la vie quotidienne,” as the French like to say, but lifted high into the sacred sky, transcending the common ground we inhabit and share as twenty-first century Americans, and connecting with one of the most inviolable, cherished, and consecrated values at the heart of this democracy: the right to vote.

It is, I think, unnecessary to make the argument that voting is a sanctified act in American culture. The evidence is easily tallied: it is enshrined in America′s most sacred text, the Constitution; people have fought and died to secure the right; and the moral force of each four-year ritual cycle is central to national identity and social cohesion, when ultimate questions about priorities and future directions are vigorously debated by communities because the stakes are so very high.

Whether you are an atheist or Jew, Hindu or Muslim, agnostic or Buddhist, Christian, or Wiccan, the ritual process of voting for the next President is non-sectarian, yet deeply religious. Not as an expression of faith in God or a particular tradition, but as an act of conscience that is fundamental to the political religion of modern democratic nations. Even those who do not vote can easily recognize how the election cycle regenerates national myths that remind Americans about divine origins and guidance, moral heroes and spiritual duties.

This campaign will be over, eventually. Even as candidates are dragged through the mud and ordinary Americans express preferences on YouTube, the sacred remains vitally alive in the days, weeks, and months building up to the election. It is an integral element of the collective effervescence tied to campaigning and voting that intermingles spiritual and material, holy and trivial. The sacred and the profane are not kept at a distance from each other, as conventional wisdom suspects, but intimately bound together in this presidential race that has been laughable at times and heartbreaking at others, and is no doubt momentous to the future course of the nation.