Hiding Under the Stage of Political Certainty

It’s not even September, which means we’ve only just begun to moan at the radio, “Good […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.16.16

It’s not even September, which means we’ve only just begun to moan at the radio, “Good grief, another piece on approval ratings?!” With three months to go, we’re going to need all the help we can get, which is why I came back to Kathryn Schulz and her book Being Wrong. This excerpt discusses the allure of ‘public displays’ of certainty, even when the evidence plainly proves otherwise. Schulz explains why we, despite the false promises of the past, continue to cast our votes for a certain future.

Certainty might be a practical, logical, and evolutionary necessity, but the simplest truth about it is that it feels good. It gives us the comforting illusion that our environment is stable and knowable, and that therefore we are safe within it. Just as important, it makes us feel informed, intelligent, and powerful. When we are certain, we are lords of our maps: the outer limits of our knowledge and the outer limits of the world are one and the same. 

Seen in this light, our dislike of doubt is a kind of emotional agoraphobia. Uncertainty leaves us stranded in a universe that is too big, too open, too ill-defined. Even Voltaire, the one who dismissed certainty as absurd, acknowledged in the same breath that doubt is “uncomfortable.” The word is understated yet oddly precise: the open space of doubt leaves us ill at ease, unable to relax or feel secure. Where certainty reassures us with answers, doubt confronts us with questions, not only about our future but also about our past: about the decisions we made, the beliefs we held, the people and groups to whom we offered our allegiance, the very way we lived our lives…

No wonder we gravitate toward certainty instead. It’s not that we are oblivious to its intellectual and moral dangers; it’s that those dangers seem pretty abstract when compared with the immediate practical, emotional, and existential perils of doubt. In fact, just as our love of being right is best understood as a fear of being wrong, our attraction to certainty is best understood as an aversion to uncertainty. 

Nowhere is this as true as upon the political stage. History has shown us that we will elect tyrants and autocrats before we elect a “waffler.” The certainty we so desperately yearn for within us we often find within the rhetoric of our political candidates. Even if we admit the hypocrisy of their promises and the irony of our belief, we would still prefer a liar who believes in himself than a leader who admits his willingness to listen. Of course, as Schulz points out, this goes for us, too: think of all the condescension planted upon the “Undecided Voter.” She writes, “In politics as everywhere, it is joined by (and often trumped by) emotion. And emotionally, as we have already seen, our allegiances lie strongly with certainty.”


Where does the word ‘faith’ enter the conversation here? Especially today, it is so easy to see that ‘faith’ as it is conceived by ISIS is synonymous with a particularly dangerous strain of certainty. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘faith’ as it is portrayed in puff media spectacles (a la Rio) often looks like some form of supreme energy food for the world’s self-assured winners. Strong men and women becoming stronger men and women. Either way, Schulz’s understanding of certainty helps describe both ends of these fundamentalist faiths–they are certainties that tend to be more defined by an aversion to (and fear of) its opposite.

This sounds far and away from a Christian understanding of faith, though. Alongside the rhetoric of certainty, how can one make sense of God’s own son crying from the cross, “Father, why have you abandoned me?” How can one make sense of God’s hiddenness in the Garden of Gethsemane? In a theology of the cross, faith’s polar opposite is not doubt, but certainty. Faith, in the life of one who believes in the cross, is more akin to clinging to what we can never be sure of. In a world desperately broadcasting and killing for their certainties, faith takes for granted the possibility that “I could be wrong.” It places those promises, instead, into the only certain hands which could deliver on them.