What do Barack Obama and televangelist Benny Hinn have in common? Take a look:

Sweet Jebus, it's so easy to look at the folks in Hinn's services and mock or pity them for their blind acceptance of his powers. (You have to admire the professional pratfall skills of the guy at 1:15 though.) But when I went to church as a kid (Presbyterian service, Sunday School, and church choir every week until I became atheist around the age of 10) I would have loved that kind of excitement. Sitting in a wooden pew and listening to someone read out of a boring book didn't, and doesn't, seem to me to afford what one might call "a religious experience." Doodling fighter jets on the church program to stay awake is a far cry from glossolalia.

I later went to an Episcopal boarding school. I was quite fond of both it and the chaplain (who's still a good friend), but still, the churchy part, not my cup of tea. With one exception. On Martin Luther King Day, an alum with a church band, the kind with the drums and the guitars and getting of the groove on, brought his group to Groton for a gospel choir workshop, of which I partook. There was dancing and clapping and singing lines like "He'll make it all right" in a way that was catchy and warm and enthused. And I felt buzzed, open to the potential of a higher force. Such is the power of the body and the emotions over the hardened skeptical mind.

I would say that all religion should involve so much groovilicious feelgoodery, except, wait, I'm against organized religion. Why encourage participation?

Well, it does have its civic benefits (as The Economist did a fair job of summarizing recently). Religion enforces morality etc. For example, a paper published in Psychological Science in September (pdf) revealed that subconsciously priming people with religious words (spirit, divine, God, sacred, and prophet) reduced selfish behavior among both theists and atheists in an economics game. But! The researchers found the same results when they primed people with secular concepts of justice (using the words civic, jury, court, police, and contract.) But but! A study published in 2003 in Cross-Cultural Research (pdf) suggests that religious communes last longer and benefit from more internal cooperation than do secular ones, thanks to numinous rituals.

So where's the secular equivalent of gospel music to boost enthusiasm for the common good? "He'll make it all right" doesn't have the same catchiness when He is, say, a district judge. How do you get people deeply, emotionally engaged in tax reform? Ah, that's where the persuasive politician comes in. The charismatic leader who can make ladies swoon. The Obamanator.

The fine print: 1) Inspirational leaders are great, but I'm (still!) undecided on Hillary versus Obama. 2) The Hinn vid is a little misleading: His services don't contain quite that level of energy; the music is kinda not so great. 3) The Obama video might be overly suggestive too. He's not demonstrating particularly grand oration in those clips, so who knows if his fans are swooning for him or swooning because they ate bad sushi.

About the Author

Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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