Monday, November 12, 2012

Last Week's Presidential Election: Reflections from a Christian Democrat

Confession: I was raised in a very conservative Christian environment in which "being a Christian" meant being a fundamentalist Christian (with allowances for very conservative members of such confessional Protestant churches as the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans) and almost necessarily entailed being politically manacled to the Republican Party. The exposure of Richard Nixon as a lying sociopath hardly changed matters (indeed, to this day I know Christians who maintain that Bill Clinton was "far worse" than Nixon ever had been). So, when I turned 18 I immediately registered to vote as a Republican, and dutifully cast my vote for Gerald Ford (against the outspokenly Christian Jimmy Carter!) and Ronald Reagan in the elections of 1976, 1980, and 1984.

But something happened along the way as I pursued an overly-long graduate theological education far away from my Philadelphia home in the sun-baked, economically-bifurcated hotbed of conservativism known as Dallas, Texas. My politics began to change, at first almost imperceptibly, as I grew increasingly uneasy over America's bellicose militarism and the growing influence of Jerry Falwell's self-righteous "Moral Majority." (And, no, David Gelerntner, seeing as how I was awarded my graduate degrees from a famously conservative seminary, I am not a "left-indoctrinated ignoramus" as you assume the majority of America's academics are; perhaps you think the country would be better off if less of its citizens pursued higher education?). What ultimately sealed the deal for my political transformation was the increasingly clear (as I saw it) disconnect between the social ethics of the Bible I loved and studied and the all-too-evident social and economic realities of the conservative Texas where I lived, worked, and studied.

So, as one might deduce, I was encouraged by the victory of President Obama in last Tuesday's election. That does not mean that I approve of all his policies, particularly those associated with so-called "progressive" social issues. Indeed, as New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk has said, "There is no vote cast that does not require some measure of forgiveness." Nevertheless, I see the triumph of President Obama as a signal that the American people have  by a smallish margin of 2.7%!  repudiated a politics of prideful, resentful, selfish individualism in favor of one that acknowledges that the promise of America can flourish only in community. We are, after all, all in this together. And, as Cain learned the hard way, we are our brother's keepers, whether we want to be or not.

American conservatives, and the Republican Party which has historically been the home of so-called "Movement Conservatism," have always treasured the mythology surrounding the "rugged individual," exemplars of which tamed the frontier and spread the de facto American empire westward to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in fulfillment of America's "Manifest Destiny." For such rugged individuals, the arm of government was at best an encumbrance hindering their pursuit of happiness, wealth, and power. This mythology had no greater champion than America's 40th President, Ronald Wilson Reagan, whose physical and ideological embodiment of this message changed the course of the Republican Party of Eisenhouwer, Rockefeller, Dirksen, and even Nixon, all of whom had adapted to the success and popularity of the Keynesian-based New Deal programs instituted by Franklin Roosevelt. In doing so, Reagan thereby changed the trajectory of political discourse, becoming (so I would argue) one of the three most consequential presidents in the nation's history (along with Lincoln and FDR).

Reagan's disdain for the government is best encapsulated in his famous quip, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." (Tell that today to victims of Hurricane Sandy, and they will likely fail to see the humor in it). Indeed, if there is one thing that conservatives of every stripe seem to agree on  and require no empirical validation for  it is that "big government" (aside, of course, from a military that receives more funding than those of all the other countries of the world put together) is bad, and that government cannot do anything but what private enterprise, with its relentless profit motive, can do better. Evangelical Christians, by and large, jumped on the bandwagon, arguing from Romans 13 and elsewhere that the role of government should be confined to protecting the populace from military threats overseas and evildoers within, thus safeguarding the essential freedom of its citizenry.

Things, however, are not so simple. They rarely, if ever, are. To argue that Romans 13 is intended to give a comprehensive vision of the role of human government is both bad exegesis and brutal hermeneutics. Indeed, from Holy Scripture I would argue that we can extrapolate other principles of proper governance from those passages in the Prophets which describe the character of the reign of the promised Davidic ruler we Christians identify as Jesus Messiah. Principal among such characteristics is that of righteousness or justice. We Westerners, especially the conservative among us, tend to define "righteousness" in terms of moral rectitude and "justice" as distributive justice, according to which the virtuous are rewarded and evildoers punished according to their merits (i.e., the equivalent of the Latin iustitia [cf., e.g., Aristotle, Eth. Nic. V.1129a-b; Cicero, Rhet., lib. II cap. 53]). Hence, for example, we always vow to bring perpetrators of atrocities to "justice," by which we mean that the blood of the innocent will be avenged. That is all well and good, but "righteousness" and "justice" in the Jewish Scriptures (the Hebrew צדק [TSDQ] cluster of terms) connote more than that. Indeed, the terms refer to the "right" conduct of both God and humans in the context of the relationships within which they live and operate. Two central "Messianic" Davidic texts stand out in the early chapters of the Book of Isaiah:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this ~ Isaiah 9:6-7
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit ... with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins ~ Isaiah 11:1, 4-5
Throughout the Book of Isaiah the beneficiaries of this justice are consistently the marginalized: the oppressed (1:17), the hungry and naked (58:6-7), and the poor (61:1). The consistent message of the prophets to covenant-breaking Israel and Judah is articulated in the famous words of Amos: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). And such "justice" will always be tempered by a mercy and humility that is the bane of all self-righteous moralists from time immemorial (cf. Micah 6:8). From these and other texts I would argue that the most important role of government is to promote justice and equity for the entirety of the population  and that this applies especially to those who, for various reasons, find themselves at the margins of society.

At this point I know what many of my more conservative readers are thinking (I know because I once thought this way): "Equality under the law only guarantees equal opportunity; it doesn't and shouldn't mean equality of results." To an extent, I still believe that is true. But we are kidding ourselves if we believe, as even some learned Christians still do (e.g., Westminster Seminary President Peter Lillback [see here]), that one's socio-economic status in society is one's due, and that any governmental attempt to regulate or redistribute wealth is "unjust" and due to "Marxist" thought. [As an aside, apart from the question as to whether or not Marxian analysis has anything to teach postmodern market capitalists (cf. Westminster Seminary's Carl Trueman {}), today's conservatives consistently fail to distinguish ordinary, FDR-style Democrats such as Barack Obama from Marxists (which they also tendentiously equate with Leninist communism), let alone “democratic socialists” like Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and “Christian socialists” like former British PM Clement Attlee. This is simply unacceptable from an analytic perspective, and such polemics only serve to stifle debate on matters of national importance.] For the fact remains that, the skepticism of affluent suburban Christians notwithstanding, cultural structures and institutions still exist that work to perpetuate poverty and injustice (these structures are at least part of what St. Paul refers to when he speaks of the "principalities and powers" that continue to hold people in bondage). It behooves us as Christians to work to identify and analyze these structures and seek some means to mitigate their deleterious influence on society. How such structural injustice is best dealt with is, of course, a legitimate issue for debate. Count me, however, as one who is more than a little skeptical of the possibility that the issues can be dealt with adequately via the exclusive channel of private charity, including that of the churches, alone.

Indeed, for me what set this election season apart from all predecessors is the degree to which the issues were turned into a referendum on the poor. Ever since Reagan, conservatives have always championed smaller government (at least in theory and in clearly demarcated respects) and lower taxes. And these lower taxes have always disproportionately benefited those at the top of the income scale. Republican conservatives justified this by postulating a theory called "supply side economics," in which the money retained by the rich would "trickle down" to the rest of the populace as they invested back into the economy. Of course, as things turned out, the massive tax cuts wound up benefiting only those people whose taxes were cut. And the result is a society in which the difference in wealth and compensation between the top and bottom of society has grown to where it is at its greatest level since before the Great Depression and the resultant New Deal policies that, in effect, created the broad-based middle class society in which I was raised. We also live in a society in which it is more difficult for the bottom 20% to work their way up to the top tier than even in such supposedly "class-based" societies as Britain. And make no mistake: the purveyors of such economic and political philosophies are happy with that outcome. Though some still, from time to time, give lip service to "trickle down" theories, it has become increasingly more common for them to repaint the issue as one of "fairness" to the rich, who have been re-branded as "job creators." The degree to which this argumentative transformation has been successful, even among those middle and working class people who stand to gain nothing from them, is the most amazing example of political voodoo I have ever witnessed. I am not only amazed, not only saddened, but also sickened by the amount of times I have heard politicians and citizens of the right classify the poor and less well off as "takers," "moochers," and "lazy" people who, in Mitt Romney's infamous words, "won't take charge of their life." Of course, the implication of such rhetoric is that "successful" people all earned their wealth and position due to their own hard work, and so it would be "unjust" for us to expect them to pay taxes at a rate more commensurate with the rates the rich paid during America's years of peak prosperity (of course, spot-on quips such as the one the late, lamented Texas Governor Ann Richards supposedly said about George W. Bush, that "he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple," don't resonate with this crowd). And, also by implication, those at the bottom should simply be thankful, like Lazarus in Jesus' parable, for the crumbs they receive at the foot of the table of the Diveses who have profited most from living and working in America.

Such thought, however, is not only factually false (see David Shipler's book, The Working Poor). It is morally unbecoming of Christians as well, who are commanded to show mercy and compassion for their fellow human beings. Christianity and the philosophy behind Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged are, frankly, incompatible. And for self-proclaimed Christians like Paul Ryan to use her work as the foundation of one's economic theory/policies is worse than unfortunate. But what such thought does, more than anything else, is demonstrate the real reason behind the right-wing call for austerity and debt reduction. You see, Republicans  never were overly concerned for deficits when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were piling them up (indeed, Bush VP Dick Cheney famously claimed back in 2002  that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter"). Moreover, by clearly implying that federal largess directed toward America's "lazy" poor is driving the deficit, they are appealing to the basest level of America's collective conscience. For the fact remains that "welfare" expenditures note that they always criticize welfare directed at individuals rather than corporations   pale in comparison with the military budget that they have no intention of slashing. In terms of pure economics, there is a reason why Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan never revealed details of their "plan" to lower taxes while simultaneously lowering the deficit, and it's a simple one: such a plan is a mathematical impossibility without shredding the safety net from which all Americans benefit. For, as economist Paul Krugman and others have long main maintained, the ultimate goal of arch conservatives ever since FDR has been to scale back this safety net, no matter how necessary or popular it is. But here's the rub: coming out and admitting so would be bad politics and ensure electoral defeat.

Please note that I am not giving a blanket endorsement for all of President Obama's policies. There is plenty to criticize there. Even less am I saying that our country has no need to reflectdeeply on how "social justice" can be maximized. Some people are lazy, and steps ought to be taken to do something about it (as an urban Northeasterner, I believe one of those things is a reinvestment of our government in the large cities that still haven't recovered from the devastation wrought by the double whammy of deindustrialization and the failed "war on drugs"). But selfish complaining about paying taxes to benefit those "other" lazy people is as out of the question as it is morally reprehensible for a Christian to engage in. After all, Jesus himself claimed that the two great commandments were to love God with the entirety of one's being and to love one's neighbor as oneself. I may not know much, but one thing I do know: Looking down one's nose on the poor and judging oneself to be better than they is no way to love them. And leaving the weakest of society to the whims of private charity is not much better.


  1. Of course, the dirty little secret here is that poverty has gone UP under President Obama, income inequality has gone UP under President Obama, and median incomes have gone DOWN under president Obama . . .

    1. Such bare "statistics" are meaningless. The real question is what things would have been like had the Herbert Hoover policies of John McCain and the congressional Republicans would have been effected. Governmental austerity in the face of the collapse of private enterprise (especially when the collapses are caused by financial catastrophes) is a devastating proposition. Even if that were not so, my point is that the demagoguery that slanders the poor and unemployed as "lazy" and "moochers" is a sub-Christian abomination. Ayn Rand and Jesus do not and cannot coexist.

  2. Just a preface.. . I am not the former Anonymous poster. I am anonymous because I share personal details of my life, and I don’t feel comfortable revealing the identity behind them on the internet.
    I agree with a lot of what you say in regards to the Republican party. The party has lost touch with their base, as there now is a growing libertarian wing who is tired of the hand-wringing fiscal irresponsibility and excuse-driven abdication from standing up to the Democrat's drunken spending spree. They are just as guilty of spending money we do not have, her citizens money, on pet projects that do nothing to secure our financial future or protect us from our enemies. They cannot balance their books with the money they took from us, and steal from us even further by devaluing our currency to the point where milk costs more than gas. That dollar which provided plenty of food for us before, is now having to be stretched so thin so as to force us down to one major meal a day. Many of our enemies have been made because we wrongly believe that somehow our nation is superior in it's practice of democracy, a thing which the millions of babies slain since Roe v. Wade would contest. Our Keynesian system is driving us further into debt, "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender." Prov. 22:7. China, another God-fearing nation (sarcasm) now pretty much owns us. Taking on debt is hardly a Christian proposition, and further, I do not believe God's Word teaches economic equality. I think economic equality is largely a humanist proposition, and I think it's results do more to harm the poor. Samuel warned Israel of their desire for a King because he would take 10% of their production. I would gladly take a 10% tax at this point.

  3. I think many of us are hypocrites, myself especially. I make excuses not to tithe or give to the deacons fund because we have more debt than what we make in a year; my rationale is that God owns my money but I legally borrowed it and must pay it back first. Instead of pushing me to get us out of debt sooner, I wallow in my own despair and self-doubt and spend money on trivial things to make me feel better instead of giving it to God. It is sin, plain and simple. God cares far more about my spiritual health and the salvation of others than he cares about someone's economic status. Jesus' care for the poor was an example for us to follow; an example of loving kindness and mercy to the less fortunate for the purpose in bringing us closer to Him. Ultimately such things are trivial when it comes to one's eternal destiny. After all, what good is some food and a place to sleep if you die in your sleep and end up in hell because of your unregenerate heart? I think it is the church that is to care for the poor, and it is Christians who are fault for paying more attention to politics as it relates to pushing for more government control (both the Republican and Democrat variety) who distract from our real mission. We should be involved in politics, but only to push for less government intrusion so that the church can do her job without fear of retaliation. We shouldn't be instigating wars or invading other countries without congressional approval for mere political purposes. We shouldn't stand for the wholesale slaughter of the unborn so that a woman can feel empowered over her freedom to "choose" (to murder her child). We should be compassionate to the women in dire straits, especially when they are not redeemed; but that doesn't mean allowing them to sear their own conscience before God by killing the child He formed, no matter what the circumstance. Politics should be far less complicated, and based only on whether or not the proposed bill or item is authorized by the Constitution. If not, it simply cannot be passed or enacted. Simple.

  4. As it relates to the poor, we shouldn't put our hope in a secular humanist government to do the work of the church. Giving my hardy approval for some schmoe in Washington to green-light the theft of someone's hard-earned money to give to someone else shouldn't help me sleep better at night. There is no compassion in that. None. It is empty of mercy and devoid of love. If brownie points meant anything to God beyond used menstrual cloths, it still wouldn’t count. It is Pharisaical in saying one is thankful they are not like "those rich people," "those CEO's," who should give all but what they need to survive to the poor or else they are evil, especially when we wallow in self-pity over "what little we have," and covet their Beemer’s and expensive vacation homes, thinking ourselves righteous for our lot in life but secretly desiring even just a piece of theirs. The CEO's may be unregenerate, they may be selfish in their love of money, but we are no less sinful in our hypocrisy. Many of them give to charity more money than we will make in a lifetime. They could do more, certainly, but I don't see myself in a position to judge their level of contribution. If one thinks it's OK to spend money on things such as sports games tickets or apparel but yet shakes their fist at the CEO who buys a new Mercedes, what is the difference? Who are we to judge the heart motive of the one who donates millions to the poor, spending 50% of their income to help the needy and the church and the guy who tithes 3% of his income and says (casually to himself, quickly forgetting on purpose) that he can't sacrifice more because ultimately he wouldn't be able to afford to go to the Super Bowl, or even buy that discounted LED TV to watch it on.

  5. I am hardly a middle class Christian suburbanite. I have taken on a lot of debt to obtain a degree in an occupation in which it makes no economic sense to do so. My fault, my responsibility. Yet, in a year which my wife and I had to seek out help from our church in order to put groceries on the table and gas in the car for me to get to work, we had a tax credit for school applied that Uncle Sam now says shouldn't have been given (our tax preparer made a mistake). Now we supposedly owe them $4,000. $2,000 for the credit, and $2,000 more for interest, TWO years after the fact, when we haven't heard so much as a peep from them until now. Hmph. Some righteous government we have; creating indecipherable rules and regulations that only tax attorneys can understand which are passed by the Nancy Pelosi’s of the world who insist on passing them so they can know what they are. We would have paid that back immediately if they informed us it should not have been given. Instead, it is either lost in the shuffle of bureaucratic bureaucracy, or it was intentionally lost or misplaced so that the interest-infused damage is already done. This is more money we don't have, on top of medical bills we have yet to pay due to a family emergency. We have a child now, and I am increasingly scared to death that I will not be able to provide for my family. Rising health care costs due to Obamacare remove even more money from our single-income paycheck which combined makes us monetarily below the poverty line and would make us eligible for food stamps were it not for my "middle class salary," most of which goes to the government, student loans, ever-rising health insurance premiums, medical bills we cannot afford due to my wife not being able to find a job in our horrid economy, caused by inflation and irrational spending by both parties. Now the wonderful bureau of Intellectually Rationalized Stealing has come to save the government's irresponsibility by harassing a monetarily poverty-stricken single income family over a tax credit, without which we would have been forced to move in with our parents to afford basic needs. This is the result of a humanist government lording over our God-given rights to exist on this planet without having the fruit of our labor robbed from us and given to a few who actually need it, and many who don't.

  6. Taxes do not just come in the form of a percentage of income removed. Inflation is a tax we pay when Bernanke keeps the printers cranking out the funny money. Oppressive regulation is a tax that manifests itself in lack of small business establishment. Obamacare is a tax that drives up health care premiums, prevents meaningful marketplace competition amongst insurers, and forces many who still can’t afford health care to buy into it.
    I'm sorry but I don't believe a secular humanist government knows better than I do how to spend my money or who I should give it to. If God desired the government to fully take care of the poor, then how would He teach us to have compassion on others by giving out of our abundance to those who need it? If all the poor have all their necessities met, then we would have no reason to be generous. I think a lot of the problem is that the word necessity has been redefined. No longer is it adequate food, shelter, and clothing, it is now seen as a necessity to own a cell phone, despite the plans being ridiculously overpriced and out of reach for many, including my family. We can only afford a tracphone, and that is only strictly for emergencies. I still get weird looks when I tell people I don’t own a cell phone or smartphone. We must as a body of believers help the poor and needy, the infirm, the widows and orphans, but to trust a secular humanist government to do this work for us is patently absurd. It makes no theological or rational sense to trust a largely incompetent bureaucracy filled with filthy rich lifetime politicians, who care for just about nothing but to squeeze out some extra votes by pandering to their base, to determine who should and should not receive the hard-earned money I produced for my family!

  7. Even if the government were to suddenly become entirely made up of humble, God-fearing believers, I still wouldn't trust them to spend my money, except on that which the Constitution authorizes. Which, by and large, is very little and a small fraction of what is spent today. Irregardless of who ends up receiving it, it is immoral to take my money and give it to someone else, especially when it is very difficult to determine whether or not that individual "needs" it more than I do. In my family's current situation, we may be seen as middle-class, but I would argue that we are not. Because both our parents were relatively uneducated as it comes to student loans, continual choruses of how it's "good" debt, as if such a thing exists, our net income is drastically reduced to the point that there is nothing left for even mediocre entertainment. For us, it is nothing but pure luxury to go out to eat, see a movie, or even pay a babysitter to watch our child while we actually have some time alone. Our marriage has been greatly affected. Still, we accept responsibility for our debt. I don't know how we will get through it; only God knows. We are used to spending time together as a family without the TV running, actually interacting with one another, and not having a whole circus of distractions.
    My question is why would someone want to have those things? Why do we see it as good or necessitous that someone has 100 channels of TV programming, a distracting anti-social smartphone, or a car that is less than 10 years old? How does that make you more acceptable to God? Where does the Bible teach anything other than love of God above all else?

    I have no desire to be excessively rich. I don't want that burden because I know I couldn't handle it. I would spend carelessly after paying off our debts, and I think that's why God hasn't blessed us with wealth and lack of debt. Still, the way I spend my money is between me and the Lord. How can He work on my heart if I am involuntarily releasing it to a bunch of bureaucrats who don't have the sense to balance the budget? To spend money on researching silly things like 1.2 million to study the game World of Warcraft, or $300,000 to for the USDA to promote caviar. We are having a tough time affording basic necessities and yet I'm suppose to buy into the idea that the government knows how to spend my money? I don't care who is in power --- Democrat, Republican, Green, or the Rent is too Damn High party, this is unacceptable. It is theft to go beyond the law of the land in what is authorized for government to spend money on, because it always ends in nonsensical pet projects resulting from the interest of lobbyists and other groups that have more power than those whose money was taken to earn their lousy support. Sinful man, especially when found in a group of other sinful men should not be trusted to spend money beyond a specifically enumerated list (Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution) irrational interpretation of "general welfare" notwithstanding.

    I just want to be able to make an honest living and keep the fruit of my labors; work as unto the Lord, provide for my family, give generously to the poor, and have the freedom to preach and live the Gospel. The socialistic tendency of both Republican and Democrat's love of Big Government will do nothing to accomplish any of this without God's mercy. Any prosperity we've felt in the past several decades is in spite of the poor decisions our government has made. At this rate my family will be begging from the filthy rich, entitled bureaucrats in Washington who are exempt from the prosperity-destructive health care policies they've enacted to suckle from the teet of an unrighteous humanist government just to get some scraps of food or mediocre health care by an overworked and depleting pool of doctors.

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