AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.
For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”
When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.
The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?
America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.
Hearing speech after speech end with “God bless America” got a little tiring for me; as a Christian, I would have liked more recognition that God wants to bless the whole world. My British wife sitting next to me is a regular reminder of how much broader our worldview as American Christians needs to be. The idea that when the world needs something really important done, it always takes an American—as was explicitly said at one convention but implied at both—is a thought that likely wouldn’t occur to God. I love my country too, but both conventions were full of national boasting rather than the national humility that being a “nation under God” would suggest.
Veterans were thanked again and again, and “wounded warriors” were lifted up in ways that brought tears to many eyes, including mine. But when are we going to talk about the unnecessary and wrong wars that politicians keep sending our young men and women into? Wouldn’t preventing those conflicts or ending them sooner ultimately be the best way to “support our troops”?
And while I too like the idea of being freed from our dependence on Middle East oil (and therefore helping to prevent sending any more young people to wars that have too much to do with our oil addiction), a Christian commitment to creation care would lead us fundamentally to question our dependence on fossil fuels—which has wreaked havoc on our planet and threatens the future of our grandchildren, and especially those in the poorest nations, with dramatic climate changes. Those grandchildren will rightly wonder why we didn’t talk much about that at the political conventions of our time.
As Christians trying to relate our faith to politics, we have to ask much deeper questions than are usually raised at the conventions of either political party. We have to ask: What has happened to our politics and why are we so unable to solve our deepest problems?
Hope and Change?
Remember what was in the political air during the fall campaign for the 2008 presidential election—the feelings of hope and the possibility for real change? Doesn’t that seem like a very long time ago now?
“Hope” and “change” were indeed the words of Barack Obama’s campaign. But they also reflected the deep desire for what many people believed was necessary in American politics—especially a new generation who turned out in mass numbers in 2008, both to volunteer and vote, which ultimately made a critical difference in the election’s results. Obama ran on the tide of that movement, even though he didn’t create it, and he encouraged people to put all their hopes for change onto him.
Nobody can deny how much that hope for change and reform has now faded. Oppositional politics has replaced any hope for political cooperation to solve our problems, and the power of special and vested interests regularly blocks solutions and change. Winning, instead of governing, is now the way of life in Washington, D.C. Never in our lifetimes has Washington been such a place of ideological and uncivil partisan warfare—all to the detriment of the common good.
I vividly remember a meeting at the White House after the 2010 election at which administration leaders said that the political system was even more broken than they had imagined before coming in, that the power of money was pervasive, and that somewhere along the way they had decided to just try and work with a broken system to get a few things done. In my opinion, they did get some important things done, but change seemed much slower than many had hoped.
The system is still as broken as ever, with the power of money even more dominant since the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court decision which ruled that corporate expenditures in political campaigns couldn’t be limited. The power of money and the partisan chokehold on political discourse now prevent our elected officials and legislative bodies from even seriously addressing, let alone solving, the root problems of our public life. The checks have replaced all the balances in American politics. And until we remove the excessive power of money from politics, we will never put values back into it.
In late 2008 and early 2009, steps were taken by Congress and the administration to shore up the financial institutions that had precipitated the deep economic crisis, in keeping with the policies of the previous administration. While some challenged the bailout of Wall Street, most commentators thought it was necessary to prevent complete economic collapse. But the big banks were not held accountable for what even people in their world called “reckless” and “greedy” behavior. No serious penalties, restrictions, or even conditions were imposed for the taxpayer’s bailout of the big banks, whose selfish behavior had caused so much suffering for so many people.
Thus was lost the greatest opportunity since the time of Franklin Roosevelt for challenging and curtailing the power of money in our society and politics. And the chance to use such a major crisis to fundamentally rebuild the nation’s neglected infrastructure, perhaps including a clean energy grid for the future and the creation of millions of jobs in the process, was also missed, due to both Republican opposition and White House timidity.
Perhaps the biggest mistake the Obama administration made was the concession to simply work with such a broken system to get a few things done, rather than deciding to mobilize and partner with citizen social movements that seek to fix this broken system, movements that had elected this administration to begin the process. The most memorable periods of political change—including those during the presidencies of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and even Abraham Lincoln—were all vitally shaped and pushed by movements, whether created by farmers, labor, civil rights advocates, or abolitionists. We have learned once again that only moral pressure and serious momentum from the outside can make change happen on the inside.
Why Elections Matter—and How To Choose
Even in a broken political system, the apathy of not voting only further deepens our problems. Engagement is required for Christian citizens, but not only at election time. Elections are important because they can make a real difference in whether the country starts wars or prevents them, exploits the environment or stewards it, increases our racial divides or bridges them, decreases the economic opportunities for people to provide enough for their families or increases them, chooses continuing benefits and subsidies to powerful interests or supports long-term fiscal sustainability, undercuts the dignity of life from womb to tomb or defends it, undermines healthy family and cultural values or supports them, sacrifices religious liberty and human rights or protects both, and whether it protects the most vulnerable or not. And we all know how important presidential appointments are, especially those to the Supreme Court.
Race, in particular, is important in this election. To politically oppose the policies of the Obama administration, of course, is not racist. But the racial overtones of some of the opposition to Obama should concern all Christians, regardless of their politics, and that should be called out wherever expressed, even subtly, in this campaign. Racial healing and reconciliation is a fundamental Christian virtue, and all of us must be vigilant that this election not set us back from that goal.
How we vote is likely to have less impact than what we do for the common good in our lives outside the voting booth, with all of our day-to-day choices and decisions. Sometimes, the best we can do is make an electoral judgment about who will do the least damage to the common good; or who will allow the most openness to pursue moral agendas in the behavior of government, the market, and civil society; or who will help build the partnerships we need between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to actually start solving our problems.
All candidates, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, should be evaluated by the competing visions of what they are setting forth for the country, by their vastly different policy positions, and by their personal moral compass and how it will impact their leadership. For Christians, our election choices should always have most to do with protecting the “the least of these”:
- low-income individuals and families
- undocumented people, who are in the biblical category of “the stranger”
- children born and unborn
- those most vulnerable to hunger and disease around the world
- poor people most impacted by climate change
- women and children being trafficked and exploited, and
- those who are victims of violence and the “collateral damage” of war.
The Circle of Protection, a broad coalition of churches and faith-based organizations from across the political spectrum, asked both President Obama and Gov. Romney to respond to the current U.S. poverty numbers, the highest in the last 50 years. We invited them to tell the churches what they would do about that in a five-minute video that we promised to distribute throughout our churches. We were pleased that both presidential candidates responded, and we released their videos in early September (they can be found at sojo.net/election). Now, no matter who wins, we can hold the president accountable to what he has said.
Key to this election is to trust the commitment to fundamental political reform that many made in the last election. That commitment is still so very important. Skepticism about our current political process is clearly valid, but cynicism about the very idea of change will undermine our future. But we have to learn how change will come.
Most fundamentally, we need to focus on the tremendous influence of money in our society and in politics, and how that works against all who are powerless—the people that faith communities should always care most about. In particular, if we don’t challenge and change the growing power of money over politics, we simply won’t be able to accomplish the change we desire, and our hope for reforming democracy will steadily diminish. A commitment to the common good over private gain must now be the starting point of our politics.
It’s time to apply the lessons we have learned about not ultimately trusting in candidates, and certainly not in parties, for the changes we need. Party allegiance, especially among younger people, is no longer guaranteed, and that may be a good thing. But what will most shape the future, if old political structures and alliances are seriously diminishing? It will either be the overwhelming power of money in politics that ultimately controls outcomes in favor of the wealthiest special interests—or it will be the energized power and influence of citizen social movements, particularly with the growing ability of social media and other forms of organizing to actually increase democracy, as we have seen all over the world. Bottom-up change is driving events in many places—change that doesn’t depend as much on large, top-down organizations. Moneyed interests and social movements are now locked in a moral battle for the future of our public life.
Issues and people, more than candidates and parties, are what should motivate us now. Advocating for real people who are being impacted by real issues is bringing a new generation into public life. The moral measure of politics must be the ancient and sacred idea of the common good. A new hunger for the common good is emerging as the goal for our life together, rather than the political victories of one set of elites over another.
Individual freedom and well-being is an important American value, but so is community—the recognition that we are all bound together and responsible for one another. Those two values together are infused into the best of our history, and losing the critical balance between them puts this country in great danger. What most needs to be recovered is that commitment to the common good, what Jesus called loving your neighbor as yourself. We are indeed our brother’s and sister’s keeper, and our votes during this election, and our behavior afterward, should show that.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.