The political season is once again upon us and, unfortunately, it’s unavoidable. Our internet feeds and news programs inundate us with the latest poison rhetoric from the candidates–the loudest ones, at least. We finally reach November and are so sick of the whole mess of it that we vote for the “lesser of two evils” and feel like vomiting as we exit our polling site.
It is particularly hard for people who don’t side with the extremes of either party. Moderate candidates usually get weeded out by the time of the party conventions, as they don’t represent “real” conservative or liberal values that the parties represent. Thus, we get four more years of gridlock in Washington by politicians who refuse to cross the aisle to develop plans and pass laws that work. Worse, they continue to hurl their vitriolic comments towards each other long after the election has ended. They demonize their opposition, typically accusing them of not caring about the people of our country.
While these insults are often built on caricatures of each side, this general lack of understanding is a sign of a more troubling lack of compassion and conversation growing in our culture. In light of this, let’s look at two connected areas where there exists the greatest disparity between the two political parties in the United States so that we can, hopefully, better work together in compassion for our fellow human being.
A Disparity of Economics
I used to be a big fan of Ayn Rand and Austrian economics, a framework that largely fuels the economic policy of the Republican Party, especially its conservative “Tea Party” branch. The idea that a free-market system would make the entire economy stronger via the trickle-down effect (the idea that businesses and business owners becoming richer leads to everyone becoming richer) is very appealing. It presents a beautiful ideal of a world working in ultimate libertarian freedom and somehow making all ends meet. The problem is that, as numerous studies have shown, the trickle-down from rich to poor doesn’t happen. It’s an over-realized eschatology that requires a society of unbroken people to succeed. In reality, the rich will often become richer, but the poor do not necessarily benefit. Especially in unstable economic times, the wealthy tend to hoard their wealth rather than spend it, causing none of the working class to move into the middle class and creating a larger economic disparity between the classes across the board.
For better or for worse, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (and those after him) created numerous government-sponsored social systems to help give the working class a fighting chance at survival. I have known many people who have benefitted greatly from these and whose existence is sustained by them. At the same time, each of these systems requires a structure to maintain it, and bureaucracy forms and thrives in these situations like mosquitoes in pools of water. The bureaucracy then hurts those who are meant to receive the benefits of this benevolence. Cycles of red-tape often block those who most require adequate benefits, while others find ways of milking the broken system for benefits they don’t need. Handouts also do not always equal help. If people truly are to get back on their feet, they need attention, accountability, and education that is underprovided or wholly absent in government assistance. When other issues mix into the fray such as what immigrants should receive, the quarrel over these welfare systems becomes the political shouting match for which our modern political climate has become infamous.
The alternative most often proposed for social welfare programs is private charity. I am all for charity, and I believe that Christians should be at the forefront of this effort as Christ called for us to be. Besides verbally preaching the gospel, the command to take care of the poor, orphaned, widowed, and others in need is one of the most stressed teachings by Jesus. However, the reality is that no private charities, religious or otherwise, currently have the capability to attend to the needs of the entire nation’s poor. Thus, as ideal as it would be for private charities and churches to take on the full responsibility of maintaining life, it isn’t happening right now. That’s not saying it can’t happen–and I would issue a strong call to the Church in this regard–but until that great work takes place, there is still a need to be met. The government systems meet this need poorly and need much revision, but they are, at least, making an effort.
A Disparity of Human Life
You might say I’m as pro-life as they come. However, both parties grossly over-simplify this issue to the point of being inconsistent with their philosophies. Republicans have, for years, championed the fight against fetal abortion while Democrats have largely fought for the right to keep the choice legal. Republicans have largely been advocates of various wars overseas while Democrats have been opposed to them. Republicans have fought against accepting refugees from the middle east while Democrats have sought to allow them. Republicans have tried to keep capital punishment while Democrats have opposed it. Democrats have advocated for gun control legislation while Republicans have opposed it. All of these have, at their center, a self-professed high valuing of human life, but it has led to different ends of both sides of the issue. For brevity, I’m going to focus on two: abortion and gun control.
One of the more frustrating aspects of these two issues is that the opposition to each uses one of the same arguments: it’s going to happen anyhow, so why make it illegal? The typical Democrat will argue that abortions will happen illegally if they cannot happen legally, so we should keep them legal for the mother to have adequate healthcare. The typical Republican will say that gun violence will happen whether or not we add restrictions to firearms because the criminals will not obey the law, so we shouldn’t create any additional gun control laws. The other side, in both circumstances, will then reply: but we have to do something–people are dying!
Abortion is a terrible thing, but conservatives need to realize both the causes for it and the reality of its alternatives to the women facing that decision. In many cases, the cause of abortion rests on the inability of the mother to provide for the child. The fact that Republicans fight to cut social welfare programs means that the need for resources is even harder to meet. While the effort to end legal abortion goes full-steam ahead, the end of circumstances leading to abortion is nowhere in sight. The primary alternative and the one championed by most conservatives (especially Christians) is adoption. Adoption is a beautiful alternative, but one that is currently not optimized. Thousands of children now go through the adoption and foster-care systems without ever finding a “forever family.” More depressing is that, in many cases, there are families out there wanting to adopt children, but the expense and red tape of the process ultimately present impassable hurdles. My pushback to Republicans would be that they are not making the situation of these mothers any easier by refusing aid for the burdens of their lives. My pushback to Democrats would be that, whatever life this child is born into, whatever terrible circumstances, it is still a life, and each has a potential to flourish beyond their circumstances. The only way to limit their chances is to extinguish their lives before they have an opportunity to live them.
Guns can be used for offensive or defensive purposes. That’s just the way of it. They can be used to murder or to defend one’s self and loved ones. Either way, it is a bullet tearing into human flesh. It is a destruction of the Image of God, which cannot be taken lightly. Thus, what we do and what regulations we put on lethal weapons cannot be taken lightly. The typical Republican will argue that to restrict our access to guns will limit our ability to defend ourselves and our families. The average Democrat will argue that to keep the firearm market open will allow more and more people who should never have a gun to obtain access to one and kill innocent people. I admit, I have a hard time with this issue. While being fundamentally pacifistic (I will write on this at some point), I recognize that defense of others is an ultimate necessity, and I believe a wounding instrument is an unfortunate need in some of these circumstances. At the same time, while we cannot prevent all criminals or insane persons from obtaining weapons, we can make it harder for some. I would say to my conservative friends that if we make the argument that making abortions illegal will hopefully reduce the number of them, we must be willing to admit the same for guns in the hands of evil or deranged individuals. I would say to my liberal friends that any changes in gun laws will not ultimately end gun violence. We must have a measured expectation that human-on-human violence will continue as it has for thousands of years. The ancient sin of Cain has been oft repeated and will be until the world is reborn.
If I could write an endless post, I would probably address issues where immigration, both from Latin American countries and from embattled middle-eastern countries like Syria challenge our openness to extend Christ-like hospitality to those in need. I would address the idea that we would consider, under any circumstances, torturing our fellow human beings for gain, no matter the cost to our very humanity. I would address issues of racial tension as we try to identify and defend those who are different than us and yet no less born in the image of God, all the while seeking not to demonize those employed to protect us due to the wrong actions of a few. There are too many issues where the value of human life comes into play, but the answers are never as cut-and-dry as they first appear.
A Call for Charitable Dialogue
And this is why charitable dialogue is essential. Nothing is ever as cut-and-dry as it first appears. There are many problems and many possible solutions to problems that ultimately only purposeful discussion can weed through. Building our fortresses in our corners and pelting endless verbal bombs will get us nowhere except perpetual dysfunction. Yelling and calling each other names will create a land of increasing disunity until such a day that we can no longer be called “the United States.” From a Christian perspective, the rhetoric of our current political debates undermines the dignity each person has as a creation in the Image of God, and I fear the result will be that it causes such dysfunction that we become wholly inept at being the caretakers of our fellow image-bearers.
(Cover image: Raffaele Giannetti, The Last Senate of Julius Caesar)