Politics is a subject I don’t often want to talk about, especially in the context of faith. It can easily derail the conversation because there is just so much heat and so many people with different perspectives. But here we are, USA in 2016. Politics is everywhere, and the way we respond as Christians matters. Someone recently asked me “What do you want from the election?” and I thought it was a very good question with a very important answer. Because what I want from the election is dictated by what I want from our government, and there’s much disagreement about what that should be.
All but the fringe in our country agree we need a government but we cannot seem to agree on what our government should do. Some believe the government needs to enforce a degree of morality. Some think the government needs to solve social problems. Some just want the government out of it all together. And it’s easy for us to have laudable goals for the government that backfire and harm us all.
I’m not good on detailed policy. A lot of these discussions are very complex, and it’s hard to know who to listen to is speaking the truth. For example, a social liberal will say that we should raise the minimum wage because no one should have to work and not be able to survive. A libertarian would say there should be no minimum wage because we harm people by limiting their opportunities. And there are perspectives in the middle. I’m not here to debate the specifics, only to admit that I don’t know the answers (though I do have an opinion on this particular one, but it’s an example, not the point of the post). I’m not an economist, and either side of an issue can look good and right if you don’t come in with knowledge or bias (which are not the same things, but often the latter masquerades as the former).
So it’s hard to say “I want xyz policy”. But I do have two main objectives for the government, driven by my faith. The first objective that is I believe government should be as limited as possible in order for the individual to take responsibility for him or herself. I see Christianity as a personal faith, that no one can “convert” another. We must all make the choice about what we will serve in this life, and that choice can only be made without coercion. Morality is not the responsibility of the government, but rather the individual. Our government should give us the freedom to follow faith, values, or any personal system of belief, or the freedom to deny these things. This is why I do not understand much of contemporary “conservatism”, which seeks to control the behavior of others. I can find someone else’s behavior terrible, but still believe that person should have the freedom to do it. When that person chooses to walk away from that behavior, then it shows real faith. Forced behavior by the government isn’t something that is good for anyone.
The second objective I have for the government is that it should handle our common goals. Sometimes these things are obvious, such as roads or public utilities. Sometimes they are less obvious- public education, for example, creates an educated population which is beneficial to all (even if you are not the recipient of public education, your are a recipient of living among a people who are educated). But beyond that, I believe a common goal we have is to ensure everyone in our country is given his or her “due” as a human being. We should not be content with a country in which parts of our community live in more fear than others, or where people are unable to survive regardless of how hard they work. I understand some don’t see this as a shared responsibility, but I do. I believe the Bible teaches this by example when Israel was commanded to do the work of justice for the weak and vulnerable. This doesn’t mean equalizing outcomes, but it does mean there are certain basic needs that we are responsible to meet for every individual.
These objectives can create a tension, and it’s easy for us to spiral out of control one way or the other. What begins as a laudable way to help the impoverished can end up in a government power play, and a desire to grant freedom to individuals can end up with oppression that denies basic human dignity. But this tension is where we need to work: we can learn and grow as we struggle through these issues and do our best to find the godly way forward.
In our current climate, we do not try resolve tension by working through these questions together. Instead we resort to rhetoric and polarization that does not resolve, but rather gives and takes power. We don’t see our government as a journey we are all on together, but a tug-of-war that we places on sides and in opposition. So much of what I hear on a daily basis is an attempt to paint someone else’s position as so abhorrent that it can be summarily dismissed. This is easy, as it means we don’t have to think or talk to one another. But thinking and talking is how we resolve the tension and get to a government that can provide both freedom and work toward common goals.
I will bring up one example with some trepidation, but I feel I must move to something concrete and not only present my thoughts in the abstract. Abortion in the US is a high-tension topic. People are quickly labeled as women haters or baby killers, and that language forces all conversation to cease. After all, who is required to break bread with a “baby killer”? But they are unjust labels that do not resolve the tension; rather they divide and obscure the truth. Because truth is, very, very few people in this conversation actually want to kill babies. And very, very few people in this conversation want to control women’s bodies.
Those accused of being “baby killers” don’t actually hate babies, and labeling them as such an outright falsehood about their motives and a smear against their character. Yes, it makes the conversation easier because you can write off what they have to say, but it doesn’t make it better. If anyone actually thinks that pro-choice advocates look at a baby and think “I really want to kill this baby”, it’s news to me. The reality is that pro-choice advocates are very concerned about the health and well being of women, and that is a laudable goal. Can we not learn from their compassion and love for the weak and vulnerable women who are pregnant and believe that an abortion is the best option?
On the other hand, those accused of wanting to control women’s bodies aren’t usually driven by a conviction about the woman’s personal choices regarding her body, but rather the value of the unborn. This is the only case in which they will suggest a woman be prevented from taking an action with her own body, and this case is unique because another life is involved. Again, ignoring that this is a special scenario may make the conversation easier, but it doesn’t make it better. To summarily label pro-life views of women based on this singular, very complex situation is unfair and unhelpful.
The way that this conflict over abortion is waged is telling: we deal with it in the political realm. We want to pass laws so that others must conform to our point of view. We constrain our votes on all other issues by this one issue. It’s understandable why this happens: when one side sees abortion as equivalent to murder, it’s sensible to bring the force of law in to protect those they see as victims. However, it’s not that straightforward, since not everyone agrees upon the value of the life of the unborn. The reason that laws against murder work is because we all agree that murder is bad. And for whatever reason, this same perspective isn’t agreed upon when it comes to abortion. But the goal shouldn’t be policy anyway. The goal should be less abortions, and despite all the vitriol surrounding this topic, I’d wager that most people would probably agree. I suspect the general population of the US would view a lower abortion rate as a strong indication of our health as a nation. That could be a common goal, but we never go there because we’d rather stand on political ideology.
Again, this is an example. I don’t want to resolve abortion in this post. I just want to point out where our instance on resolving tension through rhetoric and polarization prevents us from working together toward real results that matter. If we can unify rather than separate, we can be powerful drivers of change. We can work together and wrestle with the tension to find the right ways to achieve liberty while meeting our common goals. Alone, I’m not capable of knowing the answers on every topic. I’m not smart enough or able to see all the angles. But together I think we could do it if we would wrestle together in the middle rather than hurling rocks from the sides.
This election cycle, a lot of ugly stuff has been exposed. I believe this exposure has given us an opportunity to reject the old ways of rhetoric and polarization and try something new. And that, as a Christian, is what I want.