The Spiritual Roots of the Democratic Party, continued|
beginning of article
Republicans tend to reject what they call "big government" and want all local concerns (states, corporations) to be able to go their way without Washington's bureaucracy and often clumsy, insensitive intervention. However, while they may paint an unflattering portrait of "big government," they seem to have no sense that mega-corporations are also huge entities, which can squash individuals and small businesses; mega-corporations have enormous power by manipulating the political system and legal system. Moreover, the federal government is reined in by elective government, by voters, by a brilliant system of checks and balances, while mega- corporations have no such curbs (unless they are curbed by the government itself; or by organized labor, which is generally opposed by Republicans). Nibley notes how some Republican economic theorists describe laissez faire economics as a sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest: let only the strongest survive, and whatever morality they use to survive is by definition right. And the weak, the sick, the poor will be justifiably removed from the gene pool. Jesus's parable of seeking after the one sheep that has strayed presents a striking contrast.
Again, this is not a blanket denunciation of all rich, and many companies treat their employees fairly, curb pollutants responsibly, and avoid monopolistic practices. But wealth does lead to dangers. We remember the part riches play in the pride cycle in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 4 Nephi 24-26). Republican principles and action often do not seem to recognize those dangers. While the scriptures emphasize how we often need to protect the poor from the oppression of the rich, extreme Republican principles tend to protect the rich from any danger to their riches. There has been a recent tendency in America for the gap between rich and poor to widen, especially as a result of classic Republican policies, according to Republican analyst Kevin Phillips in his book The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath. Phillips is a Republican, but refers to himself as a "populist" Republican from a different era, and regrets that his party is no longer in touch with the common man.
Scriptures offer an ideal of a perfect society in which there is no class warfare, no rich and no poor. (Acts 5:32; 4 Nephi 3.) The Mormon tradition especially has this ideal, in its attempts to implement the United Order in pioneer Utah. It is one of the great ironies of Mormon political history that a church which has such a strong tradition of seeking financial equality -- in the United Order movement -- should politically become so opposed to solving the social problems of rich v. poor on a collective, national level. Of course, Ezra Taft Benson, and other LDS conservatives have tried to portray the United Order as a free market form of government, but Arrington and May, writers of the best book on the United Order, have strongly denied that the United Order was a "capitalist" system.
So you can see that the Republican traditionally siding with management against workers, Republicans fighting against campaign finance reform, with the rich instead of the poor -- if taken to extremes -- can put the Republican party on the wrong side of this gospel principle. And we can see that this tendency to champion the rich has colored the Republican party's policies in other areas. In the area of civil rights, the minorities are usually not found in the upper class, but they are often poor. In the area of the environment, since Republicans favor management, they often would remove environmental regulations that require corporate entities to regulate pollutants.
Here again, we see the Democratic party typically working for health care reform, to help the insured; while Republicans typically want to protect the employer and insurance company. Naturally, they give ostensibly practical reasons for protecting the insurance company (such as predicting that insurance will not be affordable if reforms are instituted). But they often do not combine these ostensibly practical reasons with a passion to help the insureds in constructive, innovative ways.
Here is another example: in periodic efforts to raise the minimum wage, often simply to parallel the rate of inflation, typically Democrats support the change and Republicans oppose it. Note that in this instance, Democrats are supporting the poorest element of society, and they are supporting people who work. And these poorest workers are often not given health coverage by their employers, so would have to provide it for themselves if they are to have it at all.
Wealth does not automatically corrupt; I would like to pause and honor many wealthy people who use their financial resources to help the poor, to contribute to worthy causes, to education, to training programs, to libraries, to hospitals, to medical research, to help artists, musicians, and writers practice their arts. I think it is a burden to be wealthy, and many people have carried that burden honorably, intelligently and morally.
Some have argued that taxing Americans to further social programs is an attack on free agency. According to this argument, requiring money through mandatory taxes is a use of force, which is Satan's plan. Instead, we should give money individually, of our own free will, and at our own discretion, to charities of our choice.
This argument shows a basic misunderstanding of representative, democratic government - - it is almost a rejection of the idea of representative government. We express a desire for more or less taxes, and our preferences for how those taxes will be used, when we vote and are otherwise involved in representative government. We practice our free agency when we step into a voting booth. We may not agree with how our fellow Americans have voted, but we have agreed to live with the politicians, the executive, legislative, and judicial, that have been legally elected and appointed. This works both ways: Republicans need to live with Democratic expenditures on education, increasing the minimum wage, helping the oppressed in our society, while Democrats need to live with Republican leaders who cut taxes in ways that Democrats believe benefit the wealthy, not the common man.
By the argument that taxes take away our free agency, taxes would have to be abolished completely, with the abolishment of the United States military, the central government, the interstate highway system, and national parks included. No responsible Republican that I know of advocates that. So the question is not whether taxes are justified, but how tax money should be used -- and what balance there should be in how the taxes are appropriated. Both Republicans and Democrats (usually) think that tax money should be devoted to education and the military. But Republicans will lean more toward the military and Democrats will place more emphasis on education. However we think tax money should be used, we express our free agency at the voting booth when we choose between politicians who have contrasting philosophies relating to how America's resources should be focused.
There is in one strain of Republican philosophy -- as advocated by Reagan, Gingrich, George W. Bush -- a certain anti-government rhetoric that undermines key American ideals. While I agree that any human organization should be watched carefully and sceptically, and that power can corrupt, there also can be a great power in community. And the community of the United States can be a powerful force for good. If we are authentically a Christian community, on a nationwide level, we should be willing and happy to show Christian compassion and generosity on a collective level. By doing so, by voting for politicans who are concerned about helping those less fortunate in our society, we exercise our moral agency in the most pure and rewarding way possible.
I give two examples from recent politics, that I choose intentionally to show the dangers of the Republican point of view taken to extremes. A typical Republican mantra has been "massive tax cut"; and when Reagan came into office, he was able to pass a sweeping tax cut. As a result, here in California, federal funding for social programs helping the mentally ill and those who were homeless because they were not mentally competent, was instantly cut off, and the mentally incompetent were unceremoniously turned out into the streets. These were not freeloaders who did not want to work; they were people who could not cope with normal living -- sometimes because of schizophrenic mental tendencies, sometimes because they were veterans who had broken down mentally after the war, sometimes combinations of these and other reasons. Reagan's plan was to suddenly give them no help -- send them out onto our streets to fare as best they could -- even though they could not help themselves. Meanwhile, under Reagan, not surprisingly, as we have seen, while the economy was not especially good, the gulf between wealthy and poor became wider and wider.
Among the programs that Reagan slashed -- along with a customary Republican target, education -- was job-training programs. In other words, these were programs to help people qualify to support themselves and contribute to the community. These programs were not handouts given to freeloaders -- once again, we see that extreme Republican values do not even help people help themselves.
In the last interview Reagan gave as president, he stated that the homeless were homeless because they wanted to be (which in many cases, is equivalent to saying that people have mental problems because they have chosen to be mentally ill, and so we shouldn't help them), and his pronouncement on unemployment was to pick up a newspaper, point to the want ads, and say, "There are thousands of jobs." Of course, this ignores the fact that many of those jobs require advanced training and experience, and that many other jobs are so abysmally low paying that a parent with spouse and children may not be able to make ends meet with such a job.
Another example. I was surprised to find that in the state of Texas, until recently, teachers were not given health benefits. During the time George W. Bush was in office, during which he helped pass a series of tax cuts, he did not make insurance for teachers a goal. Here was one of the wealthiest states in the nation, but their commitment to education was so low that teachers were treated as third or fourth-class citizens. Not surprisingly, Texans found that many of the better teachers left the state.
In summary, I emphasize that some concerns of Republicans are valid -- there is nothing wrong with a healthy economy, helping industry. And there are many Republicans who are authentically concerned about helping their fellow man. But it is possible to stimulate growth in the economy and be concerned about helping the less fortunate in our society at the same time -- rather than presenting a false choice between a healthy economy and compassion. Some Republicans on the far right have almost demonized compassion, and have made a virtue of selfishness. Given this fact, it is extremely paradoxical that many conservative Christians are such passionate Republicans. I believe this phenomenon is evidence that many Bible-belt Christians do not understand in depth what Jesus's teachings really were, but are content with proof-texting a few oversimplified theological ideas from the New Testament.
I have Republican friends whom I admire, who are genuinely concerned about helping their fellow man. I would applaud them if they could get a majority of Republicans to authentically infuse those values into their party. However, the Republicans, of late, have veered to the right. George W. Bush's sharp turn to the right after he became acting president is emblematic of this continued shift. The continued Republican shift to the far right, toward wealthy lobbying interests, under this administration made one socially conscious Republican no longer able to act even as a nominal Republican -- Jim Jeffords. While Republicans since his departure from the Republican party have often treated him as simply a Benedict Arnold, he is a vivid example of how the Republican party has retreated from its center.
So, point one: the scriptures warn us about the dangers of being rich, and denounce the rich's tendency to oppress the poor. As we consider how the Democratic party has championed the financially disadvantaged, has been wary of concentrations of wealth, has realized the practical necessity of scrutinizing the management of companies, we can conclude that the Democratic party is closer to the gospel on this issue than is the Republican party.
On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in America and abolished the institution of slavery. In doing this, Lincoln trumped the states' rights doctrine that had given the Southern States their argument for seceding from the union. After the Civil War, Southern Democrats were often passionately racist and did all they could to keep blacks from having voting rights. Blacks, understandly, typically voted straight Republican when they were allowed to vote.
All of this changed in our century. Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat, following the tradition of Missouri Democrat Harry Truman, championed and shepherded through Congress sweeping Civil Rights legislation, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Policies of segregated schools and buses and denying blacks the vote were discontinued as a result of the intervention of the federal government. After Johnson signed this piece of legislation, he reportedly said glumly, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come." Now blacks, along with other minorities, typically overwhelmingly side with the Democratic party. Many southern Democrats, who formerly supported racist programs such as segregation, have turned Republican (Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond are examples). In the last election, the South voted overwhelmingly for Bush. But nine out of ten blacks voted against Bush. This is not surprising considering that Bush allied himself with the segregationist Bob Jones University in an effort to woo the "conservative base" of the Republican party.
Granted, Republicans argue that minorities are better served in the Republican party, but the minorities themselves don't think so. (Generally speaking; you can always find minority Republican blacks, such as Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas, a confirmed opponent of civil rights legislation.) And unless we have a paternalistic idea that minorities simply do not know what is best for them, we ought to take their choices seriously.
What does this have to do with the gospel? Everything, I believe. As I have mentioned in the preceding section, it is often those who are of a different race, or culture, or religion, who are the most oppressed and disadvantaged, who do not have a level playing field.
Race is also a central theme in the the New Testament. If we turn to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37), we remember than Samaritans were viewed as "half-breeds," part Jew and part Gentile, and so were racially despised. Thus Jesus was confronting a Jewish taboo in telling this parable. We also remember Jesus preaching to the village of Samaritans early in his ministry, which amazed his disciples. (John 4).
The Jews often were strictly separatist; they did not eat with Gentiles; they did not even like to tread the same ground as Gentiles, and the ritual of dusting off your feet came from the idea that you should get rid of the earth on your clothes, shoes, or feet that was shared with Gentiles. As a result, in the early Christian church, when Paul brought the gospel to many Gentile cities, it was a major challenge to convince Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians. As a result, Jewish Christians did not want to take the Lord's supper, communion, the sacrament, with Gentile Christians. Paul fought long and at great length to integrate the two racial communities into one church. He taught that the essence of Christ's love and grace is that we do not regard racially different people as lesser church members. Jews had to learn to authentically love Gentiles. The Lord's supper became an important rite of integrating people from different racial backgrounds.
So civil rights is a religious issue, one of the core issues of early Christianity.
First, we can look briefly at one issue involving minorities: Affirmative Action as it is applied to education. The Republican argument against Affirmative Action, I think, is that it is unjust. In giving a scholarship to a member of a minority who has lower grades than, say, a white male, you are doing an injustice to the white male -- he has worked hard, he deserves the scholarship. And the argument is that Affirmative Action does a disservice to the minority, because if he or she does not work with the high standards and requirements generally required, he or she will not become authentically competitive, and will be content with mediocre effort and accomplishment.
The flaw in this reasoning is the assumption that there is a level playing field for everyone. Often minorities go to schools which are understaffed, underfunded, with substandard teachers -- is that fair or just for the children? In addition, there are special problems in minority neighborhoods that middle class families never have to worry about, such as social networks pushing children toward gangs, toward crime, toward drugs. Because the playing field is not level, minorities deserve help. Some show extraordinary character in their progress and efforts, which cannot be adequately measured by quantitative, mathematical tests.
While the California Affirmative Action decision was being debated, I remember an interview with a white student who had been denied a scholarship, and was angry because minorities with not quite his stellar record had received scholarships. It seemed to me to be a selfish anger. Was he angry about poor schools in minority neighborhoods? Was he angry about children who had to walk to school through crime-torn neighborhoods? Was he angry about children who did not have easy access to good libraries? Who did not have parents who were willing or capable of helping them with their homework? (And it would be only too easy to blame the parents for everything -- instead of accepting that parents are part of a child's playing field, and we cannot blame the children for their parents.) In the University of California system, a conservative Board of Regents, appointees of a Republican governor, struck down Affirmative Action in 1995, over the bitter protests of many students and minorities. In my opinion, it was not a wise or far-seeing or compassionate action. Affirmative Action helps the disadvantaged in constructive ways, with education, leading to productive work.
In recent months, the Bush administration has not had a good record on civil rights. Blacks felt they were disenfranchised during the Florida election, as Bush fought hard to prevent manual recounts in counties with numerous black voters. Bush chose John Ashcroft for a key cabinet seat, attorney general. Ashcroft, like many Republicans such as William Rehnquist, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, has a history of defending segregation; as a senator, Ashcroft kept a respected black judge from taking a federal seat, outrageously labeling him "pro-criminal." Ashcroft also gave an interview to the overtly racist "state's rights" magazine, Southern Partisan, in which he praised it: "Your magazine also helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that . . ."
Lind writes, "Modern American conservatism was warped and contaminated by racism from the beginning. The members of the conservative movement led by William F. Buckley, Jr. and centered on National Review spent the 1950s and the early 1960s denouncing federal efforts to dismantle America's version of apartheid and voicing support for continued European rule of nonwhite populations in Africa and Asia. The National Review conservatives were too genteel, of course, to indulge in blatant racism. Their official opposition was based on their concern for 'states' rights.' That this was a mere pretext is proven by the fact that not a single prominent conservative in those days proposed state (as opposed to federal) civil rights legislation. . . . Having done everything they could to prevent black Americans from voting, the conservatives regrouped in the 1970s and 1980s to form a new nationwide Republican coalition of whites voting against black Americans, using issues like welfare, busing, and racial preferences to inflame passions."
Though I hasten to emphasize that there are many individual Republicans who have good records on civil rights, the present day Democratic party has a much better record on civil rights than do the Republicans. Once again we can conclude that the Democratic party is closer to the gospel, in this area, than is the present-day Republican party.