Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Presidential Politics: A Progressive Christian Dilemma


I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.
Howard Zinn

Updates Below

The Democrats aren't failing to stand up to Republicans and failing to enact sensible reforms that benefit the middle class because they genuinely believe there's political hay to be made moving to the right. They're doing it because they do not represent any actual voters. I know I've said this before, but they are not a progressive political party, not even secretly, deep inside. They just play one on television.
Matt Taibbi

As the Senate votes for a raise in the debt ceiling (and a decrease in government spending on poor and marginalized people) today and the President signs it into law, we take note that there are only 15 months left in the 2012 Presidential campaign. This will be a difficult decision for progressive Christians.

Many of us voted, campaigned and contributed financially to Barack Obama's historic campaign in '08. I'll never forget driving 4 hours on Halloween night (just 5 days before the election) to attend a rally for Obama in Las Vegas and then spending our Saturday afternoon canvassing for him in the Northwest Vegas suburbs. My wife and I were compelled by his rhetorical savvy, his brilliance, his charitable stance towards his opponents and his substantive message of a more just and peaceful country and world.

But after more than two-and-a-half years of governing, I'm not sure if either Obama lacks the backbone to push through progressive legislation or if he, in fact, just doesn't really want it (this latter option is what Glenn Greenwald persuasively posted again yesterday in the aftermath of the debt ceiling debacle). And despite deceptively painful rhetoric from the right about Obama being a "socialist" and/or "a facist," he's really governed as a "moderate conservative" as former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett recently suggested through a matter-of-fact telling of history--here's his evidence:

•His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
•He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
•He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
•He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
•And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans


But there's a counterfeit left-right balance narrative that the media loves to prop up, making a real diagnosis of Obama more difficult. Here's how Nobel Prize winning economist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman wrote last week:

As you may know, President Obama initially tried to strike a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases...But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? “Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.” A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side — or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he’s in danger of falling over — is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance!

After Obama declared on the very first day in office that he would close down Guantanamo Bay in less than a year (it still has not happened), he has effectively continued Bush/Cheney's War on Terror (which is doubly sad because war is terror). Violence has escalated: the Patriot Act has been renewed, undocumented workers are being deported at record rates, drone strikes continue to kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and Israel continues to do whatever Israel wants to do with American donated weapons and no peace deal in sight (all in the face of many passionate American Jews who are certain that Obama hates Israel). This is "big government" in all the wrong places (you can include on the "big government" list Obama's Race To The Top Education program that obsessing over testing just like Bush's No Child Left Behind).

Meanwhile, after well-documented greed and fraud on Wall Street (see this and this), there has been very little financial regulation and, still, not one executive has been prosecuted. In addition, oil, food and drug industries continue to bankroll with very little consumer protection (the era of deregulation continues). And tax increases on wealthy incomes and estates and corporate profits are nowhere in sight during a debt crisis (spending cuts are apparently the only way to decrease this deficit). This, no doubt, has a lot to do with the fact that Obama is beholden to this same moneyed class who put him in office in the first place. As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone laments:

It strains the imagination to think that the country's smartest businessmen keep paying top dollar for such lousy performance. Is it possible that by "surrendering" at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?

All this (and much more) leads me to the conclusion that progressive Christians who place a priority on peace and justice for poor, working, marginalized and oppressed peoples cannot support Obama because he has caved over and over again. Don't get me wrong, I do not believe that Obama is "just as bad" as Bush (or McCain or Perry or Bachmann). These political leaders (who are all professing Christians) fail the test of Jesus' compassionate action for the people which is a crucial litmus test for all who bear his name.

These leaders are indifferent to the plight of the poor, the working class, the middle class, immigrants, African-Americans and the LGBT community. They continue to parrot the small government "trickle-down" economic narrative that has failed "the other 95%" of the world (the same audience of Jesus' teachings and actions). Their devil is in the details, like the cynical GOP health care plan that would increase the number of Americans without health care by about 7 million over the next decade or the Paul Ryan debt-reduction plan that would place a large financial burden on Medicare recipients over the next decade (a 300% increase in costs for seniors).

Indeed, Christians who take the Bible seriously and vote Republican have a lot of convincing to do in regards to their interpretation of the Bible and the success of social, economic and foreign policy for "the other 95%" of our country and the rest of the world. Claiming that charitable giving by churches and individuals will do the trick is not acceptable because "charity" does not give "the other 95%" a real opportunity for sustainance, it is paternalistic and poverty is a structural/systemic issue. Biblical scholarship and social scientific research exposes gaping holes in this mentality.

When Jesus stormed into the Temple in Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, it was a staged political protest, drawing attention to the unjust practices of those currency exchangers who made low-income pilgrims from other parts of the Empire pay high interest rates in order to worship God. Jesus "cleansed" the Temple which legitimized the status quo, blessing the platforms of those in positions of power and privilege, earning their advantage at the dire plight of the poor and marginalized. The Temple elite instituted a system that substituted worship for justice.

When Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was "not of this world," it was a declaration of a different kind of life than what Hellenistic culture sponsored. Where the Roman and Jewish leaders (the Reign of Caesar) advocated a life of climbing one's way to the top, Jesus pleaded with his fellow citizens of the Reign of God to humbly serve each other ("the greatest of these will be the servant of all"). And when Jesus told his Jewish audience to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar and God what is God's," he was prodding them to make a radical choice about everything in their lives: either choose the way of Caesar or the way of God. One or the other.

When Jesus ate meals with lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors, he violated deeply ingrained social mores and laws that made it inappropriate and/or illegal to associate with these "sinners" (and who decides who "the sinners" are in any society: a combination of faith communities and governments). Jesus was extending the table of God's Reign to the outcasts (and this extended far beyond matters of the heart). No wonder he was crucified.

We progressive Christians who place compassion, peace and justice (individually and systemically) at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian need to lay down the gauntlet in 2012. Because the United States has been historically a two-party system, a third-party candidate is probably not in a position to win in 2012. But the symbolism is important. We must take a stand. When Presidential candidates use prophetic language (as Obama did over and over and over in 2008) during campaigns, we expect them to use every bit of strategy and rhetoric at their disposal to deliver once we elect them to office.

Perhaps Obama will lose in 2012 because the liberals (including progressive Christians) will rebel, sit-out or cast their ballots for Nader or another candidate (Bernie Sanders? Russ Feingold?). This would send an extraordinary message to the Democratic Party. As the rest of the nation moves to the right, we expect the Democratic Party to be a voice in the wilderness, a light in the darkness.

2012 is not a year for "lesser evil" arguments about the Presidency. It is time for a thoroughly principled protest vote. We must bond together and work for a third-way (one much different from Americans Elect, a new net-based political party claiming to be "moderate" and "independent"). We are looking for working professionals and clergy and blue collar workers and the unemployed who will advocate--through word and deed--for this political Third Way. And remember, being "political" is not relegated to what we do with ballots, but also what we do with our consumption and our free time and the way we eat and who we eat with.
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Epilogue: A Review of EasyYolk's Theological-Political Consciousness

1. We represent a spiritual-political movement that vigilantly promotes LIFE

In the womb, from the bomb and in the slum, God cares about all of creation, from humanity to plants to every creature on every hill. We are finding more and more that this life-stance often confronts "the bottom line" head on. Sometimes, we need to intellegently regulate the marketplace in order to protect vulnerable and oppressed life.

2. We represent a spiritual-political movement that vigilantly promotes limiting the POWERS

Like Jesus, we go to battle with forms of government, media, business and, yes, religion that go beyond their God-ordained vocations. When these powers seek more and more power, they become god-like, a form of idolatry that inevitably leads to the de-humanization and destruction of our world. With the Tea Party movement, we say "amen" to less taxes on the poor and middle class, as well as lowering the national debt, and with the anti-war movement, we say "amen" to less spending and power for the "military-industrial complex" (so coined by GOP President Eisenhower).

3. We represent a spiritual-political movement that vigilantly promotes "The Other"

Some people, in different pockets of our globe, hate the United States of America, not because of our freedoms and our Christianity, but because we have used these freedoms and faith to grow our wealth at the expense of others. We have systemically dominated "the other," both at home and abroad. The immigrant, the homosexual and the Muslim often attest to the stripping away of rights and dignity under the guise of security, sanctity or suspicion. These are not the marks of a country that believes in the humane treatment of all God's children. We need a new brand of diplomacy and a new definition of patriotism.

4. We represent a spiritual-political movement that vigilantly promotes FAITH as a vital contributor to democratic living

Various faith movements and organizations have led the charge during this 200+ year American experiment. The sick have been healed, racial minorities and women have been given rights, diseases have been cured and children have been educated and protected when religious communities have thrived. Faith should be encouraged and freed to do what it does best: join God in the redemption of the world.

These dialogical "entry points" help build consensus and focus our efforts. We believe they reflect the best of biblical interpretation and confront the worst strands that world history has offered humanity.

Unfortunately, both sides (liberal and conservative) take on the simple script that our media-of-choice feed us. Conservative Christians virtually all accept a narrative that glorifies the completely unregulated free market as the equal opportunity provider. What about poverty, you may ask? They quote Jesus: "the poor will always be among you." What about government intervention, you may ask? They say, "Jesus preached personal responsibility, hard work and individual charitable giving. He didn't say a thing about government."

On the other side, liberal mainline Christians tend towards a narrative of massive government intervention on behalf of the oppressed, poor and marginalized, protecting them from greedy and neglecting elites. They quote Matthew 25 as their proof-text: it's all about "the least of these." And what about the most controversial question of our day? "Jesus never said anything about gays and lesbians." Our culture is just a ping-pong match of competing bumper stickers that are all half-truths responding to cleverly framed questions.

Theologically, we are post-fundamentalist. We do not subscribe to "inerrancy" or "infallibility" doctrines of the Bible. We do not believe that the Bible is a truth encyclopedia of self-evident principles, systematically and formulaically quoted for simple answers to all of life's complex questions. We understand biblical authority more like an actor approaches an Oscar-winning Script. There must be room in God's Word for interpretation and imaginative performance in all our diverse contexts. Contradictions and inaccuracies cannot simply be explained away (as they are on this site: "solely because of the intricacies of Bible translation"). But the inerrancy of the Bible, as modern fundamentalists understand it, is about 150 years young (as are Left Behind notions of "the Rapture"). Over this past century, the Bible became a point of argumentation between fundamentalists ("who take the Bible seriously") and liberals (who are a bit more laissez-faire about authoritative truth).

EasyYolk is determined to find the Truth about God's created world in Scripture--as we also factor in the role that interpretation plays--as well as experience, social-scientific reasoning, and the 2000-year tradition of the church (for better or worse). But we also affirm that the Bible does not clearly answer all of life's questions. That doesn't mean the Bible is lacking. It's just not the sort of text that fundamentalist Christians have made it out to be. In short, we take the Bible very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that when our conservative brothers and sisters quote Jesus ("the poor will always be among us") to "get the government off their backs," we intend to critically engage with that proof-text, pointing out that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15 where God explains to the nation of Israel that they must prioritize taking care of the poor and, in fact, the poor will always be among them due to their own unfaithfulness. Economic systems impoverish people. God taught this to the nation of Israel and Jesus taught it to his disciples

EasyYolk is a spiritual path that takes the Bible and the real problems in our world more seriously, passionately, humbly and complexly. We attempt to take a position that Friedman, and his mentor Murray Bowen, calls "differentiated." This is a challenging goal that resists the natural "herding" instinct that soothes our battle with chronic anxiety. The "emotional reactivity" coming from traditional "conservatives" (a supermajority of our readers and the single largest ideological group in America: 40% to 21% for liberals) can certainly be seen and heard while they read our posts, echoing their sources, whether Limbaugh, Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, Will, Steyn, Palin or their friends, family members and fellow church congregants who, through a strange sort of osmosis, get their talking points from the top. And, yes, we see this from folks on the left (but not as much due to numbers) who are "fused" with Moore, Stewart, Olbermann, Maddow and Maher (we're not saying that the substance of "right" and "left" are equal and opposite mirrors of each other, but their tone certainly is--more on that in a later post).

We are committed to what the late Senator Paul Wellstone called "the politics of conviction." We will do whatever it takes to speak the truth in love, gentleness and humility (that's right, sometimes we are wrong). Real change will come when others sign on to honest dialogue (which requires listening), creative thinking, biblical scholarship, social-scientific reasoning and a rigorous self-assessment that analyzes how one's own political bias serves one's own financial, social and, yes, psychological agenda.
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Updates:

From David Sirota (August 9, 2011):

On health care, for instance, Obama passed a Heritage Foundation-inspired bailout of the private health insurance industry, all while undermining other more progressive proposals. On foreign policy, he escalated old wars and initiated new ones. On civil liberties, he not only continued the Patriot Act and indefinite detention of terrorism suspects but also claimed the right to assassinate American citizens without charge.

On financial issues, he fought off every serious proposal to re-regulate banks following the economic meltdown; he preserved ongoing bank bailouts; and he resisted pressure to prosecute Wall Street thieves. On fiscal matters, after extending the Bush tax cuts at a time of massive deficits, he has used the debt ceiling negotiations to set the stage for potentially massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare—cuts that would be far bigger than any of his proposed revenue increases.

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