Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christian Love, Part 1

Two entries about Christian love, although this first one takes a roundabout way there.

One of my favorite courses to teach--which unfortunately I won’t be teaching again soon, now that I live in Missouri--was “Buckeye Presidents,” a survey of the eight presidents from Ohio (W. H. Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, W. H. Taft, and Warren G. Harding). The course is essentially a history of the Republican party from the early days of the Whigs through the 1920s, when the G.O.P.’s conservative wing took precedence over Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism. I use course time to educate students, in a non-partisan way of course, about the differences of philosophy and policy of both parties. I tell students that I hope they gain an awareness of politics so that they could make informed decisions.

After feeling dispirited, lately, about politics--the fact that we’ve seen such polarization during the past two presidencies and now Obama’s--I found two articles that gave me some hope. One was Jon Meacham’s excellent editorial, “Words Have Consequences,” in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of Newsweek, where he decries both the liberal demonization of President Bush and the current conservative demonization of President Obama.

I was also interested in an article, “Getting to No: The Republican Dilemma in the Age of Obama” by Peter J. Boyer in last week’s New Yorker (Sept. 28, 2009, pp. 32-36). Boyer quotes former congressman Pat Toomey, “I’m pretty conservative. I’m pro-life, for instance. But it never occurred to me that someone who is pro-choice can’t be a good Republican, or shouldn’t be part of our coalition. We can disagree about that issue, we can try to persuade oeach other about that issue, but that should never be a reason for excluding someone. On fiscal matters, nobody’s got a monopoly on exactly what the right number is that we ought to be spending this year. Now, I think we’ve spent too much, and I’ll argue that pretty forcefully. But reasonable people can disagree about what the right number is. Those are all very health discussions to have within a great party. But there does have to be a unifying theme--there has to be some idea that brings us together, or else its completely meaningless” (p. 33, first column).

Boyer notes how the G.O.P. has rebounded since 2008, but that “[w]ithin the Republican Party, the intensity is all on the side of the aggrieved base” (pp. 36, top of second column). Thinking about Toomey‘s comments, Boyer writes, “The question remaining for many Republicans is whether the Party can develop a strategy beyond opposition, an argument for governing that will expand its appeal [and thus increase a sense of inclusion within the party] beyond its ideological core” (p. 36, bottom of third column).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a spirit of reasonableness and inclusion would typify our political discussions, whether we're Republicans or Democrats? One of the reasons why I’ve been discouraged is the seeming dominance of angry, sometimes irrational voices in our current climate, not only media commentators and politicians but also folks on the street. Race has played some role in the current climate. I would never say that all conflict is unhealthy: conflict can be a way to move issues forward and achieve positive change. But do you achieve political wisdom and cooperation when conflict becomes strident?

I’m being idealistic. I’m a teacher and I believe in open, positive discussion. But even very early presidential elections like 1796 and 1800 were bitter, slanderous campaigns. So were several of the campaigns of the eight presidents I mentioned earlier, and others that you could name. As Meacham notes in his editorial, bipartisan cooperation may be an ideal but we’ve never had anything like a golden age of political concord. Throughout our history, our political system manages to hold together both reasonable discussion, intense controversy, and aggrieved opposition, almost in spite of ourselves.

Christians--and I’ve known some who sound just like their favorite angry pundit--are most definitely called to the wise, careful speech admonished in the Book of Proverbs, as well as the care for feelings and convictions commanded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. Rather than rage publicly and privately, Christians can even use political discussion to display a scriptural model of love.

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