Sunday, November 21, 2010

Faith and "Better Stories"

The previous post is based on a short talk I gave recently, which in turn derived from my research for the Center for the Congregation in Public Life's forthcoming curriculum "Faithful Citizen." I'm still thinking about the interesting aspects of the Center's project.

For instance, the theme of "better stories" is very rich, and the more you think about our social and political life as embodying "stories," the more you start to see that theme in other sources. The four stories that Reich frames can be seen in contemporary fears about Muslims, anxieties about multiculturalism, fears that American has lost its way and needs to be "taken back" or "placed in a new direction," and the anxities of groups that feel disempowered (for instance, the white working-class that has alternately voted Republican and Democrat during recent years).

The recent issue of Mother Jones magazine contains an article (November-December 2010) about the erosion of the American middle class. The article traces middle class decline back to New York City's financial crisis in the 1970s, as well as California's Proposition 13 and the resulting decline in public services. Then came a recession and anti-union politics which hurt automobile workers. Manufacturing jobs have been declining, pensions have been declining, and more recently the housing market has hurt the middle class. Unfortunately some long-standing safety nets, notably Social Security and Medicare, have been under attack, for instance by GOP senator Alan Simpson and others who characterize Social Security as a form of welfare, rather than a fund to which we've paid for many years (1).

This article dovetails well with a book I read for the Center project, The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker, who argues, “Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.”(2) That is, while the upper levels of society have become more secure, the lower and middle classes have had to shoulder more burden and more economic insecurity. This has come about in part because of free-market philosophies that are still popular among voters.

Where does "story" come in? Another Mother Jones article argues that President Obama needed and still needs to tell a story that helped people understand and connect economic problems in a way that made his policies seem an alternative in the wake of "the failure of free-market conservatism" and which gives confidence to working voters. This is what President Reagan did. The article quotes Democratic consultant Paul Begala: Reagan "didn't blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. it was ideology; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story." (3)

Another good "story teller" was Reagan's antipode, Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Reich notes that FDR was overhwlemingly reelected in 1936 even though the economy had been in depression for the four years of his term, and eight years altogether. According to Reich: "FDR shifted the debate from what he failed to accomplish to the irresponsibility of his opponets. Again and again he let the public know whose side he was on, and whose side they were on. Republicans stood for 'business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking." FDR framed the "story" in a way that let voters know he was on their side. (4)

I do have to immediately say that, although us vs. them storytelling may be politically effective, I agree with Mount (taking the cue from Reich's own writing) that "us vs. them" is an inferior story to one which sees us working within the same crisis together to address the common good. In our discussions of politics and public policy we will likely never reach unanimity concerning the common good. But "covenant, community, and the common good" is a better source of a national story than, for instance, the Tea Party's angry individualism, not to mention the political voices that speak language of innuendo and mockery. This is where the grace-ful language of religious faith can provide an alternative witness.

Another "story" which, in our current time, would also be challenging to articulate, is the story that government is not the problem, though certain government policies may be. A recent article in Christian Century notes that "No one should have to die of hunger--not in the 21st century." Churches and charities can do well, but so can government. For instance, the article notes that President Bush and Congress approved a $15 billion initiative for providing AIDS drugs to disease-ravaged Africa. (5) Yet another article, in a different issue of that magazine, noted that "our government could do much more to fight hunger if more citizens took part in the political process." Maybe the problem is not only misdirected government policies but also the fact that some of us do not practice our citizenship more vigorously, e.g., by writing our political leaders (6)

Although I'm being idealistic, I think there is room for productive discussion on whether the federal, state, or local governments should shoulder the most responsibility. A friend and I chatted on Facebook about this topic recently. Speaking personally I trust and distrust different levels of government about equally. An interesting book that I used for the Center project argued that, for instance, effective local application for and use of state and/or federal funds to provide low-income housing should not be neglected by people who appreciate volunteer and charitable efforts like Habitat.(7)

Another issue is what Evan Thomas called our "society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there's always someone else to blame..." We may have a society of safety nets, but as safety nets are taken away, people who have, indeed, taken responsibility in their lives but for the time being need extra help, are made to suffer while those less at economic risk avoid responsibility, as Hackler's book argues. One of Obama's challenges is to tell a story--Thomas even calls it "an ancient and honorable morality tale"---about the necessity for all Americans to sacrifice together for the long-term well-being of the country. As Thomas also says, "broadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amendable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said." (8) Somehow this must be done in a way that we don't continue to sacrifice (in the sense of discarding) the people about whom Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Nickel and Dimed. (9)

But those people are, unfortunately, too rarely the top priority, but what if we began to hear and read more public leaders speaking, Facebooking, or tweeting on the side of the working poor, the underfed school children, or the seniors who have paid into Social Security and pensions for many years? What if any of the leaders of either party began to say things like: "We need to focus partisan debates upon the the working poor and the struggling middle class. We may disagree on the role of the federal government, but nevertheless, we need to debate and act. My opponents, X Y and Z, are not taking seriously the struggles of the needy: why not? What are our priorities?" If that happens, our American stories would become all the more commensurate with an overwhelming Bible story: God's tender concern for the poor and needy.

The previous post's final quote from Eric Mount is worth saying again: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.” (10)

1. James K. Galbraith, "Attack on the Middle class," Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 27-29.

2. Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-6.

3. David Corn, "Will Obama Put Up a Fight?" Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 30.

4. Robert Reich's blog, "Why Obama Should Learn the Lesson of 1936, Not 1996,", Nov. 1, 2010.

5. Roger Thurow, "Criminal Negligence: the Scourge of World Hunger," Christian Century, Aug. 24, 2010, 22-23, 26.

6. David Beckmann, "Hunger is Political: Food Banks Can't Do It All," Christian Century, Sept. 21, 2010, 11-13.

7. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

8. Evan Thomas, "Truth or Consequences," Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2010, 35-37 (quotes on p. 37).

9. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 25-27.

10. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

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