Tuesday, October 26, 2004

“Golden Calves and the Ballot Box”

I grew up in the Methodist Church. Some of my clearest memories of my boyhood are of sitting in Sunday School, listening to our teacher, Mr. Dolby, talk about the Bible stories that were the center of each week’s lesson, lessons spanning the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations.

In the New Testament, we learned how entering God’s kingdom meant a reversal of the old order, with blessings for the poor and the peacemakers. In the Old Testament, we learned how, time and again, the kings of the Israelites enticed their people to follow after false gods. We learned of those heroes of faith, the prophets, who risked everything by opposing the phony religion of the kings.

That Sunday School, that church community, and my family shaped the values I have tried to live by—a love that translates into responsibility for others (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”); a mistrust of earthly rulers, who lead their people to worship golden calves; and a skepticism that belief in a particular dogma determines whether you are one of the elect (“What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?”).

So I have been sickened by the way millions of good people have allowed their evangelical faith to be co-opted by the Republican party, sickened by the sight of well-intentioned people—people desirous of being faithful—following pastoral counsel that to be Christian is to vote Republican.

God doesn’t belong to any particular party. The Holy Spirit doesn’t register as a Republican or a Democrat, isn’t even pro-American. But there are particular themes that recur in the Bible, over and over and over again. And the theme the Bible sounds most is this: How do you treat the poor among you, the powerless, the widow, the orphan, the sick, the hungry, the outcast, the despised Samaritan? That, I would suggest, is the central test for a Christian to apply to a candidate or a policy—not whether the candidate attacks homosexuals or wears his faith on his sleeve.

Sojourners, the committed evangelical community headquartered in Washington, D.C., has called on political parties to stop using bad theology to exploit religion for partisan political purposes. To that end, they invite people to reconsider what constitutes “responsible Christian citizenship” and to sign the following petition. If you want to join the thousands who have already signed, go to www.sojo.net/petition.

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We believe that poverty—caring for the poor and vulnerable—is a religious issue. Do the candidates budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries? (Matthew 25:35-40; Isaiah 10:1-2)

We believe that the environment—caring for God’s earth—is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it? (Genesis 2:15; Psalm 24:1)

We believe that war—and our call to be peacemakers—is a religious issue. Do the candidates policies pursue “wars of choice” or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats? (Matthew 5:9)

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies? (John 8:32)

We believe that human rights—respecting the image of God in every person—is a religious issue. How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners? (Genesis 1:27)

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies? (Matthew 6:33; Proverbs 8:12-13)

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ postions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS—and other pandemics—and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life? (Deuteronomy 30:19)

© Tony Russell, 2004

Monday, October 25, 2004

“Living in Oz”

The three Presidential debates were an eyeopener. For almost four years, Mr. Bush’s handlers have stage-managed every aspect of his public image. Nowadays, of course, every politician has a speechwriter, but the extent to which Mr. Bush is screened from a representative public—and the public is screened from the real Mr. Bush—has been unprecedented. He gives carefully rehearsed speeches in front of carefully selected audiences in carefully selected locations. To use the sports argot he favors, he only appears when the game is fixed.

. That near-total control of his public appearances has enabled the Bush team to craft the image they want—of a President who is tough but compassionate, resolute but good-humored, not an intellectual but full of common sense. And it has been enormously effective. Who wouldn’t want a President like that?

But when the fix isn’t in, when Mr. Bush has to face real questions or a real opponent, we get a look at the real George Bush. Which is like looking behind the curtain and discovering the real Wizard of Oz. Not a powerful, dominating presence, but a weak and shallow man, blown into larger-than-life dimensions by publicity machinery. Think back to the interview with Tim Russert, which even devout partisans admitted was a disaster. Look at the response to the first debate, where only 19% of those polled felt he was the winner.

The real George Bush, it turns out, is a whiner, not a winner. Nothing is ever his fault. If things went wrong, it was the Clinton administration’s fault. Or the CIA’s. Or Donald Rumsfeld’s. Not his. Never his.

Mr. Bush is also exposed as intellectually lazy. He can’t be bothered to try and understand complicated issues. His answers are bumper-sticker slogans, and he expects to get by with them. Nor will he think back over his past performance and learn from his mistakes. In fact, he can’t recall a single mistake he’s made. Not one. Apparently he is as infallible as the Pope, speaking ex cathedra.

The real George Bush, we discover, is not a commanding presence. He’s a nervous fumbler who squirms when questioned or criticized. He’s as programmed as an early robot, trotting out the same lines again and again. No matter that they don’t apply to a given issue or question. They’re all he has. He has no resources of his own, no reservoirs of knowledge or character to draw from. All he has is his script, and when the debate is unscripted or runs too long, he’s lost.

It may be that the election will turn less on issues than on the public’s perception of the candidates themselves. If that is the case, we have the debates to thank for showing us we’re living in Oz.

© Tony Russell, 2004