Choosing our Leaders – Decisions based on Fear or on Issues
Photo by Chuck Welch of Lakeland, FL
Over the past 12-18 months I’ve received a number of emails forwarded from friends and family that were related to the current Presidential election in the US. The majority of the emails purported to be sincere efforts to raise questions about the ability of a candidate to serve as leader of this country. However, in general, they were filled with statements that were phrased to sound alarm bells in the minds of “Middle America” about the candidacy of Senator Barak Obama. Many make a big deal of Senator Obama’s name. Others raise questions about the validity of his decision to become a Christian as an adult. One, featuring a cute picture of a bear seated at a picnic table, raised again the old Republican campaign claim that the Democratic party would give money to people who didn’t really need it or were too lazy to work for it – a “socialist state” type of idea, with all the negative baggage such terms carry in this country.
I haven’t received emails of this nature from the other side. I did hear of a You-Tube video featuring a formal Navy officer who was also a POW during the Vietnam War. In that one the speaker explained his concerns about Senator McCain. But that’s the only one I’ve seen. There may be others, but my “liberal” friends tend not to send that kind of stuff to me.
I write about this because as we come into the final weeks of the campaign, the tenor of the rallies and the statements being made are becoming more worrisome. Some of the rhetoric is deliberately arousing negative reactions from the crowds. Use of Senator Obama’s middle name in speaking of him is leading crowds to “boo” and shout out threats against him. While the presidential candidates themselves do not endorse this kind of activity, at least one of their running mates has not stopped it at campaign rallies when it occurred. This is dangerous and un-American. It is also un-Christian. So I believe it is something that must be addressed in Theologika’s forum.
Accordingly, I offer reflections I sent to a friend who had forwarded one of those “hate” emails to me. It should be noted that my friend was sincerely asking for my input on the content of the email. (He sent my reply back to his correspondent with his statement that he agreed with what I had said.)
The piece in question asked specifically if Muslims could be good Americans and would go to fight for America if the need arose. The implication of the article was that they could not and by extension that Senator Obama, because of his name and family of origin, would not be a safe choice for President. My response was as follows:
How to begin!?!
I guess the place I begin is remembering when Kennedy ran for President when I was a child. The big question on many people’s minds was whether electing him meant accepting the Pope as leader of the US. Catholics were not trusted in the US for the most part up until that time. I remember having someone spit on me as I walked home from school for lunch, wearing my Catholic school uniform. I was about 7-8 years old. I’d hate to think that now that it’s become understood that we are not ruled by the Pope, we’d become bigots ourselves about those of another of the great faiths ‘of the Book.’
A second thought is of my Muslim ‘sons,’ two now middle aged men who lived with us as our children in 1978 and early 1979. They and their family are honest people, whose religious beliefs guide them to be caring, respectful, thoughtful members of the communities in which they live. One of them told me one day, that the Christian teaching to forgive one’s enemies was something that Islam also taught, as a quality of the holiest of people. I would not hesitate to see them in public service in this country. They are very grateful for the US and for the refuge, welcome, education and opportunities they received as teenagers from an ‘enemy country’ (Iran) when they were young.
A third thought – Obama is Christian. This nonsense of saying that his Muslim name means he’s Muslim is just that – nonsense. It’s like saying that any woman named Mary or man named Joseph is Jewish because those were names of Jews in the Bible! He’s named after his father. So’s my son. So what! Names are not destiny and do not equal religious faith, unless chosen as a religious name by someone entering religious community life.
Fourth – As Catholic Christians, we are members of a universal community, with first allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Pope and bishops continually remind us that we are not first and foremost Americans. Our decisions must be made in the light of broader, more universal concerns. What will this policy do to the least among us? The ‘preferential option for the poor’ that is rarely mentioned in American political discourse is the fundamental principle for us. Does that make us unfit for American office or citizenship? Some would argue that it would. I argue that as Christians, our call is to work for change within our society, not legislating it or criminalizing actions that are contrary to my beliefs, but to create support systems and encourage development of values on a broader scale that align American society and values with Kingdom values. We must keep this as a secular society, refusing to allow people of any faith to impose their own religious rules. A theocracy (society governed by religious law and leaders) is dangerous for all of us. As Christians, we’ve accomplished the most in bettering life for ‘the least among us’ when we began working as individuals and small groups to take care of the poor, the women and children, the disabled, etc. Those beginnings grew into larger movements and institutions, like the proverbial yeast of the Gospels. (Think St. Vincent de Paul, Mother Teresa, St. Camillus de Lellis, and many, many more. See http://blog.theologika.net for more examples.)
Fifth – I was raised in a family that more often than not votes Republican. I was always proud of the Republican belief that individuals can solve problems much more effectively in their own local communities than some ‘politician’ in the “East” could solve it for them. (We were from a western state.) But I’ve learned through the years that there are some things that can’t be handled or resolved effectively on a local level. And people who don’t have even flip flops can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We’re in this together, as the melt-down on Wall Street has made abundantly clear recently. If a party can’t present its ideas and win the hearts of voters by presenting the issues and their best ideas about how to solve the problems of our nation without resorting to lies, fear-mongering and innuendo, then I’m not at all sure that party is worth supporting. I’m ashamed to see people of good will passing this garbage around and giving it credibility in the process.
As you can see, I’m a bit passionate about all of this. We’ve come so far. We can go so much farther. But we keep diving back down into bigotry and hatred. The saints and angels, as well as the one God and Father of us all, must be in tears.
I offer these thoughts to you, my readers, as well. In choosing our leaders, we must move beyond the politics of fear and of creating barriers where they don’t really exist. We must look at the issues before us, evaluate them based on our values and understanding of our faith, and then make our decisions responsibly and prayerfully, remembering that God has given us the gift of our minds so that we can use them to make this a more compassionate, just, and secure world for all who share it.
For more on the idea of secular societies vs theocracies, see http://blog.theologika.net/2008/09/11/theocracy-or-secular-society-reflections/.
For information on Islam, a classic from the field of anthropology is Islam Observed, by Clifford Geertz. There are also good pieces in Wikipedia on Islam and the many forms it takes.
The following are works I cited in another blog post, but in case you missed them, they’re well worth reading, so here they are again!
God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by David Levering Lewis
Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to our Children, by Ronald Rolheiser, OMI