VOTING CHRISTIAN VALUES
By Mike Hobbs
American Christians have applied their religious values in the voting booth in different ways throughout our nation's history. Different views on slavery and civil rights are examples of that phenomenon. The framers of our Constitution held different views on the issue of slavery. They debated, compromised, and forged a document that gave birth to our nation. As cotton became a very profitable crop planted and picked by millions of slaves brought from Africa to the South in the early nineteenth century, the debate over slavery intensified among white southern and northern Christians. In 1861 the American Presbyterian Church split over the issue of slavery. In the 1860 presidential election most Galesburg Presbyterians had voted for Abraham Lincoln. Most southern Presbyterians had voted for John C. Breckinridge who championed slavery in the South and in the territories. One faith and one nation split asunder over an issue with religious, political, economic, and social overtones.
For a century after the 13th Amendment in 1865 abolished slavery in the United States many white southern Christians voted Jim Crow. During that time some white southern Christians participated in frequent lynchings of blacks while others stood by. Many white northern Christians were appalled by the practice. As a boy traveling with my parents in the South in the early 1960's I was confused that white southern Christians could be so nice and hospitable to me yet permit signs with the warning "Negroes Only" to hang over public bathrooms and water fountains. President Kennedy, a northern Christian, pushed amendments that gave the residents (mostly black) of the District of Columbia the right to vote for president and vice-president and outlawed state poll taxes in federal elections. He also pushed for the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964 after his assassination, which "outlawed discrimination in all places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters[,] . . .empowered the attorney general to bring suits on behalf of individuals to speed school desegration and strengthened his hand still further in the campaign to register Negro voters." (The American Nation, John A. Garraty, 1966). All of these measures were strongly opposed by many white southern Christian office-holders and voters.
At the present time some Christian denominations are experiencing internal disputes over such issues as the ordination of women and homosexuals. A story in the October 14 issue of The Register-Mail discussed two Christian groups, Evangelicals and Catholics Together which opposes abortion, euthenasia, assisted suicide, and stem-cell research and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, composed of mainline Protestant members of the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church which says that women have the right to choose abortion. The American Christian voter contends with some soul-searching questions when there are such stark differences within American Christendom, within denominations, and even within local churches.
Which beliefs should a Christian apply when he or she votes? A belief in a God who loves all people regardless of their race, creed, or gender, or a God who hates evil-doers and will not grant salvation to those who not born again? A God that considers homosexuality an abomination, or a God of tolerance and love who challenged those without sin to be the first to to cast a stone? A wrathful God who would smite the enemies of Israel (or the United States) and condone taking "an eye for an eye" or a loving God who said "Blessed are the peacemakers"? A God who condemns idle hands and rewards thrift and hard work, or a God who ministered to the poor during his life on earth who said that a camel has a better chance of passing through the eye of a needle than the rich man has of entering heaven?
The polarizing contention over religious beliefs is not restricted just to American Christians. Shia and Sunni Muslims apply their faiths differently and kill each other in Iraq. Christians and Muslims kill each other in Nigeria. Muslims and Hindus kill each other in India. In the past Christians and Muslims killed each other during the Crusades. Within Christendom Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation killed each other. For a long time some religious people have viewed other religious people as heathens, infidels, inherently evil, and sub-human who deserve to be killed.
Which beliefs should the American Christian voter apply when he or she votes in November? In our democracy each voter, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, citizens of any religion or no religion, has the right to make that choice individually.
In my opinion Christian voters should consider Christ's command that we love one another. How do you interpret that command? I interpret it to mean that our government should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of our citizens. How do you define greatest good? You could define it as reaffirming what is said in our Declaration of Independence about the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The many serious, serious problems in our country and in the world can only be overcome by people coming together to solve them, yet I see so many Americans diverging in different directions in the pursuit of their own goals, and I see our country often going it alone on the international scene. Either you're with us or against us? To a great extent we Americans could be called the "me and mine" generation. We would be better served if we were more like the Greatest Generation of World War II America when citizens shared the sacrifices of war by holding scrap drives, paying higher taxes, tolerating rationing, buying war bonds, and going off by the millions, poor, middle-class, and rich, to fight. Overcoming fascism then was a do-able thing when Americans and freedom-loving people around the world came together. Overcoming today's problems is do-able too if we would come together.
The inalienable right to life? Many anti-abortion Americans say that abortion is not only an important issue, it is the single over-riding issue in how we should vote. I agree that it is an important issue. I believe that the right to life should be guaranteed to all Americans, to all people in the world for that matter, from the moment of conception. I believe that abortion should only be permitted to save the life of the mother. Overturning Roe v. Wade? There would be a high cost. Are we willing as a nation to bear it? Are we willing to assume the cost of caring for the babies of mothers who cannot or will not take care of them? Are we willing to adopt and be foster parents? Are we willing to care for babies of all races, babies with physical and mental defects, babies with AIDS or cocaine in their systems, babies who were conceived through rape or incest?
But is abortion the single, over-riding issue that determines how we should vote? Should we vote for a political party, which ostensibly opposes abortion, that took us to a pre-emptive war in Iraq that has cost the lives of nearly three thousand American servicemen and women and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? Were we peacemakers? Did we exhaust all attempts to find a peaceful solution, including allowing U.N. inspectors to finish their job of looking for WMD's, before we went to war? It's amazing that a President and Vice-President, who did their darnedest to stay out of combat in Viet Nam, were so anxious for combat in Iraq. I think back to the 1972 presidential election when anti-Viet Nam war candidate George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Back then few voters gave credence to McGovern, a man who was a U.S. Army Air Corp bomber pilot in Europe during World War II, a man awarded the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross, and a man who said that we should choose our wars carefully. At the beginning of the Civil War American Christians in the North and South enlisted in droves to get a chance to punish the other. As the war and the slaughter progressed, and the casualty lists were posted in towns and cities in each section, citizens had second thoughts about the rush to war. That war could have been prevented if cooler heads had prevailed, and the 600,000 men who died from wounds and disease could have lived out their natural lives.
It's regrettably clear that it's easier for people to make war than it is to make peace. A serious shortcoming in human nature. We were so anxious to give vent to our feelings of anger, revenge, and fear after the 9-11 attack on our soil that we allowed this administraation to take us to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. An eye for an eye? You hit us; we hit you. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the "you hit us; we hit you" cycle of violence has continued since the formation of Israel in 1948. Israelis have never known the sense of security that Americans felt prior to 9/11. Can the United States do something that would ease tension and hositility in that region? We can be peacemakers. We could push for the formation of a Palestinian state while guaranteeing with other nations the security of Israel's borders. By doing so maybe we could help bring peace and stability to that volatile region, cripple the appeal of Islamic terrorists on the Muslim street, and restore our image as the beacon of hope in the world. Forgiving? Peacemaking? Those are incredibly hard things for individuals and nations to do. Are these things humanly possible? The Amish in Pennsylvania forgave the man who killed their children. They extended their hand in peace to the killer's family. It is possible.
Liberty? Our nation was rocked during the tumultous 60's and 70's when many traditional Christian and American values were questioned. It was a very difficult time for those of us who lived through it. Many embraced new cultural freedoms; many rejected them. Americans became polarized and remain so to this day. No compromise! Stick by your guns in this ideological war. Those Americans on the other side of the fence. Americans? Hiss their names. Liberals! Conservatives! Heathens! Infidels! Evil! Subhuman? One side controls our government and is convinced that it must oppose the terrorists and "unpatriotic" American war critics by altering an international code of treatment of enemy combatants and warrantlesslly eavesdroping on Americans. In 1775 Patrick Henry asked the Virginia House of Burgesses, "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" His answer, "[G]ive me liberty or give me death!" Do you want to give this administration the "war" power to reinterpret our Constituion and compromise your rights as American citizens?
Pursuit of happiness? I interpret that as the right to pursue the American Dream--having equal opportunity for education and training, having a living wage job, owning a home, providing for a family, and having a secure retirement. Would anyone's God object to those things? Yet we have an administration that believes "Blessed is Wall Street." Let corporations seek their profit unfettered by government, and part of that profit will trickle down to the rest of America. Relax safety and labor regulations to maximize profit. Relax environmental regulations. Are we the stewards of the earth that God has given us? Close your eyes as American production is moved to other countries with cheap labor, and the railroads bring those cheap foreign-made products to you from the West Coast. Cheap goods are good for America. Buy Wal-Mart. Friends, it isn't working despite what Paul Harvey, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and this administration tell us about a booming economy. Look around you. The unemployment rate in Galesburg and Knox County is low, but many people who used to be in our labor pool have moved out of the area to seek living wage jobs elsewhere. Many who are counted as employed make half what they used to make. Local governments and school districts are having to tighten their pursestrings. The FISH food pantry is low on food. In our country both the number of billionaires andn the number of those who have slipped below the poverty level has increased. Would anyone's God smile on such a gap?
What can be done to make the American Dream more attainable for more of our citizens? We can give incentives to American corporations to keep their production here in exchange for their observing reasonable safety and environmental standards and paying their employees a living wage. More Americans with more money in their pockets could buy more American-made goods and services. We could consistently urge our trading partners to improve working conditions and wages in their countries, so that wealth is shared more equitably throughout the world.
Do these suggestions place too much emphasis on the material and not enough on the spiritual? Does losing one's job and security make one more likely to turn to God? In many cases it has, and that's not a bad thing, but I maintain that people with more money in their pockets can also be good, God-fearing people who maintain strong family relationships, are good citizens, and help the less fortunate. God gave each of us--rich, poor, middle-class--a free will. We have the opportunity to do the right thing.
On November 7 I hope we send people to Congress who will seek the greatest good for the greatest number of their fellow Americans. I hope they will reassert the Constitutional prerogatives of the legislative branch and restore checks and balances in our government. In the near future I hope that we as a people can become more tolerant of each other's religious, political, and cultural beliefs, find common ground, and move on to achieve the great things that our nation is capable of achieving.