“I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we’ve struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.” Barack Obama
“We believe in individual initiative, personal responsibility, opportunity, freedom, small government, the Constitution. These principles, these American principles are key to getting our economy back to being successful and leading the world.” Mitt Romney
Regardless of which of these men you voted for (or chose not to), I think most honest people would be able to see some truth in what they each say and believe about America. In their own way, each desires the “best” for America and believes he knows how to get there. Where they differ is in their interpretations of what that “best” looks like, and where it comes from.
More importantly, though each would rhetorically express a conviction that this “best” comes from “God,” I have never been convinced that either of them really meant it. That’s not how most modern politicians really think anymore (even if they sometimes, by necessity, still say it). In fact, it’s beginning to seem as if a majority of the modern American electorate—and those they elect–don’t really think so anymore, either. And that is what is really most significant about this election.
I say this speaking from an understanding of reality that is Gospel-centered and reflects, as such, certain presuppositions about man, God, and the nature of the human condition that don’t always resonate with modern political dynamics. For modern progressives, governmental policies and social action (directed by intellectual elites) correct the evils of the past, provide security for the present, and guide us toward the “best” future. For modern capitalists, free markets and individual initiative (directed by corporate elites), transcend the limitations of the past, provide opportunity for the present, and promotes growth toward the “best” future. The former is willing to sacrifice liberty for equality; the latter values liberty over equality. The former grants sovereignty to the State; the latter promotes the sovereignty of the individual.
From a Gospel perspective, I am only “free” to the extent that I accept God’s sovereignty over all things, or I presume to exercise that sovereignty myself, or I willingly (or even unknowingly) surrender that sovereignty to the State or some ideology. My identity as an “individual” is subject to the admonishment that I am my brother’s keeper, and that as a reflection of Christ my primary identity is to be a lover of God and of my fellow man. To be a “libertarian” is to deny that I owe obedience to anything but myself and my own fulfillment, freedom, etc.
Each modern perspective represents (to me) a faulty extension of true liberty for license, and an abdication of values that once shaped political culture and motivated the statesmen in public service. To me, true liberty is the freedom I have to submit myself to rightful authority, to restrain myself from undignified excesses, to reject the intrusion of illegitimate tyranny, and to resist the temptations of selfish indulgence. To strive for such personally (with God’s help) is to be truly virtuous. To lead with such convictions is to be a true statesman. What we have today are partisan politics and a cultural aesthetic overwhelmed by the rampant individualism, materialism, and pragmatism. Of course there has never been such an “ideal” culture (or “ideal” statesmen), but I do believe we’ve lost the ability to even value the idea of the “ideal,” and that makes us poorer individually and culturally.
As a teacher, I challenged my students to weigh the impact of both values and interests in public policy (and in historic turning points, foreign policy, even “worldviews”). The human condition is always shaped and defined by both, and neither is ultimately “best” in and of itself. But when our interests come to sacrifice the common good at the altar of selfish individualism, partisan ideology, and personal pleasures, we are woefully out of balance as human beings. Similarly, when our values cease to be rooted in spiritual realities and moral “first principles,” we’re left with utilitarian virtues at best and, at worst, we subject ourselves to the tyranny of those who control cultural forces (media, entertainment, markets, politicians, etc.) toward their own selfish ends.