(This "musing" is excerpted from a speech I gave this past Sunday at First Congregational UCC Church of Palo Alto, CA. You can hear an audio recording of my talk here.)
How can we put faith into the way we vote?
It starts with love, and it ends with love. I once loved a man named Randy, back in the days when I directed the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto. He was one of our regulars for years at our drop-in center back in the 1990’s. He was a quiet, kind, gentle guy who came every day to drink coffee, eat day-old donated muffins, and make small talk with the other homeless folks and the volunteers. He had grown up in a low-income household and was still stuck in the cycle of poverty. I chatted with him many times and felt great warmth for him and from him. Our goal at the drop in center was to love people as is, not to demand or expect that they’d change. We understood that love is its own power, and that acceptance of people as they are was the key to building trust, so that if they ever did get ready to make changes, they’d trust us to help them make those changes. Randy trusted us, clearly. But he was hooked on rock cocaine. It was a sad thing to watch such a kind, good person suffering in such misery.
Then one day he didn’t show up, and never came back. I asked our homeless folks if they’d seen him, and nobody had an answer. About a year later I ran into him on the street. “Randy! Where ya been?” I exclaimed, so happy to see him alive and looking well. “I had to get out of that scene, Jim,” he told me. “Homelessness is a head trip. I had to get out of the head trip. I couldn’t be there, with those people every day, and make any changes in my life. So I left, I got sober, I got me a job, and life is better.”
We could look at his story at least two ways. One is to see him as somebody who grew up in a log cabin he built by himself: the narrative of the American self-made person who rose from poverty, overcame homelessness, and headed toward prosperity by dint of his own pluck. It’s the myth that poverty really doesn’t exist: that it’s all in the mind, and if you change your mind, you escape it. Certainly, Randy had to go through a tough emotional and spiritual process in order to move into a healthier, happier way of life. There’s some truth in this myth.
Another myth is that Randy was a victim of racial and economic oppression from his birth. An unjust political and economic system held him back, and even when he did get a job, it was low-paid, with little hope for advancement. He might have thought homelessness was just a head-trip, but he was stuck in poverty even after getting sober and finding a job. There’s truth in this myth, too.
But neither myth describes Randy well enough. Neither myth serves America well enough.
Some folks complain that conservatives in America are not fact-based. I understand that sentiment. Too much of politics in America is driven by beliefs that contradict science and common sense. But myths are different from outright falsehoods. We should not fault conservatives or anyone else for caring about a myth. Rather, we should consider the quality of the myth.
The Bible is mostly mythological. But some of its myths are positive and potent, and help guide us toward the good society even today, thousands of years after they were composed. They aren’t realized – not yet – maybe not within our lifetimes – but they can guide us toward a better future. The problem isn’t that Americans believe in myths. The problem is that our myths have gone stale.
My wife, Roberta, once taught her daughter Josie something that Roberta forgot, until Josie recalled it a few years ago. Josie was having trouble cutting fabric in a straight line for sewing. Roberta said, “Focus on that spot at the far end of the fabric, where you want the scissors to go. Cut toward that spot and you’ll get there in a straight line!” Josie had just started her company, Josie Maran Cosmetics – which makes nontoxic, environmentally-friendly makeup. She had made a lot of money as a supermodel for about ten years, and decided to invest all of it in a start-up venture. She is one of the roughly ten percent of wealthy people who create jobs with their money. The rest of the wealthy put their money in safe stocks or financial instruments that have little or no job-creation effects. Josie was thinking about her business, and remembered the wisdom of her mother from decades before. She realized that in order to succeed, she had to stay focused on the goal. It was a wildly risky venture, but she’s created about 40 new jobs directly, many more indirectly, and the business is thriving. It is no different for our society. We need to imagine where we want to go together, and then let that vision guide our actions between now and that glorious day when our goals are achieved. Myths give us the vision.
America needs a new new vision for the good society. Our moral imaginations beg to be activated by a new story for our future. And we who strive to live faithfully, whether guided by religion or by an ethical compass, are called to articulate and pursue that vision. That’s what I mean by soulful citizenship. Our love for each other, especially those most vulnerable among us, leads us to re-imagine the beloved community.
Let’s look at what makes soulful citizenship challenging. It has to do with the history of this country over the past four decades. Now, the case I’m about to make might seem more partisan than it really is. Here I am not trying to rile up Republicans or rev up Democrats. I’m trying to make the case for a new vision for the country. It’s a bigger project than rah-rahing for one party over the other.
The political labels we use in America have become useless. Just look at the word “liberal”. “Liberal” in Europe means a preference for private enterprise – the very opposite of what conservatives in America think the word means. In Sweden, Norway, Germany, Britain, Canada, France – in the developed Western countries America counts as allies and friends – a Democrat would be considered what Americans call conservative. In Germany, hardly anyone has student debt. In Norway, it’s unheard of for anybody to go bankrupt because they can’t pay medical bills. (Half a million Americans go bankrupt every year because they can’t pay their medical bills because they have no insurance or inadequate coverage.) In France, parents don’t have to choose between being poor and raising kids at home. Decisions to create strong health and welfare safety nets were made decades ago in these countries and hardly anyone in those nations considers them up for debate.
Most Americans don’t understand how isolated we are among the developed nations, with our relatively primitive public health and welfare systems. I teach a course in public policy at the graduate School of Social Work at USC, so I spend a lot of time analyzing the differences between our systems and the ones in Europe. We’re so big, so distant from the rest of the world, so puffed up with egoic exceptionalism and triumphal nationalism, that we literally can’t see straight. We think we are the greatest nation on earth, therefore whatever we do today must be the best way to do it. The political labels we pin on each other in this country are distorted. Obama is accused of being a socialist by conservatives in America, but in the rest of the world, he’s considered a staunch defender of capitalism.
According to a recent academic study, given a choice among the American division of assets (84% of assets in the hands of the richest 20% of citizens), a perfect equality of wealth distribution, and Sweden's allocation (36% of assets in the hands of the richest 20% of citizens), 92% of Americans prefer the distribution of wealth that exists in Sweden. If any label would apply to our nation’s political orientation, it would be Swedish.
So why aren't we getting what we really want?
A lot of folks are disgusted with politics. That’s understandable. I think this disgust goes back at least as far as the Vietnam War, when a whole generation of Americans ceased trusting their government. Over and over again, our presidents lied to us about the war in Vietnam. Years later, Ronald Reagan capitalized on this lingering mistrust by saying that that government was the enemy. “The best thing that government can do is nothing,” he famously declared. During his era, a well-funded and organized anti-government propaganda machine was created. Almost all Republicans have signed a pledge against raising taxes for any reason. Go ahead and start a war with Iraq – but you can’t raise taxes to pay for it. Provide a new Medicare prescription benefit – but don’t raise taxes. Cut taxes – especially for rich people, so that the rich will pile up an ever-bigger share of the wealth of the nation. The resulting bad fiscal management of the country has resulted in huge budget deficit well before the 2007 financial crisis necessitated even bigger deficit spending. The people who hated government governed badly, then blamed government for the consequences, further eroding confidence in the public sector. By their own bad behavior, anti-government politicians have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in convincing people that the best thing government can do is nothing.
Democrats are complicit in this process. They don’t lead the movement, but they often follow it. Clinton sold out to the well-funded movement to deregulate Wall Street. He had a lot of reservations about the details, but he signed the bill that ended welfare as we knew it: ending AFDC, but failing to replace it with more effective assistance for millions of poor families with children.
But the worst thing about the Democratic party is its failure to articulate a new and compelling vision to inspire Americans. Democratic leaders have played into the anti-government rhetoric fed to them by Republicans, over and over. Obama feels compelled to repeat this rhetoric on occasion, simply because so many people believe it.
Republicans tend to vote at every election. They know they are an endangered species, a perpetual minority group. Democrats appear to be more easily dispirited by the ugliness of hyper-partisanship in government. Also, Democrats tend to include a lot more folks who have more trouble getting to the polls because they are working-class or poor. Hence the very effective campaign by Republicans in the states they control around the country, to make voting harder for poor and elderly and disabled people by requiring voters to have ID in order to go to the polls, even though there is virtually no voter fraud in America. The Republican campaign strategy can be summed up as follows: if you don’t vote, you vote Republican. In 2008, about 52% of eligible voters went to the polls, and the Democrats won. In 2010, about 39% of the eligible voters voted, and the Republicans won. Make politics depressing, make voting more difficult, make people believe it’s all hopeless, and Republicans will have a better chance of winning.
At least for the short term. For the long term, it’s disastrous for Republicans. It’s driving people out of their party in droves. They’re becoming independents who don’t trust either party any more than they trust the government. It’s not healthy for anybody in this country to believe that their democracy is a hopeless mess and that government can’t do anything useful for them. I had a conversation with a man recently who is 34 years old. He told me that he doesn’t believe Social Security will be there for him when he retires. It's a lie foisted on him by the folks who want to dismantle the New Deal and turn Social Security into a voucher program for buying Wall Street stocks. The fact is that we can make Social Security solvent for decades to come with some relatively simple repairs. Believing the lie is bad, but what is worse is this man's distrust in the ability of his government to protect him or anybody else from poverty, disease, and hunger. He has no vision of an America where we are in this life together. Where we raise ourselves up by dint of our pluck, and at the same time we make it safe to risk our time and treasure in the free market because we know we will get health care no matter what, we know we’ll won’t starve if we fail the first time or even the second time, where we know we won’t languish in severe poverty in our old age even if our stock portfolios go belly-up.
Without vision, the people perish, says the book of Proverbs. This is what's at stake in our country today.
There is a spectacular misconception floating in our public discourse right now in this political campaign. It's the belief that private charity adequately can take care of the health and nutritional and housing needs of poor, elderly, or disabled Americans. According to Bread for the World, an evangelical Christian charity, the total value of all donated food and meals in America through charitable organizations of all kinds adds up to just 6% of the dollar value of the food that the US government gives the poor through EBT food stamps, WIC supplements for mothers and babies, school lunches, and other programs. Paul Ryan’s proposed 16% cut to EBT or food stamps would deny the poor at least as much food as they are now getting from charity. Bread for the World has estimated that every church in America would have to raise $50,000 a year to make up the difference. Repealing Obamacare means stranding 45 million Americans without health insurance of any kind. Voucherizing Medicare will result in millions of American seniors and disabled people being unable to afford health insurance. Giving Social Security over to Wall Street will create mass social insecurity. And charity wouldn't be able to pick up the pieces. Ponder this: Habitat for Humanity, a private charity, has created 30,000 units of housing in America since 1978. How many units of housing are subsidized annually by the federal Section 8 housing voucher system? 1,400,000 units. The money value of these two forms of housing subsidy is about the same for the families receiving them. Medicare is much more economically efficient than any private insurance company in America. It delivers more health care per dollar than private insurance, by far – because of its scale and also because it has hardly any marketing costs.
If we are serious about serving the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens, then we’ll do what it takes to deliver on that commitment. The government’s ability to address human needs dwarfs that of private charity. Contrary to anti-government propaganda, government usually does the job much more efficiently.
Soulful citizenship is about idealistic realism. It’s idealism about making sure that all vulnerable people are protected. It’s realism about how that can be achieved practically – and how it cannot be achieved.
Let’s activate our moral imaginations, aim toward a vision, and cut the cloth in a straight line so that we can sew America’s social fabric together. Imagine a nation of free, prosperous, creative, diverse, hard-working people who feel confident in venturing new enterprises, because they know that they have ensured basic health and well-being for everyone - no exceptions!
This vision leads us to ask questions that you do not hear much in the current presidential campaign. Could we have what the Germans have by way of social protections, while having an even more lively capitalist system than theirs? Yes, we can. Could we have universal, single-payer health insurance for everybody, like the Canadians, and run it even better than they do? Yes, we can. Let’s call it Americare! Can we end poverty in America once and for all, without discouraging personal initiative? Yes, we can. Can we have effective consumer protections in our financial system, without impeding the flow of capital? Yes, we can. Can we have smart rules for banks and investors that keep money moving but prevent catastrophic bubbles and crashes? Yes, we can. Can we have a Democratic Party that is guided by this vision? Yes we can. Can we have a Republican Party that accepts the necessity of strong governmental social services, while striving to keep the government as lean and efficient as possible? Yes, we can. There will always be a need for multiple political parties to keep the system honest. We will always need curmudgeons, skeptics, bean-counters. We’ll always need people to moderate the excesses of idealism and to translate hope into practical solutions.
We need a new vision of freedom for America. The non-economic issues that divide us today don’t need to poison our politics in the future. If you don’t think abortion is right, you don’t have to get one. You can let it be legal and still urge people not to exercise their right to have one. If your religion won’t allow homosexuals to get married, let them get married anywhere else but in your church. Obamacare requires insurance companies to offer contraceptive coverage, but it doesn't force anybody to use it. Let’s envision a society where we are serious about freedom to do or say things that others might find offensive, so we’ll also be free to do and say things we think are good.
About a year ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to be invited, with a small group of other interfaith leaders from Southern California, to visit the headquarters of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City. We were dined and lemonaded by elders of the Quorum of the Seventy. We visited the LDS Museum, with its displays of covered wagons. The museum celebrates Mormons' identity as pioneers that went on an exodus across the plains and over the mountains to the Promised Land of Utah. It’s a myth of the wild West that’s the opposite of Clint Eastwood’s. It’s a myth of people cooperating with each other, protecting each other in wagon trains, building a new society together, quite contrary to the myth of the lone ranger conquering the wilderness all by himself. Our group visited Welfare Square, the Mormon internal welfare system. We tasted the excellent cheese made in their factory, we visited the central warehouse where food is kept for emergency needs of Mormons who are down on their luck. The Mormons’ myth of cooperation and community is a foundation for the new myth that America needs. Their myth comes from even older roots in the book of Isaiah, the prophet, who said "… seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1: 17) This passage is a key to the whole scripture. It’s what led Jesus to say three times to his disciple Peter, after Jesus’ resurrection: if you love me, feed my sheep. All my sheep. The ten percent of the rich who take big risks and create jobs, and the other 90 percent of the rich who don’t. The poor folks who work night and day to tread water in an economy where they are expendable, and everybody else. The unemployed folks who despair of ever getting a decent job. The young folks with monstrous student debt, the folks who don’t think they’ll ever get to retire, the folks who have retired in style. Circle the wagons! Get together and raise barns for each other! Feed all the sheep, no exceptions! Offer healing to all the sick, no exceptions! No child left behind – no adult left behind – no veteran left behind - no elderly or disabled person left behind! We’re all in this together, all the way…
I ask this of you today: find your own way of expressing a new vision for our country that will guide our votes and our soulful activism. Then come out of the closet! Let the vision go viral. Vote on the buddy system: share your vision with everybody you know, then tell them how you are going to vote. Connect your voting recommendations with the vision. Unlimited campaign contributions from rich special interests can’t compete with you and me if we influence our networks of friends and relatives with text messages and emails, for free. We have the power: let’s use it!
Elevate the conversation. Talk about the vision first: let the politics follow the vision. Too many people are afraid to talk about politics, but the real problem is the lack of a vision that would inspire political action.
Let’s put our souls in our citizenship, and cut a straight line for a new vision of the beloved community.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, "musings", and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California