We have bought too heavily into the model of diagnosing moral failure and its consequences as disease rather than holding out healthy life choices and focusing on life affirming behavior. Maybe we have forgotten that human beings are moral agents and need to be held accountable even for their self inflicted wounds.
The 1928 Democratic Convention nominated a very popular progressive and four time governor of New York, Al Smith, as their presidential candidate. That same year Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover. Between the convention and the general election Democrats abandoned their nominee as it became known that Al Smith was a Roman Catholic. One columnists of his day wrote that he lost the election because of three things: Prohibition, which he opposed, Prosperity which soon evaporated and Prejudice. My grandfather, a newsman and a Catholic, considered himself to be an Al Smith Democrat until he died.
The question on my mind is whether we are witnessing something similar with the Republican party and Donald Trump. This week it was reported that in the interest of protecting down ballot races for seats in the House and Senate three well known Republican leaders were planning ‘an intervention’ with candidate Trump. The list of disaffected Republicans defecting to support the Democratic candidate has continued to grow. It was suggested that with his ties to Russian financial interests Trump was a real “Manchurian Candidate.” A story even surfaced that before the election season began Donald Trump met with Bill Clinton and the two plotted to destroy the Republican party. The candidate himself expressed the opinion that he might lose because a fix was already in on the election. Despite all the opposition, both within his party and without, Mr. Trump continues to enjoy tremendous popular support.
American Conservative magazine’s Rod Dreher’s interview with J. D. Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy helps define why many people find Donald Trump such an attractive candidate. He began his interview saying that “a friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs”. By way of explanation Vance replied that “these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. … And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.
“The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues. … From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and praise for the noble businessman and economic growth. … these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
He continued: “We’re no longer a country that believes in human agency. To hear Trump or Clinton talk about the poor, one would draw the conclusion that they have no power to affect their own lives. Things have been done to them, from bad trade deals to Chinese labor competition, and they need help. And without that help, they’re doomed to lives of misery they didn’t choose. ‘Believing you have no control is incredibly destructive, and that may be especially true when you face unique barriers. The first time I encountered this idea was in my exposure to addiction subculture, which is quite supportive and admirable in its own way, but is full of literature that speaks about addiction as a disease. If you spend a day in these circles, you’ll hear someone say something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so why judge an addict for drug use.” This view is a perfect microcosm of the problem among poor Americans. On the one hand, the research is clear that there are biological elements to addiction–in that way, it does mimic a disease. On the other hand, the research is also clear that people who believe their addiction is a biologically mandated disease show less ability to resist it. There’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.
Dreher asked Vance to expand on the importance of the US Marine Corps to develop discipline in his life and fundamentalist Christianity in his biological father’s life. Vance’s response was: “Well, I think it’s important to point out that Christianity, in the quirky way I’ve experienced it, was really important to me, too. For my dad, the way he tells it is that he was a hard partier, he drank a lot, and didn’t have a lot of direction. His Christian faith gave him focus, forced him to think hard about his personal choices, and gave him a community of people who demanded, even if only implicitly, that he act a certain way. I think we all understate the importance of moral pressure, but it helped my dad, and it has certainly helped me! If you believe as I do, you believe that the Holy Spirit works in people in a mysterious way. I’d make one important point: that not drinking, treating people well, working hard, and so forth, requires a lot of willpower when you didn’t grow up in privilege. That feeling–whether it’s real or entirely fake–that there’s something divine helping you and directing your mind and body, is extraordinarily powerful.
In an interview this week Pat Boone, in responding to a question about his take on the race for Presidency, said “God has lifted his hand of protection from the United States.” One group, supporting the Republican candidate argued that it was an endorsement of Donald Trump. Groups on the left put their own spin on the interview. For me, it raised again this question of abandonment. The context of Boone’s comment is that at one time God had placed his hand of protection on the United States and has now, due to our many failures, lifted that hand of protection. Since the mid 1800’s America has seen itself in that light. John L. O’Sullivan, in an article on the annexation of Texas wrote that it is: ‘our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’ This attitude helped to fuel western settlement of this continent, justified Native American removal and war with Mexico. In its inception did the United States displace Israel to become God’s preferred nation? And now because of our immorality, injustice, greed, violence, –all those things to which the Prophets pointed in their accusations of Israel– has God abandoned us?
Reasserting the words of Samuel 12:22, Psalm 9:10 and 94:14 tells us that God will not abandon his people. Jesus tells his followers that though he was leaving the earth they would not be left ‘comfortless.’ So what do we make of Israel’s experience of being taken into captivity, and ultimately having the Temple destroyed and, and of course, Jesus’ passionate plea from the cross. Isaiah 52 and 53 is all about recovery. The picture left in my mind is that of the parent whose child wanders off in a store after being told to stay close. And when the child becomes aware of its separateness it experiences the anxiety of being abandoned. And all the while the anxious parent, in the next isle over, allows a life giving message to be learned.
In the transcript of Pat Boone’s interview he refers to the Old Testament story of Balaam and his donkey and says: “If God can use an ass for His purpose … He can use a Donald Trump, for example.” He didn’t end there, he added: “Or, of course, a Hillary Clinton. The question: Which one, if either, will actually look to Him, seek His will and not “political correctness” in the crucial decisions that will determine our future?” I’d question whether either campaign would want to go beyond a sound bite on this one.
For seventy or so years our society, and especially the church, has stepped away from the Prophetic role of pointing to how a culture destroys the lives of people. For nearly two centuries the Church taught that human beings were guilty of sin and needed to repent. Then we found it enormously popular to put less emphasis on sin and the negatives of the Christian Faith and concentrate on the positives. A half century ago Karl Menninger raised the question with us in his book Whatever Became of Sin? In reaction many evangelical voices, continuing to stress the sinfulness of the human race and the need for repentance, have become cloisters of self righteousness, hypocrisy and exclusion.
The last six of the Ten commandments deal with how we treat one another, the sinfulness of violating them, and the need to repent if we do. Were we to follow them, can you imagine how different our world would be? Remember that “repent” is simply a military term that means “about face,” that is, turning around and going the other direction. And to speak of ‘sin’ isn’t a life sentence, it simply means missing the mark. Following Yearly Meeting there was quite a discussion on the pastor’s list serve about Jesus telling the woman at the well to “go and sin no more.” Beside the fact that the words are in the New Testament story of the woman taken in adultery some held out their responsibility to accuse and convict. And, of course, just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough! We need to change what we are doing. Turn around and have better aim. We need to hear more clearly the voice of Micah where we read: He has shown you, oh man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. We need to reflect on Jesus words when he said we were to: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:28-31)
We have bought too heavily into the model of diagnosing moral failure and its consequences as disease rather than holding out healthy life choices and focusing on life affirming behavior. Maybe we have forgotten that human beings are moral agents and need to be held accountable even for their self inflicted wounds. And, as important as is personal accountability, the good news is that we are not alone in our struggles with the challenges of life. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead and to guide. But we’ve got to be willing to talk about that. We need a community of the faithful to encourage us and at times hold our feet to the fire. As contradictory as it may seem, does the Trump campaign, highlighted by the values of the man himself, actually point out our need to allow our Spiritual roots to influence our lives, our faith and even our politics?