The Obama Conundrum
A young man came to my door on Sunday afternoon and asked me for whom I would vote. I told him, “If I was compelled to vote today I would probably vote for Barack Obama.” By compelled I meant that someone put a gun to my head and ordered me to vote.
He was puzzled.
There is an assumption by most Americans that voting is a cherished civic act–one purchased with the blood of many patriots. I don’t dispute this. However, as we enter the final 45 days of this election cycle, there are some Christians who, like me, are considering abstaining from casting a ballot.
It’s what I call the Obama conundrum.
I find myself entering a presidential election where casting a vote for either of the two nominees could potentially violate my deepest theological convictions.
The two party system in the United States has been influenced or corrupted by liberalism–cultural and economic liberalism. Two parties–two expressions of the liberal impulse.
The Democratic party is the party of the cultural liberal. They espouse the rights and choices of the individual over against the received moral tradition. The individual is a self-contained moral system capable of making decisions about what constitutes the good life without reference to anything outside of itself (or perhaps his family).
If a woman does not wish to be pregnant she ought to be free to make the decision to terminate her child. If a man wishes to commit himself to another man and call it a marriage, he ought to be free to do that and the state should recognize it as such. The only moral calculus is the autonomy of the individual. In reality, it is both foolish and wrong to believe that human beings exist in a moral vacuum.
If I vote for Barack Obama I am casting a ballot for one of the most pro-choice presidents. [Note: My theological belief that all humanity is created in the image of God leads me to value life. For this reason I am deeply skeptical of capital punishment, to the point of thinking there ought to be a moratorium on it. I am also deeply skeptical of war and have a hard time understanding the almost frivolous attitude of some politicians toward it.] A good society is not one that kills its unborn children. And while it may be good to help those in need, it’s also true that the government brings with it a profound ability to dehumanize those it seeks to help, simply by the scale of its operation. The government is also unable to make moral distinctions based on anything other than utilitarian concerns.
On the other hand, neither is a good society one that abandons those most vulnerable to ‘fate.’ The Republican party has become the party of economic liberalism. Taking their cue from Adam Smith’s philosophical reflections (which are predicated on a sub-Christian understanding of morals, by the way) the Republican party has come to espouse the individual as the supreme economic actor. There is no authority (or at least few) that may interfere with the economic actions of the individual. All that is require is mutual consent (analogous to cultural liberalism’s ethics above). A fair wage is what a person may command in the current market; a fair price is what the product will command. There is no moral calculus beyond this, and any effort to introduce one distorts the sovereign market.
The government becomes a tyrant who seizes the individuals’ wealth in the form of taxation. This is wrong because the individual owes no duty to anyone other than himself. The supreme moral calculus is efficiency and profit.
A good society is not one in which those with the fewest resources are abandoned. A good society is not one in which the utilitarian concern of bailing out financial institutions trumps the impulse to assist average people who are subject to a system that is corrupt.
In neither system is there room for anything even remotely resembling a common good, a sense of the individual having some degree of duty to something or someone outside of himself. Nor is there a moral system capable of explicating what that duty is and from whence it arises.
As a result, I find myself stuck and more profoundly sympathetic to the anabaptist tradition of envisioning the church as an alternate society–rather, envisioning secular society as a corrupted copy of the church.
So. Which of these profoundly sub-Christian alternative is preferable? At the present moment, I have a hard time wishing to endorse either and as a result I find it difficult to contemplate voting.