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.

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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.

16 thoughts on “The Obama Conundrum

  1. I have two thoughts, Jeff. The first is that the if these characterizations are true, and I’m not sure that they are (Democrats care much less for individual autonomy than for state-directed engineering of the populace as a whole, for example), then vote for the most competent administrator on the ballot. Given the tin ear on foreign policy of the Obama administration, his demonstrated efforts to fix the economy that have had the effects precisely opposite of what he claimed they would not have (stimulus, bailouts, e.g.), and his demonstrated hostility to people of faith in the HHS mandate debacle, it seems that the flat-out “who can run a country” question simply must exclude Obama.

    I’ll have to save the second thought for later.

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    1. Mike – thanks for commenting. The presidency is a powerful office for telling the nation its story and what I’m trying to get at is that both candidates have big chunks of their narrative that are at odds with the Christian faith. One solution is, of course, to write “David Brooks” in on the ballot!

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      1. I track with Mike’s thought. Brtoadly speaking, under which system will the church be most free to be the Church? For me this choice is clear, in spite of Jeff’s well thought out unease over the particulars.

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  2. Have you seen the movie 2016? If not I highly recommend it. It is a documentary that state the facts about Obama’s history. I am not a fan of either Romney or Obama either but I think we are in more danger with Obama.

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  3. Your characterization of the republican side I believe is a bit distorted, “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.” I don’t think you would find a republican that disagrees with your statement. Republicans don’t abandon those with the fewest resources or think bailing out financial systems over assisting average people either. That’s plain hogwash. Truth be told the bailout of those financial institutions albeit awful was necessary for the public good. Think if they hadn’t what would have happened to the average person… It would have been real bad. Yes, voting requires puting your name on someone you don’t agree with 100%, it requires sometimes we hold our nose to do it. But if you choose not to vote because you have bought into the the aformentioned liberal or republican propaganda machines, well that’s your choice. I can see why you would vote for Obama if pressed, given his voting history in the house, he voted “present” (in leiu of yea or nay) quite a bit as well.

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  4. Jeff-interesting and well thought out points. Perhaps your segmentation of the political term “liberal” works between Democrat and Republican. However, I would just guess that most true CONSERVATIVES would disagree with your view of “economic liberalism.” True free enterprise allows for business to succeed and fail. The bailouts in my opinion left the realm of free enterprise and entered the “Oracle-backed” big government operating system known as crony-capitalism. Self-reliance is extremely important to conservatives but then again, to your point, so should CHARITY. I would agree that many capitalists are quite greedy and have failed in having a social conscience towards their fellow-man but I don’t see how this applies to conservatism? I believe the Republican and Democratic parties have basically devolved into opposite sides of the same corrupt coin. Businesses that have sucked up to politicans or vice/versa have settled for life on Uncle Sam’s Plantation…..again crony-capitalism! In order for this Nation to truly wake up from its slumber, a generation of free-thinking conservatives must rise up and get involved with the political sphere and not sit out elections! I am optimistic that generation ( the last generation to play with sticks and pine-cones) will rise to the challenge soon enough. The world, not just the USA, is starving for leadership and just like a child who turns from the firm hand of discipline, they actually crave it and desire to hear the truth. The “truth” that most Christians do not want to hear is that due to lukewarm faith at best, our moral foundations and character as a Nation have eroded. We have traded One Nation Under God for a secular Nation of many Gods and before we should look to place the blame on our fellow man, or on the District of Corruption in Washington, we should first seek to understand our own values before being understood. What are Christian values today? Are we Sunday Christians just like the Sanhedrin with nice flowing robes pious on the Sabbath only, or are we saved through grace because HE restoreth sight to all of us who are blind and in sin? Great leaders like Lincoln understood that a Nation divided can not stand. Christians should also know from Biblical teaching that “the Church” can not be corrupted from the outside in, only from the inside out! God surely knows how corrupted the walls from within have become not unlike clogged arteries ready to stop the beating heart! The solution therefore, in my opinion, begins with the Man/Woman in the mirror. The mirror does not lie if we actively pursue the real reflection looking back at us. In the same light, the Creator will most certainly reveal thyself if we humble ourselves as a Nation and repent. Many will assuredly laugh at this and crawl back to the comforts of secularism no doubt. Unfortunately, for WE THE PEOPLE who love our economic and cultural individuality…we are held to a higher standard! The blood of Patriots scattered throughout our lands and foreign lands, spilled for liberty and freedom, demands that we not fail the test. Our rights and freedoms were given to us by the Creator and not by Man nor by any government of fools! In the end, we get the government we deserve and in a Republic, our politicians reflect the values or lack thereof of the individual. E. Pluribus Unum and God Bless-
    BM

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  5. Jeff,

    As always, I appreciate your thoughts, especially the fact that you can see the common errors that we can be blind to if we never take a step back and look at the reigning ideologies in light of scripture and tradition.

    Correct me on this if necessary, but isn’t it true that Reformed theology has always held that rampant sin and distortion should not paralyze us? A theology that does not allow us to choose the lesser of two evils seems to misunderstand that this is the only kind of choice we ever make.

    Best,
    Steve

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  6. As an anabaptist, I’d claim that the church already is an alternate society – but that doesn’t preclude one from voting. I am always pleased when other Christians vote (or choose not to, in your case, perhaps) prayerfully and with their conscience, and carefully pry apart rhetoric in search of truth, as directed by both Jesus and Paul.

    I base my vote on how it might impact others as a result of its outcome – however small that impact might be. I find the “economic liberalism” you describe to be well and truly disastrous, and the upholding of the profit motive to be as – if not more – infectious to our moral good as the “social liberalism” you describe. The effects of big money in politics reek of the “powers and principalities” that Paul speaks of. My voting has been consistently, more than anything, against this.

    Meanwhile, I find that I can work towards common goals with people who, despite having individualistic and non-Christian views of the origins of morality, are interested in the well-being of others. I share the C. S. Lewis view of righteousness on the part of mistaken unbelievers: “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash…” Though there are plenty of problems caused by individual autonomy, there are people that espouse that belief while recognizing that problems are caused by it, and work to correct those problems!

    There are, of course, different opinions as to which of the two “liberalisms” are more problematic. (And I’m not sure that “liberalism” is the correct term, but fixing a term is far less important than fixing the problems.)

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  7. Jeff,
    I read this article immediately after I read your blog, so thought it would be good to share:
    http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?o=1000&blog_id=2&entry_id=5359

    I’ve always thought that not voting was a vote. True, it can be easily misinterpreted as a vote for the status quo, but it also may be a vote not to participate in a system rapidly losing its legitimacy.

    Anyway, I too, am planning to write-in David Brooks on my ballot. I’m going to the poll because I think the process is fun, but neither candidate is acceptable to me. I disagree with the commenter who suggested voting on competence. When you are heading in the wrong direction, competence is not a virtue.

    I’m going to be in Winston Salem for two weekends in October. Hopefully, we can catch up.

    David

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