Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Race is On: The Theological and Human Issues in the 2012 Election

by John Shelby Spong

The nominating conventions for both parties are visible now only through the rearview window. The banners have been taken down, the balloons have fallen, the local bars are back to their normal patrons and the campaigns are now in full swing. The nominating conventions are actually a strange ritual, something of a dated hangover from our political past. The choice of the vice-president today is left up to the presidential nominee alone who taps the running mate. The last contested vice-presidential nomination came in 1956, again at the Democratic Convention, when presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson II, then the former governor of Illinois, threw the nomination of his running mate open to the convention without a recommendation. Senator Estes Kefauver won that spirited battle over two primary opponents, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Senator Al Gore Sr., of Tennessee.

Today, these conventions nominate no one. The nominees have normally been picked long before and are not only known, but have also been actively campaigning. These gatherings have become little more than political theater or “infomercials” and are used primarily to launch the campaign. They are carefully crafted to recognize all the special interest groups that gather around each party, to showcase either those rising star candidates seeking national office (one thinks of Ted Cruz, Republican senatorial nominee in Texas and Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senatorial nominee in Massachusetts) or to give a boost to a candidate deemed to be in a tight race. They also serve to introduce or re-introduce the nominees of each party and hopefully to frame the issues that will be at stake in the election.

I see the election of a president every four years as a time to read the cultural and political signs that tell me where my country is at that moment, what is happening to its values and dreams and where this nation appears to be headed. In 2012, the Democratic Convention endorsed gay marriage in its platform and in countless speeches. That means that on the issue of homosexuality this country has shifted its majority opinion dramatically in just eight years. Overt gay-bashing politics has thus gone the way of overt racist politics. Homophobia and racism are both still present, but neither is any longer socially acceptable unless well disguised. Today only code words are allowed.

Both campaigns featured women. Both showed off their elected female senators, governors and representatives. We listened to magnificent speeches made by the wives of the presidential nominees. I have a hard time imagining Pat Nixon or Bess Truman giving a speech!

As I look at America today, it seems to me that we are in a dramatic period of consciousness raising. It began to be visible in the campaign four years ago when among the serious and viable candidates for the presidency were a woman, a Hispanic, an African-American, a Mormon and a man who had been married three times. None of these would have been taken seriously twenty-five years earlier. Consciousness breakthroughs always produce a hostile reaction from those who feel displaced by the broadening of those who are considered acceptable for leadership. We are living with that reaction. The real issue to be measured in this year’s election is how rapidly we, as a people, will be able to embrace this new consciousness. One party says it focuses on individuality and freedom, the other on the quality of our corporate society and the corporate good. One party is rooted in the quality of leadership coming from traditional sources and it does not appear to be welcoming to newcomers. They value merit, ability and the kind of competitiveness that produces wealth. The other is rooted in a wider demographic pool, stressing openness to rising minorities.

One party is conservative because it values and wants to conserve the virtues of the past, which, it argues, have made us the great nation we are. The other party is liberal because it believes that all people must have equality of opportunity that will allow a steady influx into leadership of those, who have not been born into wealth and privilege, enabling merit to rise to the top of our political, economic and social pyramids. I think both emphases are needed. Conservatives need the challenge of new ideas and new people lest they become quickly dated and irrelevant. Liberals on the other hand, need the witness of the traditional values that conservatives espouse lest they become wide-eyed and kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

The nation is healthiest when elections are close. The minority must be strong enough to challenge and to rein in the excesses of the majority. Progress should come through the hard task of compromise. We are in danger of losing that in today’s polarized politics. Someone once observed, “politicians are like underwear; the only way you can keep them clean is to change them regularly.”

I worry most in this election about realities that are real, but unspoken. America is changing demographically. We are no longer a nation that is overwhelmingly of European ancestry. The non-white population is today right at the tipping point of 50%. How well this nation incorporates its Asian citizens, its Latino citizens and its African citizens into its body politic will go a long way in determining the stability of our nation. The fact that we have elected an Afro-American male to the White House was a signal accomplishment. The fact that his citizenship, his legitimacy and even his place of birth are regularly challenged indicates that racism is still alive, hiding below the surface in America.

When a consciousness shift in our national self-identification occurs there is always anxiety, anger and sometimes violence. Today, minorities are rising, women are rising, gay and lesbian people are rising; but fear is also rising. Political gridlock, the inability to compromise, is a manifestation of this fear. When members of either party put political victory ahead of the well being of the nation, that is a danger sign.

The yellow light flashing a warning sign in this year’s election is twofold. One is the result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the case known as “Citizens United.” That decision opened the floodgates to individuals and corporations to give unlimited money to a campaign without having to disclose the donor names. The effect is to maximize the power of the vote of the wealthy and to minimize the power of the vote of the poor. One person, one vote is compromised. The second is the attempt by various methods to suppress, handicap or stop the elderly, the poor, the young and minorities from voting. Special ID is a modern poll tax. Its purpose is nothing less that to disenfranchise voters.  It is an expression of great fear.

I hope this nation will move to correct both of these assaults on democracy. America is too precious an experiment to allow the integrity of a vote to be challenged. An election that ends not with a winner, but with a court challenge reveals a nation in trouble.


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