Poor Mitt

Before yet another post, an apology to long-time readers for the overly political bent of the blog this week.  Please know that my continued goal is to write on a variety of topics.  With both the Republican and Democratic conventions happening right now, however, I feel that I should spend some time reflecting on the current state of the presidential race.

Along those lines, I–like many of you–watched Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last night.  I was again struck by the focused case the Republicans are attempting to make: they are the party of free enterprise, prosperity, and growth.  The Democrats and Barack Obama is not.  Re-electing the president will only increase the size of government, raise taxes, and make things worse.  The only way to correct the direction of the nation is to vote for Romney.

Whether or not you agree with them, this is in large part the position they are putting forth.  With a successful businessman and manager at the head of their ticket, you’d think they’d be making great headway in a time dominated by continued economic troubles and slow growth.  Not amongst diehards of either party, of course, but in the ranks of those in the middle who could and will support whoever they think will help most.  Specifics aside, you’d think it would be a no-brainer that the opposing party would be polling pretty well against the status quo.  But then there’s this chart:

Though Romney has been gaining ground, he’s been running behind President Obama pretty consistently.  Why?  I’ve considered a few reasons.  Let me know what you think:

  • Are bad memories of the George W. Bush years continuing to poison the Republican brand?
  • Is there lingering loyalty to the inspirational and “game-changing” Obama campaign of 2008, regardless of how it all as been perceived to work out?
  • More substantively, has there been a leftward shift in American political opinion from, say, center-right to center-left?
  • Do the particular policies of President Obama simply agree more with where Americans are right now?  Are issues other than economics just too important?
  • Are we as a nation simply unsure of change?
  • Is Mitt Romney far too stiff, patrician, rich, or otherwise incapable to connect with Americans?  Or, dare we say, too Mormon?

In an economic downturn such as this one, you’d think the other party–especially one dominated by a businessman–might be doing a lot better.  And I suspect they will.  Indeed, I suspect Romney has a better chance at winning than that the above chart might suggest.  We will see how the polls change in the next few days…and, importantly, after the Democrats their say next week.

What are your thoughts?

Ayn Rand for President?

At last night’s session of the Republican National Convention, we heard some well-delivered speeches by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.  The latter railed strongly against the Obama economic policies and “central planners” of our time.  While apparently some of his facts are in question (see here and here), he nevertheless performed strongly and delivered some real zingers.

While Paul Ryan is now a heroic figure to many on the conservative side, his appreciation of the conservative economic philosopher, social thinker, and atheist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) has caused some to wonder whether he is an appropriate choice for a party so heavily favored by people of religious faith.  The question of Ayn Rand and Jesus has been mentioned again and again.

I’ve just finished reading a recent biography of Rand entitled Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, written by University of Virginia historian Jennifer Burns.  I commend the book to you as a well-written, academic, yet accessible take on a fascinatingly strange woman of compelling ideas.  Though I’ve not read any of Rand’s work, based on my reading of her biography I’d have to agree that being a complete Randian and a Christian are mutually exclusive propositions. Rand was, to begin with, a rather militant atheist who felt that self-interest was the key to advancing society.  Altruism (in other words, a good deal of the stuff Jesus talks about) for her was a great flaw that derailed the course of prosperity and economic development.  All of this detail, of course, in the midst of a fascinating story about a woman with a complicated existence.

So then, is this an attack piece?  Am I saying that Paul Ryan should be avoided at all costs?  That because he has expressed an admiration for Rand that he is as thorough-going an atheist as she is?  No.  Holding free-market economic ideas similar to hers does not require the same personality or militant atheism; it is a completely acceptable position to have.  Being a capitalist or libertarian in varying degrees need not completely cast you out of Christian communion.  It does mean, however, that Ryan should be asked continued questions about how “Randian” he is.  How cold his ideas of competition, free-market policies, and self-interest really are, and whether his Catholic faith–and the Americans who would vote for him–are compatible with these beliefs.

Paul Ryan aside, one of the interesting things I’ve learned from reading Goddess of the Market is this: in contrast to what we normally hear about Communism being the great atheistic system in the world, Ayn Rand provides a clear example of militant capitalism being just as God-denying.  If two vastly dissimilar set of beliefs can be religiously united against Christianity, might they both not have the potentially for existing in a Christian fashion as well?

Christian Communism and Christian Capitalism.  Now that’s something to think about.

American Sacrifice

During his keynote address last night at the Republican National Convention, NJ Governor Chris Christie laid out a particular vision for America.  In short, it was the kind of economic perspective that headed very clearly in a direction regularly favored by the Republican party.

As he gave his speech, however, he sounded forth a theme that spoke on a different level: the theme of sacrifice.  Remembering his mother’s maxim that it is better to earn someone’s respect than have their love, Christie said that it was no longer time for pandering.  Hard truths needed to be given that would require Americans to make tough decisions for the common good of our country.

From the Republicans’ point of view, these hard choices and sacrifices mean that government needs to be smaller and thus do less for the average citizen.  State, local, and personal responsibility need to rise up in the place of what Christie and others consider an unwieldy, unbalanced, and unhealthy federal behemoth.

Yet at the same time I can’t help but think that the idea of sacrifice is one that Democrats could ask of Americans as well.  Instead of inviting us to forego government services, they might in their own way assert that for the good of country, taxes must go up.  From their point of view, for Americans to have the kind of society they ought, we must all give a little more.  For all Americans to have adequate healthcare, for example, hard choices need to continue to be made.

Though I don’t have his exact words in front of me, Christie last night basically said that the age of politicians telling us only what we wanted to hear needs to end.  Now.  That bread and circuses may satisfy for a moment, but will provide no long-term fix for the problems that face us.  Regardless of what direction we are asked to sacrifice, it is my hope that Republicans and Democrats alike, together with all citizens, might indeed think about tough decisions, hard choices, and necessary sacrifices in the times ahead.  Whatever direction we decide to move, we need to pay something for it.

It is a stark call and not one that we want to hear.  But it is definitely one we need to heed.

Abortion: A Word Fraught with Emotion

It is no secret that we live in a time of some pretty divided and acrimonious political debate.  As the presidential campaign barrels on to its conclusion in the next few months, we may very well find ourselves at the peak of division.  Economics, international affairs, domestic policies…they all have the potential to start major arguments around the dinner table and in the public square.

Perhaps the most immediately emotional and contentious, though, is the topic of abortion.  I think that people tend to have a gut reaction to the very word–often  one that can be quite strong.  As a nation we’ve thought a little more about the topic in the past few months, as the Susan G. Komen foundation sparked some controversy a little while back and a senatorial hopeful recently said some painfully stupid things.

I certainly have a stake in the debate (I would consider myself a person who is pro-life), but regardless of my position I think that the two main sides need to stop the trench warfare that has persisted for decades and consider some things.  So unwavering are positions on the subject that discussion often turns into angry venting, which though yielding psychological release is ultimately unhelpful.What I’m calling for is not agreement, but a little more understanding.  Consider:

  • Those on the “pro-choice” side of the debate assume that “pro-lifers” are simply out to control women’s bodies and deprive them of rights.  What they fail to deeply consider, however, is the fact that those who stand opposed to abortion really believe that it is the same as murder.  Since murder is considered one of the most severe human crimes and no one has the right to murder another person, it makes a great deal of sense why those in the pro-life camp argue as ardently as they do to stop the practice of abortion in the United States (over 1 million per year).  If someone was going around shooting teenagers in anywhere near these numbers, society would be up in arms.  Understanding the pro-life perspective on this issue helps to clarify what is at stake for them.
  • The pro-life camp, for its part, is often so strident and ultra-ist in its position that it fails to take into consideration some aspects of history and reality that complicate matters.  Roe v. Wade, after all, did not create abortion in American; it was happening long before that.  But it was sometimes unsafe, sometimes forced, and could often be linked together with a repressive patriarchal scheme.  Comments like those recently made by Todd Akin and positions on abortion that refuse to consider exceptions for medical reasons or in the case of rape only serve to alternately frighten and infuriate women who feel their agency is being denied because of a moral belief they’re not even close to holding.  Women have hard decisions to make, they will say, and philosophical or religious arguments they don’t agree with ought to have no say in those choices.  And so, as fiercely as they can, many in the pro-choice camp feel compelled to argue for the legality of all abortions for any reason.

In the midst of both positions, whose emotions and unyielding “ultra-ist” logic has drawn the lines in American culture, might there not be some room for understanding?  Might those who are pro-life, instead of sometimes going for “all or nothing,” agree that from a non-religious perspective abortions in the early days of pregnancy or in the cases of rape and the mother’s life might be a bit more of a grey area?  Might pro-choice partisans agree that because of the potential viability of the child in utero, later term abortions make little sense as well?

Conversations like this would certainly not paper over the disagreements and would absolutely not end the debate, but it might mean that we have more dialogue on a topic in which common sense ought to have more say than it does right now.  Yielding to such consensus means both sides need to give a little and realize that some progress for each is better than no progress at all.  In a certain sense, then, wouldn’t it be better for each side if we had less late term abortions AND protected abortion rights in ethical grey areas instead of “all or nothing?”

As a person who is pro-life, I wish I lived in a world where abortions didn’t happen and didn’t need to happen…but realizing that I live in a complex world, it would be encouraging to know that  we as a society could decrease the number of abortions by any number.

Bill Clinton is famous for once saying that he wanted abortion to be safe, legal, and rare.  Regardless of the political calculation in those words, isn’t that at least a starting point?

I welcome your comments.

Back to School

After a long summer hiatus, I’m picking up the mantle again on this, the first day of classes for the 2012-2013 academic year.  Like all the students who came to Northwest University in August 2011 for their first college term , I am now entering my sophomore year at the institution.  Everyone will tell you, of course, that sophomore means “wise fool,” an appellation I’m sure that I’ll earn at least once this semester.

Despite the changing business of education, its rising costs, and the inevitability of growth in the field of online education, I am glad to have a position at a traditional residential liberal arts institution.  There’s richness to be had here for students open to learn–both in the classroom and the many social spheres they will come to inhabit.

I’m watching some of them walk to their first 8am classes right now.  I’m a little jealous of all that’s ahead of them.

Education, despite the transactional model that continues to develop more and more in the collegiate world, is about much more than the accumulation of facts…more than simply checking off all of the boxes.  It is about becoming a new person.

Though admittedly cliched, I believe what I’m saying.  The difficult thing is, of course, that as their professor I’M the one at least partially responsible for helping all of this to happen.  And so, by grace of God, here’s Year II.

P.S.  Now that I’m back to posting regularly, stay tuned for discussions of faith, history, ministry, theology, and a little something called “Election 2012.”  See you tomorrow.