The Reveal

William J. (Bill) Bennett served as Secretary of Education and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Reagan and as Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy under President H.W. Bush. After leaving public service, Bennett has been best known for his publication of two collections of stories of moral instruction—The Book of Virtues in 1993 and The Moral Compass in 1995. These books were very well received at a time when many Americans had long perceived a trend of moral decline in American culture, and particularly when the President of the United States at that time, Bill Clinton, had exhibited acute moral deficiencies.

In 1998, Bennett wrote The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals. Speaking for the “loyal opposition” and for what had come to be known as the “Religious Right,” Bennett argued that, though the Clinton presidency had enjoyed popularity during a period of relative peace and prosperity, the real issue to be considered was the president’s facilitation of the nation’s moral decline. The book’s central message was summed up as it cited the words of John Updike: “The fact that we still live well cannot ease the pain of feeling that we no longer live nobly.”

“In the end” Bennett wrote, “the president’s apologists are attempting to redefine the standard of acceptable behavior for a president. Instead of upholding a high view of the office and the men who occupy it, they radically lower our expectations.” It is appropriate that Bennett used the word “our,” for his own expectations have been so lowered that he is now an apologist for Donald Trump. As Bennett recently explained to FOX News, those who refuse to support Trump “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” It appears that it was never really about the moral integrity of the president at all. It was, as it continues to be, about factional politics and Bennett’s and like-minded others’ reactionary worldview.

Most interesting is the split among evangelical Christians that has emerged from Donald Trump’s candidacy. While perhaps most Christians are rejecting Trump because of his moral vacancy and/or his irrational understanding of the world, others have not. In fact, a great many self-described Christians—some in prominent positions, like Bennett—are actively supporting his candidacy.

Christian author Eric Metaxas, for example, has espoused Trump’s election so that he might appoint the next two or three Supreme Court justices. But surely Metaxas is aware enough to recognize that those appointments would unlikely result in a reversal of Roe-v-Wade or gay marriage (as we can assume he wishes). Even if those reversals did occur in some distant future, that would only allow the states to pass or not pass their own prohibitions, and we know that not all states would prohibit abortion. Women could then travel to the states where it was available or to Canada. Some, of course, would not be able to afford the cost of travel and would either give birth to unwanted children into poverty or seek illegal (and dangerous) abortions, while only a minimal number of healthy babies would be adopted into stable families. A reversal of gay marriage, on the other hand, would be completely futile. Given that more and more people are coming to recognize that homosexuality is not simply “a lifestyle choice,” most all states would soon legalize gay marriage anyway. So that really just leaves us with a preference for Trump’s policy proposals on immigration, international trade, foreign policy, defense, taxes and regulation—policies that, in many instances, run counter to traditional Christian values.

We need not detail the many problems with Trump’s proposed defense policies beyond noting that an isolationist stance, an official sanctioning of torture, and a weakening of NATO will hardly make America safe, much less great. It is also worth noting that if Trump can be so easily manipulated by Billy Bush (as proclaimed by Melania), then we can well imagine what Putin and other world leaders could do (beyond what we have already seen).

Trump’s tax policy is nothing new. It’s essentially the same philosophy as that of George W. Bush, just much more extreme. Though a reduction in corporate taxes could be of some benefit, his personal income tax proposal won’t help the poor or reduce income and wealth disparity. It also won’t help the economy, since it would explode the deficit and national debt to dangerous proportions. And it won’t prevent the next recession, just as it didn’t from 2007 to 2009.

The notion that regulations have shackled the American economy, as Trump claims, is mostly false. His regulatory policies would increase the risk of another financial crisis and, perhaps most importantly, his denial of well-founded science will likely prove detrimental to the wellbeing of future generations of Americans and vulnerable populations around the world.

Trump would repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, not because its problems are irreparable, but because his disdain for President Obama far exceeds his compassion for those who struggle to afford health insurance.

Of course Trump’s first and signature policy proposal—immigration reform—is not just irrational, it, along with his trade and foreign policy proposals, were conceived from a particularly un-Christian, xenophobic worldview. Trump imagines that illegal Mexican immigrants are “pouring across the border” and he intends to stop it with a great wall. The net flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico is actually currently near zero. Illegal immigrants come from many other nations, and a wall would have little effect. He imagines that illegal immigrants are increasing crime and come for government handouts. The reality is that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than the general population, and come for available jobs, not handouts. We do tend to pay for their use of emergency room services and public schools, but would any true follower of Jesus really deny poor children an education and medical treatment?

Perhaps the two most important Biblical mandates for how Christians are to interact with others in the world are to be compassionate and merciful, and to spread the Gospel. Trump’s immigration and refugee policies reject both. To prohibit Muslim refugees demonstrates a lack of compassion and it precludes the Christian duty to proclaim the Good News to those who haven’t had an opportunity to hear it.

We can dismiss Donald Trump’s sophomoric insults and his boasts about his adultery and assaulting women as “locker-room banter,” or we can see them as indicators of an underlying true character—a character that has been well illustrated over the course of his campaign to be childish, selfish, thin-skinned, vindictive, impatient, shallow, unprincipled, dishonest, iniquitous and racist. Of course it is no accident that white supremacists favor Trump for president, while, despite Clinton’s deficiencies, nearly two hundred prominent Republican current and former office holders, senior government officials, and intellectuals do not. So why do some Christians?

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The GOP Brought This Upon Itself, With a Little Help From Obama

We hear a lot about the consternation of the Republican Party “establishment” as a result of the rise in popularity of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Worse yet is that one of them could become their party’s candidate for the presidency. It seems that long-time power players and office holders have been caught by surprise. But it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We can see how the Republican Party has brought this upon itself, with, of course, a little help from President Obama and a largely vacuous press.

Here are a few reasons why Trump and Cruz are so attractive to a great many people in the Republican Party “base.” The first is mostly a natural consequence, while the others have resulted in more of a self-inflicted reverberation.

Firstly, these two men tend to attract those people whom social scientists refer to as “authoritarians.” The concept of an authoritarian personality is not exclusively applicable to politics. It’s more fundamental. But the associated traits do affect political leanings. And not all Republicans or conservatives are authoritarians, but many are—and they are drawn to leaders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

An authoritarian personality is characterized by a tendency to understand most all things in terms of absolutes and to fit them into tidy categories. Such as, good or evil; Or government programs are always wasteful; One race or culture is superior to all others; Illegal immigrants come for government hand-outs; Poverty is usually the result of a lack of initiative, etc. Authoritarians abhor nuance or ambiguity, rely heavily upon emotion and instinct, and tend to shun any new information that might compromise a strongly held belief (often a preferred belief). They are distrustful of outsiders and very passionate about defending their beliefs, their group, and their leaders. Two extreme manifestations of these traits are the Militia and Tea Party movements.

Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and drug dealers and to prohibit Muslims from entering the country are well fitted to these simplistic, xenophobic tendencies. Ted Cruz’s passionate claims of absolute good and evil, and the certainty of his antigovernment ideology make him attractive to the disaffected—those who feel put-upon by the strain of civic responsibility.

These are largely natural consequences—the products of basic, though regrettable, human nature. But the title of this essay refers to other reasons why so many people think that Trump and Cruz are viable candidates for the presidency. They are the unintended result of several decades of incessantly exaggerated and often false claims by, usually, the GOP and the “conservative” talking heads of radio and television, and by the cynicism and distrust of government fostered by the behavior of members of Congress.

For many decades the Republican Party was mostly the minority party in both houses of Congress. As the opposition party, members were free to criticize the actions of the majority without the responsibility of actually governing. The criticism of Democrats and government became particularly exaggerated with the rise of Newt Gingrich in Congress and Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the early 1990s. Even when Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they were in opposition to the Bill Clinton presidency.

People often complain about how newly elected politicians change when they get to Washington. They invariably fail to do what they had promised. Of course, the reality is that when politicians are confronted with the requirements and the constraints of actually governing, they are usually unable to fulfill the unrealistic promises of their campaigns. Similarly, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in the 2000s, many people were disappointed with the result. They didn’t fix Social Security. They didn’t reign in healthcare inflation. They didn’t stop illegal immigration. They didn’t win the “culture war.” Most significantly, they not only didn’t shrink the government, they significantly expanded the size and the reach of government. As a result, something of a split emerged between the Republican Party “establishment” and so-called “true conservatives.” The stage was set for the Tea Party movement.

The financial crisis at the end of the Bush presidency, the Great Recession, and the election of President Obama only made things worse—much worse. The necessary bailouts of financial institutions by both the Bush and the Obama Administrations was puzzling to many. They felt like the fat cats were being protected at the expense of the average guy, and besides, they had long subscribed to the notion that government was the problem, not the solution. They didn’t like the bailouts at all, and they blamed the “career politicians” or “the establishment” of both parties.

When Republicans lost both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2008, they sought to channel that anger toward President Obama and the Democrats, and they largely succeeded. Here is where we can blame Obama. While pretty good at giving speeches, the president proved to be really awful as a leader and effectively communicating with those people whom he most needed to reach—the mostly working-class white men who didn’t vote for him. Not only has he been unable to competently wield political power in working with Republicans in Congress, he has enabled the opposition to control the narrative and to disseminate an abundance of disinformation.

Meanwhile, Republicans had little interest in working with the president. They just wanted to regain power. As President Obama began his term in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that his number one priority was not to rescue the financial system, not to create jobs or to restore the economy, but to ensure that Obama would be a one-term president. Subsequent events showed that sentiment to be widespread among Republicans in Congress.

In January 2010, Senate Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad crafted a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force to alleviate the national debt problem. The task force’s recommendations would be sent to the Senate floor for a “fast-track” up-or-down vote. The proposal garnered widespread bipartisan support, until President Obama offered his support too. Because it could have been politically beneficial to the president, Republicans changed their positions, including seven co-sponsors of the resolution who allowed a filibuster to kill their own idea. Fred Hiatt, of the Washington Post, wrote of Mitch McConnell’s change of position, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved. But here’s one that comes close.”

After serving as a Republican congressional staffer for some twenty-eight years—the last sixteen as a senior analyst for the House and Senate budget committees—Mike Lofgren resigned in exasperation in 2011. Among the many observations he revealed was this:

A couple of years ago a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) that there was a method to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government—i.e., the Republican Party—will come out the relative winner.

In 2011, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner negotiated a “Grand Bargain” in which a combination of tax increases and spending cuts would substantially reduce the deficit and avert a crisis over the debt ceiling. The package included entitlement reforms that Republicans had sought for many years, and which would have been difficult for Obama to persuade the Democrats to accept. The Grand Bargain was a grand compromise that would have been hugely beneficial to the nation, both immediately and long term. At the urging of Paul Ryan, however, Majority Leader Eric Cantor scuttled the deal primarily for two reasons—any tax hikes at all would taint their ideological purity, and they believed a compromise agreement with Obama might help his reelection.

The irony is that Obama was reelected anyway and Cantor was defeated in 2014 by a (Tea Party) primary opponent after radio personality Laura Ingraham, along with Ann Coulter, had accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Of course no one in Congress, including Eric Cantor, had proposed or supported amnesty. Such is the power of disinformation in American politics.

Disinformation abounds because the press has too often failed in its responsibility to inform the public of the facts. While partisan outlets, such as FOX News, MSNBC and Talk Radio, make great profit (FOX anyway) by offering their patrons ample doses of a preferred, but imagined, reality, legitimate press outlets find themselves wanting for viewers or readers. What Sarah Palin calls the “lame-stream” press is so afraid of being accused of a “liberal bias” that they merely report the claims of two sides of a debate without bothering to parse out and report the truth, even if the claim of one side or the other is dangerous or ridiculous. As Paul Krugman quipped, “if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet’.” And if FOX News repeated the claim often enough, a great many people would believe it.

The cynicism fostered by obstructionist members of Congress and the misconceptions fostered by disinformation from congressmen and conservative radio and television has produced an angry and misinformed portion of the electorate that is apt to believe the wildest claims—like Donald Trump’s claim that, as a better manager and negotiator, he can “make America great again” (as if America isn’t great now), or Ted Cruz’s claims that the national debt is a result of “Obama’s out-of-control spending” (the rate of growth in discretionary spending during the Obama presidency has been the lowest since Eisenhower), that climate change is a hoax, that “Obamacare is a job-killer” (unemployment has dropped from 9 to 4.9 percent since its enactment) and has caused premiums to “skyrocket” (medical inflation remains near historic lows), that “millions have lost their health insurance” (the uninsured rate is now the lowest in history), that “Blue Cross Blue Shield cancelled all their individual policies in Texas” (I still have one), that Obama has “degraded our military,” that the president “ignores our immigration laws” (Obama has deported more people than any other president), Syrian refugees are entering the U.S. without “any meaningful background checks,” and the truly idiotic claim that a flat tax is the remedy for an overly complex tax code.

To tap into a populist mindset by appealing to fear and emotion and to less educated voters, the Republican Party has taken to dumbing down its narrative and agenda, at times completely abandoning rationality. No longer the party of Barry Goldwater who brought Planned Parenthood to Arizona or George H.W. Bush who chaired a Republican task force on population issues, the party now acts as if abortion has little to do with unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. To protect coal mining constituents and to avoid regulation of any sources of greenhouse emissions, they deny the science of climate change. To protect their hold on ill-informed religious conservatives, they either eschew or deny the findings of evolutionary science. To attract gun “enthusiasts,” they pretend that gun ownership is a practical means of self defense, while stoking fear of gun safety laws. To avoid driving away xenophobes, they refuse to pass sensible immigration reform and, instead, cynically mischaracterize the character and aspirations of immigrants. In place of the intellectually sound party of Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol, the Republican Party has become the anti-intellectual party, where the word “elite” is a pejorative. It has become the party of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin (who is pretty sure that Paul Revere rode to “warn the British that they weren’t gonna be takin away our arms”), and now of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Of course the Democrats have their own problems—problems that require wholly different explanations. Among them are, like on the Republican side, the primary process pulls them too far to the extreme, and so few Democrats are willing to go through the ordeal of running for president, they are left with two extraordinarily weak candidates. There is no shortage of Republican candidates, but because of the irresponsibility of their party’s culture, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that competent candidates are rejected while it is Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who are preferred by a substantial portion of their party’s electoral base.

The Second Amendment

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

James Madison is surely rolling over in his grave with consternation and regret for his wording of the Second Amendment. It is perhaps the most misunderstood and most contentious clause in the United States Constitution.

It seems quite reasonable to assume, just as the Supreme Court recently ruled, that the Amendment refers to individual gun ownership. After all, with the exception of the 10th, every other Amendment in the Bill of Rights is intended to protect the rights of individuals from the restraints or the excesses of government. Furthermore, given that Madison explicitly stated the purpose of the established “right of the people to keep and bear arms,” that stated purpose must inform us as to the nature of those arms for which the Amendment was intended—those “necessary to the security of a free state.”

The Second Amendment, as written, appears to grant individuals a right to own the weapons necessary to defend the nation—not just handguns and hunting rifles, but assault rifles with high-capacity magazines, machine guns, hand-grenades, RPGs, bazookas, flamethrowers, tanks, missiles, Apache attack helicopters, as well as chemical, biological, and even nuclear “arms.” While Madison did refer to “a well regulated militia,” he did not mention any regulation of the “arms” individuals have a right to possess. Of course when Madison penned the language of the Amendment, the only arms available were single-shot rifles, very inaccurate single-shot pistols, and a few small canons. Evidently Madison didn’t foresee the development of complex armaments or didn’t think through the dangers of individual ownership of such weaponry. We can expect that Madison would be utterly dismayed at our nation’s inability to correct this oversight.

Of course the Supreme Court has repeatedly disputed the claim that we have a constitutional right to own any kind of armaments we might want. In the 1875 case of United States v. Cruikshank, the court ruled that the Second Amendment “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government,” leaving state and local governments free to restrict firearm ownership. The court reiterated this view in an 1886 case, Pressler v. Illinois, ruling that the Amendment “is a limitation only upon the power of Congress and the National government, and not upon the states.” In United States v Miller in 1939, the Court cited the Militia Clause of the Amendment, concluding that “[i]n the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a [sawed-off] shotgun … has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

After the Miller case, most federal courts presumed that the Second Amendment was intended to preserve the authority of the states to maintain militias, not a right of individual citizens. However in a 2007 case, Parker v. District of Columbia, the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts struck down local gun regulations for the first time, basing its ruling on an individual’s right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Then in a 2010 case, the Court extended that precedent by declaring that basic Second Amendment rights supersede the authority of all state and local governments, just like other rights described in the Bill of Rights, as ensured by the Fourteenth Amendment. While striking down the D.C. statute, the opinion authored by Antonin Scalia declared that the right to keep and bear arms continues to be, nevertheless, subject to regulation.

Despite Justice Scalia’s famously describing himself as an “originalist” (meaning he interprets the Constitution according to how it would have been applied at the time of its writing), his opinion pretty clearly illustrates that he, like the other justices, is affected by modern politics. Ignoring the Militia Clause, Scalia’s opinion stated that the D.C. ban on handgun possession violated the Second Amendment because it prohibited an entire class of arms favored for the purpose of personal self-defense. “Self-defense” is, of course, the justification most commonly cited by political advocacy groups who object to most any firearm regulations because the idea induces an emotional response that can undermine rational perception.

Some people believe that the Second Amendment was intended to ensure that the people could rise up against the federal government if it becomes too oppressive. They presume that the Constitution is so irrational that it affirms war against itself as a crime—Article III: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them”—and then grants its citizens permission to do so with the Second Amendment. Nonsense. As Abraham Lincoln aptly noted in his first inaugural address, “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”

The Founders feared that a standing army could be used by the federal government to oppress the people, as was then common among the armies of monarchs. So the use of militias instead of a standing army was thought by some to be preferable. Militias would be used to defend the nation and its government, not used to oppose the government. But even at the time of the writing of the Bill of Rights, that notion had already proven to be misguided. Having personally witnessed the ineffectiveness of militias, George Washington wrote in a letter to the Continental Congress that, “To place any dependence upon militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff.” The United States has had a standing army ever since, fortunately with very few instances of it being used to oppress the people.

Aside from any questions regarding the original intent of the Second Amendment, the American gun culture has fostered considerable confusion about the practicality of gun ownership and the usefulness of laws intended to promote gun safety. At the urging of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1996, Arkansas congressman Jay Dickey introduced an amendment that stopped the funding of scientific studies of gun safety conducted by the National Center For Injury Prevention, a division of the Centers for Disease Control. In 2011, congressional Republicans further restricted funding by also applying the Dickey Amendment to funding for the National Institutes of Health. (Now retired from Congress, Mr. Dickey has expressed regret for his role in the matter.) Despite NRA attempts to hide the truth, enough studies have been conducted to debunk gun industry and NRA propaganda and to reveal some of the pernicious effects of an abundance of guns upon American society.

The biggest myth propagated by the gun culture is the idea that gun ownership is a reliable means of self-defense. If you are a drug dealer, an inner-city gangster, or if you live in an unusually crime infested neighborhood plagued by home invasions, then perhaps a gun could be of some benefit—but probably not, since it would more likely be stolen than used for defense. Studies have clearly shown that for each occurrence of a gun kept in the home being used to injure or kill in self-defense, such a gun is used in 11 attempted or successful suicides, 7 criminal assaults or homicides, and 4 accidental shootings. That’s about a 22 to 1 chance that a gun kept in the home will kill or injure someone other than an intruder.

Some have suggested that the mere presence of a gun deters crime and, therefore, wouldn’t be accounted for with studies of gun injuries and deaths. There is no evidence that the two-thirds of American households without guns experience higher rates of crime than those with guns. In fact, a 2003 study found that counties with higher levels of households with guns have higher rates of burglaries, not lower. This could merely be the result of higher-crime areas inducing people to buy guns for protection. It also illustrates how so many criminals acquire their weapons by stealing them from people who think owning a gun is a good idea.

Some suggest that the increasing number of mass shootings in the United States is not the result of a culture of easily accessible and abundant guns, but instead, of too few guns. They proclaim that if everyone were armed, any mass shooter could be promptly neutralized. While in some circumstances an armed citizenry could likely stop an attacker, in many others the chaos would undoubtedly be exacerbated. In a column entitled “The ‘Good Guy With a Gun’ Myth,” combat veteran James Hatch wrote that even highly trained and experienced military professionals often have difficulty determining “who’s who in the zoo” in a firefight. Just imagine a crowded theater or concert hall with 10, 20, or 30 armed citizens when the bullets start flying.

The uncompromising passion of gun advocates and the defensiveness of the gun industry have elicited wholly irrational reactions to any discussion at all of gun safety measures. After having spent his entire adult life writing for gun magazines and describing himself as a “Second Amendment fundamentalist,” 67-year-old Dick Metcalf was fired from Guns & Ammo Magazine for writing that “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” Metcalf had concluded that a requirement of 16 hours of training to obtain a concealed carry license was not an infringement. A number of other writers for guns and hunting magazines have similarly found themselves in trouble with gun industry advertisers for any mention of sensible regulation.

Most irrational is the hold the NRA and other gun lobbyists have on a great many members of Congress. In addition to basic common sense, two recent studies have provided evidence suggesting that background checks for gun purchases can curb violence—or at least background checks that are associated with licensing permits. A 1995 Connecticut law requiring permits (and with them, background checks) was associated with a 40 percent reduction in homicides and a 15 percent drop in suicides. Obviously an association is not proof of cause and effect, but we can certainly reason that making it more difficult for felons and the mentally impaired to obtain weapons and reducing the lethality of those weapons will reduce homicides and suicides. Nevertheless, Congress has repeatedly failed to restrain the availability of assault weapons with high-capacity magazines or to impose background checks on gun show or Internet purchases of firearms, despite the wishes of an overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners. (A recent Quinnipac University poll showed that 93 percent of Americans, including 92 percent of gun owners, prefer universal background checks.)

It seems that the gun industry and members of Congress are perfectly willing to imply that the United States is somehow inferior to all other nations—that we can do nothing to reduce our overwhelming lead among nations in gun violence. But then again, perhaps if we, as a society, come to recognize that we have been duped by the gun lobby and those members of Congress who do their bidding, then we can begin to hold them accountable and to shed such a shameful distinction.

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Since 1968, more Americans have been killed by private gun violence than were killed in all U.S. wars combined, from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam, and the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Pundifact/Politifact)

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A few of the faces of those who were murdered by Adam Lanza, the son of gun-enthusiast Nancy Lanza, using her Bushmaster XM15-E2S assault rifle.

The Party of Jesus?

In nineteenth-century America, through the Great Depression, and into the early 1960s, politically active Christians tended to be aligned with the causes of the political Left. They fought to end slavery. They fought for an end to child labor. They fought for a minimum wage, limited working hours, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and the right to unionize. They fought for women’s suffrage. Just as James Madison had explained in the Federalist Papers, they believed that civil government could be utilized as an instrument of social justice, where the rights and the well-being of the weak, as well as the strong, could be protected. Their belief that the use of civil government to provide support for the poor seemed to them well fitted to Jesus’ mandate that we provide for “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Since the 1970s and 80s, however, the political sentiments of many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, have more often been associated with the Republican Party and, thus, the political Right. While a comprehensive explanation of this transition would be too lengthy for this post, we can at least point to a few significant factors.

The turbulent and rebellious 1960s spawned a cultural revolution that was rather unsettling to many Americans. Newfound expressions of sexual freedom and feminist causes were particularly objectionable to conservative Christians. While the Democratic Party mostly sought to embrace the liberal idea of individual liberty in matters of personal lifestyle, the Republican Party mostly did not. The natural result was that the Republican Party became more attractive to Christians.

The “southern strategy,” implemented by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and most effectively by Ronald Reagan, was an election strategy based on exploiting racist attitudes in the southern states, but its momentum nevertheless helped to transform the South more generally. The South came to no longer feel any particular obligation to the Democratic Party as a legacy of the Civil War era. Since the so-called “Bible belt” runs across the South, a great many Christians were included among those who had broken a habit of supporting the Democratic Party. President Reagan then bolstered the attractiveness of his party among Christians with his strong opposition to abortion and his eloquent expressions of lamenting the widely perceived decline of “traditional values.”

Another Christian tradition that aligns well with Republican ideology is that of individual responsibility and, thus, individual liberty and prosperity. The roots of this tradition are found in Protestantism, particularly its Calvinistic branch. Historians have argued that the cultural value of individualism and personal achievement have been instrumental benefits in enabling prosperity among the northern Protestant nations of Europe, and of North America.

There are other cultural and psychological factors that help to explain why so many Christians feel an allegiance to the Republican Party and its conservative ideology. Many are consistent with traditional Christian moral values. But any analysis of Republican ideology and its alignment with Christian principles must include a discussion of a pervasive worldview among today’s Republicans—a worldview that largely underpins the party’s political philosophy and virtually all of its policy positions, whether domestic social policy, economic policy, immigration policy or foreign policy—a worldview that, I will argue, is undeniably at odds with the views of Jesus, as reported in the Gospels.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been described by many, in recent years, as the intellectual leader of the Republican Party. As chairman of the House budget committee, his budgets (always adopted by the Republican majority) established him as the ideological leader of the party as well. His budgets have reflected his ideological worldview—a worldview he has said was primarily shaped by economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and more particularly by novelist Ayn Rand. Though he denied it when vying for a chance to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, an audio recording of Congressman Ryan at a gathering of The Atlas Society confirmed what he had said many times before: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” Rand’s books are required reading for Ryan’s staff and interns. (Rand’s books are popular among a number of other Republican office holders as well as with conservative radio personalities too.) It is Rand’s view of economics that most interests Congressman Ryan, but her economic philosophy cannot logically be separated from her broader view of humanity.

Rand was an outspoken atheist who described Arabs and Native Americans as “savages,” and expressed her view that, as such, the latter should have no rights. She objected to any government programs to help the poor. She was particularly repulsed by programs for educating disabled, or as she put it, “subnormal,” children. She famously told Mike Wallace in a 1959 interview that she believed altruism to be evil, while selfishness a virtue, as it is the necessary driving force of capitalism. Fundamentally, Ayn Rand saw humanity as consisting of virtuous self-reliant people and inferior and/or slothful people. Her social and economic philosophies presumed a struggle between “producers” and “moochers.”

Of course this worldview didn’t enter the Republican Party with Paul Ryan. As part of his “southern strategy” Ronald Reagan repeatedly spoke of “welfare queens” who drink martinis and drive Cadillacs while receiving welfare checks. There had been an infamous case of welfare fraud in the news that roughly fit that characterization. But as politicians usually do, Reagan used it to paint a broader picture in propagating the notion that taxes are high because too many undeserving moochers are suckling from government teats.

More recently, Mitt Romney expressed a similar view—a view that voters will act exclusively in their own immediate personal interest—when he suggested that 47 percent of the American electorate direct their votes toward simply gaining more benefits for themselves from government coffers. Of course Romney wasn’t completely wrong. Most Americans do tend to put personal interests ahead of the national interest in choosing their preferred candidates. But that is true of all sides of the political spectrum. Consequently candidates always promise government benefits, tax cuts, or both, believing it will help them get elected. This ongoing problem is a symptom of a failure of effective and constructive leadership. It is regrettable that Romney could evidently see only one side of that equation.

Deriding moochers is also a sentiment regularly expressed on AM talk radio and FOX News. FOX attempted to denied it, but their strategy of vilifying “moochers,” as they endeavor to define the political Left, was pretty well illustrated (even if not an objective analysis) by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central as seen here.

It should not be a surprise to anyone, therefore, that when Donald Trump made the (demonstrably false) claim that Mexico was “sending rapists and drug dealers” across the border, a great many Republican voters saw his assertion as valid. Never mind that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than American citizens generally, and come to the U.S. primarily to fill available jobs (a natural consequence of supply and demand). Never mind that children come as refugees from horribly dangerous circumstances in Central America. (Jesus was a child refugee too, of course, as His family fled the violence of Herod.) Trump’s assertion well fits the ideological worldview of “us versus them”—of patriots and parasites.

Since none of the dire predictions of catastrophic side effects of the Affordable Care Act have come to pass, the continuing vehement Republican opposition to the ACA as a whole (rather than simply repairing its flaws) can only be attributed to an opposition to the subsidies and the taxes that pay for them—the public assistance to those who otherwise cannot afford health insurance. It is evidently thought that such people are undeserving of our assistance. (Though another explanation could be that pride simply prevents an admission that President Obama has done something worthwhile.)

Very often the sentiment of “us versus them” is much more subtle and, instead of moochers and producers, it is manifest as a hierarchical view of society. Republican economic policy, for example, hinges on the idea that capital is paramount to labor (or supply paramount to demand) in the function of capitalism. As Republicans speak of “job creators” they tend to assume that employment is merely the result of the activity of producers, with little recognition of the fundamental role and needs of the labor from which demand arises. Republicans decry what they call the “death tax” (inheritance tax), supposing no particular obligation to the society that enabled an accumulation of wealth, while assenting to more of a financially aristocratic society. Similarly, patriotism morphs into a nationalism that supposes our nation can do no wrong. After President Obama expressed regret for some of the errors of the United States in a speech in Cairo at the beginning of his term, Republicans have ever since accused him of going around the world apologizing for America, as if, contrary to the teaching of Jesus, humility is a regrettable vice.

There is no doubt that there are a great many unscrupulous and unmotivated people in the world who resent others who have prospered as a result of initiative and hard work, and many of them are aligned with the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party too often confuses the goal of fairness of opportunity with a redistribution of wealth. But an ideology that presumes people are poor because of a lack of initiative is not an ideology informed of reality. More to the point of this post, it is not an ideology that Jesus would recognize as grounded in Godly thinking.

There is no indication in Scripture that Jesus saw the poor as mere slackers. On the contrary—the Gospels tell us that Jesus spoke of the poor in the most sympathetic terms. “…the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5) Throughout the Gospels Jesus expressed grace toward the poor and the disabled, and implored us to provide for them. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20-21) When the tax collector Zacchaeus told Jesus that he would give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times any amount he may have cheated anyone, Jesus told him that his salvation was assured. (Luke 19:1-9) This does not necessarily mean that giving to the poor secures one’s salvation, but it is a clear proclamation that such behavior is a measure of one’s faithfulness to God.

Some of us may prefer to believe that private philanthropic initiatives are sufficient, or even more effective than the use of civil government, as we might envision the political struggle in America as one of redistributing wealth, rather than one of ensuring fairness of opportunity. But let’s face it—the worldview of many in today’s Republican Party can be aligned with the views of Jesus only if somehow we imagine that Jesus spent His days among us complaining about how moochers would inherit the earth.

The Politics of Fear

Well understanding how fear, as a powerful motivating force, can induce irrationality in the arena of public sentiment and public policy, President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared in his first inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Indeed, America has seen some rather infamous manifestations of this when, for example, Roosevelt himself ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and with two so-called Red Scares—one shortly after the Russian Revolution, in which President Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Americans for their political beliefs, and then another after World War II, in which the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the committees of Senator Joseph McCarthy imagined widespread Communist infiltration of the United States government and sought to ruin the lives of so-called “Communist sympathizers” and anyone associated with them.

Of course, fear in the arena of politics is not always irrational. Those conscientious Germans who feared the rise of Nazism were certainly justified. A fear that our federal government will be unable to implement a more sustainable fiscal policy before a damaging fiscal crisis occurs is not without some foundation either. But among politicians, the peddlers of fear are very often unconcerned with informed and rational conviction. They just want to win. So they seek to exploit fear that can be induced by deception.

Fear is very often a product of uncertainty and, particularly when accompanied by its companion—loathing—a product of ignorance or misunderstanding. Politicians and political advocates of all stripes routinely make exaggerated claims and use quotes or data out of context to incite conviction for their cause among constituents who lack a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. They not only induce fear of the effects of alternative points of view through subtle or even not so subtle deception, they often succeed in demonizing the advocates of those alternative points of view. Once a political figure is sufficiently demonized, people are apt to fear and believe that they are capable of a multitude of evils.

All Americans, whether they may tilt to the political Left or the political Right, are vulnerable to the politics of fear. It can be said that those on the Left tend to fear corporate greed and malfeasance, overpopulation, global warming, pollution, government intrusion into personal matters, war or an unwarranted use of military force, and the agricultural use of pesticides, hormones and genetic engineering. It shouldn’t be suggested that these things are not important and should not be of concern, but there is little doubt that their pernicious effects can be exaggerated, resulting in irrational fear among some.

On the Right, fear resulting from uncertainty, or fear of uncertainty itself (or at least an uneasiness with uncertainty), may be an integral part of what induces one to lean to the Right to begin with.  A Stanford University social psychology study, encompassing some fifty years of data and published in 2003, concluded as much:

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

By “endorsement of inequality,” the authors appear to have merely meant that conservative thought is in acceptance of inequality as the necessary price to pay for the preservation of its perceived natural order of society.

We might easily dismiss such a study as the psychobabble of liberal university professors, but we need not look very far to see that many on the Right quite readily respond to the politics of fear. We certainly cannot assume that everyone who holds conservative political views does so as a result of fear. There are some very practical and principled reasons to hold conservative views. Nevertheless, we can find quite an abundance of behavior and convictions motivated by fear on the Right.

Have you ever wondered why all of those purveyors of minted gold coins as an “investment against inflation” find such fertile ground on Fox News and on AM (conservative) Talk Radio? While such coins might be fun to collect, they are a horrible investment. These proprietors are capitalizing on an underlying fear that the economy might suddenly collapse and/or that run-away inflation will ensue (particularly with that “socialist” Obama at the helm). On these venues, Glenn Beck in particular has been a successful merchant of the fear of economic collapse and massive inflation.

Among those on the Right, we also find fears of government intrusion into our businesses and societal or religious choices, government incompetence, very competent government wickedness (ironically), socialism (being asked to contribute to the benefit of undeserving people), illegal immigrants, foreign invasion or subversion, the U.N. and the possibility of a one-world-government (villainous black helicopters and such), drones, religious persecution, losing one’s cultural or religious identity (the so-called Culture Wars), gun confiscation, crime, men of other races, homosexuals and gay marriage, sharia law (this danger appears greatest in the state of Oklahoma), Common Core, and the possibility that President Obama is a socialist, Muslim, or even the Anti-Christ. If you find yourself on mailing lists resulting from having given to Republican campaigns, you’ll likely see emails from a variety purveyors of survivalist supplies taking advantage of fearful and gullible people. One need only have a couple of Right-leaning friends or family members who forward circulating emails to witness a pervasive sentiment of impending doom resulting from the deceitful and nefarious motives of President Obama and the Left.

It is little wonder then, that when the Democrats and President Obama passed comprehensive (very voluminous and perhaps too complicated) healthcare reform without any support from Republicans, the political opposition had little trouble in instilling fear of the law’s allegedly pernicious provisions. After all, they say, the law provides for “government run” healthcare and includes “death panels,” an assault on Medicare, forced participation, a “job-killing” burden on the nation’s businesses, and will result in reduced care and greater costs for us all.

Ironically, given the fervor of their rhetoric as they endeavor to repeal the law before its implementation, perhaps what Republicans fear most is that people will discover that there wasn’t really all that much to fear after all.

The Telling Politics of the Individual Mandate

For some time I have been intending to write about how partisanship affects the way we think—how partisanship corrupts fair minded and sound reasoning. There is a great deal to consider on that subject. Numerous factors can be cited as contributing to the partisan divide that has increasingly afflicted our country—the hardening of ideological stances that inhibits those who get caught up in partisan thinking from being able to appreciate any merit at all in opposing points of view. I simply have not yet had the time to construct a comprehensive essay on the subject. Given the great passion that has recently ensued from the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the individual mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), however, I thought I would go ahead and write of that one example—a prime example of how partisanship distorts perception.

It is pretty widely understood that those of us who pay property taxes and who pay for our own health insurance are, in doing so, also paying for the medical care of those citizens who have no health insurance. Through our property taxes we pay to support the county hospital district that treats the uninsured for free, and hospitals tell us that much of the cost of treating the uninsured is also passed along to those individuals and insurance companies who pay for medical services. In 1989, as part of an insurance reform proposal, the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) proposed a solution to what they called this “free rider” problem. Their plan, named “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” included a suggestion to “mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance.” The proposal was fully consistent with the politically conservative principle of citizens not being imposed upon to support other citizens who can reasonably support themselves. As Mitt Romney would later describe it to reporters in 2005 when he proposed that it be enacted as law in Massachusetts, “It’s the ultimate conservative idea, which is that people have a responsibility for their own care, and that they don’t look to government … if they can afford to take care of themselves.”

After that initial 1989 call for an individual mandate, the idea then became part of a number of conservative and Republican proposals for insurance reform, including one that was developed at the request of the H.W. Bush administration in 1991, but was never acted upon. When Hillary Clinton spearheaded an effort to achieve universal healthcare coverage in 1992 and 1993, Republicans in congress responded with various alternative proposals, all of which included an individual mandate. A bill called the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act” was introduced in the Senate by Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island and co-sponsored by Minority Leader Bob Dole and 18 other Republican Senators. The bill called for health insurance vouchers for low-income individuals, along with a mandate that all capable individuals buy their own health insurance. As House Minority Leader at the time, Newt Gingrich strongly endorsed the mandate. Of course Gingrich has been a vocal supporter of an individual mandate until only very recently, when a run for the presidency and a new political dynamic prompted a change of heart.

Republican proposals in response to so-called “Hillarycare” were met with skepticism by Democrats. Democrats were particularly opposed to the individual mandate, which they saw as a “giveaway” to insurance companies. Rather than seriously consider the merits of the mandate and incorporate it into a bi-partisan healthcare reform effort, Democrats were evidently blinded by partisan thinking and assumed, by default, that Republicans were once again simply trying to protect the interests of big business—in this case, the insurance companies—at the expense of ordinary citizens. As a result of that partisan divide, the Clintons’ efforts to enact reform and ensure universal coverage failed.

Here’s where it begins to get interesting.

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama repeatedly denounced the individual mandate, which, by then, Hillary Clinton had adopted as a part of her campaign’s healthcare proposal. One of his campaign mailers explained, “The way Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan covers everyone is to have the government force uninsured people to buy insurance, even if they can’t afford it. … Punishing families who can’t afford healthcare to begin with just doesn’t make sense.” As candidates usually do, Obama mischaracterized Clinton’s proposal and offered no alternative of his own that would ensure universal coverage.

By some accounts, Obama’s attitude toward an individual mandate began to change as soon as he had secured his party’s nomination for the 2008 election. In any case, he didn’t have to reverse himself publicly when reform was being crafted because all of the proposals were originating in the House and Senate. It was concluded that the mandate was an important component of any proposal that could realistically ensure universal coverage, other than a government-run single payer system. And since it was a Republican idea to begin with, it was thought that its inclusion would help to ensure Republican support for reform.

It turned out, however, that reforming our nation’s insurance and healthcare delivery systems is very complicated business, and therefore, an easy target for political posturing and propaganda. There are a number of reasons why the “Affordable Care Act” lost the support of all Republicans in Congress and perhaps a few of them are good reasons. The particulars of the legislation are far too voluminous and complicated to get into here (and they are not the point of this writing anyway). But perhaps what is most interesting, and rather telling, is how attitudes completely changed regarding the individual mandate to buy health insurance.

By the time the “Affordable Healthcare Act” or “Obamacare” was enacted, the individual mandate had evolved from a soundly conservative idea espousing personal responsibility to, in the minds of many, a typically liberal, “nanny state” idea espousing an obtrusive government and less freedom for us all. Since the healthcare law had been enacted solely by Democratic members of Congress at the urging of President Obama (which can perhaps be blamed, at least in part, on Obama and the Democrats), it became, especially for those who live exclusively in the partisan world of the FOX News culture, a clear example of a horrible abuse of power by politicians who have no regard for personal liberty and the Constitution. Since virtually every other component of “Obamacare” is rather popular among the public, the individual mandate became the primary focus of attack. When partisanship fully takes hold, simply winning for the sake of the tribe takes precedence over truth or principle.  As a result, ironically, Republicans put themselves in the position of, contrary to everything they believe, defending the right of a few citizens to sponge off of the rest of us.

That’s what partisan thinking can do.

When the Affordable care Act was enacted, President Obama and the Democrats insisted that the sanction for those who didn’t buy health insurance was a penalty, not a tax.  They didn’t want to be accused of raising taxes. They well understood that even though the penalty (or tax) would be imposed only on those who neglected to buy health insurance and would likely lower everyone’s healthcare costs, political opponents could rather easily mischaracterize it for political gain.  (They understood this because that’s the way the game is played in politics, and, make no mistake, Democrats do the very same thing all the time.)  Just as Chief Justice John Roberts aptly pointed out, however, regardless of what politicians might call it, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flies like a duck… well… it’s a tax.  After the Supreme Court’s ruling, we have seen that the Democrat’s concern was well founded.  Since, when the tribalism of partisanship takes hold, winning elections is more important than principle or sound public policy, Republicans have now accused Obama and the Democrats of perpetrating a huge tax increase on the middle class.  Naturally, we are expected to overlook the fact that the tax is imposed only on those whom the Heritage Foundation and Republicans had for many years called “free riders,” and partisans undoubtedly will.

*  *  *  *

As a side note: Since the Supreme Court has now declared that the government can penalize us for not buying health insurance, many have worried that the government can tell us anything about our personal lives—make us buy and eat broccoli, for example. Keep in mind that we still have the 14th Amendment that, according to a long line of precedents made by the Court, ensures that we have a right to privacy. The government cannot tell us to eat broccoli or how we should wear our hair because those are private matters. Whether or not we buy health insurance is not a private matter, on the other hand, because such a decision ultimately affects everybody else.

Of course eating broccoli (or green vegetables in general) is good for our health and some may argue, therefore, in the general public interest. There will always be such judgments to make. That’s why we have a Supreme Court that is, by design, insulated from partisan pressures and, at least theoretically, resistant to partisan thinking.

The Trouble With the Two Parties

Here are a couple of good essays on how the two parties have gone off the rails—one by a Republican on what has happened to the Republican Party here, and one by a Democrat on what has happened to the Democratic Party here.  Both essays appeared in New York magazine’s  November 2011 edition.