My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


On Surrendering the Moral High Ground

Over the weekend Barack Obama gave a remarkable speech. I'm still searching for a link to the text or video of the speech, but here's the link to the AP story on it, and to the NYTimes story.

The headline that came out of this speech was this line:

"Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us"

Here's the context of that line:

"Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart," the Democratic presidential candidate said in a 30-minute speech before the national meeting of the United Church of Christ.

"Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us," the Illinois senator said

"At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design," according to an advance copy of his speech.

"There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich," Obama said. "I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version."

I was going to spend my time poking fun at this, at the obvious misstatements and misinterpretations.

But then this speech really got under my skin.

It's not that Obama is making stuff up and totally misleading his audience--it's that he's capitalizing on what WE CONSERVATIVES HAVE ALLOWED TO HAPPEN.

Conservatism is inherently compassionate--there have actually been studies that show that conservatives give a greater proportion of their income to charity than liberals do. The big difference is that conservatives think that government has A ROLE in solving social ills, but not the only role; liberals imagine, contrary to all experience otherwise, that the government is the body best suited to solving social ills.


What Senator Obama has managed to highlight is a perceptual difficulty that has bumfuzzled the Republican Party for as long as I can remember, and that's about 30 years (though, admittedly, a few of those years are hazier than the rest). Conservatives have been perfectly consistent over the years in pointing out the limited ability of the government to solve all the country's problems--and that has been construed in the press and, well, everywhere else, to mean that WE DON'T CARE ABOUT THE country's problems.

Just to highlight the point: think back to Hurricane Katrina. Was the President correct not to put his helicopter down in New Orleans and disrupting rescue operations and causing all kinds of headaches for the local authorities? Of course it was the right thing to do. But the way it was handled made the entire enterprise seem disinterested and, well, aloof.

We can no longer afford to cede this ground to the Democrats. And make no mistake, they're coming for THIS GROUND. We even saw it in Colorado last year--what was Ritter's big campaign? The "Colorado Promise," an implicit play for values voters. Hillary Clinton's big quote from two weeks ago? "My marriage survived because of my Faith." And now Obama making the case that HIS Christianity emphasizes social justice.

The thing is, MY version of Christianity ALSO emphasizes social justice--and it tells me it is MY responsibility to get out on the streets and to do something for others. Thus, I give to charity through my church; I give my time and energy to service in my church and in the community; and I do other things as I see needs in the greater community.

THAT' s what conservative Christians do--and I'm a pathetic example compared to many of the people I know. But because I do not think that I should have to give more of my money to the federal government for THEM to redistribute to the needs in the greater community, I get painted as a heartless miser who has no time or energy for those less fortunate than myself.

How would I counter this if I were a candidate?

The Federal Government has enormous responsibilities. According to the Constitution, it is charged with holding together the Union; it is charged with providing a system for law, order and Justice; it is to keep the peace in the country; it is to protect the country from those who would dance in the streets at the sight of American cities burning; it is to guarantee that our children and their children can enjoy the Blessings of Liberty;

and it is to promote the general Welfare.

There is an open and lively debate going on right now about just what it means for the government to promote the general Welfare, and that's a great thing for the country. Because just HOW we promote the general Welfare is a crucial consideration as you think about how you're going to vote in the next election.

The general Welfare is a vague and difficult concept. There are those who are very good at promoting their own welfare, so maybe we shouldn't worry about them; there are those who can manage pretty well on their own, but who really just need a little break now and then; and thenthere are those who are stuck--trapped--in cycles of poverty that are heart-wrenching and perpetual. And the government is responsible for the welfare of all of them.

So let me begin this with a question: what, exactly, is the federal government good at? Can you think of a single thing? Yes, yes, the men and women of the U.S. military are the best, brightest and bravest on the face of the Earth, but it's pretty hard to say that the bureauracy that supports them from Washington is a model of efficiency. And the C.I.A? How about the I.R.S.?

So what would make you think that the federal government would be the most effective body to effect change for those in the cycle of perpetual poverty? Someone once declared a "War on Poverty"--but still, it persists. And how many government resources, how many bureaucracies, how many "solutions" have been implemented to no effect?

By contrast, look at your local church. How many programs has it implemented? How many tax resources, how many bureaucracies, how many solutions has your local church put in place? And which has the better track record--the government, or the church?

Am I advocating the ending of government programs in favor of you local church? Of course not. The federal government has an important role to play in ending perpertual poverty--but it is far from being the exclusive solver of all social ills.

The government can put in place all the jobs programs in the world, it can provide job training and placement, and it can create Economic Opportunity zones to reinvigorate areas where the poor need them. And these are all wonderful things.

But none of these do anything for 17-year with two children and no husband. Statistically speaking, she will always be poor, and so will her children.

And the federal government can't do a darn thing about it.

So what I propose is that the federal government do EVERYTHING in its power to empower those organizations--churches, NGOs, and charities--who actually ARE very good at serving the poor. How do we do this?

We continue to do all the important programs that we currently do in impoverished areas. But we make charitable giving and charitable work more valuable by altering the tax code to make it more valuable for people to do the hard work in their own communities. And we put in place economic policies that will make it possible for those who give to charities to increase their giving.

Let me put it this way: when we tax some so that we can give more money to "government" charities, we get a very bad return on our investment. Not only do tax receipts go down overall, but so much of that money is wasted in the bureaucracy that it becomes laughably inefficient. On top of that, the amount of money people have to give to the effective local charities become scarcer.

When we let people decide for themselves how and when and where to donate their own money, they give it to organizations that work. A $1 donation becomes almost a full dollar of charity. THAT is what we should be aiming for, rather than the 50 or 60 cents the government can contribute.

I applaude those on the Left who want to serve the poor and the needy--I invite them to join me in working to build houses and serving meals, and I look forward to a day when the Least of God's Children here in America are able to hold their heads high and look to a future full of promise and hope.

But I will not join those on the Left in redirecting charity in America through the federal government. It does NOT work as efficiently as we all need it to work.

Or something like that.

We must make the case more effectively that we care about the plight of the poor, and that we want to help them. Yes, we believe in consequences for bad choices; but we also have to recognize that the two children of the 17-year old did not make that choice for themselves. There is a role for the government in solving that problem.

But it is a role that has to be shared among communities and churches and NGOs and individuals being the hands and feet of God among us.

Politically, we have to smarter about this.

Morally, we have an obligation to engage this discussion to try to solve the problem.

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