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With the recent announcement of Rep. Paul Ryan as the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, the major party slates are set and the choice before us has been defined as sharply as any in recent electoral memory. Some Christian voters – especially evangelicals – might well be wondering whatever happened to “their kind” of candidate. As an evangelical, I welcome the choice we have.
This election has a different religious backdrop. The major party nominees are two Roman Catholics, a Mormon and whatever Barack Obama is. (No, not Muslim – I think he’s probably best described as “progressive Protestant.”) Over the past few years we’ve heard a lot about “values voters,” who have, among other things, focused much attention on how we define marriage. Consider this: we have two candidates for President with polygamy in their recent family histories. “Religion” in this election is going to mean something much wider than in the recent past. I doubt there is a candidate amongst them who would feel comfortable giving his “personal testimony” or who is fluent in the Four Spiritual Laws.
I am encouraged instead of discouraged by this. I’ve long been suspicious of politicians making overtly religious statements that have felt like pandering to the born-again vote.
Instead of having to cut through a smokescreen of religious rhetoric, I’m looking forward to hearing a vigorous debate between the candidates on some fundamental philosophical questions about the nature (and size) of government. I found a very clear statement of the question that I believe should animate this election in the most recent issue of Perspectives, in an article by David E. Timmer, citing a lecture Nicholas Wolterstorff gave in 1973.
Nick had spent the first half of the lecture calmly and methodically contrasting two views of the scope of governmental power: one that made the state responsible for the provision of social welfare at the risk of a slippery slope to totalitarianism, and another that strictly limited the state to protection of individual freedoms even at the cost of ignoring social injustice. “Some of us,” he summarized, “cannot ignore the cry for social justice so we put up with the evils of the comprehensive service-state. Some of us cannot ignore the evils of the comprehensive service-state so we put up with the absence of justice. That is our agony. Is there no escape?”
That is a very serious question that the United States deserves a serious conversation about. It defies sound bites and tweets, mud-slinging and robo-calls. It cannot be resolved in a thirty second television ad or the standard stump speech. And, I believe, it is a question with profound religious dimensions. It reflects different, and in some regards, deeper values than “values voters” have traditionally discussed. It moves us past issues like marriage and abortion and onto poverty, and what responsibility we collectively bear for the “least of these.”
As the recent dust-up over welfare reform revealed, on one side are those who believe we must have a social safety-net and on the other those who believe our safety-net is regularly abused at the expense of average folks. Which is it? This election has the capacity to shine a much-needed light on all sorts of issues involving the poorest Americans. Will that happen? I don’t expect it, but I hope for it.
Up until ten days ago, I was feeling very discouraged about the tone of this election. Now, after Ryan’s entry in the race, I’m somewhat hopeful. What a contrast to four years ago – this is a vice-presidential pick with substance who has put ideas on the table. Regardless of your interpretation of his ideas, now there are actual ideas to sink our teeth into and debate. I welcome that. How about you?