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What Lies Between Absolute Ideology and “Real Politik”: The Common Ground and Common Morality of Common Humanity

Today’s political landscape is extremist and unusually superficial.  Consequentially, it is ineffectual.  We live in a world where a segment of a political party, the Tea Party, can filibuster the Federal government and bring the business of the people to a grinding halt.  Obstructionism darkens the light of Democracy. How can we defend human rights and advocate for social justice in this kind of  inflammatory and inhibiting environment? What is needed is creative change.  How can we deal with serious issues and challenging problems when the rhetoric is ratcheted so high?  The partisan divide in this country leads to civic silliness.  Our civic process is missing civility, respect for other persons and their right to speak freely in the debate. There is also a critical lack of informative content about policies. Instead, we are inundated with “talking points‘ and character assassination.  I often think that our public servants need to revisit kindergarten to learn how to get along with each other.  The truth is that conflict and legitimate debate can stimulate the decision-making process and  can lead to beneficial change.  The issue, I think, is how to successfully deal with conflict.  There will always be disagreement among human beings in society.  That’s a given. But, we shouldn’t allow that to hinder progress by wallowing endlessly in discord.  Our political process is one of the best methods ever created to do just that; to bring diverse persons together, who represent their constituents, and debate policies and make decisions for the greater good of all the people. Instead, we are fighting an impotent civil war which leads to no resolution.

The political process should be a  hallowed and honored  process of seeking “common ground” in good faith with each other and, dare I say it, a compromise that everyone benefits from and can live with.  “Compromise” has become a dirty word in politics today.  Why?  Compromise, it is wrongly thought, leads to  the destruction of values and will lead to the worst kind of “Real Politik“; Machevaliian in nature, devious and valueless.  I believe, however,  that this is a false assumption.  The small-minded political maneuvering, the politics of manipulation that focuses only, for example, on defeating President Obama, is Machiavellian in nature because it destroys constructive dialog and the give and take of negotiation.  Lincoln said, “Ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets.”  The political process  should be positive not destructive and discouraging.

There has recently developed a new political idea ,which is actually an old idea in our history.  That idea is that Americans across the board can be united by a general civic morality, which guards a few principles that everyone can embrace, so we can participate in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  The values of a civic or political  morality should be embraced in a democracy where people of various creeds and ethnic backgrounds are free to express their own ideas and ideals. Part of the human dilemma is that one person’s or a group’s insistence on her/his/their idealism for everyone  is  perceived as an intrusion in another person’s or group’s life.  None-the-less, even people who apparently have irreconcilable differences of opinion, religious points-of-view, life experiences, and life-styles do have “common ground” between them by virtue of being human beings.  We can find that “common ground” by practicing creative and reflective listening skills with each other.  That, of course, means civilly shutting one’s mouth so the other person can be really heard, and, vise versa.

A core principle we all share in the “civil morality” of our democracy is found in the Declaration of Independence:

. . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness. ~ That to secure these rights , governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”

Abraham Lincoln described this essential value of human equality in our civic life thusly:

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate.  Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our Independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government and consequent prosperity.  The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proven an “apple of gold’ to us.  The Union and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.  The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it.  The picture was made for the apple ~~ not the apple for the picture. so let us act, that neither picture, nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken.”

~ Abraham Lincoln, Fragmentary Writing, s. 1858

Lincoln is quoting the Bible to help him phrase his political thought: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  Our precious “apple of gold” (belief in the unalienable rights of human beings) is set or framed in silver (the Union and the Constitution). All our civic deliberations and debates should be judged by how we honor our “apple of gold,” our faith in the rights of humanity and our preservation of the “frame“, the Union and  Constitution.  Over the years, our understanding of human rights has developed and expanded beyond the emancipation of African-American slaves.  As a people we have struggled to expand freedom and opportunity to all based on our belief in the unalienable rights of humanity.  We have been far from perfect at this and the work continues.  However, we have sown the world with the seeds of hope from our “golden apple.”

Lincoln was a deeply spiritual man during his presidency.  However,  the public expressions of his  faith were doctrinally, dogmatically, and theologically non-specific.  Lincoln never joined a church.   He, however, spoke eloquently about God and faith, but he did so in his sermon-like speeches, in a very broad Biblical way. In the primarily Protestant culture of that time, his comments would not inspire conflict and division.  Lincoln was aware, as were the moral philosophers of his day, that the electorate could share in a broad morality rooted in the Judeo-Christian culture and ethic of the United States no matter what their specific church membership.   This civil morality has been expanded over the years to include a wide variety of churches, world religions, religious movements, and philosophical schools.  Scholars have called this the American “Civil Religion” although it is more appropriate to call it  the”Civil Morality.”

The modern American “Civic Morality” was expressed by President Obama at the National Prayer Service on Feb. 2, 2012.  the annual  National Prayer Service itself is a  manifestation of the American “Civil Morality.”

And so when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs -– from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato. . . But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.”

Our “Civil Morality” calls us to care for each other because of the inherit value of every human being. It is our belief in the “golden apple” and what protects it.  This common “Civil Morality” calls for fairness nd justice and protects our right to the free exercise of our specific and heart felt religious beliefs.

 It is strange, and a little ironic, that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln who saved the Union,  is now so  fearful of the intrusion of the Federal government into private lives.  It also ironically advocates Federal and State intrusions into the most private aspects of a family’s life and individual lives both legislatively and constitutionally.  I often think that Republicans only resist the intrusion of taxes into a person’s life, especially if that “person” is a corporation.  Other intrusions that embody their cultural beliefs are fine.  It is, indeed, important to be fiscally responsible  but this should be accomplished without harming and limited people’s choices by insisting on one’s religious or moral point of view for everyone.  After all, we are all guaranteed the right to freely exercise our religious faith, which is a personal choice and not imposed by the state.

They seem unconcerned  that their mashing together  of politics and religious doctrine leads to the politicization of their positions on cultural issues.  It is extremely hard,  to find “common ground” if one is entrenched in an absolute ideology, reminiscent of religious dogma, that does not allow for toleration.  The “mashing” together of church and state is always dangerous.   The history of European monarchies and principalities  indicates that the combination of church and state limits freedom and diminishes rights.

It’s these religio-political policies they would legislate for all Americans.  The dictates of their financial ideology of  “cut. . .cut. . .cut. . .the budget”  focuses on and puts limitations on the middle class, the family, education, and  health issues; issues located much more in the heart of personal life than on Wall Street in the public sphere.  The essential question is “Do their policies focus on the governance of people, on fairness and justice, or on the perpetuation  of an economic theory?”  Is our “apple of gold,” our respect for the unalienable rights of human beings, preserved and enhanced by these cuts?

The Republican fondness on adding amendments to the Federal Constitution is definitely not the traditional conservative approach to the Constitution but is in reality quite radical and extremist.  It is a way to “canonize” their dogmatic interpretation of morality into the Constitution.  The  theological point-of-view of one religious group must not become in effect a “state church.” These are the same  people who, on-the-other-hand, seem loathe to accept any kind of reasonable regulations to encourage healthy business and bank procedures.   Republicans over the last ten years have advocated the following Constitutional amendments:

  • Changing the 14th amendment that children born of illegal immigrants in the USA can not be citizens
  • Flag desecration amendment
  • Balanced Budget amendment
  • Supermajority to raise taxes amendment
  • Parental Rights” amendment
  • Human Life (anti-abolition) amendment
  • Federal Marriage (anti-gay marriage) amendment
  • Terms Limit amendment
  • Prayer in School amendment

Four of the above proposed amendments directly impact the  daily life of families.   My question is, “What ever happened to legislation?”  Why do some or any of these proposals have to be Constitutional amendments?  My second question is “Where are the churches, religious organizations, and philosophical organizations in the private sector whose roles are to teach and advocate for morality?  Amending the Constitute is just another form of extremist politics in our age of culture wars.  The slow, but effective, process of legislative governance, now tied in knots,  is jumped over to propose absolute regulations, such as Constitutional amendments.  Do these proposed amendments heighten the Federal government’s ability to govern all the people well without intruding on individual freedom?  Is our “apple of gold,” our respect for the unalienable rights of human beings, preserved and enhanced by the alteration of the Federal Constitution?

Another inclination of the politics of the right is their willingness to make extreme pledges.   Grover Norquist’s  “no tax hike pledge” actually ties the hands of those who take the pledge to make a grand deal, a healthy compromise, for the nation to move on. Where should  priorities lay:  with an interest  group or with the common good of the whole nation and all the people?  Another negative element are the Political Action Committees (PACS) that collect huge amounts of money for candidates.  Money talks and it seems money wins elections.  This is a usurpation of power.  Is it not surprising that many people believe that it isn’t important to vote anymore.

What politicians cut in the budget, indicates their values.   The health of our nation does not “trickle down” from a wealthy elite, but “trickles up” from the grassroots; our families no matter how they are configured.  It is people who are actually “too great and essential to fail.”  The best way to help people “fail” is to take away their choices by limiting their opportunities; limiting freedom.

Human being are social beings.  Whether we like it not, we are always interacting with each other and are not only responsible for ourselves but also responsible about how we treat others.  When I was in ministry, I always told my people that “rescuing” is not “ministry.” Human “empowerment” was the goal.  Parents who overly protect their children do them a dis-service. A good parent wants to protect their child but also has to let go and let the child make mistakes, etc. But, a good parent will always provide a safety net for the child so they won’t seriously hurt themselves. I have also been a teacher and I know that teachers can only do so much. A student needs to learn to take charge of his/her own learning. But, a teacher and a school should provide a safety net for that kind of learning to happen. When working with people, we don’t want people to become co-dependent. You want them to fly.. .take charge of their lives! Providing counseling and education to help their development is essential. That is a safety net, too. As a Democrat I think the Federal government has a role in providing a “safety net“, but it should be a “safety net” with a bounce! It’s goal should be to empower people. To help people help themselves and take charge of their lives. I am so proud of the USA and am so proud to be an American because we have the most humane government the world has ever seen.

We learned the futility of imposing absolute laws on moral issues with the 18th Amendment, the Prohibition of alcohol ratified in 1919, which increased organized crime because people continued to choose to drink alcohol even if they broke the law.  When it was repealed in 1933, crime decreased and tax revenues went up.   The Temperance Movement, which began in the 1840s,  was a very good thing because our nation was awashed with alcoholism.  But, the extreme Prohibition  Law didn’t do anything but create resistance to the law and made a mockery of a more moderate path.  Life is simply not that black and white.  People have the unalienable right to choose.

We have learned through historical experience, that it is virtually impossible to legislate morality, primarily because moral issues are, like all things human, very complicated because human being demand to have a choice.  Moral choices are the province  of  an individual’s conscience and can be extraordinarily nuanced.   Churches and religious organizations have every right in the world to teach their understanding of morality and should do so in a healthy society, but individual people are responsible for their moral decisions in real life situations.  The informed conscience is sacrosanct. There should be no limited on their freedom of choice to make informed decisions.   Every kind of education, including moral education, is important in a democracy since the goal is to foster the best informed electorate that can be.

Everyone has a right to live out their own moral sense and the right to follow  their beliefs.  I want to trust in “the better angels” of human nature to choose the right through the exercise of their freedom.

What lies between the poles of  absolute ideology and Real Politik is people . . . humanity.  We are a country that respects  human and civil rights.  We are a humane and fair people who appreciate diversity and seek common ground. The answer to our political extremism is the good sense of our people; engaged and informed.  Lincoln said:

I am a firm believer in the people.  If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.  The great point is to bring them the real facts.


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