We're witnessing a moment in history that might be recorded as the implosion of the modern day Republican Party. Economic policies in vogue since Ronald Reagan have dragged the country into economic ruin and foreign policy goals in force under George W. Bush have left the nation battered and increasingly vulnerable to both terrorism and the threats inherent in the global climate change crisis. The Republican standard bearer in this election – John McCain – has fallen behind in the polls and there is talk of a Democratic landslide. Unleashed by McCain and his running mate has in recent days been a torrent of ugly and sometimes racist rhetoric at rallies and in interviews that instead of bolstering McCain's November chances have served to further divide America at a time reconciliation is needed to address fundamental challenges that threaten America's financial health and the stability of the planet.
All people of faith ought to be concerned about what direction this campaign is taking.
NPR introduces the subject of McCain tactics in recent days with these words:
In the final lap of the U.S. presidential race some believe Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) attacks against Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) character have gone too far and, for some, are even racist.
McCain was sharply criticized after the debate between the two candidates at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., for referring to Obama as "that one" — a reference that many interpreted as racially loaded.
Dan Balz of The Washington Post writes:
There is a scene early in "Dead Certain," Robert Draper's book about President Bush, when the Bush campaign, reeling from its loss to John McCain in New Hampshire in the 2000 primary, is plotting its moves for a do-or-die struggle in South Carolina.
As Bush's South Carolina team sketched out one tough step after another, Mark McKinnon, Bush's media adviser, listened with amazement. Draper writes that McKinnon was thinking: "They're letting the dogs off the chain."
John McCain was the victim in that campaign eight years ago. Now, struggling to overcome Barack Obama's lead in the polls, he is unleashing attacks and empowering forces that lead him in the same direction.
Through television ads by his campaign and by the Republican National Committee, Obama is under attack for his association with William Ayers, the 1960s radical. On the campaign trail, McCain's rallies have at times turned into angry rants by his supporters aimed at Obama and the Democrats. Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma and a McCain surrogate went on television this week and played the race card, saying Obama should own up to the fact that he was once a "guy of the street" who used cocaine.
Politico reports on the tone of the McCain rallies:
With McCain passing up the opportunity to level any tough personal shots in his first two debates and the very real prospect of an Obama presidency setting in, the sort of hard-core partisan activists who turn out for campaign events are venting in unusually personal terms.
"Terrorist!" one man screamed Monday at a New Mexico rally after McCain voiced the campaign's new rhetorical staple aimed at raising doubts about the Illinois senator: "Who is the real Barack Obama?"
"He's a damn liar!" yelled a woman Wednesday in Pennsylvania. "Get him. He's bad for our country."
At both stops, there were cries of, "Nobama," picking up on a phrase that has appeared on yard signs, T-shirts and bumper stickers.
And Thursday, at a campaign town hall in Wisconsin, one Republican brought the crowd to its feet when he used his turn at the microphone to offer a soliloquy so impassioned it made the network news and earned extended play on Rush Limbaugh's program.
"I'm mad; I'm really mad!" the voter bellowed. "And what's going to surprise ya, is it's not the economy — it's the socialists taking over our country."
Rhetoric like this has one purpose: to demonize your opponent. McCain hasn't tried to calm his crowds and in fact has worked to incite them. The risk isn't just to McCain's campaign but to the safety of all the candidates and the stability of the democratic system.
Barack Obama is responding with the right words:
It's easy to rile up a crowd by stoking anger and division. But that's not what we need right now in the United States. The times are too serious. The challenges are too great. The American people aren't looking for someone who can divide this country -- they're looking for someone who will lead it. We're in a serious crisis -- now, more than ever, it is time to put country ahead of politics. Now, more than ever, it is time to bring change to Washington so that it works for the people of this country that we love.
I know my opponent is worried about his campaign. But that's not what I'm concerned about. I'm thinking about the Americans losing their jobs, and their homes, and their life savings. We can't afford four more years of the economic theory that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.
The National Council of Churches USA (NCC) – which does not endorse candidates – notes this week that: "A recent contention by Governor Sarah Palin that Barack Obama has befriended a domestic terrorist elicited a lone call in a Florida crowd to "kill him.'"
The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the NCC, warned last spring about how the political debate of this election might further divide the America people:
The Golden Rule of Ecumenism has brought vastly different Christian traditions together for conversation and action, and the rule should be applied to American politics.
The rule: “Try to understand others even as you hope to be understood by them.”
That simple axiom is a radical critique of an age in which ideological lines are hardening and real dialogue diminishing in the public arena.
Church folks, like most Americans, have strong political views, many of them based on the biblical mandate to bring peace, feed the poor, uphold the downtrodden and speak God’s truth and justice in all things. We argue all the time about the best ways to fulfill that mandate. But ecumenically-minded Christians start with the assumption that Christians with different ideas are just as committed to Christ as they are.
This is an amazing reality in the 35 member communions that comprise the nation’s oldest and largest ecumenical body, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Our member churches are Orthodox, historic African American, peace churches, Anglican, Main Line. The startling fact that we continue to work and talk together is one of the most underreported stories of our time.
Contrast this with the rhetoric of political campaigns, which are often based on divisiveness, hyperbole, half-truths and innuendo. How much can politicians learn about issues or one another if their positions harden into inflexible dogmas and their ears are closed to opposing ideas?
We profess to be a nation that values diversity – pluralism – as a central virtue, and yet our leaders so often govern, I fear, by surrounding themselves with an isolating barrier of like-minded cronies. Pluralism is affirmed as a social reality and grudgingly accepted as a legislative principle, but virtually ignored as a methodological basis for executive decision making.
That strikes ecumenically-minded Christians as utterly backwards.
There are indeed divisions in political life that need to be confronted and fully discussed, just as there are genuine differences among Christians over the nature of the sacraments or the role of the Church in social struggles or the authority of scripture – difference that cannot be eliminated simply by irenic rhetoric. And it is true that all government policies are not the same; some will be more effective in protecting the rights of minorities or prompting economic growth. But from an ecumenical perspective, the most basic division in American political life may well be between those who insist on splitting the world into polarized camps and those who don’t, between those who claim that they or their party (or their church) have a near monopoly hold on truth and those who acknowledge that their perceptions of complex issues are inevitably partial and that they, therefore, need the input of those with whom they disagree in order to lead this nation in safe and prosperous ways.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book Team of Rivals, describes President Lincoln’s strategy of bringing into his cabinet public figures who disagreed strenuously with him – and with one another. Lincoln’s practice assured that diverse points of view were aired in the very center of the executive decision-making process. Nearly five decades ago, President Kennedy brought hawks and doves into the special committee that recommended action in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their sharp disagreements enabled the President to choose a path that avoided nuclear war.
An “ecumenical president,” instead of minimizing internal debate and maximizing external differences in the name of ideological truth, would expand the circle of internal discussion and, yes, dissent as a way of identifying those lines of division that, as a last resort, need to be drawn.
This discussion implies a particular understanding of the ecumenical vision of the Church. It is easy and tempting to approach unity as a commodity which, if achieved, would result in certain benefits. I want to argue, however, that ecumenism is much more fundamental than that. It is, as I have already suggested, a worldview that resolutely refuses to absolutize relative perspectives (a tendency that H. Richard Niebuhr identified as the single greatest source of evil). It is a biblically-grounded spirituality that dares to live trustfully with differences in community, not as a result of polite tolerance of a pragmatic acceptance of pluralism but on the basis of a common commitment to Jesus Christ. It is an approach to reality which insists that truth is seldom discovered in splendid isolation but through dialogue in community. The ecumenical movement is, indeed, a spiritual battle for truth; but it is a common battle against error and not a fight between partners in dialogue based on the assumption that one is already right and one wrong.
So long as political candidates continue to vie for votes by rendering complex ideas into misleading slogans, demeaning one another in television commercials, attempting non sequitur sound-bytes in a televised debate, or submitting to television interviews aimed at eliciting faux pas or outrageous statements about an opponent, there will be very little dialogue. And without dialogue, the next president of the United States is likely to spend the next four years in an enclave of like-minded polemicists.
Yes, political decisions matter. But our willingness to live trustfully with differences, because we know that God’s will is always greater than our grasp of it, is the best testimony ecumenists can make in this political season.
We have an opportunity in this moment - all of us - to reject ugly rhetoric no matter what corner of the political spectrum it comes from.