The key election issues my faith gives me

A prisoner in the film The House I Live In. Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist.

Here’s my own answer to this week’s #PatheosElection question: What are the key issues for people of your tradition to consider as they approach this election? Or as I put it, since the phrase “people of my tradition” raises its own set of questions, what issues my faith makes key for me.

Honesty and integrity: Maybe not technically an issue, but one of my core spiritual principles is, “Let your ‘yes’ mean yes and your ‘no’ mean no.” (Matthew 5:37) With the realities of both fundraising and vote getting, I don’t expect any politician adept enough to have made it to the top to be truthful all the time. Folks claim to love a straight shooter, but what they really want is a straight shooter they agree with. There’s a difference, though, between changing the packaging of your message on the one hand and having no core on the other — or being willing to abandon your core at the drop of a hat. I will vote for a candidate I agree with less if I believe they have significantly greater integrity.

Ending the war/s and future nonviolence: As Anabaptist Kurt Williams said in this series last week, you can’t follow the teachings of Jesus and act as commander-in-chief. But the president is commander-in-chief, so what can I reasonably ask? I ask that they never use violence if there is any other reasonable option, including the option of doing nothing. I utterly reject the neocon idea of exporting democracy and freedom using force. I mourn that people are suffering under dictators and inferior forms of governance, but violence from outside is not the answer. And it is a dangerous road to go down — whether as an individual or a nation — to presume you know best and force your views on others “for their own good.”

I’m honestly conflicted when it comes to situations of self-defense and the defense of allies. At minimum I would expect violence to be a last resort. Better, I would hope that we do everything we can at every step along the way to prevent the need for violence from materializing. That means really believing in diplomacy, the U.N., foreign aid and positive engagement. An arrogant posture towards the world community creates situations that then require harder choices. Since both candidates claim they want to leave Afghanistan by 2014 and neither is advocating leaving sooner, and since both candidates say they might use force against Iran, the only choice remaining is: Which is likely to be more prudent in the use of force?

Crime, punishment and the “war” on drugs: When I was a kid, I distinctly remember being told that the Soviet Union’s having over a million of its citizens in prison was proof they were a police state. Today over two million Americans are in prison. That’s in the territory of Stalin’s Gulag era. Our incarceration rate is now eight times what it was in the 70s — the highest in the world — about 50 percent worse than Russia’s, more than double Iran’s, and 3 to 20 times that of any European or Asian country. It’s hard for me to even say that and not get upset. Worse than that are two other statistics: 1) when you include probation and parole, over seven million Americans are under correctional supervision — they are not free; and 2) while the incarceration rate for whites is less than 1 per 100, for blacks, it’s over 4 per 100. There’s something insane about this and I can’t believe people aren’t more disturbed by it. It’s the nation’s greatest case of denial.

If you’re part of the underclass in America, even if you steer clear of all temptations to cut corners with a system that’s stacked against you, you will still be hassled by various legal authorities on a regular basis. I’m not exaggerating when I say that for the poor in America, this is a police state. Even though we now have the lowest crime rates in decades, we’re still in a downward spiral of disproportionate and uneven punishments, mandatory sentencing, three-strikes rules, racial profiling and eroded civil liberties. Political thinkers talk about this all the time, but no politician wants to appear “soft” on crime, so little if anything changes. We need to break this cycle, and I can see a possible way out through joint action of progressives and libertarians. We need bold leadership. We need a president who gets it.

Civil liberties/rolling back the Patriot Act: At the time of Jesus, people were accustomed to alternating between living in an occupied country at the mercy of an authoritarian government, and living in exile as slaves to a conqueror. Issues like the right to not be wiretapped would not exactly have been on the radar, if wires or radar had even existed. But implicit in the Christian way, I believe, is a respect for individual liberty and a rejection of the legalistic worldview that was present at the time in both Jewish and Roman approaches. Jesus modeled someone who did what he believed was right, even when doing so would put him in conflict with authorities. What undeniably is in Christian teaching is a rejection of the use of coercive force by those in power to oppress people. Personally, I consider wire-tapping, stop-and-search, intrusive rules and restrictions for moving about, invasion of privacy, detention without trial, and other similar attacks on my personal freedom as a spiritual issue, because they feed the oppressive force of the authorities and dampen people’s spirits. So, the political issue for me would be rolling back the Patriot Act; since neither candidate seems interested in that, I’d look for who seems more likely to reduce rather than increase such things.

Economic fairness: Maintain Obamacare. Reverse Citizens United. I don’t expect either candidate to oppose Wall Street, but I would look for a candidate that knows there is more to the world than business and economics; that would include human happiness and environmental protection in their calculations; that believes capitalism needs help and restraints to be fair and that corporations aren’t people; that thinks the health of a society is measured by more than its Gross Domestic Product.

Lowering the debt: I believe punting our problems down the field to future generations so we don’t have to make hard choices today is a moral issue. We are stealing from children to make our lives easier. The Republican Party used to be identified with fiscal prudence, but that hasn’t been the case for decades and in current discussions they haven’t been an honest player. The Democratic Party has historically favored more government spending, but the last two Democratic presidents have been more careful fiscally than their Republican predecessors. So looking at which candidate is more likely to actually end deficits and reduce the debt is, again, choosing the one I think will be more prudent and reality-based.

Immigration reform: The racism, economic fear and post-9/11 xenophobia that feed our failure at immigration reform seem intractable. But the fact remains that there are something like 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, 4 percent of the U.S. population. You probably cross paths with some every day. Like anyone else, they are trying to live decent lives and build for their futures. To write them off and say they broke the law and don’t deserve compassion is indefensible for a Christian. Some headway has been made recently by focusing on the children, who as always stand out as innocent victims, but despite the fact that the last Republican president fought hard for compassionate reform, the Republican Party today maintains a hard-line posture.

Moving past 9/11: Several of the single issues above fall into a broad category: when 9/11 happened, our country reacted. It reacted militarily abroad and it reacted with fear of the Other here at home. I do not condone any of that, but I understand it. Now, over a decade later, it’s beyond time to restore some things that got out of whack. So, more than any single issue, I would ask which candidate is more likely to further our disentangling abroad and healing at home.


Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

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