My complaint to the politicians in the current electoral race is this: why are you so eager to pander for our votes that you refuse to tell us what modern-day sacrifices we all as citizens, ought to be making on behalf of the needs of fellow Americans and our world neighbors?
I have always believed that democracy and Christian faith require one to speak truth to power. But it is equally vital that politicians speak truth to their publics. As things stand in the wake of the Republican primary and Obama’s first term, we are paralyzed by the campaign-rules: “Don’t raise taxes. Don’t meddle with middle-class entitlements. Don’t touch the budget for the military.”
What kind of leadership for the American future is this ironclad strategy for getting our votes? What stupidity do the candidates assign to us under such rules? Don’t they know that we know that some tax increases and some adjustments in entitlement and military outlays have to be in our imminent future? Do they want us to forget that these two-trillion-dollar wars are one big cause of our deficit? Do they think that we in the middle class can’t survive a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts? Don’t they credit us with deep concern for the future of our children and grandchildren? And while pandering to the middle class, why do they forget to mention the American poor? Have they forgotten that anyone who really loves a country must sacrifice on its behalf?
Here’s my own experience with sacrifice: having received my draft notice in early 1946 and as an eighteen-year-old citizen hoping to become an ordained minister, I consulted my Presbyterian pastor about whether to apply for a “ministerial exemption” to this unwelcome call to join twelve million other young Americans drafted to fight for our country. I will never forget his counsel: “Perhaps, in the future, you will have a closer relation to your generation if you share with them this military experience.”
No one could have been a less enthusiastic soldier than I, but my time in the army did furnish me empathy with the later draftees who fought the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It also gave me empathy for those members of our current volunteer army fighting wars in America’s name in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have opposed those two wars, and I grieve the terrible costs that many of these soldiers are paying for our politicians’ decision to invade those two countries. If we still had a draft, we might not be in them.
Many Americans seem to understand the idea of sacrifice as it pertains to military service, but it is rare for anyone to embrace the idea in domestic politics. To be sure, when it comes to sacrificing for the national future, we have to be selective about who does more, who does less. Slice a bit from Social Security and Medicare, and the Shriver family can survive without hardship. But as one Christian middle-class American, I will not consent to this sacrifice if the mega-rich go on earning their annual millions with no tax increases and if the poorest people in America get no benefit from our sacrifices. Many of us yearn to live in a society whose distribution of its wealth offers to the world a national profile worth naming just. That’s what the Occupy Wall Street folk were asking for last year, and I admired them for their sacrifice of time and energy in this cause.
Therefore I will admire and vote for any candidate in 2012 who is honest and patriotic enough to offer us proposals that will trim Social Security and Medicare while preserving Medicaid, unemployment insurance, help to mortgage-defaulters, and a national defense system that ceases to waste lives or treasure on futile foreign wars.
In short, it’s time for Democratic and Republican candidates to treat us citizens as adults who are strong enough to hear truth from our leaders and patriotic enough to sacrifice some important things on behalf of more important things. Psalm 15:4 defines the righteous as those who “swear to their own hurt.” In the New Testament we Christians are advised to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). It’s time for us to translate these instructions into a style of citizenship that might justify for us a reputation for really trying to preserve this American earth with the salt of justice and compassion.
(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives on American Beyond the 2012 Election, click here.)