A system that excludes the poor

By George Clifford

I am a fan of democracy. Although every form of democracy has its problems, no other system of government seems better suited to respecting the dignity and rights of all. The other day, I read Cornell West’s Democracy Matters. West notes that democracies have historically had short life spans and then insightfully observes that one can link the end of every democracy to increases in poverty and paranoia. That prompted some reflections about life in America today, the 2008 Presidential campaign, and my Christian faith.

Poverty is on the increase in the U.S. Scholars, politicians, and others point to a variety of causes that include tax policy, business practices, fewer two parent families, etc. Eradicating poverty is a complex challenge without easy answers. As a Christian who prefers to live in a democracy, I must make that challenge a priority. Scripture suggests that God, in the words of the former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Rev. David Sheppard, has a bias toward the poor. Yet I find that even among political candidates who claim to have a strong commitment to ending poverty, other issues generally receive more attention. Anti-poverty messages have little political traction and therefore take a backseat. Nationally, as well as in my home state of North Carolina, anti-poverty programs and initiatives die in legislative committee more often than they come to a vote in the full legislature.

Recently, I also read The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. Obama worked as a community organizer with the poor before attending Harvard Law School and beginning his political career. Not surprisingly, given that background and his strong Christian faith, Obama has tried to maintain an emphasis on helping the least advantaged among us. I do not intend these comments as an endorsement of Obama; voters must measure the merit of his platform and depth of his commitments against that of the other candidates using a Christian scale. Instead, Obama’s background provides the context for what I found very powerful in his book, his description of how an insatiable need for campaign funds drives politicians into close association with moneyed interests. Politicians solicit donations from prospective donors by cultivating relationships through phone calls, meetings, and campaign events. The longer one is a politician, the more time one invariably and necessarily will spend with those moneyed interests. With time, conversations become more extensive and friendships develop; repeated exposure to the thoughts, prejudices, and worldview of the affluent begins to color the politician’s views and priorities. The process excludes the poor, and even most middle-class, because they are not in a financial position to donate $1000 or more to a political campaign.

Obviously, the electoral system’s structure reflects an inherent bias toward the wealthy rather than toward the poor. Perhaps less obvious is the often publicly unappreciated personal integrity that prevents more politicians from succumbing to the temptations of corruption and illegal campaign financing. Maybe least obvious is that those of us who know of God’s bias toward the poor must become more involved in the political process. Voting makes a difference. Campaign contributions make a difference. Volunteering makes a difference. Speaking out makes a difference. Only when God’s people get involved can we Christian fans of democracy expect for God’s bias toward the poor to become more than empty rhetoric.

Paranoia within the United States also seems on the increase. People talk and act as if they are afraid of terrorism, cancer, crime, losing their job to illegal immigrants, losing their house because they can no longer afford the adjustable rate mortgage, losing their children to drugs, etc. Today’s politicians – from all parties – frequently pander to those fears, seeking an easy way to mobilize support and votes. Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That thought is deeply rooted in Scripture; in over thirty places, the Bible exhorts us not to fear because God is with us. Tellingly, the authors of Scripture never suggest that people should live without fear for the authors well know that living means being vulnerable and not in control. Paul Tillich went so far as to argue in The Courage to Be that the basic human condition is anxiety, the fear of the unknown and non-being; the Christ answers by giving us the courage to live.

Fear mongering costs lives and impoverishes the living. Hundreds of thousands have died at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars because the United States impetuously and ill advisedly launched a war on terror instead of deliberately targeting the relative handful of extremists who posed a real threat. Security without human rights – indefinite detention of alleged enemies without trial, intrusive surveillance without court orders, etc. – is security without freedom. Family protection legislation outlawing same-sex marriage or teaching abstinence only does nothing to address the real causes of marital failures, denigrates people with a same sex orientation, and promotes unhealthy behaviors that waste healthcare resources. Initiatives designed to exclude illegal aliens build fences, literally and metaphorically, between people and nations, transform productive workers into fugitives, disrupt families, and deprive the U.S. of its arguably most valuable resource, people willing to pay almost any price in order to create a better life for themselves and their families.

The United States faces a host of real problems: poverty, healthcare, crime, terrorism, and many more. Contrary to some naïve Christians on the far right and far left whose faith seems to have an answer for everything, none of those problems has an easy or inexpensive answer; some of the problems do not even have known answers. If an easy, inexpensive answer existed, then somebody would have already solved the problem. The most important contribution that Christians can make to debates about these issues is to insist that politicians stop promoting, and pandering to, paranoia. Real answers require carefully defining the problem and a commitment to finding viable and moral solutions.

In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, slightly more than 60% of eligible citizens voted, according to the George Mason University United States Election Project. Almost 40% did not vote. U.S. wealth is concentrated in less than 10% of the population. Over 90% of the population is poor or middle-class. People who self-identify as Christian comprise 80% of the U.S. population. Those numbers paint a hopeful future – if Christians will get involved in the political process. Voting, contributing, volunteering, speaking out now is how we can help the poor, fight paranoia, and preserve democracy. Whining in 2009 will achieve nothing.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Past Posts