Neglected Issues in this Political Campaign

[1] It has become commonplace to observe that in this television age political campaigns tend to be reduced to sound bytes and thirty-second ads designed to project an image of the candidate or of his or her opponent. Any serious discussion of issues thus tends to be constrained by these requirements of campaign methods.

[2] Of course, some issues are at least touched upon. In this political season, those issues tend to be the war in Iraq, the state of the economy, the future of the environment, and a short list of other equally critical and important issues. But there are also some critical issues of equal importance that I believe are being almost totally neglected in this campaign. Here I shall only give a brief sketch of several of these issues.

A. Root Causes of Terrorism

[3] Inevitably, concerns about terrorism are among the most frequently addressed concerns in this campaign. However, candidates of any persuasion tend to limit themselves to discussing such issues as America’s military response, our ability to track down and eradicate terrorist cells, and our plans for securing our nation’s borders.

[4] The reality of terrorism as a fact of life begs the question, however, about its root causes. It is an insult to the American electorate for candidates simply to dismiss this question with a cavalier statement that “terrorists hate freedom.” We need to ask very seriously why it is that millions of people around the world have come to hate America and what it stands for. While this can be very uncomfortable, we will not finally or effectively come to terms with terrorism until we address these root causes.

[5] Here I can only hint as to what some of these root causes might be. Perhaps the root cause most obvious to many people is the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine. It seems to many that while we have legitimately recognized the right of Israel for security, we have not equally supported the right of Palestine to a viable state, and we have looked the other way when Israel has trampled on the human rights of Palestinians living under its occupation.

[6] Moreover, America’s support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere has earned the animosity of millions of people. Our perceived short term economic interests have too frequently trumped our concern for human rights and freedom. The hegemony of American power, American pop culture, and American commercial interests have bred resentment among those who have felt exploited or threatened by these influences. The homogenization of cultures resulting from these factors has threatened other peoples with a loss of identity or with the secularization of their religious way of life. They fear being assimilated into a global culture dominated by America. And America needs to come to terms with their fears.

B. An Erosion of Civic Responsibility

[7] Huge numbers of Americans are either completely turned off by political campaigns, as evidenced by their failure to vote, or they are fanatic partisans with little or no patience for reasoned political discourse. In either case, I would contend that there has been an erosion of civic responsibility in our country. Political diatribes of whatever stripe don’t help to remedy this deficit.

[8] How can we encourage more civility and mutual respect? How can we re-fashion our system of campaigning so that less heat and more light can be thrown upon the critical issues confronting us? In the scramble to win, very few seem willing to consider these questions. Yet is seems obvious that the future of American democracy depends upon re-engaging the electorate rather than inflaming them. Perhaps schools, churches, politicians, journalists and others all have a role in addressing this erosion of civic responsibility which has reached alarming proportions.

C. The Role of Faith in Public Discourse

[9] In recent years the “Christian Right” has become a potent force in America’s political life. From another quarter, the Roman Catholic bishops have threatened to withhold the sacrament or even excommunicate those who fail to support that church’s social teaching. Attitudes toward non-Christian religions play into the way many perceive the threat of terrorism.

[10] Obviously, faith has a role to play in public discourse. But what should be that role? Is God a Republican, or a Democrat? It should be clear that the myth of a “Christian culture” or a “Christian civilization” has been exploded long ago. Yet there seems to be evidence that many are somehow still attempting to impose their religious vision on the nation. And there has been no serious public discourse about the proper and legitimate role of faith in public discourse.

[11] As a Lutheran, I am convinced that our religious tradition with its categories of faith and works, and a proper dialectical understanding of how God acts through law and gospel, offers helpful insights into how people of faith can bring their understanding and values to bear in ways that do not attempt to Christianize the culture, but rather to humanize it. People of all religious traditions as well as those who subscribe to no particular religious tradition could well profit from such a discussion of the role of faith in public discourse.

[12] Obviously, the issues which I have suggested as being neglected in this political campaign are not separate and distinct from the other critical issues we hear about in this campaign. But until they are explicitly addressed and considered, the other issues cannot be addressed in the depth they deserve.