In case you haven’t noticed, it’s election season in the U.S. Several billions of dollars are being spent to sell us on a candidate and a party. But on November 6, when all the TV ads have run, the infomercials have finished, and the pundits become silent, how well will we actually understand the candidates’ stances on issues? How well will we know their political records, personal integrity, and commitment to work toward a more God-pleasing world?
As Christians, we hold dual citizenship: we live in the kingdom of God and in a specific nation. This dual citizenship sets us apart. It also gives us a rock-solid base, a common ground from which to talk to each other about political issues—to learn from, to question, and to appreciate each other.
Increasingly, though, we mimic the political polarization around us, vehemently disagreeing about what is to be done, how it is to be done, and why.
What’s more, we seem to be losing the art of serious dialogue in the U.S. and Canada—and in the church. We just don’t know how to talk to one another when we disagree, so we don’t. And in that silence there’s so much at stake: the opportunity to learn something new or to see the situation more clearly—or even to risk changing our minds.
What if we did try to talk to each other? What if we addressed some of the different ways we view the role of government, the solutions to the problems facing us, and the call of God when we enter the voting booth? What if we were courageous enough, gracious enough, and respectful enough to listen to each other’s views—especially when we disagree—and hold them in tension with our own?
We’ve asked two members of our denomination with fundamentally different views to do just that this election season—to model a new kind of conversation about political issues that opens the door to a more thoughtful, respectful, bold, and faith-filled engagement with our democracy.
—Peter Vander Meulen
Edward Gabrielse: There is no more important task for our next president than the recovery of our economy. When I go to the polls in November, I’ll vote for the candidate who will best address our economic woes in three specific ways.
First, the candidate will give incentives to those who create jobs. Meaningful employment is the realization of our living in the image of a creative and productive God. Jobs provide much more than simply the income on which individuals and families depend. Jobs also provide a deep sense of satisfaction with life and deepen our sense of self-worth. And because public sector jobs can only exist if private sector workers agree to pay for them, the primary focus of the next president must be the creation of private-sector jobs.
Second, the candidate must allow the system of capitalism to work. No economic system has come closer to providing the level of wealth and opportunity for more people than capitalism. It has enabled the U.S. to be the most generous country on earth, both corporately and individually, in giving accumulated wealth and other aid to those in need. Even some of the most notorious robber barons have lent their names to hospitals, libraries, and universities.
Those who find a way to accumulate wealth hire others to make the things they want. Eventually all money goes somewhere. It’s my view that individuals who have earned money should have the right to decide how to spend it as opposed to the government dictating who deserves those hard-earned dollars. Our next president must not short-circuit the process of capitalism through overregulation and increased social welfare programs.
Third, the candidate will address the glaring problems we face with our entitlement programs. Right now, nearly half of the population of this country depends on government for some or all of their income. That percentage is growing. There are simply no profit margins or productivity improvements large enough to support this number of nonproductive or marginally productive citizens. Not only is this dependency resulting in more and more unsustainable debt; it is eating at the core of what has made the U.S. a great country. Our next president must find ways to encourage individuals to achieve financial independence.
Kate Kooyman: Here’s a great place where we can agree—economic recovery must focus on job creation. I, too, believe that part of what it means to have been created in the image of God is that we were made to be creative—to work hard, make things, contribute our gifts, and live with dignity. Those who can work should work! If there were jobs available—and equal opportunity in filling them—we’d be well on our way to strengthening not just our economy but also our social fabric. I would, however, like to see a job creation plan that addresses some of the systemic reasons why people who are poor and vulnerable often find it difficult to find work, such as lack of education and access to affordable child care, a broken immigration system, jobs that pay less than a living wage, lack of access to public transportation, or barriers to employment for those with a criminal record.
I’m also concerned about unbridled capitalism. The recent collapse of the banking industry, for example, warns us of the dangers of an unregulated market. The “robber barons” you mention are also example of what happens when people wind up with wealth that far exceeds the norm—I’m pretty sure those who were “robbed” would have much preferred to keep a roof over their heads over a visit to the library.
Particularly in a system that excludes so many because of discrimination or lack of access to education, the notion that wealth will trickle down, or that everyone has an opportunity to create wealth, or that capitalism makes the U.S. the “land of opportunity” for all people is simply not tenable. There are a few for whom pure, unregulated capitalism works well. But the playing field is not level. My hope is that our political system will guard against the injustices that arise from that set-up.
We also can agree that entitlements are not a long-term solution for those who live in poverty. It is much better to invest in programs that help lift people out of poverty. That’s why I was happy to see our current administration’s shift in foreign policy focus away from handouts toward developing sustainable communities through education and economic empowerment. Perhaps a similar shift here in the U.S. would be another place we could agree.
Rather than continuing to put money into our endangered entitlement programs, for example, let’s come up with a plan for robust investment in our public schools. Simply cutting people off of public benefits (as many have suggested in the name of balancing budgets) would be unjust. If we could create a society that empowers all citizens to support themselves and gives everyone access to economic opportunities, we wouldn’t need entitlements at all.
Ed Gabrielse: Christians of all political persuasions share a passion for helping those in need. To doubt the motives of Christians who see things differently is wrong. Across the political spectrum there are differences in the way we define relief, rehabilitation and development, and the expectations of individual initiative. And when these differences become institutionalized in programs and projects, they become very difficult to discuss rationally. When objective outcomes become confused with good intentions, feelings get hurt and communication within the body of Christ becomes nearly impossible.
Perhaps the only way to encourage respectful dialogue is to have the freedom within our fellowship to ask, “How does that program, tax, regulation, or vote demonstrate our love for our neighbor?” That is a standard to which we all must answer. It is the standard by which our Father will ultimately judge our efforts.
Kate Kooyman: I’m concerned about our economy. I’d like to see fewer people unemployed, better stock market gains, more lending and business growth, job creation, and prosperity.
Protecting the Vulnerable
I am equally concerned, though, that we not continue to scapegoat the most vulnerable in our attempts to recover. The 2013 budget passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (the Ryan budget) is no friend to those in need. It slashes funding for the food stamp program and cuts health insurance programs for low-income Americans, just when millions more need them. And it does this while extending substantial tax breaks to the wealthy.
I hope to vote for a candidate who understands that we cannot stand on the backs of the poor in our efforts to regain economic prosperity. More than other countries, the U.S. has extreme inequality in income distribution—most of the money made goes to those at the top of the economic ladder. Winner takes all. In our weakened economy, it’s the poor who suffer the most. More and more families live below the poverty line, suffer from hunger, and are desperate for help.
The Role of Government
While I love Christian giving programs such as food pantries, I’m unsatisfied with the position that it is the solely the role of the church, not government, to address poverty. Charity alone was never God’s design. The economy God outlined for the people of Israel in the book of Leviticus included protections to ensure that a gap like ours between the super-rich and the desperately poor would never occur.
David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, once noted that a 6 percent cut in federally-funded nutrition programs might get buried somewhere on the sixth page of the newspaper—not especially noteworthy—but a cut that size would be like eliminating every church food pantry in our country. The size of Christian generosity to the poor would have to explode if we were to meet the real needs currently met by government assistance programs. I’m not sure my church is ready for that kind of challenge.
I hope to vote for a candidate who is willing to address this widening gap, who has an economic recovery plan that doesn’t gouge the social welfare programs our nation’s vulnerable need to survive. Instead, I hope that budget-balancing will focus on things like cuts to our incredibly overfunded defense budget and just taxation of both the rich and the poor.
Edward Gabrielse: Banks collapsed because government required them to make loans to those without the means to pay them back, on properties that no reasonable lender would otherwise consider. The “community reinvestment act” bears a big share of the responsibility for this.
I do not know of any conservative politician who would “scapegoat the most vulnerable.” Everyone I have met in political circles is passionate about helping the most vulnerable. But it is important that our policies do not enable people; instead, we must empower them. People who are most vulnerable certainly need relief, but when the government continues to provide assistance over the long term, I believe it stands in the way of their ability to stand on their own two feet. Instead of helping, this perpetuates vulnerability.
I believe that the Ryan budget is the only hope of saving Medicare and Social Security. (Is it more compassionate to save these programs or to run them empty?) This budget tackles the size of government through both attrition—not filling jobs when people retire—and limiting the growth of entitlements by extending the criteria for qualification some ten years or more in the future. This budget attempts to address the long-term problems of our entitlement programs, so perhaps it is a “friend to those in need” after all.
As for the gap between the rich and the poor in this country, which exists in many other countries as well, I would argue that during the past three years, the net worth of Americans has been reduced by 40 percent. If there is growing inequality, it is being achieved by reducing the wealth of the middle class rather than by increasing the wealth accumulation of the more affluent. The dreams of parents for their children are being eroded by the continual depreciation of those who are financially successful.
Kate Kooyman: I'm pleased (and a little surprised!) to see the many places where Ed and I agree—even if we stand firmly apart on the political spectrum. Although I’m sure that neither Ed nor I will be changing parties anytime soon, I'm convinced that this kind of dialogue is part of our call to unity in the church.
This kind of robust dialogue, in which we are invited to thoughtfully present our opinion, question its strengths, and humbly challenge an opposing view, reminds me that we don’t have to persuade one another in order to respect one another. And I believe it makes all participants better in the end.
About the Authors
Peter Vander Meulen is the director of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice.
Kate Kooyman worships at Grace CRC in Grand Rapids. She works in campus ministries at Hope College.
Edward Gabrielse is a long-time member of Wheaton (Ill.) CRC. He has taught and worked in marketing and communications until his recent retirement.