By Jennifer McKenzie
In a column last week, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, decried the actions of Ronald Reagan as the precursor to our current national economic woes. I agree with his assessment and remember clearly the warnings that my Democratic Aunt and Uncle and Mother and Father doled at that time: “This is NOT good for America. This is NOT good for Americans.” But I’d like to take an even bigger picture look at these economic woes from a religious perspective.
The whole gamut of conservative attitudes on government that I believe have gotten us into this (and other) messes seems to verge on one very dangerous premise – one that is surprising in that it runs contrary to the collective conservative religious views. The premise is, “I know best what I need; therefore, let me decided for myself.“ Now, on the surface that seems to fit the religious viewpoint well: Individual choice, individual decision, individual salvation. But a superficial-only look will not do. At the root of this attitude is a different decision, a choice to ignore the belief that in Judeo-Christian tradition there is no individual salvation. And shame on those conservatives who still buy into a political viewpoint that upends their church- and synagogue-going natures. Community is the nexus for all decision and choice, both rational and emotional. I cannot make any decision without creating an impact on others. The community in which we live, move, and have our being is first our local community and state, then our nation, then the world. And all of those levels of community are governed in their contexts by…wait for it…a government. Just like we need our churches to be strong so that we have both nurture and accountability in our spiritual lives, we also need government to be strong and, yes, accountable.
But beyond that, the real curiosity inherent in D v. R politics is this: The conservatives who tend as a group to be more overtly religious are the very ones who seem to be denying the fact of sin. In other words, if we operate on the premise, “I know best what I need; therefore let me decide for myself” (i.e. small government) then we are eradicating the understanding of and belief in our tendency toward sin – failing to always do what is right where the other (my ‘neighbor’) is concerned; ignoring that every single human being is a beloved child of God; putting ‘me’ first and turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor, outcast, marginalized. Why is it, for example, that the most politically and by assumed extension religiously conservative counties in Virginia are the very ones who oppose again and again to care for Christ (ref. Matthew 25) by denying financial resources to the last and the least: homeless children and adults; mentally ill adults; resident aliens (ref. Leviticus 19:33-34)? Does anyone else find it ironic that the liberals are the ones who seem to operate more concretely under the premise that the individual cannot and therefore should not fully be trusted and that the accountability and therefore shared responsibility lies in the collective?
The clear corollary is that the sinful “me first-ness” has found a way into the political landscape surprisingly under the guise of conservative “family values” doctrine. And so, the rich cows of Bashan get richer, the poor marginalized get poorer, the economy goes sideways and no one wants to take responsibility because there appears to be no collective conscience from which to do so.
The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie has served at St. David's Church, Washington, D. C., and Christ Church, Alexandria, Va. She keeps the blog, The Reverend Mother.