17 November 2004

Reclaiming the Moral High Ground/ Joan Chittister

This is from The National Catholic Reporter. Joan Chittister is the author of numerous books dealing with Christianity, contemplation, and morality.

Yes, but what about the rest of us?
By Joan Chittister, OSB

To tell you the truth, whatever the protocol of acceptance and concession speeches after presidential elections -- and I watched both -- I would not call what we just went through a national election. Or at least not a healthy one. I would call it a warning, a signal of things to come, the klaxon of what is clearly a crossover moment in time, perhaps, but not a real profile of the historic American character and hopes.

We are supposed to understand that by a margin of less than 150,000 votes in one state this "country" decided its policies, programs and world vision for the next four years. Or to look at it another way, in a country of 275 million, 3.5 million popular votes out of 120 million ballots cast is now considered a "mandate." Oh, come now …

The country is clearly too deeply divided to even begin to assume that we are now operating off of some kind of political authorization for neo-conservatism.

Down deep we all know that we did not, in this particular political exercise, see the fundamental ideals of the American public -- respect for differences, separation of church and state, the common good, and justice for all -- in full sway. We did see ideology at its most punishing, smothering and narrow worst.

The fact is that what we saw is what extremism looks like, what cultural evolution looks like, what fear looks like, what religion run amuck looks like. We saw radical right fundamentalist religion pitted against the most shameless definitions of secular liberalism as weak, immoral and irresponsible. It was the battle of two one-eyed monsters writ large. No nuances. No common ground. No common sense. No real evidence.

Instead, just when the township of Prestonpans in Scotland decided to pardon the 81 "witches" -- and their cats -- it had burned at the stake there in the 16th and 17th centuries, we managed to make a few witches of our own.

In 17th century Europe, "witches" were identified by things like liver spots on a woman's hands, or the herbal home remedies they brewed up to relieve arthritis pain or the common cold, or by the fact that they kept cats, considered by many to be palpable forms of the devil. Everyone "knew," on the basis of "spectral evidence," -- i.e., the assurance of witnesses that they felt evil here -- that the only hope for the commonwealth was to destroy them.
On about the same quality of evidence, in this country, in this election we pitted good against evil, the moral against the mercenary, parochial concerns against public responsibility to the point where we have jeopardized both our personal and political perspective, our best values, our deepest principles.

The thing to remember is that we have done this before in American history. Then, we called it Prohibition. It too was based on "family values," concern for marriage, personal morality and an attempt to control the quality of American life. It didn't work then and it's not working now, despite its list of more than 40 scriptural references on its party Web site as a reason for electing a Prohibition candidate.
Maybe that's why the Founding Fathers of this country rejected the establishment of a state church that would both define and monitor our personal choices and chose instead to enshrine for us the political task of establishing "liberty and justice for all."

I'm finding it hard to believe that religious people who are opposed to abortion on demand are really gleeful about the war deaths in Iraq -- 37,000 civilians according to the Brookings Institute or more than 100,000 war-related epidemiological deaths reported by The Lancet, the international journal of science and medical practice.
I doubt that those religious people who believe in tax relief as their strategy for pumping new money into job creation and economic development are really willing to allow our schools and inner cities to deteriorate.

I'm finding it even harder to imagine that those religious citizens who are truly committed to providing universal health care in the United States are, at the same time, committed to the concept of medical experimentation in human cloning.
Not if our religion is really religious.

I'm more concerned that paranoia and ignorance masking as religion are destroying our ability to identify a real religious voice in a time of great cultural change.

It was religion that generated the witch burnings of the 16th century. It is religion that has had a great deal to do with the witch burnings of this election.

Both positions -- personal morality and social responsibility -- in their sincere concern for the quality of public life and public values have a lot to commend them, of course. But neither of these emphases alone can really run the country. Neither of them have the magnetism, the real moral content, to bring a nation together in the manner of an FDR or an Eisenhower or a Johnson or a Reagan. No representative of can really be everybody's president.
The electoral map that defines in stark colors the United States as two different countries is a warning in neon.

From where I stand, it seems imperative that the great conversation on public morality and personal conscience must begin again in this country lest we now begin to view one another in terms of those colors, without respect for those issues, with mistrust. I'm convinced that it's these people in the middle, the ones who are neither dark blue nor deep red, whose morality we must seek out and make plain again.

This election pitted two goods -- personal religion and political liberalism -- against each other at their extremes. In the process, we may have injured both gravely. God deliver us from any more witch hunts.

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