I wrote this letter in 2004, shortly after the re-election of George W. Bush, to a conservative Christian friend who told me — as I’ve been hearing quite a bit in the last few days – that she considered paying taxes a “theft” and that we’d all be better off if we could just wipe away most of the legislation and public infrastructure of the last 50 years. Here is my response to her. It’s eight years out of date… and yet it still exactly reflects my feelings.
You asked me to explain my bleeding heart to you, so the best I can offer is this: I think there are times when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By that, I mean that the ‘collective,’ for lack of a better word (though you would call it ‘government’) can often be a force for good. I would go further and say that there are times – albeit rare – when the collective response is the only force for good. Practically speaking, my moral values — which center on public as well as personal commitments to justice, eliminating poverty, protecting the environmnent, safequarding civil liberties, caring for the disadvantaged, using war only as absolute last resort, eliminating the death penalty, and being tolerant of others’ viewpoints — are not represented in the current conservative discourse of extreme rugged individualism.
You told me – facetiously, I hope – that the only things you were “willing” to pay for were interstate highways and wars. Okay, then, let’s do a thought experiment for a moment and take your “small government” out for a spin. I wonder if you can really imagine a world without publicly funded medical research? Without building codes to prevent devastation from earthquakes because developers were too greedy to build safe buildings? Would you want to drive a car or fly in a plane whose construction had no government oversight? Would you like to live in a country with no restrictions on land use or development? There’s a famous story in the public health world about the “tragedy of the commons” whereby farmers over-graze a communal plot of land because there is no individual incentive, only a collective one, to reduce grazing. When they finally come to their senses, it is too late. Do you really want to live in a world driven by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? I’m wondering, too, would you want a country without a robust national security system? Without public schools? Without hospital emergency rooms? Would you object to arsenic in your drinking water? (Bangladeshis don’t like it; and they can’t do a darned thing about it.) You and I may disagree (even strenuously) on the meaning of freedom and who should have access to it. But surely we can agree that our government plays a role in protecting us, not just “enslaving” us – as you said without a shred of irony. I have seen real slave conditions in the developing world, J, and so it’s really hard for me to hear you compare paying taxes you don’t want to pay to slavery. There are close to 20 million people who are actually enslaved throughout the world right now, by the way, and I’m using the term literally, not figuratively. So I hope you can forgive me when I say that this particular brand of hyperbole rubs me entirely the wrong way.
But getting back to my values. I can’t understand how the religious-republican political right has claimed the so-called “values” high ground by staking out certain non-negotiable issues (like gay marriage, stem cell research, abortion) and not other issues we might consider morally relevant. Why are so many of my moral values left off the table and written off as examples of liberal elitism? It’s a mystery.
You told me we are in the midst of a culture war right now – a battle for the American soul – and I’m really trying to hear you when you say that homosexual activism is a deep threat to your beliefs. But I don’t want to ‘crush’ homosexuality, as you suggest, I want to stomp out intolerance cloaked in righteousness. It’s the Christian-Right power elite that threatens me more than a fellow human being’s sexual identity.
I don’t want to offend you by airing my religious beliefs –which are so different than yours –but I truly believe that any author of our universe would create a world with infinite cultural variety and complexity. Such a god would give us minds capable of extraordinary reasoning and subtlety and creativity. I cannot accept that this God would give us only one single way to know and understand and serve Him. I know you are truly concerned about my salvation, but people who see the world as I do are genuinely offended by the claims of our Christian friends who claim the one true path to salvation; their unwavering certitude makes us especially alert to any suggestion of hypocrisy or inconsistency in their belief system. When I see “cherry-picking” in the far-right Christian political arm, I wonder why the moralism is directed at certain kinds of people and certain kinds of problems. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s self-serving.
I wonder when I hear people talking about homosexuals and welfare queens and East Coast liberal elites… where’s the righteous Christian anger at unbridled capitalism? Where’s the anger at Ken Lay over at Enron and all the other corporate crooks? Why is the anger directed at poor people, not the corporate power elite? Let’s be honest: I don’t know the gospels as well as you do but I went to Episcopal schools my whole life and I do recall that Jesus didn’t much care for rich people. How can this greed not be a huge, huge issue for Christians?? Where’s the outrage at our growing disparities between the haves and the have-nots? (more pronounced than at any point in American history since the gilded age in the 1890s.)
Where’s the outrage about the death penalty? Killing adolescents and retarded people? Why should ANY criminal be killed? And the appalling state of our prisons (denying people mental health and substance abuse treatment and locking them up at unprecedented rates without any hope of rehabilitation)? Where’s the Christian decency and compassion over that? Where’s the outrage at our shameful performance at Abu Grahib?? Upwards of 100,000 “excess” deaths have occured in Iraq – and the ugly truth is that most of those people wouldn’t have died if Bush and Rumsfeld had simply taken good advice from their own people, (Keep in mind, I was not initially completely opposed to this war in Iraq, so I can’t be accused of being a knee-jerk liberal on this point.)
So, tell me: Where’ s the Christian outrage over such indifference to human life? Why no demands for accountability? Is this what God wants? Where’s the outrage at our disgraceful lack of stewardship of our beautiful, God-given environment? Why are representatives of the energy business allowed to write laws (not just lobby legislators – but actually write legislation!) about the environment? Where’s the Christian outrage at the Bush administration’s shameful contempt for our natural wonders? I consider them gifts from God far too precious to entrust to the hands of people who want to make money off them. People like me – basically “decent” human beings who do not define themselves as Christians in the way you do — would have a lot more patience for the Christian right agenda if we saw the intellectual honesty in it. But we don’t. It seems incoherent and idiosyncratic and extraordinarily mean-spirited.
Our country — the very first democracy founded on principles of the Enlightenment, principles based on reason and a respect for the weight of evidence and a profound tolerance for the “opinions of man” — is on very, very dangerous when we blur the line between faith and government. I am scared when I read that 72% of Americans do not believe in evolution or that 75% of Bush supporters believe that the Iraqis played a direct role in September 11th. I feel there has been a hijacking of our God-given reason and, while it may suit your needs right now, history shows that democracies cannot succeed on those terms for long. The same “faith” that drives your political agenda now could well mutate into something you find wrong and dangerous. What will you do then? There’s a reason we have had a long-standing separation of state and religion and I am saddened to be a citizen of a country where people think they can destroy that basic pillar of our democracy.
You told me that I don’t understand the very real “contempt, anger, and suspicion” you have for what you call “government power elites.” Can you understand that I have my own anger and suspicion of the people who run Enron and Halliburton? In my life in the public health world, I saw again and again how hard corporations worked to avoid even minimal protections for public health and safety. I have seen again and again how the profit motive drives decisions at the expense of reason and fairness. Sometimes what’s good for industry is good for the commons. But often it’s the opposite. Does society have no right whatsoever to make occasional course corrections? So many of the things we take for granted — occupational safety; clean air and water; the “right” not to get cancer from greedy, toxin-dumping companies; you name it — have come from strong government intervention and challenges from the courts.
And it’s when you go to places like Africa and Latin America and South Asia that you see what living without strong government protections would do to us. That’s where you see people literally toiling like mules for 18 and 20 hour days for a wage that can’t even buy them a bowl of rice or, in a lot of cases, no wage at all; children of five carrying back-breaking bricks all day long and hunched over hot fires and forced to weave wool rugs with their tiny fingers; people who are hideously scarred and maimed from working in brutal industries without even the most basic workers’ protections; women who are raped by their bosses because they asked for a bathroom break… that’s when you see that we have so much to be thankful for in our American government – of the people, by the people, for the people.
I don’t understand your blanket contempt for our government. Yes, yes, there are governmental excesses, follies, even disasters. But we, the people, are our government! It’s an unaffordable luxury to distance yourself from your government, especially when people around the world die for the rights we spit on. And how can you not see the many things we get right? I believe that our government gives us protection not just from the hard tyranny of the Osama bin Ladens of the world — and I don’t see you calling to shut off that government spigot, FYI– but also from the soft tyranny of private sector elites who put their own desires consistently ahead of the interests of their neighbors.
By your own admission, you have led a sheltered life. We all have, in our own ways. So I’m not trying to sound condescending or rude but I wonder if you have considered learning something more about people who can’t vote, or people who live in actual slavery; or people who are just plain poor; or people who just can’t get a break. You may find that playing by the “rules” only gets you so far in life. Of course there are deadbeats and people who work the system. I don’t disagree! I knew such people when I worked as a case manager and saw firsthand quite a few able-bodied people who wanted government handouts. It was nauseating. But the alternative is even more nauseating: a world where we indiscriminately cut people off at the knees out of some disproportionate fear that a minority will take advantage of us. I return again and again to this incompatibility of the current Republican agenda with my religious and moral beliefs. There seems to be a disconnect with reality. A lie, in fact, that if you play fair, you’ll get ahead. But it’s not just about trying to live the American dream. Being a good citizen. Believing in God.
Millions of people play by these rules and, still, their lives are abject misery. And what I want to know is: Why do you presume that our government — the richest and most powerful in the world — shouldn’t help them? Why do you think a collective response is more morally repugnant than a private, personal one?
Like you, I just can’t move beyond the life experiences that have shaped me. I have seen crushing poverty firsthand in Africa and Asia and I know there could never be enough faith groups and private sector initiatives in our wildest dreams to redress a government policy that unfairly penalizes African farmers or turns a blind eye to slaughter and disease. Sure, we’d all like to keep our money to ourselves and direct it where we see fit. (You can be damned sure I wouldn’t give a dime to a lot of things you’d support!) But we can’t expect private charity alone to make a dent in all our problems – especially when other sectors of the American economy are actively harming people here and overseas. (I’m referring to our scandalously wrong-headed agricultural policies. But we could point to our energy policy and its implications for women’s status in the Arab world. There are zillions of other examples.)
Even in the U.S., I have seen many, many decent people who just couldn’t get ahead in life. I am really bothered by all the anecdotes rich people like to tell about the frauds and con artists they know – like your babysitter who wants subsidized childcare. Come on, do you think liberals really like freeloaders? We don’t! But these mythic cases begin to take on a life of their own and they completely overshadow the very real structural impediments to having any stake at all in society when a person is so economically unstable that his life falls apart when his car breaks down.
I think a lot about families I’ve met in my travels in the developing world – people who are crushed by blinding poverty (and I mean that literally, by the way. When I worked in Bangladesh, one of the biggest public health problems was blindness from vitamin A deficiency) and I wonder at the Republicans’ callousness and un-Christian attitude to people in need. There seems to be some kind of fiction that these problems can be eradicated through “points of light,” not through muscular government commitments. And, yet… let’s not ignore the hypocrisy. These same fiscal conservatives who don’t want to fork over a dime of federal money for a national health insurance plan think nothing of giving billions of dollars in weapons. I am ashamed by how little money our government spends on foreign assistance compared to the money we spend on buying arms for other countries. Please don’t insult my intelligence by calling this ‘nation building.’ I guarantee we’ll spend the next 40 years undoing the damage to these nations we’re building. If there is a God, I assume He’s looking down at us with disgust. I wonder how we can cozy up to a regime like Saudi Arabia — where women are locked in buildings to die in a fire because it would be too shameful to let them escape without their veils — and I wonder why so many Republicans would prefer reliance on despicable tyrants to an honest discussion about energy policy.
When I look at the lives of these oppressed souls I have seen up close, I feel so deeply grateful that I live in a country that has fought for civil rights, for women’s rights, for so many liberties that others don’t have. It wasn’t General Electric or Ford that gave us the Voting Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act or the Fair Housing act. Our government gave us these liberties. And our country is, fundamentally, a nation based on the rule of law. You say it’s based on Christian principles and that’s true… to a point. (We can ignore for a moment the fact that some of the founding fathers were Deists.) But more than anything… the history of America is the history of the rule of law. Without the rule of law, you can’t take for granted any of the things I’ve described and, more important, you can’t take for granted your right to practice your religion.
Of course I believe in public-private partnerships and I absolutely acknowledge the follies of some of our government interventions. I’m not naive about the limitations of government initiatives and, as you know, I consider myself a centrist on many issues. But — let me be clear — many people view the private sector with the same suspicion and disgust that you view the public sector. And, by the way, my very nice husband is one of those “government power elites” you say you so disdain. Nicholas spends three weeks every year reviewing grants for the National Institutes of Health. It’s entirely voluntary and uncompensated; he gets no monetary or academic credit for it. He simply believes it is his civic duty to ensure that we have the most open and generous system of medical research in the world. There’s an example of your “power elite” in action. I know lots and lots of people who are proud to work for our government. My brother-in-law in the state department, for example, and my cousin in Iraq.
The final thing I want to mention — at the risk of further alienating you — is abortion. I agree that it is a terrible scourge on our society. And I am assuming that you see no circumstances in which abortion is acceptable. On the other hand, you do support a president who has been an unabashed supporter of the death penalty, especially in his capacity as governor of a state that has perhaps the nation’s worst record of fairness/incompetence on this issue. You also support a party that believes in waging offensive, not defensive, war, in certain specified conditions. So, there are clearly some limited areas where you see the role of government-sanctioned killing. (I’m not making a judgment about whether you like it, just that you haven’t ruled it out.)
I don’t want to make any defense of abortion. I don’t really have one, at least in most cases. But I do want to ask if you are aware that abortions have increased quite dramatically under Bush’s tenure after an eight year decline? I wonder if you are willing to search into that big heart and big brain of yours and explore why this might be so.
Please know, J, that my political beliefs are informed (like yours) by my hands-on life experiences. I feel called to these beliefs and actions. They are not frivolous or un-godly. I believe in my heart in the righteousness/rightness of my views. (I can only speak for my own heart, and don’t presume to have an objective ‘rightness,’ but my point is that we all truly believe in the moral underpinnings of our positions and actions.) Equally, I feel called to have an open mind, to listen and learn from others and to accept that knowledge is sometimes provisional. I consider it a sign of moral strength, not weakness, to think cautiously and humbly – and even provisionally – about certain complex moral issues, knowing that I am an imperfect human. I respect your views and your commitments, too, even when they hurt me or people around me, because I know you are doing what you think is right. I know we both share a commitment to a more just and humane world even thought we approach this commitment differently.
Thank you for this dialogue which has been painful but important. I hope you can see that some of the liberal anger you describe as “mindless” is, rather, simply based on a different world view. A different sense of moral righteousness. You say you hope the Republican party will go forward, taking the high moral ground. Indeed.