We worry a lot about presidential candidates, but this election is showing the need for thoughtful, hopeful voters. When voters are pessimistic and adamant about holding onto their slices of pie, candidates respond in protectionist ways. When voters are optimistic about the opportunity to bake more pies and share the bounty, campaigns brighten.
Churches and Christian schools that teach us to love our neighbors can grow better voters. They should teach that expansive, non-defensive Christianity has been the outstanding vehicle in human history for increasing the liberty of those seen as subhuman until Christians began viewing them as neighbors: the poor, the sick, the sexually exploited; racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; the not-yet-born and the declining but not-yet-dead.
Sure, we have to recognize that some Christians over the centuries defended slavery or embraced nativism, but they were doing what was common. The sensational news is that many Christians have fought for what was uncommon. American Christians with an expansive sensibility have always been the leaders in taking risks and making "We, the people" include more and more people viewed not as threats but as neighbors.
The big U.S. experiment from the 1840s to 1924 was whether the "we" could include millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Some Protestants who thought of America as a Holy Land fought what they saw as pollution by immigrants, but by the end of the century the consensus was clear: "We the neighbors" includes Catholics and Jews, and soon came a smattering of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as well.
The big 20th-century experiment was whether the "we" could include different racial and ethnic groups. Despite constitutional amendments, the Civil War hadn't settled that, since African-Americans largely remained poor and disenfranchised. In the mid-20th century, though, strong and courageous Christians (once again, sadly, with exceptions) fought for civil rights as many of their predecessors had fought for emancipation.
During February, Black History Month, children in Christian schools should learn the uniqueness of our history. In India, Hindu priests lead the opposition to equal rights for the generally dark-skinned Dalits ("untouchables"). In the United States, though, ministers like Martin Luther King Jr. and others of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference demanded to be treated as neighbors. Many Christians and Jews joined their cause.
Like or dislike his politics, it was good that Barack Obama could win in Iowa, where few African-Americans live. Like or dislike the Clintons, it's shameful that they have fought back by playing racial cards. While recognizing the need to control our borders, we should be sad to see some GOP candidates playing the immigration card.
America has been a land of addition, not subtraction. Social Darwinists for almost 150 years have tried to subtract the poor from the list of "we the neighbors," but compassionate conservatives have insisted on treating even the homeless as part of the "we" capable of working, marrying, and building families.
Christians also have insisted that unborn children are part of the "we," despite the Supreme Court's exclusionary attempt in Roe v. Wade. In the American house are many mansions, and our history is one of finding more room than we thought there was.
One woman who had an abortion wrote in 1976, our bicentennial, that "there just wasn't room" in her life for the child growing within her. Later she realized that she could have made room. She wrote, "I have this ghost now. A very little ghost that only appears when I'm seeing something beautiful, like the full moon on the ocean last weekend. And the baby waves at me. And I wave at the baby."
In this month that brings George Washington's birthday, it's worth remembering a letter he wrote to a synagogue in 1789: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid." That should be our continuing goal for this nation. We can make room. Christians should lead the way.
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