From My Thesis: Self-Interest and Voting

For progressives who are especially attuned to situations of oppression and injustice, the plight of rural white working-class people should be a concern. Instead, they are dismissed because of their repugnant political beliefs, with no understanding of how or why they arrived at those beliefs. White progressives still advocate for and stand alongside black Americans, Muslims, or Hispanic people, despite the existence of some poll numbers showing, for instance, the level of antipathy among these groups for the rights of LGBT people.[1] Why is the same consideration not extended to the rural white working class?  Hochschild calls this the ”empathy wall,” that which inhibits the understanding of another’s deep story, and the resultant inability to have empathy or understanding for those very different from us.[2]

Finally, this is a group that is largely disdained and derided by other populations. As noted above, Nancy Isenberg has traced this history of cultural alienation in her book. This has resulted in the determination by advocacy and political groups that rural white working-class people aren’t worth the time. One particularly pernicious narrative applied to them is the idea that they, politically, they vote and support candidates who go against their own interests. This infantilizing narrative robs rural white working-class people of their own agency. To reduce the interests of white working class people to merely economic considerations is to reduce the humanity of these people, and to disparage their ability to make rational choices about their own lives. Additionally, it is a narrative firmly entrenched in a neo-liberal, market oriented world, one where the only legitimate choices to be made (at least by those we look down our noses at) are strictly economic in nature. Christians especially should eschew such essentializing narratives about human beings.

Instead, we need to understand that people make decisions – rational decisions – for a variety of reasons that are ultimately personal for each person. If any economically distressed person chooses to vote for and support candidates or policies that are not directly beneficial to their financial well-being, but instead picks a candidate that speaks to their cultural, social or identity priorities, then it is important to view that as a legitimate and reasonable choice to make, even if we abhor the positions and policies endorsed by such a vote. Even more importantly, if Christians claim to care about these people, then we must understand the real reasons behind these actions, and take real, concrete steps to address them, rather than dismissing them as irrational and self-destructive actors undeserving of our attention. The electoral results of 2016 demand such a response, not to mention the inherent dignity of each person.

[1] Pew Research Center, ”Support for Same-Sex Marriage at Record High, but Key Segments Remain Opposed,” June 2015, accessed March 25, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/06/6-8-15-Same-sex-marriage-release1.pdf.

[2] Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land, 5.

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The death penalty is wrong

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t post political stuff on Facebook anymore, because I just don’t think it does much good in the world. In the case of the news about the Department of Justice reinstating the death penalty for federal inmates, however, I felt this week compelled to speak out as a Christian and a theologian.

One of the most basic ethical positions of the Church has long been an opposition to capital punishment. Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, Orthodox: across the board, with few exceptions, all these churches take an official stance opposing the taking of life as a form of punishment. The few strands of Christianity that do express religious support for the death penalty (many of which are politically active in the United States) are well outside the mainstream of 2000 years of the Christian tradition, and are often beholden to and inseparable from the secular state.

The death penalty is wrong, it is immoral, and it flies in the face of God’s good order for the world, an order that includes God’s prerogative to give and take life, not ours. To decide that we can rightly determine when someone deserves to live or die is to usurp the authority of God. It is even worse that this is being done by an Administration that claims to be the “most Christian” administration in history. This action, combined with so many others they have taken over the last few years, make that claim laughable, and reveal them as actually one of the most anti-Christian regimes this country is seen.

I’ll give the last word here to John Howard Yoder, from his essay on the death penalty entitled “The End of Sacrifice”: “Forgiveness is the response to evil dictated by God’s own nature and by Jesus’ example and command. We should seek to save the life even of the murderer fully culpable for the act which society wants to kill him. The death penalty is wrong, not because it is not merited by some, but because merit is not the basis on which, since Jesus, we should decide who has a right to belong to the human race.”

WaPo: There’s No Need for a Religious Left

I’m about a month late in sharing this, but I had a short opinion piece published by the Washington Post recently, on the subject of Pete Buttgieg and the Religious Left. Here’s a taste:

American progressivism, for all that is good about it, is no more Christian than political conservatism. Both are worldly ideologies, both of which may share some priorities or affinities with various aspects of Christian faith, but which are both ultimately something other than faith in the Crucified God. Tying the Christian faith to power politics is a fatal distortion. Christianity is all about the creation of an alternative polis, a colony (in the words of theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon), showing the power of self-sacrificing love and the potential of communal salvation for the world. Christianity should not be baptizing passing political winds; it should always be a critical voice, whether our friends are in power. To associate the faith with a political agenda is to fall into the same old Constantinian trap the Christian Church has been liable to since the 4th century.

I’ve gotten some pretty good pushback, mostly in the form of my fellow travelers on the left pushing back on my suggestion that we pull the reins on a Christian left electoral movement. I may get around here to trying to respond to that criticism, as I think my emphasis is being missed. Meanwhile, I’d love some more, thoughtful feedback here. Do you think I’m nuts? Or right on? Leave a comment below.