A comment on Facebook yesterday got me thinking what American “traditional values” are all about. We hear it a lot, and I suspect it means something different to different people.
Here’s what it means to me.
It starts with an ethic fundamentally informed by the central tenets of Christianity — which are also excellent standards of decency by secular standards. We are called to have a relentless drive to care for the repressed, poor, downtrodden. As Jesus said, “whatever you do to the least of these, so you do to me.” It means extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all, in our own neighborhood and around the world. It means taking good care of the resources we have, acting responsibly, and affirming and supporting others so they can do the same. It means that, as our founding fathers emphasized, remembering that all people are created equal, are equally deserving of a good life, and deserve liberty and freedom. Finally, it means a constant realization that we are creating a human institution, and will always have an imperfect answer to these ideals, but that we can — and must — recognize our faults and strive to make things better.
How do these apply to our time?
We must start with the poor, the repressed, and habitually think of their situation in everything we do. That means remembering that when we drop a bomb in Afghanistan to kill a terrorist, we also usually kill 50 innocent bystanders, and devastate their families. It means remembering that illegal immigrants from Mexico come here because all they want is refuge from drug wars, food on the table, and a roof over their head. It means showing compassion in deportation proceedings: when illegal immigrant parents have a child born in the United States, the child is an American citizen and can’t be deported, but deporting the parents will create an orphan. It means actively helping the repressed people of the world, whether they be in Sudan, Georgia, or AIDS victims in Africa, Muslims in New York. It means reducing taxes on the poor, giving them the skills and tools they need to make their way in life. It means caring for those with alcohol drug addictions, helping them to summon the strength to get past those problems, rather than locking them up or throwing them out on the street. In days past, this might have meant sharing firewood with the family down the road that was at risk of freezing in winter. Today it might mean assistance with winter heating bills.
Remembering that all people are created equal means that we must provide good education for everyone, whether they live in suburban California, inner city Detroit, or rural Appalachia. We owe quality health care to everyone; those without means to pay for health care, or to pay for a car to get to a clinic, should be treated with dignity and respect, and have equal access to medicine.
Remembering that all people are created equal also means that we must provide equal justice under law, and give everyone a fair trail. We must abandon the death penalty, because we have a shocking number of people on death row — hugely disproportionately black and poor — that have been shown innocent of their crimes thanks to advances in DNA testing. We must maintain the integrity of checks and balances in government, and support judicial oversight over search and seizure. We must avoid warrantless wiretapping because it subverts judicial oversight and corrupts our justice system by making the exercise of power secret. We must denounce torture, and refuse to employ it, because no human, being created equal, deserves to be treated in such a way — and we have been applying it to innocent humans.
We owe the opportunity to grow up in a loving family, in a safe community, to every child. We must make sure that gangs no longer have the run of our streets, that drugs aren’t displacing hard work as the currency of the community, and that adoption is inexpensive and practical for more families, rather than costing thousands of dollars. Doing so will help every child grow up knowing that they are valued, are important, rather than being unwanted and therefore abused or neglected.
Extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all starts with being a good example — that shining city on a hill that Reagan talked about. We have to run an open, just, and fair society ourselves. We must not fear those that are different than us, just because they’re different. We have to recognize that citizens of Iran, Russia, North Korea, Palestine, and the United States fundamentally are humans, created equal, seeking the same thing: a safe and secure future for themselves and their families. Being able to coexist peacefully means starting from that point, and being willing to talk to them, and yes, even their leaders, regardless of how distasteful they may be.
Acting responsibly with our resources starts at home — things like not driving up credit card debt, not living outside our means. The same applies to government: massive deficits each year are exceptionally irresponsible and place us at great risk both at the present and in the future. We also have a duty to care for the planet and the environment in which we live, which means actively working to curb the things we do to harm the planet and cause global warming.
What about recognizing our faults? Perhaps the most patriotic duty asked of Americans is dissent. It is never easy, but is essential to keeping our democracy functioning. This country has a long history of successes, and also a long history of failures. We failed so many by keeping slavery legal for so long, and discrimination and lynching legal for even longer. We failed that Native Americans by forcing them from their lands and treating them with brutality. We have, to some extent, risen above these failures thanks to the ability to recognize them and try, to the best of our ability, to fix them. This is what the civil rights movement was about, and why we have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke out against a society that said some couldn’t eat in a restaurant because of the color of their skin, or who were repressed because of their economic status. He recognized that problem in America, and by speaking out against it, helped to change this country for the better.
Today we have to recognize the things we are doing wrong, and try to change them. We are torturing potentially innocent people. We are discriminating against Muslims and homosexuals in our midst. We are giving extraordinary power to big media companies through changes in copyright law, to big communications companies through failure to enact network neutrality laws. And we are labeling people that disagree with war as unpatriotic.
Notice some things I didn’t mention, such as abortion. It’s not really relevant, and the lines we are fed by both sides present us with this false pro choice vs. pro life debate. In reality, it seems to me that both sides want the best for the children: for every child to grow up in a loving family, where he or she is wanted. We all know from research that laws banning abortion do not actually reduce it. So we ought all to come together and try to make it more rare by providing more support to single parents, by making it easier to adopt children, by trying to make the perceived need for an abortion to go away.
So, in this election, I look at the candidates and it seems pretty clear which one is promoting traditional values and which one isn’t. Obama is actively trying to reach across the aisle and find common ground. Even in his convention speech, he suggested ways to work together on abortion like I just mentioned. In the debate, he listened carefully to his opponent and acknowledged when he thought McCain was right. This is a necessary first step in working together to move forward. McCain subsequently released an ad mocking Obama for this.
What about caring for the poor? Again, Obama’s tax policies, education policies, and health care policies take care of them far better than McCain’s. About responsibility? McCain supported these deficit-busting budgets of the last 6 years, supported the oil-centric energy policies, and has been only lukewarm towards dealing with global warming. McCain and Palin mock Obama for trying to help poor Chicago neighborhoods 20 years ago, for being willing to just talk to our supposed enemies, for actually reaching across the aisle.
So yes, I am a values voter, and that’s why I can’t possibly do anything but vote for Obama.