You know the adage: No politics at the dinner table. Admittedly, few topics invite as much passion, rage, and idealism. But here we are, on the brink of another national election, and we need to know where we stand.Perhaps we Americans can forgive ourselves for moving through this Presidential campaign with a sense that its consequences are greater than usual. We have been through a lot in the last four years: the hanging chads and suspense of Election 2000, an horrific terrorist attack on U.S. soil that killed more Americans on that September day than at Pearl Harbor, our armed forces’ victories over an Islamic theocracy and a murderous tyrant, and now the ensuing efforts to assist the fledgling regimes that replaced them. At home, the economy has seemingly revived from its becalmed condition, but a host of questions still confront us. Indeed, history repeats itself. Fierce (sometimes shocking) campaign rhetoric, hotly contested elections – and even their outcomes – are really nothing new. Nor are the big questions that lie beneath the issues. Indeed, the necessity of punching a Presidential ballot or, increasingly, touching a screen is one of the few times we seriously connect the big issues of the day with our country’s first principles. What is our country really about, and which candidate and party will best express those ideals? The Founders launched the United States with the assertion that human beings are by nature free, and that we deserve equal protection of the law. That settled, we began arguing at once about what these ideas might mean in practice, and that debate continues today. So where are we now with respect to the great issues, and what questions should we be asking? Government’s first job is to keep us safe. Three years after 9/11, how grave is the danger of another attack on the American homeland from al Qaeda and its allies, and are we better prepared now to prevent one? Has the current administration done enough, and does the opposition have better ideas? What policies allowed all 19 of the 9/11 Islamic terrorists to enter the nation with legal visas, and how can we prevent future infiltrations? With respect to our foreign affairs, under what circumstances should American blood and treasure be expended in war on foreign soil? Is a preemptive strike against an enemy ever warranted? And are we obliged to attempt to transform a defeated enemy into a democratic state? We are mindful of John Quincy Adams’ 1821 observation that America ought not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She the champion and vindicator only of her own.” On the other hand, the U.S. successfully helped to create democratic states out of defeated enemies on several occasions in the 20th century. Is this leadership that the world should expect from the U.S., or meddling in the affairs of others that we should avoid? We take it for granted that government should protect our civil rights and liberties, but to what extent? Is the threat from radical Islamic terrorism so grave that we contemplate placing temporary or permanent limits on rights and liberties? And what about the civil rights of those captured in Afghanistan and Iraq – what legal rights should they be understood to possess? The greatest differences between the two parties and their candidates will probably concern the question, “What is government’s proper role here at home?” Should government be the first place we turn for aid or the last? What is government best-suited to do, and what tasks should it leave to churches or charitable organizations? Are child care, preschool education, health care, and support during retirement an individual or collective responsibility? How extensive a safety net do we need, and how do we prevent those assisted from becoming dependent on aid? The great moral question of our time, abortion, has lately been joined by another concerning the broadened legal definition of marriage. Both issues stand on a par with our country’s 19th century debates on slavery and polygamy, not merely in the intensity we associate with them, but in their forcing us to a close reconsideration of first principles: Where we once asked, “does ‘all men are created equal’ include persons of all races?” we now ask whether it includes those not yet born. And which spousal relationships are consistent with nature and free government, and which are not? Is exclusively male-female marriage recommended by tradition and habit, or something more? Finally, there is the difficult issue of immigration: Just how many immigrants can the nation absorb annually, and what to do about those who enter the country illegally, and those who hire them? Is it time to end the pretense and liberalize immigration laws – or should we further tighten our porous borders? For those adopted as new American citizens, are we doing a sufficient job educating them in American political principles and practices? Disagreement among Americans of good will about all these questions should no more surprise us than the disagreement we Christians have among ourselves about a long list of theological questions. Our assignment as Americans is to use our God-given abilities to reason, argue, and discuss in the weeks ahead, test how the candidates and parties stand with respect to political principles, and vote accordingly. Sure, it is a big job, but no one ever said self-government would be easy.
Posted: October 1, 2004