Welcome back, friends. I’ve been out of commission for a few weeks with a minor surgery and then a stomach bug, and I’m very glad to be back on track. As we are in the last week before the election, I have just a few more thoughts I want to share with you. Today I’m going to ask my final questions about things we need to stop doing. Next time, I’m going to ask some positive questions about what we can do to make our country better, no matter what side of the political fence we stand on. As always, I realize that I run the risk of offending just about everyone with my questions, but I feel that if we hope to improve the condition of America in any way, we must ask ourselves these questions.
Can We Stop Legislating Morality?
Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ll be upfront and say that I adhere to a pretty conservative Judeo-Christian moral code. I have strong beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil. It disappoints me when others don’t live by the same set of morals, because I feel that they are God’s laws, not just man-made rules. However, no matter how much I want people to obey those laws, I recognize, and I am convinced that God also recognizes, the right of man to choose not to follow a moral code.
Now, when it comes to society and government, it is necessary that there be laws which all members of society must obey. It’s the only way to protect the individual members and to ensure the functioning of the society as a whole. These laws generally encompass those things that directly harm others, such as murder, assault, theft, or fraud. The problem we run into is that whenever deeply religious people, be they Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, or anything else, become part of the government, they bring with them a desire to have everyone follow their moral code. Because they are in a position to affect legislation, they feel that it is their responsibility to make laws that will ensure people follow their code or face the consequences. That’s the downside to living in a country with many accepted religions.
The real problem with trying to legislate morality is that we have a non-religious government. While our founding fathers certainly acknowledged the importance of God in the formation and maintenance of our nation, they were careful to never specify a religion or denomination to guide us. And really, this makes sense. I, as a Christian, should not be required to follow laws that are unique to Islam or Hinduism. And a Buddhist should not be forced to follow rules that are unique to my religion. The things that are commonly held among all, those make sensible laws. The unique and peculiar regulations, though, should be reserved for each religious person to follow individually.
Sadly, I find that it seems to be predominantly Christian politicians and voters that want everyone to play by their rules. We want to regulate people’s sex lives, how they entertain themselves, and what substances they use. We feel like it is our responsibility to keep people from sinning. In fact, we feel that we can obtain God’s blessing on America (or turn away His wrath) by making laws against the things we think displease him. But history does not prove that to be true. Think of prohibition. Many well-meaning Christians sought prohibition, because drunkness and the things it led to were against God’s laws. And yet, when alcohol became an illegal substance, drinking actually increased. Years ago in America, adultery was against the law. And yes thousands, if not millions, of men and women continued to be unfaithful to their spouses. Laws don’t make people good, they only provide for punishment.
Think about this though, if you really want to change America: what would happen if instead of trying to legislate morality, we tried to change people’s beliefs and values through kindness, compassion, and generosity? If we believe that adultery and pornography are sinful and against God’s laws, why don’t we put more effort into building strong young men and healthy marriages rather than fighting against sex in the media? If we believe that abortion is wrong, why don’t we devote more of our time, money and energy to caring for at-risk mothers rather than lobbying old white men to make new laws? If we believe that polluting the environment is wrong, why don’t we put more money and power behind research, processing, and education that will provide cleaner energy, better recycling and healthier people?
We put so much effort, money, and passion into changing laws, but we don’t put nearly as much into changing hearts and minds. Yet that is where America will truly be changed – in the heart of each individual citizen, not in the halls of Congress or the chambers of the Supreme Court. Granted, we could make a case for outlawing any of the things I used as examples. They all have the potential to cause great harm to individuals and to society. Don’t think that I am advocating lawlessness or anarchy. But we, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians (or profess any other deeply-held faith) ought to be more concerned with the influence we have over the hearts and lives of individuals than with the influence we may have in places of political power. We need good laws, but we need good people even more.
Can We Stop Seeing Immigrants as the Enemy?
Immigration – it’s the first step of the so-called American Dream. You can’t build a better life in America until you are actually there. It’s why the Statue of Liberty is known around the world as a beacon of hope. The culture we consider “American” today is a product of the mixing of immigrants from around the globe (and if we’re being very technical here, even Native Americans were once immigrants, so there would be no America without immigration). Without immigrants from England and France, we would not have become a nation. Without immigrants from Africa (both slave and free), Italy, Ireland, Poland, China, and Japan, our nation would not have grown. Without immigrants from Mexico, South America, India, Thailand, Morocco, and Vietnam, we would not have the richness of diversity which we enjoy today. Our food, art, and language would be homogeneous and boring. I can’t imagine an America without ethnic diversity.
Perhaps that is because I grew up in what is generally regarded as the most ethnically diverse county in America. I was surrounded by people from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Korea, China, India, Iran, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and beyond. My life was enriched by this diversity. I learned more about history from talking firsthand with those who had escaped the Communist regimes of Southeast Asia than I ever did from a textbook. I learned to respect people regardless of their current circumstances as I interacted with those who had been doctors, teachers, and scientists in their home countries but now worked in shops or did landscaping and housekeeping because the privilege of living in America was worth the sacrifice of their careers and respect. I learned to look out at the world and not in on myself, to accept the differences in people, and to not judge someone by their accent, fashion choices, or cultural quirks.
But I see an undercurrent in America, reaching back to our very beginnings and stretching through to the present, an idea that there is an “Us” and a “Them”, and that the “Them” is the enemy of everything we stand for. They don’t speak our language. They don’t go to our churches. They don’t follow our traditions. They won’t put money in the bank. They just want free healthcare and education. They are taking our jobs. They’re a drain on our resources. They are threatening our way of life. Throughout America’s history, there has always been a “Them”. The Irish and the Jews in the eastern states, the Chinese and Japanese in the west. The African immigrants, former slaves and their descendants in the south. Today it seems to mostly be immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. There is always someone we don’t want in our neighborhoods, someone we don’t quite trust. It is almost as if we require a common cultural enemy in order for our identity to remain valid.
Now before I get all kinds of comments saying, “It’s not that I don’t like people from other countries, it’s just an economic thing,” I’d like to make two statements. One, for many of you, it is that you don’t like people from other countries. Or more specifically, they make you uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t think they’re bad people, but you would prefer if they stayed home. And yet, when you take a vacation to a foreign country, you think everyone should cater to you by speaking English and having a McDonalds on the corner. Check your logical integrity, please. Two, I understand that there are significant economic ramifications for unlimited immigration. My point here has nothing to do with official immigration policy, but rather the attitude of the average American citizen towards the average immigrant (legal or illegal). Just as your ancestors and mine came to America seeking a better future and life for themselves and their families, the vast majority of those who are coming into our country today are simply looking for a better a chance. They’re not here to take over our culture or to leech off the government. They have made great sacrifices to be here, and they want the opportunity to be productive, contributing members of society.
Maybe this is a hot-button issue for me because I have so enjoyed ethnic diversity, and because I have traveled to so many different countries and experienced their cultures. In Mexico particularly, I have held babies who are destined to grow up in a shack made of cast off trash without water or electricity, I have given food and clothing to children who spend their days collecting anything of value from the city dumps, and I have sat and talked with the mothers who just hope that their children – by some miracle – won’t have to work as migrant harvesters the way they do. In none of these people did I see a sense of greed or the desire to take advantage of the “wealthy Americans”. Rather, I saw people with a tightly woven community, transcendent joy, and strong values. In my own opinion, we could do with a lot more of that here in the U.S.
Throughout the Bible, God commands His people to show kindness and generosity towards the foreigners in their midst. He never told them to worry about the economic implications of immigration. If Jesus spent so much time teaching about loving one another and caring for “the least of these”, shouldn’t we, if we claim to follow his teachings, show that love, compassion and care for all of our neighbors, regardless of their culture, language, or immigration status?
Can We Stop Putting Ourselves First?
Oh boy, this is the hardest one, and encompasses everything else. I am as guilty as anyone else of this. Much of our political culture in America is built on the concept of inalienable rights. Who doesn’t love having rights? The right to say whatever we want, worship whatever or whomever we want, arm ourselves however we want, work wherever we want, drive whatever we want, live wherever we want, marry whomever we want, have as many children as we want, etc. The problem is that we have become intoxicated by our rights. What started out as the simple rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been so carefully specified that we are at the point where rights have begun conflicting with one another and we have begun to think that our personal rights supersede the responsibilities we have towards others.
Take these for examples. Our right to the fruits of our labor means we fight against taxes that pay for government programs we feel are either unnecessary or poorly run, but many (certainly not all, thank goodness!) that rail against high taxes and public welfare programs also have poor records when it comes to charitable giving to organizations that would presumably replace those welfare programs. The right to free speech is inviolable until someone says something that we find offensive. Then they should be off the air, hit with a fine, and their books banned. We don’t want gun control (“We’re not violent, really!”) but then we plaster our bumpers with stickers like these lovelies:
“Keep honking, I’m reloading”, “Pro Life, Pro God, Pro Gun” (as if the three are connected somehow), “Gun Control Means Using Both Hands”, and “I Don’t Call 911 [with picture of handgun]”. We cannot make rational arguments for the right to have our guns if we support our arguments with asinine slogans and belligerent attitudes.
The bottom line is that we fiercely fight to protect the rights we hold dear, and fiercely fight against rights that we feel would contradict our personal rights or beliefs. Perhaps we would be better off going back to the original three, and not restricting any unless they violate established laws of the nation. We must realize that we are not the center of universe, that our rights are not more valid than those of anyone else. We should quit seeking to flaunt our rights, and rather live in such a way that we put the comfort and well-being of others above our own. Saint Paul was pretty clear that this is the Christian way of looking at things (Phillipians 2:3-4), and the teachings of many other religions agree. You will find that the less you worry about holding onto your own rights and privileges, the more freedom and joy you will find.
So Get Out There and Vote!
Friends, I am not here to tell you which political party to support, which candidate to vote for, or where you should stand on the issues. Those are decisions that each of us must carefully make for ourselves. And I do mean carefully. Find the facts, use your brain, and make a choice. You don’t have to vote the way your parents did, the way your spouse or your pastor or your boss does. That is the beauty of this free country. You get to have your say, and the people who disagree get to have theirs. Of all the rights to cling to, this is certainly one to hold tight on.
Now, if you’re like me, you may at times be discouraged by the political process and by the individual candidates. To be honest, I’m not thrilled with my options this year. There are times when it’s tempting to say, “I can’t really get behind either candidate, so I won’t vote,” or, “My candidate isn’t going to win, so why bother?” I know, I’ve been there. I’ve thought, maybe I just won’t vote this year, but then I realize that if I don’t vote, I am basically saying that I don’t deserve or want the privilege of having a say in my government. I might as well be saying, “Just let someone else decide, it’s too much for me.” I can imagine the founding fathers, the civil war soldiers, the heroes of WWI and WWII, all rolling over in their graves and saying, “Then why the HECK did we put our necks on the line to make sure you had a choice?” I don’t want to dishonor them or make their sacrifice worthless, and so I’m going to continue doing my homework right up till election day, and I’m going to go in to that voting booth and make a choice, even if it’s not the best of all possible choices, even if I think my side will lose.
I will go in thankful to be exercising a freedom that so many others are denied, and I will come out knowing that no matter who wins, no matter which laws are passed, my God is watching and caring, and that He will not be surprised when the final results are in.