A Different Way to Understand Our Political Differences

John ArmstrongIdeology, Missional-Ecumenism, Politics, Poverty

I have mentioned columnist Kathleen Parker more than a few times over the years. Her Washington Post syndicated column appears in my local suburban paper and I always read it. Kathleen is a political/social conservative who offends the far right routinely. I guess this is one reason I am attracted to her writing.

big_Kathleen Parker01 Kathleen recently moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City. She left her solo, freelance writing work to join CNN, an international organization with what she calls “layers upon layers of human management.”

Here is the point she makes about her recent move to New York City and CNN. Living in a city of 8.4 million people brings with it some distinct differences from living in a small town in South Carolina, where she lived for years, and a quiet neighborhood in D.C. here she previously lived and worked on her own. In New York City 8.4 million people live in 303 square miles of space. Parker writes that you can’t appreciate the dynamics of this city until “you’ve experienced it. For every individual action, there are four-typed, single-spaced pages of restrictions.” If half the residents of New York City decided to grill at the same time on a beautiful day it would present massive problems. So the city has regulations piled on regulations about such things. To some these regulations seem like a denial of personal liberty. To others they protect liberty in the city by keeping it from chaos.

The crunch, argues Parker, is that a lot of government directed decision-making denies more and more of our personal freedoms, thus creating a combination that becomes less and less pleasant for more and more people. Government programs aim, generally speaking, to aid people with real needs. But in the process they very often eliminate the options that freedom has brought to us. We do best, she argues, when we are free to direct our own lives in most areas. And this fundamentally is where Democrats and Republicans differ. The main question here, which will not go away, remains: “At what point is the common good bad for people?”

But Parker takes this question to a different level when she says that people who live in more wide-open space in red states see less need for government than people who live in large cities. They do not want the government managing their lives so directly when they experience the open spaces. But those who live in dense population centers see this very differently. They will trade some freedom for “the convenience and cultural riches of city life.” I have found this to be true time and time again as I listen to my friends talk about this in terms of where they live and what they value.

The bottom line is this: these are two very different approaches to the role of government in particular. Parker is not sure the two can be reconciled. I think she is right. In a society where freedom allows citizens to elect their own leaders there will almost always be a kind of pendulum effect at work, as we will likely see again in November. But remember, we are likely to correct one problem by swinging in a different direction which only creates an opposite reaction and other problems. And all of this has a lot more to do with where we live, and how we understand our personal freedom and the role of government, than it does with our theology or personal sanity.

Am I off my rocker when I actually desire that the church understands things like this with a great deal more grace than with rage and anger? Government, led by conservatives or liberals, will never resolve all our problems. In fact, government (especially federal government) will only solve some of them in the end. (Civil Rights comes to mind here because we needed the federal government to intervene or injustice would have continued for decades.) But the most important social and everyday problems remain for you and me to address in our neighborhoods and our church communities. (This is a great argument, by the way, for missional-ecumenism as I’ve previously stated.) Government clearly has a role in helping people (the exceedingly vulnerable) and preserving justice. But conservatives think the tendency is for government to grow too large at the top thus in the process it will take away more of our personal liberties. Liberals tend to believe that government should lead the way on major social issues and seek to eliminate as many of the negative influences on people’s everyday lives as possible. In the city this looks one way but in the open space it looks very different. I find that insight extremely useful.

Remember, your view of the role of government is not tantamount to the gospel of the kingdom. When you think that it is you have made a fatal mistake that brings great harm upon the whole church. This does not mean the church should be disinterested in political debate. It does mean that we should resist simple solutions that come from within our own context without ever hearing the insights of people from varying and different contexts.  “Blessed are those who learn to listen and pay attention to the views of others who live in a different place and experience life very differently.”