Saturday, September 23, 2006

Barry Goldwater and the "Good Old Days" of Political Discourse

I was never a fan of Barry Goldwater, although I found his blunt way of talking rather refreshing. He was the virtual embodiment of conservatism in the middle years of the 20th century. His book, The Conscience of a Conservative, was the bible of conservative thought in the 1960's.

Lyndon Johnson, elevated to office by the assassination of President Kennedy, trounced Goldwater in the 1964 campaign for the Presidency. I was a high school student at the time and mostly remember Goldwater as the guy who was going to lead us into nuclear war because of his "extremism." I remember the famous quote in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention:

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

He took a huge amount of heat for that one, although I have to admit that the quote actually makes a valid point. Goldwater generated a lot of fears at a time when people were building fallout shelters in their backyards. I remember the short-lived television commercial depicting a little girl innocently pulling petals off a flower as a mushroom cloud explodes in the background.

Now comes an interesting HBO documentary, Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater. Produced by his granddaughter, it is a sympathetic depiction of the man, but it also has some important insights into politics then and now. Let me mention two.

The first is the capacity of politicians 40 years ago to mightily disagree with one another in Congressional deliberations and then to go out together, have a drink or dinner, and talk about life and family. There are many examples of this--Hubert Humphrey, Tip O'Neill, Lyndon Johnson. Barry Goldwater was another.

According to the documentary, Goldwater was a good friend of John F. Kennedy. It became apparent at some point that the two of them might very well be running for office on their party tickets. They talked about how they would campaign and apparently agreed to travel the country on the same plane, disembarking to discuss their vast differences on public policy issues, then climbing aboard together as friends enroute to their next stop.

Such a thing would never happen today, and we are the poorer for it. The politics of personal attacks, dirty tricks, and polarization are what we have in place of the spirited but respectful dialogue of another time. Oh them good old days!

The other thing learned from the film is that labels don't fit. Many of Goldwater's positions would be comfortably embraced by today's social liberalism. He had a gay grandson who he supported without qualification. He was appalled by those who tried to insert religious agendas into public policy.

The film is well worth a look. It helps us put perspective on today's political machinations and demagoguery. How we long for a climate where men and women of goodwill are allowed to speak their minds and unburden their hearts without fear that their lives will be stripped bare in the tabloids. The politics of personal destruction distorts and mutes the political discourse this nation needs.

I'm glad Barry Goldwater did not become president. But I am also glad that he brought his ideas into public life and participated in the vigorous but respectful dialogue that our world has a right to expect from those who would lead us.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

God and Politics: An Unholy Alliance?

There is hope these days for those of us who have been dismayed by the efforts of conservative Christians to inject their theological and cultural agenda into party platforms and political campaigns. The bumper sticker sentiment that "God is neither Republican nor Democrat" has seemingly been lost within the fundamentalist/evangelical churches. The tendency is to demonize Christians who do not share their social agenda. The constitutional separation of church and state is increasingly ignored by right wing ideologues who see those churches as providing foot soldiers for partisan conservative causes. The horror stories are endless.

The problem is exacerbated by Democrats and other liberals who seem tone deaf when it comes to understanding the language and perspectives of people of faith who do not embrace the conservative social agenda. John Kerry was like a deer staring into headlights when asked questions about his Catholic faith. Candidate after candidate just chose to cede the religious ground, apparently feeling that progressive politics could not be found in the pew. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

They took a thrashing in 2004, failing to defeat a vulnerable president and electing weak congressional candidates who should have been booted out of Congress so they had more time to pack for the Rapture. But the licking they took had some positive outcomes. Finally, at long last, some liberals got religion. It was a new kind of deathbed repentence.

They realized that they needed to find authentic voices of faith who could help frame the political agenda in a way that spoke to the hearts and souls of church folks. They had forgotten that civil rights, support for the poor, economic justice, and a vast array of social reforms had been birthed in the churches. Now it seemed that the only "Christian voice" came from the right--people who had unbending positions on abortion, homosexuality, and school prayer, with nothing to be said for poverty, equality, and peace. The progressive Christian voice needed a microphone, and someone who could speak sensibly into it.

One who emerged was Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian with social justice burned into his bones. Jim is the founder of Sojourners, an important journal of faith and justice, and of Call to Renewal, an interfaith effort to end poverty in the United States. I have been privileged to work with him in several different arenas over the past few years. I rejoice in seeing how his eloquent voice is now being heard across the land. His book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, has become a best seller. It is essential reading for Christians with a social conscience.

Now comes word this week that a blog has been created as a way of extending this important dialogue. Bookmark this site (God's Politics: A Blog by Jim Wallis and Friends) and join in the conversation.

I have written previously about how I awoke after election day 2004 with a seething anger over the role played by churches in that election. Where were the prophetic voices? Where was the demand for justice?

I'm beginning to hear the voices, still muted and often overcome by the strident rhetoric of the right. But I am hearing the whisper of hope. Listen for it, point to the places where you hear it. Add your whisper. Let it become a mighty rushing wind.

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