If you just want the short answer, let me cut to the chase. At the ballot booth on November 4th, I will be voting for Barack Obama.
Before I explain why, let me first provide a few reasons that are NOT part of my rationale for this decision. I am not voting for Obama because I think he's a flawless, invincible superhero who will cure cancer, save the planet or usher in some sort of utopia. He's not and he won't. I am also not voting for him because I agree with all of his policy positions on every issue. I don't. Third, I'm not voting for him because he represents everything that I believe in, politically, biblically or theologically as a Christian. He doesn't. The reason I am voting for Barack Obama is because I believe he would make a better president than John McCain.
Four years ago this week, Mark Noll wrote a piece for Christian Century magazine titled None of the above: Why I won't be voting for president in which he outlined the 7 issues he considers to be most crucial when choosing a candidate to support: 1) race, 2) the value of life, 3) taxes, 4) trade, 5) medicine, 6) religious freedom and 7) the international rule of law. As the title of his article suggests, he did not vote for either Bush or Kerry in 2004 because neither of them met his criteria in all 7 areas. While I'm disappointed that Noll, one of the most reputable scholar/historians in contemporary Christianity, chose to completely abstain from the ballot that year, I very much liked his model of a report card for evaluating presidential candidates. If Noll's pass/fail scoring system hasn't changed in the last 4 years, it's doubtful that he will be voting this year either. Even so, I can't help but wonder how John McCain and Barack Obama would measure up against Noll's standard. Out of the 7 requirements, how many does each of them meet satisfactorily? 4 or 5? Which senator would receive a higher score?
Much of the discussion surrounding this election has been about what the country needs most in our next president. Is it change? Yes, but what kind? Experience? Sure, but how much? Judgment? Of course, but on which issues? Intelligence? Certainly, but how is that measured? Communication skills? Independence? Character? Faith? The dichotomies of buzzwords are endless: words vs. action, style vs. substance, character vs. competence, personality vs. positions on the issues, ability vs. accomplishments, broad ideals vs. policy details, personal story vs. political resume, etc.
As we approach the finish line in this extraordinarily lengthy election season, it has become more and more difficult to separate the "substance" of each candidate (leadership abilities and policy views that determine their competence as president) from their "style" (the political strategy and effectiveness of their campaign). I'm not saying that style and substance can or should ever be neatly separated. After all, in order to evaluate the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it would be almost impossible to separate FEMA's ability to handle the crisis from the president's ability to communicate an effective strategy. It was a failure in both substance and style.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion surrounding the 2008 election has focused too much on style at the expense of substance. I challenge you to browse through any major news website in search for a summary of each candidate's positions on issues like the economy, Iraq, health care or education. Before you find what you're looking for, you will be bombarded by articles and links to stories about style, personality and campaign strategy. Who connects best with which type of voter? Which states and voting demographics are still up for grabs? What will the backlash be from this sound byte, miscue or TV ad? Which campaign has slung more mud? Whose debate performance will boost their polling numbers?
These might be important questions that play a role in determining who will win this election, but whatever happened to the issues? Are the candidates' positions on foreign policy, taxes, energy, immigration and the environment really so well-known that they are common knowledge? I will be the first to admit that it can be fascinating to analyze the political strategies that make the difference between victory and defeat. But with round-the-clock blow-by-blow scrutiny that reduces politics to little more than a spectator sport, I often wonder if we're even asking the right questions. While the question, "Whose campaign strategy is more effective?" is certainly worth exploring, our attempts to answer this question must not overshadow the central question: "Which candidate will make a better president?" Who has the better combination of leadership abilities, character, experience, judgment and policy ideas: Barack Obama or John McCain?
To answer this question with Noll's model in mind, I've created my own highly subjective un-scholarly 100-point grading system: 10 categories worth 10 points each. The candidate with the higher total score will get my vote. Narrowing my criteria to 10 categories was very difficult, but I tried to consider both the intangibles (character and leadership ability) as well as the tangibles (the candidate's views on the big issues).
While my understanding of the Christian faith is what drove my selection and interpretation of these 10 categories, I want to make it clear that God is not a Republican, Democrat, or even an American for that matter. He cannot be reduced or explained by the narrow, man-made political dichotomies and ideologies of this world. As Greg Boyd said, "You can no more have a Christian worldly government that you can have a Christian petunia or aardvark." For Christians, then, we must always be mindful that this world is not our home and whatever our worldly political views or favorite football teams or ice cream flavors may be, our first allegiance must always be to Christ, whose mustard seed Kingdom transcends politics, culture and history. "We'll never have a Savior on Capitol Hill" sings Derek Webb. Amen to that, but it's also true that not all politicians are equally flawed, which means there is still a great deal at stake in choosing our leaders. Herbert Hoover was no Abraham Lincoln. It is because of my faith in Christ, not in spite of it, that I care deeply about who becomes the next president of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the world.
Here are the factors on which I've based my decision:
1) Leadership. One of the biggest challenges for an American president is to strive for unity while respecting diversity. This requires experience, judgment, flexibility and the ability to respectfully disagree with your opponents. In his distinguished career in the Senate, John McCain has demonstrated the ability to bring people together from opposite ends of the political spectrum in order find common ground. Barack Obama, though less experienced, also has a unique ability to connect with people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints because of his natural charisma, eloquence and level-headed demeanor. Both candidates have inspirational personal stories as well as the ability to inspire and empower others. One weakness they both share is that apart from running their political campaigns, neither has any chief executive experience. It's tough to pick a winner in this category so I'm calling it even. Verdict: McCain 8, Obama 8
2) Character. Politicians are not known for their honesty, so I tend to take their campaign promises with a grain (or lump) of salt. Both McCain and Obama have changed their positions from time to time which is standard campaign fare. Even so, I expect a certain level of political integrity in the candidates I choose to vote for. Moral and ethical principles are inseparable from one's character. In terms of personal morality, I don't think McCain should be disqualified for his adultery and divorce in 1980, nor should Obama be disqualified for his drug use that occurred around that same time. The "Keating Five" scandal was an error in judgment by McCain as was Obama's association with fundraiser Tony Rezko. Both men have admitted these mistakes and learned from them which is very important to me.
Obama's decision to go against the Ivy League flow and become a low-paid inner city community organizer after graduating from Harvard Law says a lot about his values and integrity. Obama also deserves credit for his ambitious, but admirable attempts to raise the bar of political discourse to higher ground. In both his general election campaign as well as in the primaries against Hillary Clinton, Obama has shown considerable restraint and composure, some would say too much. I respect him for not taking a typical slash-and-burn, win-at-all-costs approach as many others have. Assertions that he is "post-partisan" can be applied to his refreshingly inclusive and respectful communication style, but his issue positions are pretty standard for a Democrat.
As for McCain, it is undeniable that the horrific torture and long-term injuries suffered during 5 1/2 years as a POW have shaped his understanding of human dignity and produced tremendous character. I give McCain a lot of credit for sticking to his convictions and going against the Republican establishment on issues like climate change, campaign finance reform, torture, immigration and reducing "pork barrel" spending. Although you wouldn't know it from following his presidential campaign, McCain is not truly a rank-and-file Republican. For better or worse, he thinks independently from party lines and calls it like he sees it. He has earned many friends among Democrats (don't forgot that John Kerry asked McCain to be his running mate in '04) and his reputation as a "Maverick" is deserved.
It's encouraging that both Obama and McCain are people who can balance conviction with flexibility. They both take their elected responsibilities very seriously, but neither of them are rigid partisan ideologues (except during campaign season). I'm giving the edge to McCain in this category because he tends to be more straightforward and clear when it comes to taking a stand. Obama has a tendency to be vague and abstract because he doesn't want to be divisive. Verdict: McCain 9, Obama 8
3) Economic and Tax Policy. As Mark Noll brilliantly states, "those who benefit most from the social infrastructure of the U.S.--from its traditions of liberty as well as its traditions of entrepreneurial creativity, its provisions for making business work as well as its culture of personal consumption--should pay the most to maintain that infrastructure." I couldn't agree more. Since the Sojourners website says it better than I could, I'll just cut and paste the paragraph below which summarizes how I understand the morality of taxes and budgets:
"Budgets are moral documents that reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. Examining budget priorities is a moral and religious concern. Our political leadership’s tax cut mentality ignores “the least of these”—leaving them with crumbs from the feast of the comfortable. And it does nothing to help our deficit problems. Religious communities spoke clearly in recent years about the perils of a domestic policy based primarily on tax cuts for the rich, program cuts for low-income people, and an expectation of faith-based charity. We speak clearly against budget proposals asking that the cost of the deficit be borne by the poor, who are not to blame and can least afford it."
In my view, the economy is McCain's weakest category. He wants to continue Bush's hands-off approach of giving big tax breaks and unrestricted freedom to corporations in the hope that they will invest their wealth in the U.S. instead of outsourcing to cheap labor overseas. He wants to continue spending $10 billion per month for the Iraq War with no end in sight, but he won't raise any taxes to help reduce the enormous deficit. Obama, by contrast, wants to end the war, cut taxes for 95% of American households and raise taxes only on those who make over $250,000 per year to help get the deficit back under control. It's encouraging that he understands that the classic balancing act between free trade and labor rights has swung too far toward profits at the expense of people. McCain's solution is to cut spending on everything except the military, such as social services and education, while hoping that the wealth of a few will trickle down to those who are struggling to make ends meet. It's obvious that the recent economic crisis has a lot to do with these very same failed economic policies of free trade deregulation and high spending under 8 years of Bush, but McCain doesn't seem to be interested in reducing military spending or regulating/taxing big business in any significant way. Can he really be serious about giving corporations even more tax cuts than Bush already has? This category is not even close. Verdict: McCain 2, Obama 9
4) Foreign Policy. The good news for McCain is that he has a clear advantage in foreign policy experience and knows more world leaders than Obama. The bad news is that his foreign policy positions are almost completely identical to the ineffective and costly strategies attempted by the Bush administration. Because of my interpretation of the biblical teachings to bless our enemies and be peacemakers, I am morally opposed to pre-emptive war. I may not be a hardcore pacifist in all cases, but I believe war should always be a last resort, not the first option. Even after 5+ years of bloodshed with over 4,000 troops killed and 30,000 wounded at a cost of $10 billion per month, McCain still staunchly supports the Iraq War and is opposed to setting a timetable for withdrawal. In addition to these losses, our national reputation and economic stability have suffered tremendously because of this policy of aggression. Bringing our troops home and taking care of their physical and mental health is the patriotic thing to do.
By contrast, Obama was one of the few voices that opposed the war from the start and seems to have a better understanding of the vicious cycle of revenge and violence. Other advantages for Obama in this category include the foreign policy expertise of his running mate Joe Biden as well as a focus on stopping nuclear proliferation. In my opinion, the fact that Obama favors a more diplomatic foreign policy strategy does not make him "naive" or "soft on terror." It gives him the moral high ground and credibility needed to change course away from cowboy-style unilateralism. Verdict: McCain 3, Obama 9
5) The Sanctity of Human Life. As a Christian, I believe that all life is a sacred gift from God, from the womb to the grave. As such, issues such as abortion, adoption reform, capital punishment, gun control, immigration, stem cell research and the use of torture all require a consistent ethic of human life. Neither candidate's set of positions fully reflects what I believe. Both candidates support capital punishment, while I am against it. On the question of immigration reform, I agree with both candidates that we need a humane and holistic way to fix the broken system without separating the children of undocumented workers from their parents. I am also encouraged that both candidates strongly oppose the use of torture, even for suspected terrorists. My position on stem cell research is closer to McCain's while my view of gun control is closer to Obama's.
McCain's stance on abortion (not Sarah Palin's) is slightly closer to my view than Obama's, although I don't fit neatly into either political category of "pro-life" or "pro-choice." While I believe abortion is immoral and needs to be restricted more than it is now, the possibility of overturning Roe vs. Wade is remote at best, as the eight-year "pro-life" presidency of George W. Bush (six years of which coincided with a "pro-life" majority in congress) did very little to threaten the landmark ruling. As is the case with other legal forms of immorality such as divorce, adultery and pornography, I don't think that seeking an absolute ban is the best way to attack the problem, especially in cases of rape, incest and other potential gray areas where vulnerable women have been forced to make a desperate choice.
Rather than focusing on the Roe decision, I believe that more attention should be given to the issues of adoption reform and support for unwed mothers, especially those in poverty. For any progress to be made, there has to be a bi-partisan approach geared toward reducing the abortion rate and reducing unwanted pregnancy because 1.3 million abortions per year is far too many. In many ways, I'm too liberal for the pro-life camp and too conservative for the pro-choice view. I have reservations with both candidates in this area since neither one is totally consistent. Verdict: McCain 5, Obama 5
6) Energy and Environmental Policy. Care for God's creation is a moral issue and so I'm pleased that both candidates are concerned about climate change (Sarah Palin notwithstanding). Both candidates also want to move the country toward energy independence and raise fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. What they disagree on is offshore oil drilling and how much to tax the big oil companies. McCain does not want to regulate these companies or tax their windfall profits because he would rather let the free market develop alternative energy solutions. Obama, on the other hand, wants to tax the oil companies' profits to help pay for serious investments in solar, wind and biofuel research. McCain's plan relies heavily on nuclear plants, while Obama is more cautious about nuclear power due to concerns about environmentally safe ways of storing the hazardous waste.
Another major policy difference has to do with what the candidates actually mean when they describe energy independence from "foreign oil." McCain's concern is that the oil is foreign. Obama's concern is that the oil is still oil. McCain sees offshore drilling as a way of replacing foreign oil with domestic oil whereas Obama wants reduce oil dependency as whole, regardless of where it's from. If you ask me, McCain is giving a free pass to the oil companies and Obama's plan encourages much more sustainable stewardship of the earth's resources. Verdict: McCain 4, Obama 9
7) Health Care Policy. There is a huge difference between the approaches of each candidate on this issue. McCain thinks that competition in the private sector will lead to the best quality of care, whereas Obama wants to create a national health care plan that would require coverage for all children. Obama's plan will certainly cost more, but it would help those who can't afford it on their own. McCain's plan is very cheap, but it's little more than the old free-market trickle-down philosophy that tells low-income families that they're on their own to find coverage. As it stands right now, over 9 million children in this country do not have health insurance, which I believe is a serious moral issue. If your child is sick and needs immediate medical care, the fact that you're poor or unemployed should not be a barrier to getting help. Most of the other developed nations in the world understand this and so does Obama, which is why he wins this category hands down. Verdict: McCain 3, Obama 9
8) Education Policy. Here's another category that doesn't get enough attention, but is crucial to the future of this country. I'm sure that most kids whose families can afford private school are probably getting a decent education, but what about the vast majority who attend public school? The next president will have a huge amount of influence in determining what education looks like for millions of children, especially the poor. McCain believes that "No Child Left Behind" has been working, but Obama thinks it needs some major adjustments including a higher priority for education in the federal budget. Similar to the healthcare issue, McCain doesn't want to spend a lot of money on education because he would rather privatize whenever possible. Obama's philosophy is to give public school teachers more resources, increase the eligibility for Early Head Start, provide more college scholarships for economically disadvantaged kids, lower interest rates on college loans and give incentives to new teachers who choose to teach in a high-need field or location. Sounds like a plan to me. Verdict: McCain 3, Obama 9
9) Global Poverty/Human Rights. As someone who believes that all life is sacred, I contend that the 1.4 billion people around the world living on less than $1.25 a day should be of great concern for the leader of the free world. According to the ONE campaign (of which I am a member), more than 33 million people around the world are infected by HIV/AIDS, 22 million in Africa alone and 72 million children don’t have access to basic education. In addition to these crises, there are other issues such as trade justice, debt cancellation, human trafficking, clean water/sanitation and food security that need immediate action. As it stands right now, the U.S. is only contributing 0.016% of our Gross National Income (GNI) towards Official Development Assistance (ODA) to poor countries which truly embarrasses me. In 2007, we were tied for last place out of the 22 industrialized countries in this measurement (for the record, the UN target is supposed to be 0.7% of GNI).
On the positive side, I am encouraged that McCain and Obama have both sponsored legislation targeting the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Obama also plans to set up a $2 billion Global Education Fund and has committed to embracing the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the U.N. in 2000, to halve extreme poverty and global disease by the year 2015. McCain has also expressed some interest in reducing global poverty, but has refrained from making specific commitments.
Regarding the ongoing genocide in Darfur, over 400,000 have already been killed and 2.5 million displaced, all of them people who matter to God. McCain and Obama have expressed some concerns about the crisis, but they both should be doing much more to put pressure on Sudan in order to stop this atrocity. I'm disappointed that neither candidate has spoken out in support of the International Criminal Court's prosecution of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide. Overall, I'm not satisfied with either candidate's level of attention to this category, but it seems that Obama will be more proactive than McCain. Verdict: McCain 5, Obama 7
10) Family Values. This phrase has become code language for gay marriage in recent years, but this is a narrow and divisive understanding of what it means to be "pro-family." As a Christian who believes in strengthening families, I would love to see a more holistic understanding of the family that includes reducing teen pregnancy, preventing domestic violence, protecting children from abuse/neglect, encouraging responsible fatherhood and providing support for unwed mothers (childcare, education and parenting resources to name a few). Education, heath care and economic opportunity are also family values that have already been mentioned as part of other categories.
The heated topic of gay marriage vs. traditional marriage, like abortion, has been used by both parties as a wedge to divide voters without actually changing anything. I strongly believe in traditional marriage between a woman and a man, but I also don't think that gays and lesbians should be scapegoated for the breakdown of the family or any other social problem that heterosexuals (myself included) are largely responsible for. The president's level of real influence in this arena has been greatly exaggerated in recent years. Has homosexual behavior decreased under Bush? How exactly do my gay and lesbian friends and co-workers "threaten" my traditional marriage any more than the heterosexual culture of rampant promiscuity and sexualization does? I may get some heat from my fellow evangelicals for this, but I believe that gays and lesbians should be entitled to the same legal rights and protections as other sinners including adulterers, divorcees, liars and materialists. If unmarried heterosexual couples are eligible for hospital visitation rights, health insurance, employment benefits and a say in their partner's medical treatment, how can we pick and choose which other sinners to exclude?
Neither Obama nor McCain wants to stir up the gay marriage hornet's nest which I think is a good thing. There are clearly more urgent priorities for the country right now. To his credit, McCain's attitude has been far more respectful toward gays and lesbians than either George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, but he still seems to define strong families in narrow terms. Regarding a more holistic approach to family values, I think Obama has a much better grasp of the factors influencing family breakdown and the ways in which working class families are affected by a whole range of economic, healthcare and education policies enacted by the government. Verdict: McCain 6, Obama 8
To summarize it all:
CATEGORY -------------------------------------- MCCAIN ----- OBAMA
1) Leadership ---------------------------------------- 8 ------------ 8
2) Character ----------------------------------------- 9 ------------ 8
3) Economic & Tax Policy -------------------------- 2 ------------ 9
4) Foreign Policy ------------------------------------ 3 ------------ 9
5) Sanctity of Life ---------------------------------- 5 ------------ 5
6) Energy & Environmental Policy ----------------- 4 ------------ 9
7) Health Care Policy ------------------------------- 3 ------------ 9
8) Education Policy ----------------------------------3------------- 9
9) Global Poverty & Human Rights ---------------- 5 ------------ 7
10) Family Values ----------------------------------- 6 ------------ 8
GRAND TOTAL OF ALL CATEGORIES: MCCAIN 48, OBAMA 81
There you have it. Obama gets my vote. If you still haven't made your decision, check out this informative non-partisan summary from Procon.org of each candidate's position on 65 different policy issues (in case 10 categories weren't enough) or go to VoteHelp.org which will help you calculate which candidate you agree/disagree with the most. See you at the polls!
September 27, 2008
If you just want the short answer, let me cut to the chase. At the ballot booth on November 4th, I will be voting for Barack Obama.
September 17, 2008
First up is Paul Manner, a quiet but focused public servant who can always be reached via his "24-hour voice mail." Apparently, the 12-hour voicemail package is not for everyone. Don't be misled by the lack of information provided for the Honolulu Advertiser's 2008 Voters' Guide (see my high-tech clippings below). Although he is a man of few words, Mr. Manner is actually very sociable and fun-loving once you get to know him. What looks like an angry stare is really just a front he uses to test whether or not you truly care about his candidacy. If you can't take him seriously, what gives you the right to hear his political ideas? Besides, you can't stereotype a person based superficial details like work experience, hometown or how old their creepy yearbook photo is. Everyone knows that public office is not about having a bright smile, an outgoing personality or cleverly articulated policy proposals. It's what's in your voicemail that counts.
Next up is Daniel Cunningham, who is anything but shy. He'll be the first to mention the fact that his doctor's license was revoked, but hey, nobody's perfect. A hallmark of the Cunningham campaign is his forward-looking plan to build a "21st century Noah's ark" out of "steel mesh reinforced glass" as an alternative to rail transit. In case you're concerned about the durability of this contraption, not to worry. It can't be affected by tidal waves, earthquakes or even ice ages for that matter.
While other candidates have conveniently side-stepped the hot-button issue of electric cars, Cunningham remains firm in his belief that they should be privately owned. Also, if you're an electric car owner who is looking to trim the family budget, don't waste your money on needless car insurance. It's common knowledge that your car already comes equipped with "automatic safety technology" that prevents breakdowns and accidents. While some in the unforgiving political blogosphere have dismissed his proposals as "preposterous" and "silly", Cunningham appears to the only mayoral candidate with the strength and resolve to put forward a practical, no-nonsense energy solution that will maximize our surplus of decommissioned aircraft carriers. With all the hype and focus on the "real" candidates, someone needs to stand up for the fair treatment of aspiring leaders whose talents have been ignored because of elitist media bias. If neither Manner nor Cunningham is elected as our next mayor, we will have no one but ourselves to blame.
September 11, 2008
The first 3 weeks of part-time grad school have been a whirlwind of study and discovery. Today, I turned in my first writing assignment: a paradigm self-analysis paper for my Human Behavior in the Social Environment class (SW 659). The instructions were to describe a central paradigm that has guided your approach to social work practice and "engage in self-reflection about the ways in which our worldviews and paradigms influence not only how we think about people, but social problems, their solutions, and our place in society both personally and professionally."
Before you read what I wrote, I wish to offer one caveat. Unlike my friends and family who regularly visit this blog, it's safe to assume that the UH School of Social Work faculty tends to fall on the far left of the American political spectrum (not to be confused with the diverse but much narrower political spectrum within evangelical Christianity). Because of this reality, I tried to contextualize my biblical convictions in their postmodern frame of reference.
Thanks to the glaring absence of Christianese (my native tongue), you will probably notice that I wrote this for a more secular and pluralistic audience. I debated whether to adapt/revise/tweak my paper so that it would work better as a blog post, but in the end, I've decided to offer you the raw and uncut version in all of its glory. Please rest assured that I have not abandoned my commitment to traditional Christian orthodoxy.
Now that I've scared you away from the social work profession, here is the unabridged text of my paper:
A central paradigm that has guided my approach to social work practice is the integration of faith and action. My deep personal concern for social and economic justice cannot be separated from my underlying religious worldview that fuels this passion. I believe that poverty, oppression and inequality are not merely political or sociological challenges. They are also profoundly moral issues of spiritual significance.
My belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings stems from a conviction that people of every race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion, disability and sexual orientation have been purposefully created by an infinitely loving and just God who defends the weak, comforts the afflicted and lifts up the oppressed. I’m not sure I could detach my values of justice and diversity from my understanding of God any more than I could separate the practice of reading bedtime stories to my son from my philosophy of parental love and responsibility. In short, I am pursuing the social work vocation because of my Christian faith.
I recognize that my values, religious or otherwise, have not been formed in a vacuum. I won’t dispute anyone who contends that my worldview is largely the product of an upbringing in the home of economically stable, well-educated, American, Christian parents who loved me unconditionally. My interest in social services is likely due to the paradigms they passed down to me.
My mother’s dinner table stories describing at-risk youth from her career as a school counselor have shaped my understanding of how factors like substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect and divorce undeniably scar too many children through no fault of their own. My father’s career as an international dentist and public health advocate caused me spend over 10 years of my childhood in 4 foreign countries (Canada, Congo, Nepal and the Philippines) on 3 continents. This unique upbringing enabled me to observe third-world poverty and inequality on an everyday basis. From an early age, I was instilled with a sense of global awareness and responsibility toward those who lack access to the many privileges of American citizenship.
Not only was I taught the value of helping those in need, I also learned that every culture has something to teach me. It is difficult to spend any significant amount of time immersed in a foreign culture without recognizing that the learning process works both ways. My parents modeled for me the balance of being open to new perspectives and value systems while still remaining grounded in their Christian faith, a faith that demanded action. It was this kind of faith that led them to take dramatic pay cuts and move their 3 kids across the globe and become medical missionaries in the first place.
I also recognize that Christianity has been a dominant paradigm in western civilization for centuries, often with oppressive, racist and violent outcomes. I understand that Protestant males like myself have had an overriding influence on American political and social history, notoriously using a twisted interpretation of the scriptures to justify slavery, sexism, racism, militarism and the genocide of Native Americans. I fully acknowledge that Christianity, like any other religion, can be prone to fundamentalist extremism when leaders have too much power, dissenters are silenced, minds are closed and hearts are numbed to the point where impenetrable walls of isolation, prejudice and exploitation are erected at great human cost.
At the same time, I would also contend that these systemic sociological problems have strong moral and spiritual dimensions to them. My theologically traditional, but politically progressive views have sometimes caused me to feel like a square peg in a round hole, neither dogmatic enough for the right nor secular enough for the left. There have also been times when the very core of my faith in God has been shaken by the atrocities committed against humanity in the name of religion. It disturbs me when the vocabulary of faith and spirituality is hijacked for political gain. I often feel pulled in opposite directions by the community of faith on one side and advocates for social change on the other. Still, the example of my parents has taught me that this is a false dichotomy. Faith and action work best as an integrated whole.
Due to the strong political influence of the “religious right” in recent decades, many people are understandably antagonistic toward religious language in general and have assumed that faith is the enemy of social change. Consequently, many on the “secular left” have downplayed the central roles played by people of faith in the great progressive social movements of the last two centuries. Abolitionists like William Wilberforce, feminists like Sojourner Truth and Lucretia Mott as well as non-violent resisters including Ghandi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu have all drawn deeply on their faith in speaking truth to power. Like them, I see the pursuit of justice and equality as a natural implication of my moral beliefs. Social transformation and inner transformation go hand in hand.
Another continuing challenge for my paradigm of integrated faith and action is the postmodern tendency to deconstruct or dismiss traditional ways of thinking in order to be sensitive to marginalized voices. In light of this reality, I am learning to continually hold my ideas with open hands, recognizing that I have much to learn from paradigms different from my own. The mystery of faith is a work in progress. If there is any group of people who should be morally compelled and expected to give voice to the perspectives of vulnerable and exploited populations, it should be people of faith. Without going into a theological rationale, it is sufficient to say that the basic assumptions and goals of social work practice are consistent with my Christian faith.
At the same time, the connotations of the word “Christian” can be highly polarizing and unhelpful unless the abstract baggage of this label can also be deconstructed and left open to subjective understanding and hermeneutics. For this reason, I am continually searching for the balance between speech and silence when it comes to the values that drive me to pursue peace, promote justice and value diversity. Even though my faith is what gives me meaning and purpose as a social work practitioner, I have had to concede that it is sometimes better to be partially understood than fully misunderstood because of Christianity’s reputation as a closed-minded, right-wing, anti-diversity worldview. If I want to hold on to my paradigm of faith as a catalyst for social change, I’ll have to live with both sides of the coin.
Finally, I have learned that my personal set of values, strongly held as it may be, is but one perspective among many. In today’s increasingly pluralistic context, it is vital that religious freedom be protected as a basic human right. Belief in a god is not a requirement for the pursuit of peace and justice, nor should religious faith (or the lack thereof) be a rationale for passing judgment on any client or fellow social worker. Since religious beliefs have the potential to be either tremendously helpful or exceedingly harmful, they must be handled with a great deal of sensitivity and care. Value differences are inevitable and must be respected. My competence as a social worker hinges on a willingness to recognize and appreciate a diversity of perspectives. My faith demands nothing less.