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Two Views of The Great Society

Creative Commons photo by Corbis Images

Creative Commons photo by Corbis Images

It’s been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted the Great Society. Some think we have come a long way since the 1960’s; some think we still have a long way to go to achieve those goals; others think America has moved in the wrong direction. Are we still discussing the same issues or is the conversation different?

Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, pulls no punches when he calls Republicans “Enemies of the Poor.” How can this be if Republicans are thought to be supporters of religion?

As Peter L. Benson and Dorothy L. Williams stated in their 1982 book Religion on Capitol Hill, “Three-quarters of the members of the U.S. Congress were genuinely religious to the point where religion was a definite influence on their thoughts and actions and an integral part of their lives.”  If that is still the case, why is Congress so polarized? Is it because their religions prescribe clear cut different social and ethical priorities, or is it that politicians have entirely different world views through which they interpret their religions?

James Davison Hunters in his 1992 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control The Family, Art Education, Law and Politics suggests two distinct visions of the great society:

  1. The Orthodox Vision – grounded in the belief in a transcendent God who created the world in seven days and provided a book (e.g., the Torah, the Bible, the Quran) that contains all the knowledge human beings needed in order to know, understand, and obey God’s laws. In the this version of Christianity, Jesus Christ is understood to be one with God, the personal savior who leads all those who believe in Him to eternal salvation. Truth is known through books such as the Bible and needs only to be learned and obeyed, especially with regard to matters of sexuality and the family. The Orthodox view sees America as blessed by God, mixed with a strong sense of personal autonomy.
  2. The Progressive Vision – here the good society is grounded in the Enlightenment. While not denying the existence of a God or Divine Force that brought the world into being, this vision focuses on the human capacity to seek truth through reason and faith in all facets of our lives. For religious believers in this vision, human beings are endowed with both reason and faith and acknowledge the legitimacy of scientific thought. The progressive understanding of life respects the difference between science and religion and appreciates the interconnectedness of all creation.

These two visions are exemplified today by two prominent political figures of Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. Ryan interprets the social teaching of his Catholic faith to mean “don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck in their life situation. Help people get out of poverty out onto a life of independence, which cannot occur when the people look to the federal government for help.” Ryan also has a fundamentalist view on abortion and same-sex message. On the other hand, Vice President Joe Biden (also a Catholic) actively proclaimed “the moral responsibility of government to reach out to those in need” and reminded the voting public that “Democrats had been doing this since FDR with Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, and now the Affordable Care Act.”

William V. D’Antonio, Steven A. Tuch, and Josiah R. Baker in their 2013 book Religion, Politics, and Polarization: How Religiopolitical Conflict is Changing Congress and American Democracy,  found that “over the past four decades, members of Conservative Protestant religious denominations have increased their representation in the Republican Party while declining in numbers in the Democratic Party.” This “influx of Conservative Protestant members into the ranks of the Republicans, and their simultaneous departure from the ranks of the Democrats, has contributed to polarization between the parties.”

D’Antonio, Tuch and Baker examined roll call votes over four decades and concluded “The Republican Party slowly moved away from the Mainline Protestantism that emphasized personal autonomy and individual initiative as well as a recognition of the need to work across the aisle with like-minded Democrats to achieve compromises that assured that the center would hold. However, the moderate wing of the Republican Party has slowly disappeared from both the House and the Senate, so that now the orthodox coalition that Hunter noted in 1991 has gained effective control of the party.”

Some of us believe that religion has polluted politics and hope for more of a separation of church and state. This does not mean an abandonment of political advocacy, quite the contrary, but a lessening of the notion of theocracy and a strengthening of minority rights. Meanwhile, according to Sarah Posner, both Obama and Kerry “have faced pressure to incorporate more religion into their politics and policy.”

Some of us believe that politics has also polluted religion by creating the popular (although erroneous) impression that most Christians favor the agenda and beliefs of religious right and thus, in my opinion, help drive many thoughtful and younger people away from any church. The recent decision of Catholic University of America to accept $1 million from billionaire industrialist Charles Koch is another problematic example if a distressing trend.

Seems to me that Jesus had neither a libertarian nor a free market capitalist agenda – he clearly favored the poor, oppressed, marginalized, outcasts, aliens, minorities and women. He died because he was a non-violent critic of the established institutional powers (both political and religious) with their entrenched privileges, legitimized violence and suppression of human rights.

What do you suppose that Jesus would think of America’s current expression of the Great Society? Does the orthodox or progressive vision most closely align with what Jesus taught?