Policy trumps image in politics

Posted Sept. 05, 2008, at 6:31 p.m.

There is a funny, scary movie of a few years back that’s making the underground rounds these days. It’s titled “Idiocracy,” and though it’s a satire set some 500 years in the future, today that future seems right around the corner. (Warning: If you are put off by the f-word, beware — this movie predicts it will be the main noun, verb and adjective in nearly every future sentence, as people grow dumber, angrier, and less articulate.)

In this world of the future, people are either watching violent, stupid television, or out shopping for junk. Toilets are built right into the couch, so you don’t have to miss a single viewing minute. The shopping is done at a megalithic Costco, miles long, where you can buy anything and everything, including a law degree, if you want to be a lawyer.

The U.S. president is a professional wrestler who wears a heap of bling, drinks lots of beer and doesn’t know squat. Everyone has forgotten how to do anything, crops are dying because they’re being watered with the product of the megalithic cola manufacturer, and the piles of garbage are as tall as the crumbling skyscrapers. (By the way, the Pixar film hit “WALL-E” is, I believe, a direct ripoff of “Idiocracy,” minus the bad language.)

Two convention events recently reminded me of “Idiocracy.” The first concerned reports that Dr. James Dobson’s politics-pretending-to-be-Christianity group, Focus on the Family, was marching in front of Invesco Field, praying that God would send a “torrential rain of Biblical proportions” during Barack Obama’s Aug. 28 acceptance speech. Why not just pray that God kill Obama with a bolt of lightning? (Oh, pardon me. That wouldn’t be Christian.) God’s answer to Dobson was a bright, sunny day for Obama’s speech, followed by a Katrina-reminder for the Republican convention. Perhaps God is amused by “Idiocracy,” as well.

An even more ominous sign of moral and intellectual decay, however, is the notion you can sell America on an inexperienced candidate by merely saying, over and over, that they’re qualified. Gov. Sarah Palin is the most recent example in her run for the vice presidency of the United States. A former mayor of a small town and a few clicks short of a first term as governor of Alaska, some of Palin’s own people have called her unqualified for the governor’s job, let alone a heartbeat away from the presidency.

This is the idiotic result of equating “family values” with political ability, which is what the far right has been attempting to do while evoking the name of Jesus. Personally, I think the current mix of religion and politics would have Jesus throwing the Dobson hypocrites and corporate moneychangers out of the temple all over again. Remember, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s?” Jesus was saying, “pay your taxes, but don’t confuse politics with God.”

The Republican theme of “Country First” — besides sounding like the name of a bank — is a call to worship mindless patriotism. Taken to its extreme, it recalls the giant flags and thought police of the fascist and Soviet eras. In contrast, Jesus taught God first, then your neighbor as yourself. Get those values aligned, and our country, structured under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, will do just fine.

The more we buy into the Disney-ization of political candidates — turning them into animated symbols of family values, war heroes and hockey moms — the more we succumb to the powers behind the image, the Karl Roves, Dick Cheneys, and Don Rumsfelds, who manipulate those images for the benefit of the special interests. Create the image, distract the voter with anecdotes and snide comments about the opponent’s image, and at all costs avoid the truth about your special interests’ political goals.

Moreover, the candidate-as-symbol inevitably comes up short. For example, McCain has admitted that he drank and partied his way through Annapolis, and that later his bad behavior destroyed his first marriage. No matter, he’s ready to be the poster old-guy for family values. Under these guidelines, it’s the candidate’s proclaimed position, not their history, which anoints them to office.

The fact is that no one of either party should proclaim themselves the arbiter of family values, since all of us fall short. Jesus is the best exemplar of human values, and family values can be derived from his teachings. But each family should make its own faith decisions, and build their own ideals, without benefit of politicians.

So, if you’re inclined to vote for Obama just because he’s black and embodies change; or Biden because he’s Catholic and embodies experience; or McCain because he was a POW and embodies maverick; or Palin because she’s a woman and embodies hockey mom-pit bull, you should stop and think: policy — not glossy image.

Which candidate will best defend our rights under the Constitution? Which will do something to provide affordable health care, job opportunities, an acceptable end to the war in Iraq, reduction of the national debt and inflation, improved international relations, abortion reform, additional sources of energy, etc. Then vote for the candidate who presents the best solutions for these critical national issues.

Politicians act the way they do because we allow them to feed our idiotic appetites for the lowest common denominator. There are people in power who want us to devolve from dumb to dumber. Don’t let them get away with it.


Lee Witting is a chaplain at Eastern Maine Medical Center and pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at leewitting@midmaine.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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