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In Politics Where the Winner Takes All, Losers are Ignored, Along with the Common Good
Three distinct theological accents are needed to address the idolatry of 'winning' at all costs in politics. Voters want more clear and helpful policy discussion.
By Karen L. Bloomquist
What has become apparent as the U.S. horizon becomes every more cluttered with candidates declaring they want to be President, is that the drive to win has become all that really matters – at whatever the costs financially, to candidates' integrity or to the prevailing political culture. Sound bytes or code words are carefully calibrated to “win” one or another segment of potential voters. All that matters is who or what will “win.” As soon as candidates announce, they are compared with others as to their “winnability” with this or that segment of the voters. In the process, more of the populace become even more disillusioned with the political scene, and thus more unlikely to vote.
Of course, winning is necessary if policy goals are to be realized. The problem is that when everything becomes pitched toward winning, discussion of proposed policies receives little attention and no longer seems to matter. Even a candidate such as Bernie Sanders is required to say he is in the race to “win,” even if his intended purpose is to elevate public discussion of what is at stake for the sake of the common good. The large number of people coming out to hear a candidate who consistently articulates this indicates what the public in hungering for.
The goal of winning, rather than genuine discussion and debate over how to address the significant public issues at stake today, reveals how captive political life has become to the reigning assumptions and mandates operating in a society and economy where the winner takes all, and losers are quickly ignored.
All is sacrificed to the “god” for whom winning is all that matters. To address this dangerous type of idolatry, at least three distinct theological accents are needed: the cross, sin, and the calling of government:
A way of knowing (an epistemology of the cross) is needed to unmask what is really going on -- from the perspective of those suffering, excluded and silenced -- in contrast to the carefully packaged political rhetoric and virtual realities of what is "true." Such conceptions have become the laughingstock of much of the rest of the world, who are utterly amazed that much of the American populace can be so fooled when lies are set forth as "truth" and truth as "lies." Political mantras are repeated so often that they are uncritically accepted as truths. How totally different are Jesus' words: "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32).
Defining matters in clear-cut, dualistic terms of good vs. evil overlooks the all-pervasive presence of sin. What seems to matter politically today is who sounds more macho or decisive in fighting “evil.” Thus, the sins of hubris and infallibility loom large. Greatness is one thing; infallibility another; an insistence on both is galling. Fallibility, ambiguity and paradox, which are inherent in a theological reading of reality, may not play well in political campaigning, but need to be acknowledged in political life, especially when years of policies based on the "war on terrorism" have escalated dangers around the world.
Any attempts to provide religious legitimization for political options must be resisted. Instead, potential and elected leaders must be held accountable to assure that the common good of all is served, especially those most vulnerable – through actual policy changes not just vague promises. This especially calls for assessing the effects of policies on those within its borders, but it cannot stop there. The scope of "neighbor love" that is central in a religious ethic cannot be limited by political borders nor only to human realities. Behind the various faces of injustice are the prevailing idolatries of highest profit and imperial power, which can not be ignored but must be confronted through political life.
Karen L. Bloomquist taught social ethics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, led the Department of Studies for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and later for the Lutheran World Federation. She now lives with her husband in Alameda, California.
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