Elizabeth Warren, Mitt Romney and the Common Good (And My Answer Is Not What You Would Expect)

My dear partner and I are a mixed marriage.  He’s comes from Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, I am African American and Puerto Rican.  It’s gets better: he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican. This means that we tend to have some interesting talks during election years.  Recently, we were talking about the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate.  As much as I tried to explain to Daniel that I didn’t think the Ryan budget was going to destroy Medicare, he wondered aloud about how his budget might hurt the poor.

Mitt Romney is not helping my argument.

The liberal magazine Mother Jones, caught Romney at a fundraiser where he stated that 47 percent of Americans would vote for President Obama because they are “dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

The statement has lit of the internet confirming for many liberals that Romney is the cold-hearted rich guy they thought he was.  Conservatives have rushed to his defense offering excuses for Romney’s poor choice of words.  However, not all conservatives are letting him off that easy.  David Brooks wrote a scathing op-ed in today’s New York Times about Romney and his choice of phrase.

The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.

Romney’s comments also reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact. In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62 percent of Republicans believed that the government has a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of Republicans believe that.

The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view — from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers. There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.

Now, those on the more liberal end of the spectrum are going to find any excuse to take Romney down.  That said, his statement is troubling and should be for those of us who are Christians. Our Christian faith teaches us that we don’t live for ourselves but we live for others as Christ did while on earth.  I think too often Christians who tend to lean Republican have developed a language of what Brooks calls hyperindividualism, that basically says we are on our own.  I doubt a President Romney would end the welfare state upon taking the oath of office, but his statement makes one wonder how much he or Republicans care about society in general.  The problem with Republicans today is that while we might talk about getting government off our backs, we have not replaced it with anything that states that we are connected in some way.  Conservatives have in the past talked about how various institutions connect humans to each other.  In religious parlance, the church, the government, and all those clubs and other groups are what allows us to look after one another.  It seems that Republicans who are Christians have forgot how we are called to care for our sisters and brothers.  If you don’t believe me, go and read the book of James.

It is past time for Christians who are Republicans to speak up for the common good.  It doesn’t mean we have to support big government programs, but it does mean that government has a role and we must also be willing to talk about the other parts of this human web: churches and mutual organizations that work together to make society strong.

But my liberal friends should not get so smug.  If conservative Christians are to be faulted for not thinking about the common good, then liberals are faulted for thinking government is the only thing that connects us.  In December of last year, Christianity Today gave two cheers for US Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren’s comments on the role of government in society.  Here’s what she said:

You built a factory out there—good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate …. Now look, you built a factory and turned it into something terrific, or a great idea—God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Here’s how they explain it:

Warren reminds us of our indebtedness to others. Too often, tea party rhetoric fuels a cult of the heroic individual. It sanctifies individual achievement and shortchanges the conditions on which such achievements depend. Human flourishing falters without the protections that a justly governed society provides. Evangelical tea partiers can appreciate this basic truth. There is no need to endorse high taxes or over-regulation.

Our applause for Warren’s illustrations is tempered by their narrowness. She fails to include essential nongovernmental institutions. Where are the families, churches, independent schools, hospitals, service clubs, and trade and professional organizations, as well as the free press? Warren commits the besetting sin of secular progressivism: reducing the complex workings of society to the actions of government—in her formulation, “what the rest of us paid for.”

Our life is more than just about us, but it is also more than just the government.

As Christians, we have really lost a way to talk about how we are to be in society.  Instead we have adapted ourselves to the two common arguments: either that government is the thing that hold us together, or that we are on our own. I think we have to start looking at what it means to be a citizen of the society we live in and a citizen of heaven.  I like the concept of subsidiarity that is common in some Catholic and Reformed thought.  But no matter, we need to think beyond the liberal and conservative catagories and start to think about what it means to live in the world as a follower of the one who gave his life for all of us and wants us to live for others and not ourselves.

I also think Mitt Romney needs to learn to stop talking, but that’s the subject for another blog post.



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