In this chaotic, shocking and loathsome presidential race, we've been forced to look in the mirror and see aspects of ourselves that are appalling.
One is our apparent addiction to being entertained to death. For months and months, we have been the citizens of Rome cheering on gladiators as they pummel one another. We find it hard to look away from this train wreck because we are people who go to auto races to see crashes and to hockey games to watch fights.
But perhaps a more serious character flaw among us voters is our willingness to imagine that sexual sins are more serious than sins that devalue and discard the humanity and dignity of others.
In her latest book, The Givenness of Things, essayist Marilynne Robinson identifies that propensity this way: "I think it is one of our brilliant evasions to have associated sin so strongly with sexuality that we can be coy about it, or narrowly obsessed with it, or we can dismiss it as a synonym for prudery, as we go on hating and reviling, as we go on grinding the faces of the poor."
Ah. Such brilliance. The result is that we wind up focusing our attention on the bitter assaults between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz about their wives' looks and assets. We are titillated to see an old photo of Trump's essentially nude wife on the cover of a tabloid. We zero in on a tabloid's allegation that Cruz had mistresses and on news about a Washington lawyer who represented the late owner of a high-society prostitution ring because he suggests one presidential candidate was a customer. And with Hillary Clinton perhaps moving back to the White House, we tell recycled Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton jokes.
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No doubt the sexual misbehavior of politicians should bother us and be condemned. But is it more important than what Robinson calls "hating and reviling" and "grinding the faces of the poor?"
Of course not.
We would do well to reserve our outrage for candidates who suggest we grind the faces of Muslims by banning them from entering this country and by assigning police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods intensely. And as people of faith, we also should be reacting with outrage to the candidates' lack of attention to what, in the long-term, is more of a threat to the world than Islamist terrorism, and that's unchecked climate change.
But instead of the candidates (well, most of them) talking about their plans to stop the crushing of the middle class, to assure adequate health care for all, to make sure our children are well educated, to assist in transforming systemic racism wherever it's found, we tune into Trump rallies hoping to see thugs beat up protesters -- some of whom would, if they could, deny free speech rights to Trump himself.
In the end, we get the kind of politics we deserve, the kind that reflects our own values or lack of them. So when we fail to read newspapers or any reliable sources of what's going on in the world, when we fail to understand how we've let money be the measure of all things political, when we fail to vote in our own self-interest, to say nothing of failing to vote in the interest of the common good (or failing to vote at all) -- we wind up where we are today.
The excuse that we have no control over our politics obviously arises from some distressing circumstances, including the way the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has flooded campaigns with money from sources who expect to be repaid. But, in the end, that's just an excuse.
As people of faith we can draw on our best values to insist that candidates focus on real problems. Turning our country over to curators of ignorance and bigotry would say as much about us as it would about them.
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's website and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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