One of the challenges in today's public square is our captivity to "McThinking" -fascination with memorable phrases and sweeping declarations, regardless of their empty content. Pundits on the right love to extol the "magic of the market." and the importance of "family values." Bloggers on the left speak passionately about compassion, tolerance and equity. Meanwhile, millions need work, help with housing and wisdom for living in the real world.
Critical thinking is a lost art in this world of factoids and fantasies. The either/or fallacy dominates the airwaves and Internet. For some reason politicians and public communicators think we have to choose between military preparedness and social programs. This fallacy appears in moral debates as the left thinks marital traditionalists are homophobes. The assumption is that if you are not for gay marriage you are against the civil rights of millions. Either/or rears its head in the debate over federal control of industries and services. Those in favor of more federal involvement have co-opted compassion and castigated their opponents as heartless. Advocates of less federal intrusion accuse their opponents of confusing compassion with forcible redistribution of wealth. And on it goes, with the real issues obscured by false thinking.
Compassion and conviction can be united in private and public life. It is possible to adhere to strong moral and/or religious codes and live peacefully in a pluralistic society. I am deeply concerned that many Jews and Christians, in their quest to avoid the labels, "conservative" or "fundamentalist" are compromising Scriptural principles to their own - and to the nation's - hurt. Many loyalists to free markets and limited government fail to see that without deep moral convictions, capitalism turns rapacious and a new generation of robber barons emerges, with a little largess flowing from a guilty conscience. On the left, captivity to collectivism obscures historical perspective and paves the way for more failed experiments in social control.
Here are some ways compassion and conviction can unite in private and public life:
1. Compassion for broken families must be undergirded by the conviction that marital fidelity and loving parenting are critical for our future. Jane and John need a Mom and Dad who care more about the good of their children than their own personal desires. Divorce needs to be a last resort and a new call for fidelity of body, mind and spirit needs to ring out across our nation.
2. Adults who choose to live in arrangements other than heterosexual, monogamous marriage deserve equal protections as citizens and the right to formalize their relationships. However, this is not marriage. Cohabitation is a different state of affairs. No clergy or community should be compelled to perform ceremonies outside their tradition. Likewise, cohabiting adults should be able to visit partners in hospitals, legally establish benefit and inheritance rights and enjoy private life free from fear.
3. Religious opinions, provided they do not threaten the safety of others, are not hate speech. It is interesting that GLBT activists do not target mosques in their protests. In fact, one of the great disconnects on the left is the refusal of radical feminists to criticize the treatment of women in some sectors of Islam! Conservative Christians must not make homosexual practice a stigma greater than the other issues the Bible confronts. Whether it is Jesus or St. Paul, Christian moral teaching excoriates greed in the same breath it condemns non-marital sexual intimacy. Hypocrisy and pride are as wicked as any private behavior. In other words, Christian teaching rightly understood humbles everyone and helps everyone make positive steps out of the slavery of self.
4. Fiscally, we cannot have all the bullets and butter we want. For a half-century we have funded out-of-control spending in all categories. Compassion for the poor and provision for defense can be united, however. If we focus our aims, sharpen our pencils and empower local and state agencies, we can make sure no one is hungry and no soldier is under supplied. Of course, this means less fat in defense contracts and more scrutiny on welfare spending. Bases may be closed and jobs lost. We can deliver benefits more cost-effectively if we allow business principles and systems to transform outdated and over bloated agencies.
5. Infrastructure repair and transformation is not an either/or proposition. We need excellent public policies united with competitive private efficiency to rebuild our bridges, roads and sewers. Even the most conservative understand the role of government here. Some of these issues are best handled at the local and state level. The federal government is needed to ensure standards, but not to administrate projects.
6. We need to privatize most pension funds. Working for the government should not be a guarantee of a retirement vastly superior to the private sector. At the same time, we need government oversight of private firms managing the trillions of American workers' hard-earned dollars. Why do Congressional representatives get a pass on deficit spending and a lifetime pension?
7. We need to heed the words of Jesus and the example of great leaders and love our enemies. Martin Luther King succeeded in transforming not only legislation, but the hearts of millions of ordinary people. He hated racism and condemned the attitudes and actions of those who oppressed African-Americans. But he also called on his followers to be people of active forgiveness, love and non-violence. We must eschew intolerance and violence. We must expose covert prejudices and overt injustices. But we must do all of this with tears as well as truth, with humility and hope, with a firm conviction of truth joined with compassion for many bound by fear and hatred.
We can have compassion and conviction - but such hardheaded and warmhearted dispositions require courage. Will we choose courage over complacency, hope over hatred and love over apathy?