by George Cassutto
Politics and government are my life. With an undergraduate degree in History, a master's degree in Government, and over thirty years teaching experience, what happens in government in our nation and world is important to me, and I hope it is important to my students, my friends, and my family. People close to me know that my worldview stems from the experience of my parents, both of whom survived the Nazi Holocaust, who became Jewish Christians, and who reached out to people of all walks of life to share Christ's ministry of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Their values are the foundation for my own message of acceptance (also called "tolerance") in the classroom. It is my life's mission to help young people reduce their prejudice and lack of understanding for each other and to help them take on an attitude of service toward each other and their nation.
So here we are in 2015. We are in the sixth year of the Obama administration, our nation's first African-American president. The 2014 mid-term elections ushered in a Republican majority into both houses of Congress, so to say the least, our nation looks like it has a split personality when it comes to national politics. The same might be said for Maryland, which suffers from the same kind of avoidance-approach complex in reverse: the state elected a Republican governor with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature. These election results lead one to ask: "just what do the American people want from their leaders?"
Let's get some basic terminology out of the way. Where a person or party lands on the political continuum usually consists of two dimensions: how much government should be involved in social issues such as marriage equality and abortion and how much the government should be involved in economic affairs such as taxation, government spending, and the growth of social safety net programs. Democrats usually agree that they are liberal in their political viewpoint. It is possible to hold views that combine two opposites. A moderate could support marriage equality and a woman's right to choose while arguing in favor of fiscal conservatism (such as former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), or a person could be a social conservative while supporting government involvement in the economy (Pope Francis fits this mold). We all find ourselves somewhere on the political spectrum due to some combination of these two factors.
Another factor that comes into play is where a person stands on foreign policy. Support for Israel, action again terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, willingness to become involved military in conflicts around the world such as the civil war in Syria or the Russian action in the Ukraine all help determine which party we might support. In general, Republicans favor strong defense spending and an active role in world affairs. Democrats generally support shifting resources to domestic programs while bringing US troops home from war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. That position is the one President Obama campaigned on, and he has fulfilled that promise while asking Congress for a freer hand in dealing with ISIS militarily.
President Obama may be seen as the most divisive president in US history, but explaining why is not an easy task. No matter what explanation is offered, the fact that he is our nation's first black president cannot be ignored. For many, his election symbolized the idea that America had moved beyond its racist past, that slavery and Jim Crow were just ideas in history books and that we had evolved into a "post-racial" America. Nothing appears to be farther from the truth. Not only did his election bring out the worst racist elements of our society, it tore the bandage off of many years of ignoring the fact that racism still exists in the United States. Historians may concede that America has made great strides in race relations since the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., but the problems represented by racism have moved below the surface of society, into more institutionalized forms of oppression and discrimination. Liberals continue to point to persistent white privilege in positions of power such as police, employment, and college placement. The Rodney King beating and subsequent LA riots, the protests in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, and the police killing of Eric Gardner in New York have forced white Americans to ask themselves how much do "black lives matter?"
The unadulterated barbarism of the Islamic State, as an outgrowth of the September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Iraq, have brought to the surface America's feelings about religion and its role in the growth of violent extremism. For many Americans, the line between being Muslim and being a violent extremist have become blurred. Liberals respond by contending that not all Muslims are terrorists, but others ask why Muslims are not more vocal when it comes to the horrific killings the world has witnessed in ISIS-held territory. It must be stressed that it is not the responsibility of Muslims to counter American Islamophobia caused by extremists such as the 9/11 attacks or the barbarians of ISIS. Christians all too often remain silent in the wake of irrational hatred on the part of the Westboro Baptist Church or the more recent Chapel Hill murders of three young Muslim Americans. It is out of ignorance that we expect any given group to denounce unrelated groups who act irrationally. Nevertheless, in response to ISIS atrocities, the president has OKed air strikes against ISIS positions and limited US military personnel to advise Iraqi troops fighting to push ISIS back. To his credit, the president recently concluded a summit on the causes of violent extremism. Still, others point out that the president refuses to call it "Muslim extremism" or point out that Christians are being slaughtered in placed like ISIS-held Libya.
In domestic politics, President Obama's liberal base has both supported his policies but also been critical of him as not having gone far enough. The passage of the Affordable Care Act, now known as "Obamacare," has helped over ten million Americans get health insurance who did not have it before. It also led to the rise of the Tea Party and the advent of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. The Supreme Court has upheld the law as constitutional, but it continues to experience legal challenges. Many southern and Republican-controlled states refuse to expand Medicaid under the ACA provisions, so millions of people in those states are denied affordable coverage. Many on the left felt the health care law was just a bailout for the insurance companies and that the President should have fought for a single-payer system in the style of Western Europe. Such a move would have given the president's critics on the right more justification in calling him a socialist.
President Obama's unilateral decision to issue an executive order shielding millions of illegal immigrants from deportation came under severe criticism from the right, which believes these people should be deported or at least not given amnesty without legislative action by Congress. The president claims he was only acting because Congress was paralyzed in doing so, and he wanted to focus the federal government's efforts on deporting violent criminals rather than tearing families apart. A federal court judge has blocked the president's actions, but the administration has appealed to the Supreme Court, which will make the final decision on the president's Article II power to issue an amnesty in the way that President Obama has.
The media contains many voices on where our nation is politically, but these voices have become so loud and strident that they create a cacophony of noise rather than a discernable argument for or against positions on any given issue. The most recent of these voices is that of "America's mayor," Rudy Giuliani, who put forth the idea that President Obama "does not love America." The president's supporters responded strongly with many speeches and interviews given by the president that clearly demonstrate his love for America, even if the president does appear to be more critical of his own country than the unquestioning patriotism of more conservative figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. One must be forced to ask, "does being critical of one's nation mean he or she does not love his or country?" There are many instances of patriotic Americans who seek to right the wrongs that they see within American society. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were critical of the Vietnam War. Did that make them less patriotic? Henry David Thoreau went to jail for opposing the Mexican War. Was he less of a patriot for refusing to pay taxes that he felt were being used to fund an unjust war? One might hold that anyone brave enough to criticize his nation when it is unpopular to do so may even be more patriotic than those who conform to the majority for fear of criticism.
President Obama has achieved more than most presidents in the face of the stiffest opposition in Congress and in spite of irrational hatred and yes, racism, on the part of those who oppose him. First there was the so-called "Birther Movement," which held that he wasn't a natural born citizen because he was, as they believed, born in Kenya. Then there are those who accuse him of being a Muslim, even though he has confessed his belief in Jesus Christ, which makes him a Christian by anyone's definition. Article Six of the US Constitution says there can be no religious test for any public office, so even if he were a Muslim, it should not matter in respect to his qualifications for president. These criticisms attempt to depict the twice-democratically elected president of the United States to be an outsider, an alien, someone from somewhere else, a non-American, someone who isn't qualified to be president or even who has the right to live among "us Christians." Indeed, many on the right believe America is a Christian nation founded on the precepts of the Judeo-Christian Bible. It should be acknowledged that our legal system has the Ten Commandments as its basis, but as Washington and Adams, and especially Jefferson wrote, there must be a "wall of separation of church and state," that to respect the first clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, Congress cannot "establish" a national religion, and that America is neither a Christian nation, no more than we are a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. As Adams wrote in 1797:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
where do we stand in the last two years of President Obama's presidency? Is
there any hope that President Obama's own words that "there is no red America,
no blue America" could come true? Part of being American is that we are free to
believe what we want, and we are free to pursue happiness in the best way we see
fit. For some this means keeping the government out of our business, to be free
from unfair taxes, burdensome regulations, and government intrusion into our
private lives. For others, it means the government has a responsibility to look
out for the poor, the elderly, and the young, and to use our shared resources to
create a strong nation with schools, roads, and bridges that aren't crumbling.
It also means that we must unite behind our men and women in uniform, to support
them as they carry out the mission identified by the President, who the
Constitution puts in charge as commander-in-chief.
There are many ways Americans can be united rather than divided. Volunteering in soup kitchens and in schools means the government can use those resources elsewhere while those who are struggling to make ends meet can have their basic needs met. The Bible not only commands us to care for "these least of these" among us but also to obey those whom God has put in charge, and in America, God allows the people to make those decisions through their participation at the ballot box. Every two years, voters have the chance to change the legislative branch of government in a way that expresses the will of the majority. Every four years, we can choose who will stand for our nation and direct our government in form of the presidency. Most Americans believe it is patriotic to support the person elected by the American people, even if we disagree with his policies. Respect for the presidency, even the man in the office, is a high form of patriotism, and if we disagree with his policies, we can respectfully campaign for anyone who wishes to replace him at the next election. This process is one of the most important aspects of modern American democracy.
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