An Open Letter to Our Nation’s Leaders

    As the dust begins to settle in this recent election, it is apparent that we remain a nation divided.  On the other hand, maybe not.  The news media is describing the mood of the country as having a great deal of “anti-democrat” sentiment or as having an “anti-incumbent” sentiment and while I suppose both of those exist, I think that there is a larger unifying theme that joins many of us regardless of our general political leanings.  As such, today’s blog is an open letter to all of our elected officials from our local city councilpersons and county commissioners, all the way up to the current resident of the White House.  Here, I want to say a few things that our leadership would hear from all of us over a long lunch, and a few things that I’ve learned from my family, my friends and from life in general.
To all of our elected officials of every kind,
    If you were recently elected (or re-elected) I would like to caution you not to get a big head.  There is a good chance that your election had little to do with you, personally, and a lot to do with the performance (or lack thereof) of your predecessor.  Lately, we voters are all kind of tired of what we are seeing and we’ve been in the mood to throw out leaders who are not living up to our expectations.  As you begin your new terms, here are a few things to watch out for:
1)      Keep your promises.  To you this may seem trite or even quaint but for a lot of us, honor is still important.  We understand that it’s common for politicians to promise the moon so that they can get elected, but be careful what you promise, because, despite the rumors to the contrary, we’re not stupid and we will remember what you said.  George Bush promised “No new taxes” but failed to keep his promise.  We remembered.  Barak Obama promised that his administration would never vote on legislation without having a minimum of seven days for the public to look it over.   That didn’t happen.  This week’s election is a hint that we haven’t forgotten your promises… even if you did.
2)      You can’t spend more than you make.  This is so simple it seems silly to have to point it out.  Every couple of weeks I get a paycheck and every month I get bills for stuff that I have to pay.  This happens to everyone that I know, for every business that I know and for the church where I work.  Once in a while I can spend more than I make.  I took a huge pay cut when I became a pastor and went to seminary.  Our pay cut was so large and the bills for seminary were so big that things didn’t even out.  To make up the difference, we spent some of the money we had from selling our house.  We knew it couldn’t last but we also knew that my time in seminary would only last for a few years.  When people spend more than they make, whether it’s because they bought a house or a car or a flat screen TV, sooner or later they need to pay for it.  For about fifty years now, our leaders have been spending more than our government takes in.  Lately, it has only gotten worse.  We can’t understand why you don’t think it’s a problem.  We know it’s a problem.  It worries us.  We expect you to fix it (or at least get started).  If you ignore this, again, we will replace you… again.
3)      People don’t like change regardless of how much they say they want it or need it.  This one is harder to understand but I’ve seen it enough times in my community and in my church that I know it’s true.  When my school system needed a new school building they had a hard time convincing people that we should build a new one.  Our old school was almost a hundred years old, had dozens of building code violations, wasn’t handicap accessible and was full of asbestos.  On top of that, the state of Ohio was willing to pay for more than half of a new building which mean that a new building would cost millions less than the cost of repairs to the old one.  Still, the school board took over a year, with dozens of special meetings to convince the community that it was necessary and the vote was still close.  I’ve known people with serious health problems who endured months of suffering before they were convinced to go see a doctor.  We get comfortable in our routine.  We want you to do your job, but you need to know that change is scary.  Before you make changes, you need to explain what you are doing, let us think about it for a while and then proceed slowly and carefully so we can see how things are going.  This is especially important because our trust in you is not particularly high right now.
4)      The bigger the project, the more support you need.  You will probably not find this anywhere in your history books but this is a place where our government has created division and animosity between its own citizens.  Last year, I was interviewing pastors who had been involved in merging churches or in church building projects.  These are two of the biggest changes ever experienced in the life of a church.  One of the rules that emerged from these interviews was that if there was not a minimum of 70 to 80 percent support for the change, then they would go back and start over.   In a church, failing to gain a super-majority of support for a big project will likely mean that people will be so angry that they leave the church.  In our nation, when you pass really big projects with only a slim majority, you create animosity and division instead of unity and cohesiveness.  You don’t need to wonder why our nation has become so polarized because you are the ones who did it, Republicans and Democrats alike.  
    Don’t think that because you’ve won the election, that you can do whatever you want.  Don’t think that because you have a majority, that you can do whatever you want.  In recent decades we’ve seen several major shifts from Democrat to Republican and back again.  Please remember that it isn’t about what you call yourself, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or whatever, it’s much more important that you do the things that we sent you to do.

Feel free to ignore us…
…but then again…
…your predecessors did…
…and they’re not here anymore.

The Death of the Moderate Class?

Some years ago, and continuing today, we heard in the popular media the proclamation of doom for the middle class. In these stories we hear of how the rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer and that ever fewer people (though still a vast number) belong to what we call the middle class. I have no interest in discerning the truth of such claims. The prophecies of doom for the middle class however, point out an area of public discussion that has bothered me lately. In recent months I have written on subjects such as illegal immigration and the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, but in both of these issues (and many others) I notice the same thing, the utter lack of middle ground.

To be clear, I would rarely describe myself as a moderate, but because I am the spiritual leader of a diverse group of people I try to keep obviously partisan thinking out of both my public writing and speaking. For me, although my political beliefs are passionately and strongly held, the need for us to see beyond the world of the political is far more important. Our relationship with Jesus trumps our relationship with any political party, or at least it should.

We watch these public discussions in the media (radio, television and internet) and, even though I would not describe myself as a moderate, I often find myself wondering where the moderates have gone. Certainly we’ve seen a rise in partisanship in recent years and, for all the election year talk of bipartisanship, we’ve seen less of it than ever. In fact, public discussions seem to be entirely dominated by radical factions or, at least, representatives from the polar extremes of the political spectrum. To some extent, this has always been the case. In reporting the news it is easier to frame the discussion by showing opposite ends of the debate. Where I have begun to have difficulty is that, increasingly, the opposite ends are all there are. Perhaps it’s because news outlets have fallen in lockstep and report a single point of view. Perhaps everyone has tuned into partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann or similar partisan talking heads. Honestly, I don’t know. What I have noticed however is that with the discussion no longer framed by the extremes but dominated by the extremes, no one seems to be left to have an honest discussion of what lies in between.

In discussing the immigration debate I noticed that both sides have valid and serious concerns that need to be addressed but everyone is so busy pointing fingers and name calling that virtually nothing is being done. In the New York mosque debate everyone seems to be either for the mosque because the constitution demands it, or against it because they find it offensive for Muslims to worship so close to ground zero. But what about the pesky details in the middle? The world is watching our great American experiment in democracy and constitutional government. The constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees are important.

On the other hand, we are accustomed to the slow pace of progress. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center and hasn’t yet managed to get permission to rebuild, now almost ten years later. The reasons for this delay are debated, but still, if it has taken the congregation of St. Nicholas ten years to get their project moving (and they already owned the land) why do we think that this Islamic congregation should get permission overnight? Our constitution guarantees certain freedoms, but we still place legal limits on those freedoms. We limit where alcohol can be served in our communities and who may legally own a liquor license. We limit where industry can build and what types of industry can be built. Communities frequently protest construction of mega-churches because of concerns for traffic. A community near where I once lived refused permission to build a hotel because of concerns of how the patrons would affect the neighborhood. These rules and regulations do not violate the constitution but instead allow careful and thoughtful review by state and local authorities as well as allowing the discussion and consideration of local neighborhood concerns and opinions.

My problem with all of these discussions is that no one is being allowed to voice concerns without being attacked and dismissed for being on the “wrong side” of the argument. Once upon a time, it was the moderates that found the middle ground, who considered the arguments of both sides and allowed an orderly and honest discussion that looked at all sides and considered the needs and desires of all the stakeholders involved. Sometimes these discussions took a lot longer than we wanted them to take but still, we had the discussion. Lately it seems that there are no more moderates to bring the two sides together and to consider the claims and the needs of all involved. All we have left is a pile of partisan bickering that heads for the door as soon as they think they’ve buffaloed, bullied and shouted down enough people to form a majority.

I hope I’m wrong.

I hope there are still a few good moderates left because if we’ve lost the ability to have these kinds of discussions, we’ve lost everything and the great American experiment has failed.