One of the surreal aspects of the 2008 campaign was the emergence of a kind-of, sort-of plumber named Sam Wurzelbacher, a.k.a "Joe The Plumber," a high profile asset in the final weeks of John McCain's ill-fated run for the White House.
To refresh your memory, Wurzelbacher first came to public attention when, in October of 2008, he questioned Senator Obama's small business tax plan, describing it as at odds with "the American Dream." Obama responded by noting that his tax plan would mostly benefit small business, but there would be an increase in the over-$250,000 tax bracket from 36% to 39% (what this means, by the way, is that if you made $300,000 in a year, the additional tax you would owe would be 3% of $50,000, or about $1,500. Not exactly crippling). Wurzelbacher suggested at the time that his taxes would go up because he was getting ready to a buy business worth more than that. As it turned out, Wurzelbacher wasn't really getting ready to buy any business, but that, in any event, businesses like the one he claimed he was planning to buy would probably have qualified for a tax break.
But the real fun began when Obama said:
"It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance at success, too... My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're gonna be better off [...] if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
The McCain-Palin campaign and the right jumped on this comment, arguing that this was tantamount to socialism (a "concern" that Wurzelbacher himself expressed often in the final weeks of the campaign). Of course, the hysteria about Obama's plans to transform America into a socialist dictatorship has escalated dramatically since he became President, based on a staggering ignorance of what actually existing socialism (especially of the totalitarian kind), actually looked like.
But what I find most striking in this hostility to "socialism" from many of the ringleaders of the contemporary American right is their simultaneous insistence that our first duty as Americans is to pay fealty to God's law, given what the Bible has to say about wealth re-distribution (more on that in a moment).
The relevance of God's law to American life was recently articulated quite clearly in a widely cited comment by Sarah Palin:
"Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant -- they're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.
"What in hell scares people about talking about America's foundation of faith?" Palin continued. "It is that world view that involves some people being afraid of being able to discuss our foundation, being able to discuss God in the public square, that's the only thing I can attribute it to."
In fact, many people, like Palin, believe that the Bible represents the literal word of God and that, therefore, we are beholden as a nation to its plain utterances.
And while we're speaking of the Bible as the literal word of God and our duty as a nation to follow its proclamations, here is a far-from-exhaustive sampling of God's word on spreading the wealth around (what Palin et al contemptuously refer to as "socialism"):
Exodus 23:10-11 - "Six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield. But in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves."
Deuteronomy 15:1-2 - "Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the dues that he claims from his fellow: he shall not dun (make persistent demands for payment from) his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord."
Leviticus 19:9-10 - "when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God."
Of course, there are myriad other instances in the Bible, from prohibitions on usury to collectivizing resources, etc., to make the point.
Something has to give here. Either you insist, as Palin does, that the Bible is the unerring word of the Lord, easily comprehensible to mere mortals and the fundamental determinant of American law and morality. If that is the case, you must also believe that any society ruled by His law must mandate spreading the wealth around.
Or you've decided, after all, that you get to pick and choose which of God's dictates, as expressed clearly and plainly in the Bible, you deign to pay attention to and which you may toss aside. In other words, either you accept wealth re-distribution as among the indisputable directives from God. Or you believe that you may ignore the Almighty when you smell political opportunity in branding as "socialist" a moderate tax increase on those making more than $250,000 a year.
It's also worth noting here the arrogance of the Palins of the world for insisting that they know, beyond any doubt, what the Bible means.
At least one of our founding fathers, whose understanding of the world Palin claims to be faithful to, was quite sensibly much more humble about our ability to understand God's meaning. Here's James Madison in Federalist No. 37:
"When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated."
But if you're Sarah Palin, arguably dim, but surely never doubtful, I suppose you need never confront the fundamental contradiction at the heart of your worldview.
Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com.