Life's Race: Some Thoughts From a Sociologist on Election Day Eve

11/05/2012 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 05, 2013

Like many, I usually try to keep my Facebook page as politics-free as possible. I'm the Facebook friend who tends to post personal photos, any inspiring stories I come across and sometimes corgis. But over the past few weeks, that has changed, to the point that a number of people, including my husband, my best friend and many family members, have asked me why I have been posting so many politically oriented articles lately. I've written this piece for them, and for anyone else who might be curious to read it. Here is why:

In August 2011, a little over a year ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., and began my first year in the sociology Ph.D. program here at the UW. It's one of the top sociology departments around, and I was surprised (and a bit put-off) to find that all my colleagues were very liberal, and usually loudly so. In fact, it seemed to be a defining feature of sociology itself. I had nothing against liberal politics, but I had always thought of myself as a moderate who weighed issues apart from either of the "sides." But after a year of reading, thinking, questioning and observing, I have begun to understand. Sociology is the study of society and how it works. And when you study society for a full-time job, this is what you realize:

We -- all of us -- often use the metaphor of a race to describe life. Liberals sometimes say that some people are given a head start. But no, this is not true. We all start at the same time, at the same starting line. We all start at age 0 and work our way from there. But this is what is true: some people -- some children -- are born at the starting line without shoes, without warm-up pants, and without a nice bowl of pasta-carbs and a bed to sleep on the night before. Some of those children also have to be looking over their shoulder through the race, making sure no one is shooting at them. And anyone who has ever run track knows that looking over your shoulder, getting distracted from the goal, will inevitably hurt your time.

Here is what is also true. To get shoes, warm-up pants, a nice bed and a bowl of pasta-carbs the night before, you have to win a race. Winners are given prize money. But the children born without the shoes, without the warm-up pants, usually can't win, and they can't get any prize money because they are competing against children who do have those things. And those same children who win, then use that money to go buy themselves even better track spikes, better training gear, maybe even a personal trainer. Those children then come back, and they win again. The children who started without the shoes lose again. This happens over and over, and over and over. It happens until they all reach adulthood. The children who originally won have won so many times that everyone comes to think that they are very talented. Those who originally lost have lost so many times that everyone thinks that they just must be different, perhaps untalented, or even lazy. Those people are losing because they just aren't running hard enough, is what they'll say.

Sometimes, people point out that some children start out with no shoes. They point out that maybe we should try to make sure that everyone starts with shoes, warm-up pants, a nice bed, pasta-carbs the night before, and a lane to run in where they don't have to look over their shoulder, afraid of being shot. This often makes the winners uncomfortable, and they'll say, "No! We ran really hard! We didn't cheat! We ran so hard we can't imagine running any harder! We ran fair and square and we really won!"

Yes, that is true. They, the winners, really won, fair and square, and they ran their hearts out. They're probably winded right now and they probably rested over the weekend because they run their hearts out every single week. We all are winded, and we all run our hearts out every single week.

But here's what is also true. Having the race officials increase the prize money for the winners is not going to help those children who start the race without shoes to get shoes. The race is hard for everyone, and the winners are going to use the prize money to keep paying their trainers and to buy more spikes just so that they can keep up and keep winning.

Some winners might say, "But look! Here is a person who started with no shoes, and they eventually won!" Yes, there are some extraordinary individuals in this world who are just born extremely fast, and they will win no matter what kind of shoes they have. But not everyone is like that. Many of the winners are not like that, and they still can win. Why should we keep letting people start the race without shoes just because there are some outliers who defy the odds?

Other winners might say, "Well, you don't need to have the race officials ensure that everyone starts with shoes. A lot of winners are nice, and will help out the losers and give them shoes privately. That's how it should be done." That's a nice sentiment, and there are certainly lots of nice winners. It would be great if there were even more nice winners. But unfortunately, even if there were enough nice winners, some shoeless children might fall through the cracks. There is no way for a bunch of individual winners, donating individually, to ensure that everyone starts with shoes, warm-up pants, a nice bed, pasta-carbs the night before and a bullet-free lane to run in.

And individual winners with no medical training certainly can't provide healthcare to the losers when their feet bleed from running without shoes, or when they trip over a hurdle because they had no food in their stomachs to propel them along.

The race officials are the only ones who have the actual power to ensure that everyone who comes to the race starts with shoes, a full belly, a safe lane and proper healthcare when they fall.

No one is trying to re-distribute the winners' prize money. No one is going to do that. The only thing anyone is proposing is this: from now on, instead of the race officials offering such a gigantic cash prize for the winners, give a large prize for the winners, but also devote a small amount of the official race resources to ensuring that everyone -- all children -- can at least have some shoes, food, a nice bed and healthcare when they're born at the starting line.

I come from a strong Christian home and the family members who have asked me why I have been posting political articles lately have also asked me this:

Is it Christian for the race officials to provide shoes and healthcare to children?

Here is my reply: The Jesus I know commanded us to care for all, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He did not exempt any individuals, or any groups, nor did He exempt government.

This is what He said:

Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

The King will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:34-40, New International Version).

Here's my question. When are we going to clothe the King?