11/05/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2013

Faith and Political Rhetoric

For some time now, and throughout this election season, a sort of economic and political rhetoric has grown up around the country. This rhetoric belongs exclusively neither to the Republican nor to the Democratic Party, and, indeed, has "liberal," "conservative" and "libertarian" supporters. Its variants are many. The premises of this view might be summarized as follows:
  • Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.
  • Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.
  • The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.
  • The middle way, moderation, negotiation and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.
In recent years, we have all likely heard various applications of this rhetoric (and perhaps seen it on the silver screen, in the 2011 film "Atlas Shrugged," based on the novel by atheist and ideologue Ayn Rand, who became a topic of interest this election season when her books were identified as influential by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan). We have heard this world view articulated by representatives of different political parties. Both liberals and conservatives have been among those who have exalted the "individual" to the point that the "individual" of whom they speak bears little to no real relationship to actual persons in community (the only sort of people who actually do exist!).

In this political season, we've heard some politicians argue that if persons do not have the means to afford health insurance society should, essentially, let them die. Others, building on the premise that welfare in certain circumstances unintentionally undermines personal responsibility and industry, go on to argue that, therefore, all social altruism and all programs to help the poor are confidence tricks. Such unyielding positions are correlated with one of the most disconcerting developments in contemporary politics: the rise of politicians who refuse to work together with other elected representatives for the common good if working together means listening, negotiating and compromising.

Among those who have critiqued this political rhetoric, there have been responsible commentators on both the left and the right. As Carl T. Bogus observes in his fascinating (and, at points, disturbing) new book, "Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism" (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011), one of the most vocal critics of one version of the premises bulleted above was Whittaker Chambers. Another was William F. Buckley Jr. While both Chambers and Buckley were vigorously argumentative and conservative, Bogus notes that they recognized in the rampant individualism, self-centered rejection of altruism, absolute faith in the power of the marketplace and arrogance, represented in the premises listed above, as a fundamental danger to society as a whole. They were particularly concerned about the undermining of altruism -- that empathy for others which is an expression of generosity of spirit and a commitment to mutuality, and that serves as the basis for the social capital that binds us together as a society. M. Stanton Evans, a colleague of Chambers and Buckley also cited in Bogus' book, weighed in on the explicitly anti-Christian message of Ayn Rand's version of these premises, appealing to Christian faith as a belief system "predicated on something more than mere survival."

These conservative criticisms of the set of economic and political premises I have enumerated could be seconded by critics in the ideological middle and on the left, of course. But perhaps the most trenchant criticism I have ever heard comes from an old personal friend of vaguely libertarian stripe. One day, he and I were having a discussion about altruism, specifically about whether it is right or socially constructive to give to someone in need (a panhandler, for example), or whether one might be simply enabling that person to remain dependent. He shook his head and said that while he could make some really good arguments against helping someone else in need, nevertheless he knew he had to do it.

"Why," I asked.

"Jesus told me to," he said.

This is where I ended up, too.

The interchange reminded me of something Garrison Keillor said about the Lutheran minister in Lake Wobegon. When the pastor was doing carpentry in his garage and he hit his thumb with a hammer, he was, said Keillor, somewhat limited by his vocation with regard to his vocabulary. So it also happens whenever we as Christians are confronted with the needs of others -- needs that call us beyond our self-interests, needs that place on us burdens binding us one to another and obstructing our allegiance to various political premises that might otherwise appeal to us. Our vocation as Christians qualifies our responses. If we don't like that fact, well, I guess that's something we will just have to take up with the author of the Sermon on the Mount.