What is it about a presidential candidate whose pastor goes on a rant praying that “God damn America?” Or about a sitting president who four years later goes on national TV to declare his opponent a perpetual liar, saying that “nothing Mr. Romney has said is true.”
And what is it about a challenger who can promise to balance the federal budget in one sentence – while promising to cut taxes in the next? All without saying how these two contradictory objectives can be simultaneously accomplished.
Why this behavior? Well, it’s time we meet Barack Obama, the 21st century Puritan. And Mitt Romney, the unrepentant Universalist. Remarkably, these differences can be reduced to one common denominator – a perspective that extends beyound this human realm. Reflecting fundamentally different viewpoints about the eternal reward of human beings after this earthly life. To bring this perspective into even clearer focus, let’s reach back a bit in history.
Two millenia ago, Jesus of Nazareth emerged on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean to earth to bring salvation and break the bonds of death. He came “not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
Jesus’ lead disciple, Peter, would later write that while Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient.”
In short, it appears that Jesus went to Hell after death to offer forgiveness to those unrepentant in their life if they would only repent given a “second chance” post-mortem. At least this was the view of subsequent leaders (or patriarchs) of the early church. People like Origen (the most famous theologian of the 2ndcentury) and Tertullian (the person who coined the term “New Testament”).
And in more recent times, these views were also endorsed by persons as diverse as C. S. Lewis (the 20th century theologian and fiction writer) and Joseph Smith (the 19th century founder of the Mormon church). What Joseph Smith brought to the table was a different twist on the concept of the second chance, via retroactive baptism for the dead – a practice only briefly alluded to in the New Testament.
Between the times of the early church leaders and our modern era, there were others who took Christianity in a different direction, leading to church orthodoxy that prevails to this day. Seemingly disparate figures proclaimed that life without salvation meant damnation to the torments of a never ending hell.
The change in church doctrine started with Augustine, who feared that a doctrine of universal reconciliation or a post-mortem second chance would create apathy and weaken people’s desire to repent, receive baptism, and keep the commandments. The vision of what Hell might be about was intensified by none other than Muhammed, then by Dante and even Martin Luther (in part due to Luther’s objections to the Catholic church putting salvation up for mercantilist grab via the sale of indulgences).
And in 1741, a Puritan minister named Jonathan Edwards, widely acknowledged as America’s most important and original philosophical theologian, preached that “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”
To the Puritan, life is but a part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. All spheres of activity – family, work, spirituality, politics – are defined in terms of black and white, good or evil. There is no middle ground. This is the politics of the just war, of calling out the financiers of the 2008 financial crash as evil people rather than searching for the systemic reason for the problem, and then working to improve the system so that a recurrence is less likely in the future.
To the universalist, there may be good and evil but the fix doesn’t necessarily require the elimination or shunning of the person who has caused evil – whether intended or not. There is not necessarily just one path to rightness and Godliness. There may be multiple avenues, though some may be more efficacious than others. And for those who believe in an afterlife, there may be a second chance for those who did not make the grade the first time around. There is hope for all – and all are worthy of hope.
So, what does this have to do with Election 2012? Religious Puritanism as practiced in England and then America quickly died out. No more Salem witch trials. Massachusetts would morph, over time, from the most conservative to seemingly most liberal state in the American nation.
But, American Puritanism lives on – and not just in the form of our celebrate Puritan work ethic. In the cause of moral purity, there is always a new crusade – whether it be civil rights in the mid-19th century, women’s suffrage in the early 20th, social justice in the mid-20th or the environmentalism and anti-corporatism of the early 21st.
Despite his Chicago politics but perhaps because of his Harvard education, our current president has taken the mantle of the 21st century Puritan. Four years ago, he promised the “audacity of hope.” However, as president, he has proven himself not a uniter but divider. He has left behind the deal brokering of Daley’s Chicago for the “take it or leave it” politics of Obamacare, the largest accumulated deficit in U. S. history and homeowners who have lost accumulated wealth equal to 40-45% of U.S. GDP.
Given the opportunity, Mr. Obama would replace the vitality of America’s entrepreneurial spirit for the rules of a bureaucratically driven world – where Uncle Sam defines the winners (or at least holds harmless the protected losers). And where those who screwed up in the last economic collapse get prosecuted or nationalized rather than a second chance to get up and do better the next time around.
Challenger Romney not only believes in but lives for the action of the marketplace. Rather than a rule-maker, this would-be president would be America’s chief deal-maker.
Social commentator and Nobel prize-winning liberal economist Paul Krugman debunks Romney’s claim to be a typical small business man, commenting that:
It’s true that when Bain Capital started, it had only a handful of employees. But it had $37 million in funds, raised from sources that included wealthy Europeans investing through Panamanian shell companies and Central American oligarchs living in Miami while death squads associated with their families ravaged their home nations. Hey, doesn’t every plucky little startup have access to that kind of financing?
The Universalist might answer: “So what?” Doing business, closing the deal, isn’t necessarily about morality. This is why a person like Governor Romney has often, perhaps justifiably, been considered as amoral, a guy who is “all over the map,” no matter what the issue.
For universalists like Romney, what is important is getting the job done. In seeing to it that the individual, the business, yes even the overall economy, is better off at the end of the day than at the beginning.
Unlike the Puritan, this Universalist believes that there is always a second chance. There is no right or wrong answer; the best answer is what works now.
Mr. Obama criticizes his rival for never having a straight answer, but rather a response of “it depends.” For Mr. Romney that’s the way it should be. There is never a reason to take an “apology tour.” Rather, the real world is about situational ethics, economics, social justice, morality.
Rather than adhere to the multi-leveled bureaucratic rules of today’s Scribes and Pharisees, this transactor says the details are less important than getting the deal done. Yes, some win and some lose. But there’s always another deal waiting around the corner. And even if we fail, God’s mercy in the end will prevail. Even the losers eventually win in this kingdom.
Where do our VP candidates stand in all this? Remarkably and for the first time in our nation’s history, both VP candidates are Roman Catholics. Now, they share very divergent perspectives – with Joe Biden representing the social justice side of Catholicism and Paul Ryan the personal accountability wing.
But when it gets to the hereafter, Catholics stand in-between the hell versus heaven perspectives of the Puritans and the potential of heaven for all with the Universalists – due to Catholics belief in the intervening step(s) of purgatory. With either Obama or Romney as president, look for the (rather remarkable) possibility of a VP serving as a bridge to the other side of the Puritan / Universalist spectrum.
So, here’s the choice. Returning a sitting president who believes in rewards and punishments – even to the potential detriment of the nation. Or the challenger who would say we’re all in this together – even if we have to break a few rules to get there . And, let’s do better the next time around.
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