Lowest Denominator or Highest Ideals?

I listened today to a podcast conversation that took place about a month ago between two eminent journalists and commentators, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, representing different faiths, on the relation between religion and politics.  I want to talk about one point they made.

Both sides in the recent presidential campaign were caught up in a depiction of Americans as primarily concerned about the material sides of their lives:  The economy, the cost of health care, the recession and technology that took their jobs, and also the wealth of donors, the paid lobbyists, not to mention the wealth of candidates themselves.

Brooks and Dionne posed the question, do we think so little of our citizens that we imagine all they think about is money?

What about ideals and greater goals?  What about the future we want for our children?  What about values like love and compassion, giving and receiving?  Dionne wished for a campaign to “make America empathetic again.”

Is part of our pain, anger, fear, shame, or defensiveness – pick one or more depending on where you are in the post-election spectrum – that we don’t want to show we care about higher ideals or we’ll be laughed at?  We don’t want to say we care about the folks on the other side (who sometimes are our own families, right?) lest we be rejected?

What if we could forget the statistics and the groupings just for a little while – take a break from all that?  The United States of America was built on ideals, not calculations;  if candidates are trying to target the lowest common “denominator,” they are turning us all into “numbers.”

This nation was driven by dreams, not dynasties – despite names like Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, and Trump.  The dreams live in each person’s heart, not in programs and policies.

This country was built on the new (in the 18th century) idea of the individual.  Based on the biblical view of human beings as each created “in the image of God,” it promised equality to all.   Admittedly, it took a long time to extend equal rights to everyone, not just of free speech, assembly, and religion, but of owning property, owning their own labor, being allowed to vote, rights to marry and to privacy.  “Details to be worked out later” — but we still live by that bold vision.

Inherent in that notion of individuality is that each person has a soul, if you accept the spiritual terminology, or perhaps a “unique constitution,” if you’re a humanist.  When you begin to open to the inner reality of another person, says Brooks, “you see what each soul longs for.”

Jewish homiletic tradition (midrash) tells it this way:  When a person walks down the street, he is accompanied by a band of angels proclaiming, “Baruch ha-ba!  Blessed is this one coming down the street, made in the image of the Holy One!”

Everyone, without exception.

Can we translate that into our public life, our common life, after the enormous turmoil and trauma of this season?  Actually, yes, through what Dionne calls our “capacious imagination.” Expand your view.  Next time you see someone on the street, imagine him or her being accompanied by a couple of angels announcing this person’s beautiful soul.  Next time you watch someone on a video a news show, imagine a chorus of angels around them.  And watch your own reaction.  You may laugh or shudder, but also think about it.

When, on occasion, you can feel that amplified presence of the other, you may recognize something else that David Brooks identified:  “The message is the person.”  More important than speeches or arguments, good qualities are trying to find expression through that holy presence.

When we can feel those good qualities together, communities start to form. First around support, then around common needs, shared gifts, common purposes.

Dionne said something else, quoting political philosopher Michael Sandell:  “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”  I suspect we have more work to do before politics can go well again.  Still, we can set ourselves on a path to discover dimensions of goodness that we could not have discovered on our own.

Thanks to my friend and spiritual colleague, Dr. Connie Kaplan, for recommending this podcast to me.

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