Opportunity Amidst Political Polarization

Opportunity is a word familiar to the American citizen. In the land of the free, with “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as our declaration, opportunity should be available for all. This, however, is not the case. Opportunity is not as accessible as it should be, and this political climate is not helping. Addressing this very issue, Michael Gerson came to speak on the subject of opportunity as a part of the “Richard F. Gross Distinguished Lecture Series” at Gordon College. As a Washington Post columnist, head speech-writer and advisor to President George W. Bush, he provided a refreshingly bi-partisan approach. The title of his lecture was “Whose Responsibility is Opportunity? The role of Citizens, Government and Civil Society.” The debate on opportunity in the United States is a very shallow one, according to Gerson. Perhaps articulating three of his main arguments will help us understand the nature of opportunity in the United States, and what our next step should be.

First, Gerson makes it clear that we are limited by the polarized nature of politics in this nation. Gerson comments on the fact that, although policies between the parties are not extremely different from one another, the language of the present campaigns makes it seem as if a citizen’s only choice is solely between “radical individualism” or a “[very] strong federal government.” Moderates are growing extinct, pulled/forced to one side or another by strong language from the Romney and Obama campaigns. What we must remember is that both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ have something to offer on this topic of opportunity, a topic that should be a “shared national goal,” according to Gerson. Are we promoting such a goal?

Second, Gerson surveys that we cannot simply ignore the economic inequality that exists in our nation. It requires recognition, from both parties. Gerson states, “Economic inequality without economic mobility is a caste system.” Our Declaration of Independence was never meant to hail “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Caste System!” Gerson states, “Economic mobility is strongly correlated to good family life, education, a healthy community, good physical health, and wealth savings and entrepreneurial pursuits.” Are we making proper strides to enhance these areas of life?

Third, Gerson encourages us not to assume that government is of no use in fixing this problem. “Markets can become predatory. Government is necessary to make decent provisions for the poor and low of society,” indicates Gerson. Fitting to our polarized politics, we tend to say either “government needs to leave us alone!” or “government is the only way to help and is the saving grace,” says Gerson. Are we thinking critically and creatively on these issues?

Having reviewed these stumbling blocks to opportunity in the United States, another should be discussed that Gerson did not specifically address. Fourthly, an equally dangerous response from Christians can be either complete abstinence or hyper-involvement in politics. Again, we see polarization even among Christians. Some Christians respond by abstaining from politics, quite comfortable with their ‘otherworldly’ approach to life, waiting for God and His host of angels to welcome them into the pearly gates, disingenuously living a life that seeks no connection or impact in this world. Other Christians become hyper-involved in politics, in ignorant and often harmfully ways, using the realm of politics as a moral battle-ground, living life to prove others wrong by a theological framework that majors in the minors of the faith. Are we living out our faith in appropriate ways in the political realm?

Opportunity is undeniably a key theme in the fight for justice. It should not only be a proper social issue to fight for, but as Christians, it ought to be a Biblical one. Towards the end of his lecture, Gerson cut to the heart with his comment that, “God is not on the side of America, but on the side of justice.” Above all, justice requires respect for human dignity and general awareness on the part of the citizens and government of the United States. Where hopefully these two polarized camps might agree is on the significance of opportunity. This should be a national united interest, not a partisan one. Where these two camps disagree in approach, hopefully they will seek common ground and take strides toward the middle for the sake of opportunity, the national interest. In Gerson’s words: “The world doesn’t lack for great causes, just those that will take up these causes.”

-Trey Walsh is a junior sociology major at Gordon College.
Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey