Europe once fought a war for 100 years. For the first 100 days of the new Republican-controlled Congress, another war took place on Capitol Hill, and now promises to continue. This one was ideological, but its consequences and victims are no less real.
One of the many casualties of the 100-day House marathon to enact the Contract With America was the quality of political discourse itself. Whether Washington is even capable of having the honest, open, fair, and genuinely non-partisan discussion necessary to create new political visions and approaches-actually to solve the many problems that Congress now just argues about-is a very big question.
During the House of Representatives debate on welfare reform, a millionaire Republican congressman from Florida compared poor people to the alligators in his state-if you feed them, you make them dependent. That inspired a Wyoming GOP congresswoman to make the same point about wolves in the Rocky Mountains. On the other side, some Democrats compared those who support state block grants to Nazis. One member of Congress lamented that it was the worst debate in all his years on Capitol Hill. "We are pulling apart in this country," he said.
As a result of The Soul of Politics, I've had new opportunities to speak to members of Congress and their staffs, both in groups and individually, on the topic of politics and values. The conversation with those in leadership on both sides of the aisle has been about vision and practical solutions to the anguishing social disintegration, poverty, and violence that is such a political football in Washington, D.C.
The problem is that most of the politicians are not on the playing field, or even close to it. And while the political blaming swirls over our heads in the nation's capital, our children continue to be killed in the streets. The polarization and paralysis that has captured Washington (even much more than usual, according to many seasoned observers in this town) is part of the reason our children are dying. That may seem harsh, but I believe it's true. Policy makers on both sides of the political divide must be held accountable for a lack of vision, without which we are indeed perishing.
THE CONTRACT is less a vision for the future than a reaction to the past. That reaction is supported by many Americans, especially the movement toward major political reform and smaller, more locally accountable government.
But some of the content of the Contract isn't clearly understood by the electorate, with polls showing that many of its provisions are not well known to voters. Some of the proposals from the 100-day Republican juggernaut have not gone over well, especially those that seem unfair, harsh, or mean-spirited toward our poorest children. School lunches, child immunization, good education, and investment in crime prevention are examples of things most people believe we need.
But in their efforts to show how poor children might be ravaged if all of the Contract's provisions are enacted, liberal and Democratic opponents have sometimes given the impression that they believe present government welfare policies and social programs are working. Some are, but many are not. What is needed, agree most who work in the midst of, for example, the crisis of youth violence, is a fundamentally new approach. Our values and priorities must be re-examined. Our culture of individualism, materialism, and social segregation must be challenged. And our politics of false choices must be overcome.
No longer must we be asked to choose between good values or good jobs, rebuilding families or reconstructing neighborhoods, fighting cultural corrosion or battling racism, upholding the sanctity of life or standing for the equality of women, insisting on personal responsibility or working for social justice as a moral imperative. These issues destroy our cultural and political debate, which is exacerbated by the dysfunctional categories of liberal or conservative, Left or Right. Those ideological paradigms still rule in the political parties, the media, and in the debates of Congress; but they just don't work anymore on the street and in local communities where people are looking for real solutions to painful problems.
The good news is that the country is hungry for new visions and approaches and the honest political leadership required to find them. Three things will be required. First, there must be a recognition that neither the state nor the market can solve the problems we now face. The role of the "civil society," through the institutions of family, school, neighborhood, voluntary associations, churches, synagogues, and others, will be critical.
Second, while government cannot solve all of our social problems and is ill-suited to address many of them, the public sector must still play a crucial role. The wall between public and private solutions must be broken down in favor of new "partnerships" and configurations of people and resources in local communities working together. What a catalytic public leadership role might be and how such new partnerships in local communities can be convened should be a central focus of political conversation.
Third, without the moral energy and resources (human and financial) adequate to the scope of the task, the job will not get done. The business community must play its part as well, and follow the lead of innovative entrepreneurs who now include both the common good and environmental responsibility in their bottom line.
Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, is prophetic when she challenges us to "leave no child behind." That is a moral imperative. We don't have to do things the way they have been done before. New directions can and must be found.
But we must not allow the rhetoric of downsizing and block grants to become a cover for abandoning the poorest and most vulnerable in our midst. The Republicans, in particular, must prove that their reforms will not result in such abandonment under the cloak of a new and harsh social Darwinism. Such doctrines must be rejected on explicitly religious and spiritual grounds as morally unacceptable.
We all must be held accountable. President Franklin Roosevelt is lauded by a broad spectrum of American politicians, from modern-day Democrats to Ronald Reagan and even Newt Gingrich. On the 50th anniversary of his death, journalist David Brinkley commented that before Roosevelt, the hungry were just told to go to church, charity, or soup lines. Roosevelt introduced a new notion of social and public responsibility that has been widely accepted since.
Now many question the role of government in solving social problems. But those who say that the answer is to go back to a total reliance on religious and private charity are wrong. Government is not the only or, sometimes, the best mechanism for a nation to exercise its social responsibility. But, as a society, we are responsible for one another. That may be the important paradigm shift to be made now. The taking of social responsibility is a moral and religious imperative that cannot always be shifted to someone else. Indeed, that has become one of the inherent problems with the welfare state itself.
The Contract battle will soon be over, with the Senate perhaps moderating some of the more extreme proposals from the House. But whatever compromises emerge will not be enough to resolve the contentious problems that confront us. We will have to go much further. While participating recently on a panel in Washington, D.C., I was encouraged to hear a conservative Republican question whether block grants to the states will really be the answer. All of us need to question our traditional solutions and not be wedded to them.
The battle ahead is for an entirely different approach to reversing the downward spiral of under-class poverty and middle-class insecurity, social polarization and growing violence, moral breakdown and social disintegration occurring across the spectrum of American society.
We need a politics of community and a politics of hope that can begin to bring us together. Given the wars of Washington, that kind of politics will most likely first emerge in local communities and neighborhoods and be led by those citizens with a moral vision of social transformation. It is a battle not well left to the politicians, but one that calls for nothing less than the spiritual renewal of our practice of citizenship.
Going to South Africa is such a different experience than it used to be. You don't have to enter clandestinely, meet people at pre-arranged places after you get in, always be looking to make sure nobody is watching you, or be ready for interrogation if the Security Police pick you up.
Now, smiling faces greet you at the airport carrying big signs announcing a conference by the South African Council of Churches. And if ever you aren't sure where you are, you can ask the friendly police for directions. Oh freedom.
This was a conference I just couldn't miss. It was a reunion for me. So many Christian friends who had struggled so long were all together to explore the meaning of "Being the Church Today" in South Africa. This was the first time since last spring's historic elections and transition to democracy that church leaders, pastors, and theologians had gathered to assess their new role. Before, protest and resistance to apartheid had united these Christians. Now there were new questions.
How can the churches find a posture of "critical solidarity" with the new government, as theologians like John de Gruchy and Charles Villa-Vicencio describe it? Apartheid is over, but racism is not and must still be overcome. Now that the battle for political freedom has been won, challenges of gender equality are emerging with new force. How can the churches contribute to critical public debates, like whether South Africa should dismantle its arms industry or assume a new role as regional superpower?
Most critically, how can this new nation face the enormous challenge of economic reconstruction and social reconciliation? And what will the prophetic role of the churches be? Will South Africa follow traditional international economic development patterns or use its moral authority to seek new economic models like those advocated by church leaders such as Barney Pityana and Frank Chikane?
These were some of the issues under discernment at the four-day gathering held outside Johannesburg in March. Some friends from the international community, long involved in the struggle against apartheid, were invited to "listen in" to the conversation and offer reflections from their own contexts.
I told the assembly of the fears I heard from grassroots pastors and young people in Soweto in the days following Nelson Mandela's inauguration. "We're afraid of an American solution for South Africa," they said.
Puzzled, I asked what they meant. In an amazing grasp of our history, these township youths said: "In America, after your civil rights movement, the black leaders left the ghettos for the white suburbs and the integration of black people into the society didn't really get down to the masses. We're afraid we'll lose our leaders as role models in the townships and that the redistribution of wealth and power won't go below the political elites of the African National Congress ruling party. We don't want an American solution."
That story was sobering to the gathered church leaders who are committed to real transformation in South Africa. The churches cannot go back to a narrow focus on personal piety now that freedom has been gained, several of the conference participants remarked. South Africa will need its churches now more than ever.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.