Will Australia follow US in moral decline?
Dependent and vulnerable citizens are equals, not political playthings, writes Peter Worland.
America is a beautiful country but its landscape is littered with ugliness — and Australia seems to be heading for the same mess.
You hear the ugliness on the radio stations. The United States has thousands of these and they’re dominated by the same strident negativity. From station to station, talk radio has one rabid message after another: “The USA is broke …” “Those on welfare are the problem …” “Cuts have to happen …”
Driving through the US earlier this year, we heard these mantras, wrapped around hateful speech. We remember especially one caller who had been disabled in a work accident. His point was that richer Americans should pay higher taxes. The “shock jock” responded by attacking him for being a welfare parasite.
Could this be the same America that we experienced during our visit in 1993, when President Clinton was inaugurated?
Could this be the same people we sceptical Australians watched with a mixture of admiration and amazement as, with hands on hearts, Democrats and Republicans alike stood stiffly and sang their stirring national anthem?
“And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Finally we turned off the radio in disgust. We drove on wondering what had happened to this land of the free.
We wondered how this avowedly Christian country with the motto “In God we trust” had reached this point. How had “welfare” itself become demonised? How had those who dispensed and received welfare become pariahs to be pilloried?
How could born-again Christians of the Republican right justify dismantling the very welfare machinery that has helped characterise the United States as a civilised Christian country?
After all, is not “welfare” — active concern for poor and vulnerable people — Jesus Christ’s biggest call on his followers?
What has happened in the United States to make it now seem so un-Christian?
The answer, it seems, is that US politics has been captured by extremists.
The Republicans, who currently control the Congress, have within their ranks a group known as the Tea Party. It might be small but it’s rich and powerful. Funded by men such as the Koch brothers, the Tea Party is dominating public discourse in the USA.
David and Charles Koch are among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of US$35 billion is exceeded only by the wealth of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
The Tea Party wants to shrink government itself. To do this, it must get rid of those who justify the need for redistributive government.
The scapegoat for this project is the poor and vulnerable Americans who rely on government welfare payments. They’re in the sights of the Tea Party. And this faction wields its power with seemingly limitless funds.
The Republicans captured by this Tea Party faction almost stopped the US Federal Government sending out 70 million welfare cheques in August this year.
That meant putting at risk the wellbeing of all those Americans. Suddenly, they were 70 million dispensable people, many of whom depended on their Social Security cheque arriving so they could eat.
These were people who were just plain poor, sick, disabled or old and dependent. Suddenly, they became pawns and political playthings in the hands of legislators who were driven by ideology.
One result of this near default is that confidence in the US system of government has been severely shaken and people have become polarised and angry.
But the issue here is more than economic and political. Faith and witness are at stake.
Michael Gerson made this point in his August 5 Washington Post article, “What Would Jesus Cut?” It is not Christian to support “any simplistic philosophy [that] focuses mainly on cuts … requiring disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable”, he said. “If religious people do not make this case, it is difficult to determine what distinctive message they offer.”
Those on the evangelical Christian right do not make this case.
This is despite Matthew’s Gospel being unequivocal about it, equating Jesus’ poor with Jesus’ self — with Godself: “Truly I tell you, whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.” (Matt 25:40)
No true follower of Jesus Christ can treat Jesus’ poor — “the least of these” — as playthings. There is no wriggle room here. Christians are held fast by the gospel writers when it comes to the poor.
Mark’s Gospel is even more hard hitting when he puts on Jesus’ lips the most uncomfortable of words: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:22)
Nor does Luke let us off any more lightly: “… when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:13)
Jesus’ commitment to the poor and vulnerable is clear-cut.
So where is Australia in all this? Since the early 1940s, when American servicemen on Rest-and-Recreation leave first offered gifts of PK chewing gum and Ray Ban sunglasses to their eager Australian girlfriends, we have been smitten by all things new from America.
It’s a long list that includes rock ’n’ roll and even Dolly Parton’s country music, hamburgers with fries and Coke, Ford cars and Hollywood movies, and US television programs — Australian children on average watch more than six hours of them every day.
Australians love to emulate Americans.
Does that mean we will we permit our public discourse to follow the US in its moral decline? (We may be less hand-on-heart-Christian than the USA but most Australians still say they are Christian at census time.)
Will we seek to make those on welfare a scapegoat? Will we follow America and refuse to discuss tax increases, and instead pick on the poor? Will we let the radio shock jocks poison the generous heart of our country? Will we permit our most pathetic politicians to make vulnerable people their political playthings?
In the early 1920s when the world was in turmoil, crazy people began to blame the minorities: Jews, homosexuals and gypsies. The rest of the world dismissed this “scapegoatism” as nonsense. By 1930, however, the financial systems had broken down and the crazy ones had begun to take power.
In Australia, we had our home grown fascists, the New Guard, which was based on a European militarist model.
But Australians, led by outspoken church leaders, stood firm against this anti-Semitism and said no to vilifying and demonising our citizens — and the New Guard soon burnt itself out.
Will we be as strong in our stand against exported American political extremism now as we were against exported European extremism in the 1930s?
As the politics become meaner and as the US exports its extremism here, Jesus’ poor and vulnerable will need the church militant.
Our welfare state, which is now under threat, did not fall from the sky. Church people played a big part in building it.
The Rev. Alexander Edgar, from his pulpit at Wesley Mission in Melbourne, played a critical role in urging Australia to become one of the first countries in the world to introduce the aged pension in 1908.
The aged pension is the foundation of our welfare state, and Christians are among the keepers of this legacy. We still take Jesus’ words seriously. “Welfare” is not a dirty word.
And back to America: Is our holiday tale too pessimistic?
Shortly after our return, Warren Buffett was quoted attacking the Tea Party’s politics and saying that he could afford to pay more tax.
The man with a personal wealth of about US$48 billion put some sanity back into US public discourse by advocating that he and other rich Americans should pay more than the 17.4% tax he had paid last year.
While he has their attention, perhaps Warren Buffett can encourage some of those on Capitol Hill in Washington DC to visit the nearby monument of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the US Declaration of Independence (1776).
They might try to catch there a sound that is not ugly. Instead, they could sense some of the most inspiring English words ever spoken — the ones chiselled into the white marble at the monument:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …”
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