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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Choices After the Conventions
distributed 7/29/16 - ©2016

It has been a long, sometimes painful, two weeks. Back-to-back political conventions take a heavy toll on us all.

As I struggled to grasp the mood of the nation, I subjected myself to full coverage of both gatherings -- over three hours each night, for eight nights. (Thank you, PBS and NPR, for your extensive and thoughtful coverage.)

I confess that I didn't stick closely to the instructions of my "Eco-Justice Political Convention Drinking Game", as outlined in Notes two weeks ago. As several of you have commented, the rules of that game would have led to a very dry and sober couple of weeks, because even the "take a sip" situations were unlikely to occur. Civility toward the other party was very rare, and toward the other candidate was non-existent. I didn't hear anybody hint that most fossil fuels need to stay in the ground -- but the Democrats did acknowledge the end of coal requires new options for miners. As far as I know, no speaker of either party talked about the war and poverty that drive people from Latin America. So, I'm sorry if the game didn't add much to your enjoyment of the two conventions.

I didn't take notes through my 24 hours of immersion in speeches and punditry. My take-aways are subjective. Today, I'll share a few of those perceptions, and then turn to some practical advice for churches in this election season.

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"There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican parties." So said George Wallace in 1968, when he ran for president in the segregationist American Independent Party. I'd say that there's at least a dollar's worth of difference between the two this year. There are profound differences in perspectives, proposals and temperament. About the only place where the two platforms seem to agree is in their rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership. (Twice in the last couple of years, 2014 and 2015, Notes has explored flaws in that trade agreement.)

As just one example of the difference, the silence of the Republicans about climate change was stunning to me. This great global crisis did get some mention through the Democrat's week. It was encouraging to hear Hillary say, "I believe in science", and to say that all countries -- including the US -- need to be held to the goals of the Paris Agreement.

It was clear, too, that there is a dollar's worth of difference within each of the parties. Internal divisions are deep and bitter. Republican opposition to Trump was evident in the droves of party leaders who refused to show up for the convention, and in Ted Cruz's keynote speech where he refused to endorse the candidate. The Democrats face the ongoing rift between Sanders and Clinton camps, between "revolution" and management.

While the parties are miles apart on their positions, they are both speaking to common themes about these perilous times. Terrorism. Economic inequality and the collapse of the middle class. Violence in our streets, and the role of the police. Racial tensions. Immigration. The emotions related to those issues are raw: fear, hurt, anger, distrust. The people of this land are not happy and hopeful.

And this year we face the novel situation where both of the candidates have astronomically high "unfavorable" ratings from the public. Far too many people seem to be making their choices in terms of which person they passionately oppose.

This is a year with stark differences between the parties and their candidates. The choices are dramatic and important. The conventions staked out the themes and styles. For the next 102 days, we will be hammered with sharply contrasting values and messages. It will be a long, often painful, three months.

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I didn't sit through the conventions as a neutral observer. As the regular readers of these Notes know very well, I have strong opinions and passionate beliefs about most of the disputed issues of this election. My political leanings are not a secret. There was one week this month when I was generally horrified and offended, and another week when I found much to cheer and affirm. Any guesses?

Eco-Justice Notes is a publication of Eco-Justice Ministries. As a non-profit corporation, there are boundaries about how we can address elections. Churches and other 501(c)3 organizations are not allowed to endorse or oppose candidates. We can take stands on legislation, but not on people running for office. So, in this forum, there are things I cannot write, and I'm fine with that.

One of the planks of the Republican platform calls for overturning that provision of the tax code. They think that this restriction on churches is a violation of religious freedom. They'd like to allow pastors and bishops (and imams?) to tell their people who to vote for.

I think churches and other religious organizations are much better off when we have to dance around the edges of the elections. Bestowing blessings or curses upon particular candidates is too simplistic. Complicated moral questions and difficult ethical trade-offs are trivialized when we -- as religious or community institutions -- make it about one person.

But engaging in that election-time dance doesn't mean that we have to be silent or uninvolved. It just means that we need to be clear and appropriate in our perpetual role of speaking to matters of faith, ethics, morality and principle.

A recent Christian Century editorial did a wonderful job of spelling out what churches can and must do. I assume that their words were carefully vetted by the magazine's lawyers before publication, so I feel safe quoting some of their statement. I encourage you to read the whole editorial.

Churches and religious organizations are perfectly free under the tax-exemption laws to express their views on immigration, guns, military intervention, abortion, same-sex marriage, health care and other issues. They are free to express their views about character and religious issues.

They are free, for example, to say that a candidate who relies on innuendo and hearsay is destroying the basis for genuine debate.

They are free to say that a candidate who targets people of one religion for discriminatory treatment is attacking the basis of everyone's religious freedom.

And they are free to say that a candidate who sneers at the disabled, ridicules people because of their appearance, and promises to engage in torture fails to understand that all humans are made in the image of God.

In short, there's no law against religious leaders and religious organizations speaking and living out the truths that are rooted in their faith.

The US presidential election of 2016 is profoundly important for our nation and our world. As citizens, we must make our choices -- however imperfect or distasteful -- on the basis of our faith and morality. As individuals, I hope that we'll all be actively engaged in advocacy for our chosen candidates, and that we'll work hard to build support among other voters in what appears to be a frighteningly close race.

As churches, I hope that we will provide clear guidance on the religious and moral questions that are central to this election. I pray that we will foster open, honest and respectful conversation within our communities. We cannot and should not endorse candidates, but we can and must provide witness about the issues at stake.

It will be a long and potentially nasty three months until the election. May we "gird our loins" and be active participants in this national debate.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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