"Cercetați toate lucrurile, si păstrați ce este bun!"

Apostolul Pavel

This week I told my students that they should not take their right to vote lightly. Having grown up under Ceausescu’s dictatorship where voting was irrelevant, I have always felt a small thrill each time I’ve participated in American elections, particularly presidential ones. I imagine myself one among millions of Americans who collectively elect leaders that come closest to representing their philosophical and political positions. Because of the electoral system (where the candidate that wins the majority popular vote in a given state wins all of that state’s electoral points), sizable voter minorities have been bitterly disappointed at times. Such was the case in Florida four years ago, where the difference between the majority who elected George W. Bush and the minority that was disappointed was based on roughly 500 votes. Another case in point that every vote counts.             

Perhaps this election is as contentious as any other. But it certainly feels as though the stakes are of historic proportions for both sides. This is because the United States seems to be at a crossroads. Not only is it facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an energy crisis, the escalating effects of global warming and environmental pollution, the rising costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the “War on Terror;” the United States is also experiencing a philosophical crisis. Two basic questions stage this philosophical crisis: Who is America? What should America become?

The answer to the first question largely determines the answer to the second. Is America foundationally a nation of Christians that barely tolerates other religious groups? Or is America a place for religious freedom? Is America a nation foundationally based in Anglo-Saxon, Protestant traditions? Does the term “melting pot” suggest that other national and cultural traditions brought by millions of immigrants should conform to those Anglo-Saxon Protestant traditions? To what degree? Or is America complexly constituted by the remnants of African traditions transferred through the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the self-made African American cultures of the formerly enslaved; by Mexican cultures practiced long before the US annexation of Western Territories in 1848; by indigenous Native American traditions; by Southern and Eastern European cultures brought by the 1890-1930 massive wave of immigration; by Jewish traditions taking flight from fascism? Is the “authentic” America found in rural, small town locales and traditions? Or is it to be found in heterogeneous urban cities with its numerous languages, cultures, races and ethnicities? Is America symbolized by total and unquestioning allegiance to the military? Or is it symbolized by civil disobedience and political dissent to unjustified wars? Who is more American: Cindy Sheehan, who camped in front of the White House to protest the War in Iraq or Gov. Palin’s son who goes to fight in the war? Who had the more American economic policy: Franklin D. Roosevelt whose New Deal established insurance programs like Social Security and assistance for the poor? Or was it Ronald Reagan, whose anti-big government platform lowered taxes, freed markets and capital to move globally, shifting manufacturing from organized high-wage locales to unorganized low-wage ones?

There will be no consensus on the answers to these questions. It is undeniable that America is all these things at once, staging the very contradictions that have escalated in this 2008 presidential election. But I am immensely interested in finding out which America will be chosen by the majority, because each presidential candidate’s position on how to proceed from this crossroads is based in a different reading of America’s past strengths.

The message of hope and unity conjured by Senator Barack Obama situates itself in what he and others interpret to be a fundamental American strength: heterogeneity, diversity, multiple traditions, cultures, and racial groups working toward a common goal. The audacity to hope is rooted in the legacy of American social movements that challenged the status quo, from the dismantling of slavery, to the Freedom Movement’s overhaul of legal racial segregation, to campaigns for workers’ rights, to feminist disruptions of patriarchal systems of inequality. Symbolically, the reason Obama can have the audacity to hope is because those who came before have endowed him with numerous precedents for audacity. Part of the reason Americans have been electrified by Obama’s campaign is because they too have been given permission to once again hope for more than the place that has been allotted to them. No one has asked for this level of participation in the making of America since John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin conjure up another America. They insist on a narrower definition of who belongs and who should not, an America fundamentally rooted in a Protestant ethic of hard work, rugged individualism (or maverick-ness), economic self-reliance, minimal government intervention or oversight (low taxes, few regulations, low state power to redistribute wealth), and moral values that firmly cohere with Biblical commands. As such, they defend the right to exclude the stranger, whether that strangeness is symbolized by race, language, religion, or political dissidence. Adherence to what are deemed fundamental American principles and values is the precondition of inclusion. In this vision, there is strength in collective uniformity and homogeneity while still allowing measured room for individualist expression.

Since 1968, Americans have generally swung toward McCain and Palin’s vision of America. Both liberals and conservatives have expressed support for restrictions in immigration matters, they have voted for economic policies that privilege individual accumulation and consumption over shared public goods, they have favored free markets with less government oversight, and they have repeatedly advocated for the shrinking of the welfare state’s role in the redistribution of wealth.

Yet this movement toward individualism, security and seclusion has not been without its consequences—particularly in the last eight years. Internationally, America’s standing has left many nations—including allies—feeling disregarded and disrespected. Economically, the bubbles of individual consumerism and ostentatious displays of wealth have burst. Working and middle class family wealth and wages have remained stagnant while debt has increased. Rates of poverty and homelessness have risen for the majority while a small class of people has fared very well. Scholars have documented these trends for the past thirty years.

Above all, however, there are ethical consequences to favoring a restrictionist vision of America. The traditions of anti-intellectualism, unequivocal military force, racial homogeneity, and possessive individualism raise questions about America’s relationship to its neighbors—those that are external to and within its national borders. What kind of ethical relationship to the neighbor is possible under a restrictionist vision of America? Where will Americans stand in relation to Christ’s commandment to love the neighbor—indeed to love one’s enemies—as much as one loves oneself?