With this article, we introduce a new regular feature we call the Spectrum Roundtable. In it, we invite participants with differing viewpoints to address the same topic or question. In this first edition of the Roundtable, Tom Gessel and Michael Peabody discuss the political outgrowths of their Adventist faith. -Editor
When Spectrum asked me to participate in this Roundtable from a Republican perspective, I said, "Of course!" Now that I'm knee-deep into writing this, I've got to say that it's not as easy as it sounds. Like most people, I tend to see things in terms of issues and not from the perspective of one particular political party. I've always been somewhere in the middle - with conservatives thinking I'm too liberal and vice versa and I've grown to dislike general labels.
I'm used to making arguments in court where a judge will ultimately determine who is right, but in the world of politics there is no ultimate human arbiter of the correctness of a position, so I understand that perspectives can evolve over time. Since this essay is written in the year 2014, if you're coming in from the future and reading this, please feel free to ask future me what I think, or ask my grandchildren what they think I meant.
I like to think of myself as being politically tolerant. My wife is a Democrat who often cancels out my votes in the ballot box. I also believe that as Seventh-day Adventists we need to look past politics and see people as individual brothers and sisters, and that we need to try to solve issues together rather than engage in destructive political partisanship.
Successful political structures are a lot more about balance than power. The Founders of this nation called them "checks and balances." That means that more perspectives are on the table. The President of the United States doesn't call the shots alone--he has to go through the Legislature and the Judiciary to get things done.
If you have one political party in power controlling everything, it doesn't turn out well. Take my home state of California for example. As a Republican, I'm in the political minority here. You'd think that this place would be a utopia after so many years of Democrat rule. But surprisingly that isn't the case. People in California pay some of the highest taxes but we have some of the worst schools, legendarily bad traffic, a repellant business climate, and more people living in poverty than any other state. Last week, the left-leaning Sacramento Bee reported that 23.4 percent of Californians live in poverty using a method that measures income and the cost of living. The high taxes haven't done anything other than to make job creators leave the states, and labor unions have made it impossible to make government manageable.
It's true that Democrats seem to love taxes a lot more than Republicans, but so far higher taxes don't seem to equate to better living conditions. You can only tax people so much before they start getting nervous and lock down the finances that they have left. I've looked around and can't find any correlation between high taxes and a successful climate where people truly can achieve the American dream of buying a house and raising a family.
I've met people who have never met a tax increase that they don't embrace. But normally they aren't in a position where they are paying very much in taxes. Believe it or not there are people who don't pay taxes while getting tax "refunds" who still complain that the rich are not paying their "fair share." But let's think of it this way - if you're a little kid and you have two siblings and you have a single Pumpkin pie, you divide it into thirds. A third is your "fair share." During FY2013, the Federal government collected $2.77 trillion in tax revenue. That's the pie. At the same time, there were 316,148,990 U.S. Citizens per the U.S. Census. So you divide the tax pie by the number of citizens and you end up with $8,761.69. That's your fair share. If you paid more than that, then we thank you. If you didn't pay that much, don't complain.
The people who generate the money and hire people and buy stuff in this nation should be celebrated. They got rich and were able to provide their families with financial security. They deserve it because they took the risks and ended up succeeding. Many of them came to the United States with nothing as immigrants and spent years sacrificing so that they could finally live the American dream.
Most Democrats like the idea of the American dream but like to complain that it is not achievable. Republicans tend to take their lumps and move on. Democrats tend to embrace victimhood. The second somebody stops believing that they are a victim, of whatever circumstance, the left tends to distance themselves and claim that the achievement was not possible and that the person had some kind of "unfair advantage" or "cheated" in order to succeed.
A social program that works is not one that identifies victims and keeps them there. In fact the best way to help people is to help businesses create good, solid jobs that can hire people who can then contribute to the economy. It's necessary to have people working for the government, but government jobs simply absorb tax money and don't create wealth. But if you create wealth, then there is more tax revenue and more money flowing through the system. There is no social safety net as solid as an environment in which people want to do business.
In my single-party home state, manufacturers have left in droves and people have lost jobs. Most recently, the environmentally-friendly electric car manufacturer Tesla, which is based in California, decided to build its massive battery factory in the “red state” of Nevada because Nevada offered Tesla $1.3 billion in tax breaks. Business Insider magazine reports that the new $5 billion Tesla factory in Reno will add 6,500 jobs at the factory itself, with a total of 22,000 new jobs added because the factory will be there. In the past three years, 50 companies moved to the Reno area and unemployment in Reno was cut in half.
I’m a huge proponent of religious liberty and separation of church and state. As Ronald Reagan said, “There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”
If you look at examples of nations where there has been the least freedom, you’ll find that they had the most expansive governments. The most extreme examples are places like the Soviet Union and Cuba where the government took ownership of everything and denigrated private ownership. But even though leftist college students wear T-Shirts featuring Che Guevara and red communist star logos, the reality is that these were oppressive. During the 20th century, communists killed over 100 million people.
The United States has been founded on a principle that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights given by God, not a dispensation from the government. That means that they are part of who you are as part of your existence, and cannot be given and taken away from you at the will of other people.
It is interesting that where Democrats favor group rights (i.e. "power to the people"), Republicans tend to favor individual rights.
Mr. Gessel brings up an unfounded theory that someday Republicans are more likely than Democrats to bring about a National Sunday Law. Many Adventists can't get past the concept that the complete essence of religious liberty resolves around Sunday laws. In reality, religious freedom also includes freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and other freedoms which are currently under attack – today primarily from the left. In October attorneys for the mayor’s office in Houston, Texas subpoenaed presentations, text messages, and emails from five pastors to find out what they said. Other pastors have been threatened with fines or imprisonment for refusing to perform same-sex marriages which they believe violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
If you can't preach and act as you believe without fear of government interference or investigation, it begins to look a lot like religious persecution. This is where the real action is taking place in relgious liberty and, quite frankly, when it comes to these freedoms as a party, the Democrats are missing in action.
Granted, it is true that since the 1980s there has been an attempt by the religious right to use the Republican Party as a base of operations as a means to diminish the mutually protective wall of separation of church and state. But even the most conservative Republicans recognize that the state should not try to infringe on the free exercise rights of religious people by requiring them to act against the dictates of their conscience. It is of note that the strongest voices against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which requires the federal government to recognize the rights of conscience of individuals, come from the left who want the government to ignore individual rights of conscience and to treat everybody the same even if individual relgious freedoms are threatened.
Of course, I have some points of disagreement a few of my Republican friends who claims that America is now zipping around the drain because America “removed God” from public schools in the 1950s when school-mandated prayers and Bible readings were found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. To me, the idea that some public school teacher could be mandated to acurately and lovingly preach the gospel is ridiculous. The government can’t build a simple healthcare website. It can't handle religious instruction.
But the Republican party is a large tent. In fact, the Republican candidate who will face off against California Democrat Governor Jerry Brown in November, Neel Kashkari, is a practicing Hindu. Republicans chose him because they believe he is the best guy for the job.
Since Mr. Gessel brought it up, the issue of abortion is perplexing because the law and the debate are all over the place when it comes to defining whether a fetus is a human being or some other kind of creature. If you were to ask a random person to name a Supreme Court case, they could probably only name Roe v. Wade which was issued in 1973. But hardly any have read this decision, or thought about the linchpin of the decision. Justice Harry Blackmun cracked open the door for fetal human rights when he wrote, "The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a "person" within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.”
From slavery, to the Trail of Tears, to modern racism, the strategy of those who denigrate human rights has always been that those adversely affected are not humans. But people are awakening to what Justice Blackmun said, and this November, voters in Colorado, North Dakota, and Tennessee will have the opportunity to decide what it is when they vote on “personhood” amendments to their state constitutions.
The legal status of the unborn child is not as clear as most people think. There are glaring inconsistencies. For instance, if a person kills a fetus in California without the consent of the pregnant woman or for medical necessity, it considered murder under Penal Code section 187. This is why Scott Peterson was convicted for double-homicide when he killed his pregnant wife, Laci, in 2002. In Florida, a man was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for murder when he tricked his pregnant girlfriend into taking abortion-causing drugs. These were charged as murders, not as property crimes.
With the advent of ultrasounds and advanced treatments for premature babies, the pro-choice lobby seems to have moved past the issue of whether it is a “tissue” or a “baby” and now argue, like Hillary Clinton, that abortion should be “legal, safe” and “rare.” In other words, there is tacit acknowledgment that a fetus is more than an unwanted tumor. As a society, we are on the cusp of a watershed moment where we will need to decide whether, as Justice Blackmun predicted, they are deserving of the rights of personhood. If we decide that they are people, but are not entitled to human rights, something will have forever changed in our collective psyches and engage in a culture of death? How how long will it be until those with expensive debilitating diseases or severe mental disabilities are similarly terminated? Will our lives have no meaning apart from the value that is placed on us by others? Will our rights be revocable rather than inalienable?
Adventists have avoided an honest discussion of abortion for many years, and while the church officially says that it does not “serve as a conscience for its members” on the topic of abortion, its position on jewelry is much clearer. If Jesus is indeed the “master physician” as the paintings in our hospitals say, then we need to come to grips with the question of whether He would guide the hands of an Adventist physician as he or she performs an elective abortion. Does Jesus love the unborn fetus facing incineration as much as the premature child of the same age clinging to life in an incubator?
On the issue of same-sex marriage, it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that it will be recognized as a legal right nationwide. The issue is rather how people who disagree on religious or moral grounds will be required to relate to the emerging right to marry and most of the debates over accommodation of same-sex couples will still take place at the state level. One should not be compelled by the government to participate in a religious ceremony in violation of his or her conscience as this would violate the Establishment Clause.
On the issue of Voter ID, I still fail to see why there is so much resistance to the concept. People who don’t have identification are at a complete disadvantage throughout society, from being able to get a job, obtain bank accounts, rent a bicycle, or travel on a plane. If Democrats were serious about bringing people up from victimhood, they would be at the forefront in making sure that people are able to obtain identification so that they could participate in society. But again, this doesn't appear to be the case.
I don’t have time to get into the various scandals that Mr. Gessel identifies other than to say that every president has had his day from Watergate to Iran Contra to Whitewater and onward. What I will say is that President Obama has wisely avoided many of these scandals by spending his time on vacation, on golf courses, and not attending morning intelligence briefings. As Obama has often said, he has learned of these scandals by reading the newspaper, just like everybody else.
When it comes to politics, as Mr. Gessel points out, we are probably at a low point in political discourse. In the past it was a virtue for politicians to be able to work with each other across the aisle. But today it seems that both sides are being driven to the extremes and that the extremes are unwilling to interact with each other. Democrats are just as guilty of this as Republicans. The best way to get over this gridlock is being able to hold open and honest dialogue on these topics, and I would like to thank Spectrum for this opportunity.
Read Tom Gessel's article, "I'm a Democrat Because of My Adventist Faith."
Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles, California and editor of www.ReligiousLiberty.tv.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6359