When I was a week short of my 8th birthday, I vaguely remember John Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961.
A key quote was, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
We have heard it repeated many times, and it makes me proud to know we had and have admirable leadership on both sides of the aisle.
Hardly 20 years later, Ronald Reagan dropped a bombshell in a debate with Jimmy Carter by looking sincerely into the camera and asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
I was well into my 20s and remember feeling uneasy about the question, but I wasn’t sure why. My political and theological perspectives were being formed, and the question bothered me.
If you haven’t noticed, Republicans have resurrected that question of late with a great deal of supposed success.
I am still uneasy about the query. Nearly 60, I have a better sense of why the question leaves me shaking my head.
My concerns are hardly about the political differences between Obama and Romney.
My concerns have to do with the willingness (and possible necessity) of some political leaders to appeal to the darker side of human nature in order to be and stay elected.
I can’t imagine a question that would appeal to the interests of more Americans. Neither can I imagine a worse question for guiding one’s vote.
It may be that I have missed something. Reagan may have been asking if America as a nation was better off than it had been four years previously, but it didn’t seem so.
The same might be said of today’s leaders who have renewed the question. Maybe they are asking if our nation is better off in a collective sense. I doubt it.
I suspect the average politician who asks the question simply knows where America is itching and promises to scratch the itch, whether the itch really needs scratching, or whether they can actually deliver on the promise.
For my part, the question fails on several points.
First, the question appeals to the more self-interested side of human nature. There are lots of reasons people vote the ways they do.
Some of those reasons have to do with higher ideals and selfless or global hopes. Others are less admirable.
A giant wedge exists in America. I don’t know who put it there. Maybe we all did, or at least we allowed it.
Some call it class warfare. Many Republicans appeal to their constituencies by promising lower taxes. Many Democrats appeal to their constituencies by promising more entitlements. Many Americans have fallen into the trap of voting their financial interests.
For my part, it is immoral to vote based primarily on one’s financial interests, regardless of the box one checks.
Second, the appeal seems to reduce human worth to what one has. I emphasize that I may have missed something in the query. Maybe “better off” is meant to refer to broader concerns than that of material worth. I didn’t pick that up, though.
Jesus made the point that “a person’s life does not consist of the abundance of their possessions.” I fear too few people believe that.
Third, the question does not seem to carry any kind of collective sentiment. When someone asks me “Are you better off?”, I assume they are talking about me.
If they are talking about the group, nation, church or world, they ought to be a bit more specific. If the question is, “Are we better off?”, then I could better accept it.
As one who is trying to follow the Master, I have far less concern about my being better off than about our being better off.
More than that, I am more concerned about our world, nation, state, localities, communities and churches being better than I am about our being better off.
Fourth, the question seems to see history in very short time frames, and history can’t or shouldn’t be judged based on snippets of time.
Maximum times of service for the president are there for good reasons. Presidents are entrusted with only so much time to make a difference.
However, the wheels of justice and government turn slowly. The nation and world are far too large for any one person to make major differences quickly.
Expecting good things from leaders is right and reasonable. Expecting selfish interests to be addressed quickly is neither.
I know it may be unfair for me to suggest that most voters are going to vote their own interests, to suggest that they are either not concerned about America’s or the world’s interests, or maybe just failing to distinguish between their own interests and the interests of the collective.
However, when leaders ask challenging questions, I would like to see them stretch the electorate toward a higher morality and consciousness – not appeal to our lower nature.