To the Left of Where I Come From

OCTOBER 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by Jack Du Mez

I grew up in a socially and politically conservative small town in Wisconsin—very conservative. In my Christian grade school’s mock presidential election of 1984, only two students in about two hundred voted for Mondale instead of Reagan. The statistics haven’t changed much over time, apparently. On a recent trip back home, a family member proudly informed me that 98 percent of my hometown voted in support of Governor Scott Walker in this past summer’s recall election. Strolling through town I couldn’t help but notice Mitt Romney signs littering the otherwise immaculate front lawns, and I was reminded how the annual Fourth of July parade near my hometown tends to be an exercise in humility for Democratic politicians. If they’re lucky, they’re rewarded with a smattering of applause. More often, however, silence or even jeering follows them along the parade route. (A close family member may or may not have yelled “baby killer” at one unlucky politician a couple of years back!) To keep the peace with family and friends back home, I remove my “Obama for America” car magnet before I arrive and try not to talk politics—a difficult task, given the persistent din of Fox News and talk radio in the background.

Trips home are filled with vivid reminders of how I grew up thinking that Republican politics and Christian values went hand in hand. Indeed, the very idea of a Christian Democrat once seemed oxymoronic. It wasn’t until college that I began to question this alignment, even though the small Midwestern town where I attended college was an even deeper shade of red on the electoral map than my own hometown. But my college was in the Reformed tradition, and the ideas I learned about theology, missiology, urban studies, history, and philosophy from my professors there—many of whom undoubtedly held to conservative political ideologies—would end up transforming my thinking about politics in the coming years.

That said, it is not my intent here to argue that President Obama’s policies are fundamentally more Christian than Governor Romney’s. This sort of absolutist thinking can do more harm than good, obscuring the complexity of the world in which we live, and the many ways in which the world has been marred by sin— particularly when even our best intentions are flawed by pride and self-interest. And yet my Reformed, Christian beliefs have in fact shaped my political views so that, because of them, I will be voting for President Obama.

I find President Obama’s view of the role of government more compelling than the Republican alternative (see the “starve the beast” political strategy started in the 1980s). In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama harkened back to Abraham Lincoln, stating that “government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” This strikes me as a Reformed, perhaps even Kuyperian, view of a governmental sphere with limited but important powers. Of course, Republicans and Democrats differ on what those powers entail, but I agree with President Obama that the government can play a positive role in shaping a more just and equitable society, one that enables citizens, businesses, and communities to thrive.

I also differ from many Republicans in resisting the notion that financial successes are built solely from individual resources, and thus I do not think it a sacrilege to raise taxes on society’s wealthiest in order to ease the burden on those who struggle to meet basic needs. To me this seems a logical way both to care for people who are poor (perhaps one of the clearest of all biblical mandates) and to ensure a strong civil society that promotes the flourishing of individuals and families. Even if Obama succeeds in ending the Bush-era tax cuts for high-wage earners, the rates would more than likely remain lower than they’ve been at nearly any point in the past fifty years, including during the Reagan administration. When it comes to mitigating poverty, I often hear friends argue that the church should be the institution to carry out this task. I agree that in some cases churches can do this work more efficiently than governmental agencies. But in an age when churches clearly lack the resources (and, in some cases, the desire) to do this work effectively and comprehensively, and where church membership is steadily declining, I think it is wise and good to use governmental resources to create conditions from which people can escape the shackles of poverty.

In my experience, however, no other issue holds Christians back from supporting President Obama’s reelection more than the question of abortion. How, my family and friends insist, can I cast a vote for a “pro-choice” candidate? In truth, I remain sympathetic to Christians who cannot in good conscience do so. And, indeed, President Obama has affirmed women’s right to choose abortion. But he has also clearly stated that his position is not “pro-abortion.” Rather, he has declared his intent to reduce the number of abortions, and has attempted to create policies to this effect by working to broaden health care, provide access to contraceptives, and maintain a social safety net for women and children. His strategies to reduce unintended and unwanted pregnancies can fit within a “pro-life” agenda, as I understand the term (a position that appears to be gaining popularity among a new generation of American evangelicals as well). The president stands out as one of the few politicians in recent years willing to at least try to find common ground around this divisive issue, and given the polarized political climate, this seems a goal worth supporting.

Finally, I will vote for President Obama because of where he comes from and what he represents. I believe that his experience growing up in a biracial, multigenerational, multicultural home can help us broaden our conception of what it means to be an American. His experience as a community organizer placed him, albeit temporarily, out of the circles of power that could otherwise insulate a candidate from the daily concerns of typical citizens.

While out registering voters before the last election, I encountered a number of young people—black, brown, American citizens, children of immigrants—and saw their faces light up when we started talking about Obama. To me it’s worth something that kids and teens from very different backgrounds can see themselves represented, in some way, in the Oval Office. For me, too, President Obama represents a future that looks quite different from my past.

Jack Du Mez is an assistant professor and academic counselor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.