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What would Jefferson say?

Essay by Martha Quillen

American life – March 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

One of Ed’s friends, Clay Jenkinson, is a Thomas Jefferson impersonator who talks at schools, meetings, and book fairs. As Jefferson, Jenkinson is frequently asked how he feels about modern America. The answer?

President Jefferson is appalled by both our government and by us. And well he should be. Jefferson’s ideal nation was bound together by a very limited, almost powerless federal government that could operate without income taxes or annual deficits. As Jefferson saw it, government was a necessary evil that had to be checked, balanced, curbed, harnessed, and in the end, overthrown frequently.

What Jefferson would think of our current government hardly matters, though, since Jefferson couldn’t possibly get elected anyway today. Republicans would dismiss Jefferson as an elitist liberal with suspect morals. Democrats would declare him an imperialist racist.

As it is, Jefferson isn’t a big player in modern politics. But considering modern political rhetoric, Jefferson is darned lucky to be retired. It could be worse. During our last election, Harry Truman ended up supporting George Herbert Walker Bush without so much as a by-your-leave in the matter.

And now, curiously enough, Jesus of Nazareth is the historical figure most called upon for endorsements. If the Republicans are to be believed, Jesus supports more prisons, more executions, tougher laws, longer sentences, school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, patriotism, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, untaxed capital gains, and the right of every American millionaire to avoid taxation.

It doesn’t matter that some of this platform seems inimical to the gospel of Jesus (eg. school prayer doesn’t seem to fit with “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret”). The Republicans have neatly tied all of these diverse issues into a tidy package regardless.

Considering what Jesus had to say about wealth, it may seem odd that the Republican platform benefits corporate profits and billionaires. But perhaps the Republicans are merely trying to separate the saints from the sinners. Still, one has to wonder why we need almighty Mammon to identify sinners when the Republicans are so good at it. At least, as far as I can see, dividing Americans into warring factions has been their major goal for several years.

I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just a backlash against Democrats who have been doing the same thing. For years, Democrats have been characterizing their opponents as bigoted, chauvinistic, intolerant exploiters of the environment. Now the Republicans are lashing back at rivals they regard as immoral, baby-killing sybarites.

Until recently, much of the population seemed intimidated into politically correct silence — probably because they were never really sure whether the polite term was Chicano or Hispanic, or whether a person was properly called mentally disabled, impaired, special, challenged, disadvantaged, or merely Mr. Congressman, sir.

At the same time, however, the political hacks stereotyped gleefully. Therefore, now it is fairly safe to claim that men are abusive, violent, and too dim-witted to ask for directions — no matter how lost or deranged they get.

Blacks are genetically inferior. Adolescent males are aggressive and dangerous. Women are math-impaired. Children are uncontrolled. Families are dysfunctional.

In short, experts could always say anything, even when regular people could say nothing, unless they wanted to face a discrimination suit.

WITH RECKLESS ARROGANCE, autocratic Democrats pushed sex education, environmental purity, and political correctness onto an electorate who never would have voted for such things. Under those circumstances, it’s not surprising that the “common man” has taken to the airways, nor that he’s fighting mad. But some radio talk shows have gotten downright nasty lately. And it’s hard to see how a lot of name-calling is going to improve America.

At this point, perhaps our political discourse really could use a healthy dose of Christian philosophy. We could try the golden rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or maybe “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” or my favorite, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”

Because personally, I don’t think this torment-your-enemy-with-hellfire-and-damnation approach to politics is working. And quite frankly, it’s beginning to scare me.

A bit of name-calling is probably natural and inevitable, and it undoubtedly serves as a way to alleviate frustration with our system. Name-calling as a political tool, however, has allowed our representatives to stigmatize, and thus dismiss, large parts of the electorate. Fiercely partisan politics has led to deadlocks, ineffectiveness, and an inability to compromise.

America’s representatives are now primarily party flacks who promote dissension on extremely emotional issues in order to keep the money flowing. Our representatives serve their own campaigns first, their parties second, well-funded special interest groups third, and the majority not at all. Now, their primary purpose appears to be dividing the American populace into clear, steadfast constituencies.

Liberals classify conservatives as racist fanatics who stockpile guns, while conservatives classify liberals as abortion-loving socialists. Yet whether the factions involved choose to recognize it or not, there are Christians on both sides of the political spectrum. There are also people who love their country, value their families, cherish wilderness, obey laws, pay taxes, and believe in monogamy — on both sides.

To make things even more complicated — those who take the moral high-ground often don’t deserve to be standing on top. The maxim, “practice what you preach,” seldom seems to concern Washington’s elite.

Thus, Marilyn Quayle got to be a self-righteous advocate of stay-at-home motherhood, and a mother, and a well-paid lawyer. And embarrassment certainly hasn’t kept several politicians with rather salacious personal histories from jumping onto the “Family Values” bandwagon. Apparently, in politics, who you are isn’t nearly as important as what you can say about who your opponent is.

BIGOT, REDNECK, COMMIE, immoral, indecent, depraved, tree-hugging, bleeding heart, fascist, atheist, libertine, neo-Nazi, racist, anarchist — the labels abound. Yet, as if there weren’t enough things to call each other already, people have recently taken to converting what were once innocuous depictions into sneering pejoratives, as in “those liberals, those Christians, those secular humanists.” The labeling intensifies — even though I don’t think many of us want our domestic quarrels to escalate into Bosnian-Serbian proportions.

But even worse, I think we’re being duped.

Right now, the issue of abortion is in the courts. As things stand, no matter whom you vote for, changes in abortion policy will be decided state by state, sometimes in conjunction with direct mandates by the people. New state laws and amendments regarding abortion will inevitably be introduced, and then they too will be tested in the courts. So it was before Roe v. Wade, and so it continues. So why is abortion one of the primary considerations in choosing a federal congressman or senator?

Perhaps for the same reason a candidate’s love life, draft history, and former drug-taking habits are so important. Perhaps it’s because those things are understandable.

NOW TRY THIS. “A rescission bill rescinds or cancels, in whole or part, spending previously authorized by Congress to reduce spending or eliminate the spending because it is no longer needed. Under current law, rescissions proposed by the President must be transmitted in a special message to Congress. Under the 1974 Impoundment Control Act, Congress must complete action on a rescission bill within forty-five days of continuous session after receipt of the proposal or else the authorized spending must be made available.”

Say what?

Yeah, me too. And that’s just the first paragraph about the Line-Item Veto in the Republicans’ new Contract With America. The subsequent paragraphs are far more confusing. It’s little wonder that these guys make spot commercials about their opponent’s moral degeneration.

But now the Republicans are claiming the Democrats are launching a class war. Actually, that might be a good idea. But I don’t believe it. The way I see it, there’s only one class serving in congress, and that’s the class with enough money to matter, and enough employees to keep track of all those convoluted proposals.

Right now, both parties say they want to limit our federal government. But it’s getting bigger and bigger. We’re getting more police, more prisons, more social workers, more federal mandates, more federal intervention, and more federal regulations.

At this point, however, cutting back seems impossible. We aren’t co-operating; we’re fighting. And it’s a standoff. We can’t cut social security. We can’t cut welfare. We can’t cut education. We can’t cut military spending. We can’t cut public radio. We can’t cut tax exemptions. A Balanced Budget Amendment may force some cuts. But the task of determining which cuts will probably amplify our contentiousness.

Today, the battle is on, and our lobbyists, candidates, incumbents, and special interest groups are exploiting it. Thus, it seems unlikely that we’re going to get anywhere — except deeper and deeper into the fray.

Which makes one wonder, if Jesus could be asked today, what would he say about modern America?

Upon reflection, I suspect it’s best not to even ask. Or as Jefferson would have it, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

— Martha Quillen