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Along the line, progress became the Holy Grail.

When I was learning about citizenship and the electoral process from my father, everything seemed basically clear. "Democrat," he taught me, was spelled R-O-O-S-E-V-E-L-T; after that, everything else took care of itself Finding a party with an engaging politician, in other words, was the essence of political choice. I considered the lesson absolute, ultimate and eternal.

But somewhere along the line, things began to happen that my father did not foresee. The parties didn't seem as distinct anymore. Charismatic politicians were, by and large, few and far between. More than that, social change was in the air: The working class disappeared in large numbers behind the scrim of desk-top *jobs.

Progress became the Holy Grail. The good life became the goal toward which the country was striving. Values shifted. Justice and equity ceased to be the words of the people because the word profit had taken their place.

But profit for some and inequity for many are cruel masters. The social order is under scrutiny again.

There will be American citizens watching the inauguration of President Clinton in January 1993 who know that this country has, according to the Harper Index, spent six times as many federal dollars on S&L or bank bailouts this year as it has spent on welfare.

Clear as the change in leadership seems, there are still 41 states whose legislatures are less than one-fourth female. The percentage remains even smaller than that on the federal level. With all the talk of peace, the government has gone on building more nuclear weapons every day and spending more money on destruction than on development.

As we stood in line to vote, more and more of our neighbors and friends and family members and fellow citizens were standing in lines to apply by the thousands for a handful of jobs or a bag of free food while unemployment figures rivaled the period of the Great Depression.

Since 1980, the amount of federal money spent on American cities has gone down 59 percent. According to former President Carter, in Atlanta there were 1,200 homeless in 1980; today there are 12,000 homeless, yet federal spending on subsidized housing during that time decreased by 90 percent.

Indeed, while we all waited for the "kinder, gentler nation," educational achievement went down, the number of abortions among the poor went up, middle-class, white-collar underemployment became a faster-growing phenomenon and U.S. infrastructure (roads, bridges, railroad lines and conduits) fell more and more into disrepair and decay.

Clearly, this Inauguration Day is a crucial one: Something has gone awry; values have gone askew; long-term principles have been abandoned for short-term schemes. Worse, while the figures of despair mounted daily, politicians themselves appealed to personal greed to gain favor with the wealthy electorate while poor people lost all hope in the system.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Father Brown Omnibus, "Everyone matters. You matter. I matter. It's the hardest thing in theology to believe." The problem is that it also may be the hardest thing in politics to achieve. Yet, when all is said and done, the fact that everyone matters is the only ground for good government.

It is, therefore, the only theological criterion that counts at inauguration tame. To elect an administration is one thing; to evaluate it is another. The question of who matters most to a president-elect (one segment of society or society in general) becomes the one standard for Christian evaluation.

It has never been more difficult to choose between parties or between candidates. The colors between them are simply not all that distinct; the focus is not all that clear; the differences are not all that apparent, however clever the TV ads. And, though party distinctions have become blurred and single-interest lobbies and single-interest critics have increased, single-issue politics is not broad enough to embrace the needs of both business and labor, women and men, rich and poor, nonwhite and white.

So, how does the citizen who is Christian evaluate all this? How do we decide whether this administration is doing any better than the last? How do we know what to support, whom to follow, what policies and priorities are most important when neither party nor politician nor isolated policy development is any longer a sure sign to be trusted?

Scripture, I think, tells us what must really form the standard upon which we rest our judgments of the national polity. The categories are clear. Scripture speaks for the poor, the people, the earth and the outcast. The Psalms are very plain, then, about what must matter to us, too.

"Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice," Psalm 96 pleads. Clearly, a concern for the earth is sorely needed in a world wracked by pollution and threatened by the loss of the ozone layer that protects it, a condition that scientists are beginning to think even accounts for the increase in the ferocity of damaging storms.

Parties and presidents and policies that consume natural resources for the sake of military power, that barter the earth for the sake of the greed or power ploys of a few, call for the censure of the conscientious Christian.

Psalm 24 teaches well: "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it." Parties, presidents and policies that presume to claim the earth and all that is in it for the profit of the United States rather than for the profit of all the peoples of the world operate out of a vision foreign to the heart of God.

Economic policies that create slave wages in one part of the world and unemployment in another or industrial colonialism in the Philippines and Mexico and closed factories in Detroit and Cleveland, fly in the face of the globalism that is at the base of the creation of a just world for people of multiple colors and interdependent resources.

That kind of politics, the kind that raped the New World and decimated a native population for the sake of Europe, cannot be repeated by us. It is time for new presidential policies that make us all citizens of the world rather than simply graspers of national glory, whatever the cost to others.

"God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth,' Psalm 76 reminds us. But in this period, 200,000 families in the United States have reaped 95 percent of the tax cuts in the past 12 years. As a result, those 200,000 families have increased their income on the average of $200,000 a year while middle-income families increased theirs by little more than $2,000.

At this point, consequently, those 200,000 families, according to the Congressional Budget Office, now have a combined annual income equal to the combined annual income of 10 million lower-middle-class families in the United States. Parties, presidents and policies that rob the poor to engorge the rich conflict with the very principles on which Christianity is based.

Finally, Psalm 10 reminds us: "O God, you will hear the desire of the meek ... you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed." A budget that is balanced on the backs of women and children, a world that is built on the ideas and values of men only, is a world that is only half alive.

Until parties, presidents and policies include the agendas and needs of women and children, not only before they are born but after they are born as well, no election is successful, no administration can be called effective.

The evaluation question, then, begins to hinge on which party and which politicians espouse the policies that meet the rights of the earth, the globe, the poor and the women as well as the concerns of rich, white males. To choose those who most support life in all of its dimensions, for all people of all ages, is a choice for the reign of God.

Indeed, it is a long, sober line, an election line. It holds in balance all the forces of the world. For one brief moment, the power to turn things right rests in the hands of the powerless. For one short period, God has a chance to be in charge again. For one tiny time, the hopes of the psalmist make a deafening cry for attention.

You and I, standing in an election line, held that power in our hands. And, according to the psalmist, we will be judged on it.

But Election Day is not the end of the process. It is time now to see whether what we wanted to be accomplished by this election really happens, to see whether the promises that were made are kept, to see who gains and who loses by it, to see whether Inauguration Day inaugurates a new excursion into higher humanity.

And when we are criticized for being critical, we must remember the words of the American educator Abraham Flexner in his work, Universities: American, English, German: "We must not overlook the important role that extremists play. They are the gadflies that keep society from being too complacent, or self-satisfied; they are, if sound, the spearhead of progress."

What the new president has promised us is one thing. What we must promise him (and the people of the world) is that we will not rest with election alone. On the contrary, we promise to go through the entire term as persistent and psalmic gadflies.
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Title Annotation:Christianity and economics
Author:Chittister, Joan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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