Politics alone cannot transform America
Politics | The country will never be ‘great again’ if citizens lack moral virtue
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Thursday, October 6, 2016, at 12:40 pm
After sharing news about winning the 21st Heinz Award for Public Policy, Michelle Alexander, the renowned legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow (The New Press, 2012), surprised many by announcing she was resigning from the law school faculty at Ohio State University to become a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Alexander forever will be remembered for igniting a national conversation about America’s exploding prison population by focusing on the intersection of race, poverty, and the “War on Drugs.” According to her narrative, the drug war disproportionately targets blacks in lower income communities as a means of social control via the criminal justice system in a way similar to how Jim Crow laws controlled blacks in the early 20th century. Although critics found flaws in parts of her narrative, her work became a catalyst in discovering problems within our criminal justice system.
What I find most interesting about her announcement is the reason why Alexander decided to walk away from law. She explained it this way:
“Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can ‘win’ justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it—not even working for some form of political revolution—will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power. … This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.”
Alexander was not raised a Christian, but as she enters into a journey toward faith she realizes that public policy changes will not transform America without an accompanying “moral or spiritual awakening.” Alexander raises a point that politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties miss, namely that the large majority of the problems in this country are moral in nature.
At the end of the day, abortion is a moral issue. People make decisions about their sexual practices because of worldview commitments, not merely because of what the law states. Racism in America is primarily a moral issue. It’s a lack of loving one’s neighbor that leads to the types of racial conflict Americans have today. Police brutality is a moral problem. Law enforcement officers are not robots but are human beings making moral decisions throughout the day with respect to how they exercise their power. The absence of moral virtue is at the root of America’s college campus sexual assault crisis. These issues should remind us of the limits of politics.
Why does this matter? This matters because every four years Americans expect too much from politics. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump can make America better. Furthermore, both parties are woefully inadequate at providing anthropological justifications for their policies as well as the means to bring about the moral changes needed in the hearts, minds, and souls of American citizens to resolve the majority of the country’s social problems.
America will never be “great again” as long as its citizens lack moral virtue. Black lives will never matter unless the ultimate presupposition for human dignity is the Imago Dei. The more we depend on public policy to do the heavy lifting of the Kingdom, the more we will turn politicians into messianic figures, believe that government is both the problem and solution, and, by extension, forget that a truly virtuous society is impossible without the gospel.
Michelle Alexander’s transition should serve as a reminder to Christians of what we have known for centuries about the real needs of society.
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.