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.

Every four years Americans expect too much from 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 Bradley

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.

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 01:14 pm

    Well said. 

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 01:14 pm

    AMEN!!!   AMEN!!!   AMEN!!!   AMEN!!!   AMEN!!!   AMEN!!!   AMEN!!!


  • Rich277
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 01:19 pm

    So who do they worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York?

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 01:23 pm

    And this relates to Prof. Bradley's point how?

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 08:56 pm

    Rich277, I have just re-read my post to you and realized that it was too acrimonious.  I am sorry about that.

    I am having trouble connecting your question with the point of the column.  If you would be so kind as to clarify, I would appreciate it.

    Thank you!

  • Rich277
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 07:22 am

    The opening statement of the article is this:  "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."

    Her statement seemed to argue that we would not find the answers to these problems from politics or governmental action, but from a spiritual revival.  The answer to my question, "Who do they worship at Union?" would indicate what kind of spiritual revival she has in mind.

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 08:06 am

    You could always go to their website or call them to find out.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 01:36 pm

    Thank you for your clarification, Rich277.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 01:22 pm

    Prof. Bradley has just brought the core issue front and center.  Would that we Christians set our sights higher.

  • McMed
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 01:22 pm

    Great article! 

  •  Bruce's picture
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 05:45 pm

    Unfortunately, the question will be asked if the USA was ever truly 'great' in the first place.  I believe it has been a better country, when at least ostensibly the moral and spiritual fabric of the country acknowledged God, sin, the reality of moral absolutes that are taught in the Bible, etc.  But the existence of racial prejudice and oppression of African, native, and other peoples, the imperialistic interference in other countries, the murder of whole generations worth of children, the commercial opportunism that has unjustly gathered vast wealth for only a few people, and other issues make the claim that the USA was ever truly great rather dubious.  What many people mean by 'great' these days is probably more about how much comfort, leisure time, luxuries, and pride they can have in the course of day-to-day living.  Some people think of the USA being great because of its support for basic civil rights and Judeo-Christian values, and to the degree it has done that and does that today, I think that is a good set of criteria, especially the latter.  That would apply in the concern about how well our culture supports and applies justice that Mr. Bradley is discussing above, but it doesn't seem to align what I hear implied about what needs to change for the USA to be thought of as 'great again'.  So not only do we need a moral and spiritual refreshing to be successful in making the USA great again, but we need that just to be able to agree on what it means to be 'great'.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 05:49 pm

    @Bruce - you use sin as the only measure of a great nation. Are they any great men in our history ? 

  •  Bruce's picture
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 05:51 pm

    Changed to "imperialistic". Thanks! :)

  •  Bruce's picture
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 06:01 pm

    @William Peck 1958, yes, there have been.  But great men and women also come from not-so-great nations.

    I appreciate your point that measuring a nation's status by some quality or quantity of sin is problematic.  Again, the definition of greatness is molded in congruence to a moral and spiritual framework.  I have made somewhat an error here in emphasizing the problems of sin in our nation's history; I have overlooked the good that the Lord has done through His people.  It is difficult to not get caught up in cynicism.  I will reflect on this and consider what I might identify as greatness in the USA in this way.

    But for our nation as a whole, I think it is still relevant to this article to consider that our definition of great needs to be adjusted by this kind of moral and spiritual training, discipline, and Spirit-filled wisdom.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 12:01 am

    Yes, focusing on making America "great" is an easy way to say something that nearly everyone will agree with in their own way, without adressing the thornier issues of what it means for our nation (or any nation) to truely be great.

  •  Wilebo's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/08/2016 06:59 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the imperialistic interference of "progressives" into any and all cultures. It is funny how progressives decry so called Western Imperialism of the past. Yet, here we are.

  • Kroeker Team
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 03:37 pm

    Matt Kroeker

    Absolutely right.  Christians have gotten so wrapped up in politics that they forget where real law came from.  Real Law is the Law of God.  A few centuries ago, a loan man could stand up in court and prove whether he is guilty or not based on the Bible.  We have come a long way, folks!  Mr. Bradley's last paragraph is the shortest, but carries the most weight.  In it, he inderectly shows that it is we, the Christians, who are to blame for not being more vocal about where Law and Politics are headed.  

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 03:44 pm

    If by "great" we mean Godly righteusness, there has never been a truly "Great" nation in all of human history. This is one reason we are continually looking for our Eternal Country.  But if we mean by "Great" a country that is seeking to recognize and live as if we are one nation under God, endowed by our Creator with certain rights (and responsibilities) then I think that we have generally been that at times and would love to be again.  I am not under an illusion that this is what the Trump campaign has specifically in mind with their slogan.  I do believe the Clinton campaign is clearly opposed to the idea.

    One of the reasons we can look back on our history and recognize our moral failures is that we have had some generally accepted Biblical values that we have increasingly failed to live out.  

  • David Russell
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 03:54 pm

    Great thoughts.  Thank you.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 05:47 pm

    This is a really good article. REALLY good. ... ... ... BUT . . .  you cannot win a war with only troops, there has to be leadership and strategy. Our nation cannot even get Anatomy 1 (not 101) straight - we cannot say that boys are born boys and girls are born girls, and that they are inherently different with different roles. How is it possible to become great again when the laws of the nation legislate immorality.

  • Dale A Talsma
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 07:09 pm

    I hope Christians across the country recognize the truth of this article. It seems that many are willing to sacrifice moral principle for some perceived political expediency. The cost of such moral capitulation will be a severely tarnished credibility hampering Christian efforts at upholding moral truth in a country headed the other direction. May God help us remember to where we should turn for help.

  • MD
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 08:24 pm

    Great report. We as christians need to be in prayer and more of an ifluence by our life style and sharing the good news with those we come in contact.

    Matt D

  • RG
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 10:48 pm

    Glad to hear of Michelle Alexander's transitions.  Her book has influenced me greatly. I hope that her future writings will be enriched by the grace and justice of Jesus through the cross.  May we, the Church, humbly bring virtue to bear on our cities and country, that every sphere of our society may be blessed.        I hope you and she get to know each other personally, Anthony.  Glenn McDowell

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 08:05 am


  • Jeff Grubbs
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 12:29 pm

    Thank you Anthony for a clear reading of this nation at this point in it's history and for introducing us to Ms. Alexander.  Until true Christians work as "salt and light" in our neighborhood, areas of our city we don't normally go to and work places to bring real Biblical healing, there will be NO virtue or peace.  Those who claim Jesus verbally, but act otherwise do nothing but poison the watching unbeliever. 

  • miket
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 05:40 pm

    Thank you for an excellent article.  As you note, politics alone cannot transform society but politics can "nudge" us in a positive or negative direction as a society.  That alone should drive each of us to vote and to vote wisely.  Clear thinking about the criticality of morals and their direct relationship to individual freedom and national liberty is provided in two recent books I read.  Authors Eric Metaxas wrote, "If You Can Keep It" and Os Guiness, "A Free People"s Suicide, Sustainable Freedom and the American Future".  Each is very good read alone but reading both is synergistic.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Sun, 10/09/2016 05:00 am

    "America will never be 'great again' as long as its citizens lack moral virtue."

    This statement is essentially correct, but falls short of identifying the root cause.  The greatest moral virtue is a love for the truth.  The root cause of abortion is a refusal to acknowledge that the death of a child is involved.  The root cause of racism is an ignorance of the fact that there is no such thing as race.  All modern anthropologists, geneticists, biologists and so on affirm this, but our leaders continue to push the lie.  

    America cannot be great again so long as citizens lack a love for the truth.