Back in the 1980s, the Republican Party courted and won over religious conservatives, forming an alliance that served both groups well through many election cycles. A lot was said about the lurch to the right in a party that had been traditionally laissez-faire on social topics. Less discussed was how the principle of the Golden Rule became corrupted by too much contact with the practitioners of amoral economic theory.
Somewhere along the line, the doctrine of individual generosity as the path to moral goodness was co-opted by the seductive notion that the best way to benefit the poor was for the state to do everything it could to help the rich get richer. The largesse of the wealthy would, in theory, trickle down to the needy. While we’ve learned through experience that “trickle down” never worked as advertised, we may have forgotten that coddling the haves to alleviate the suffering of the have-nots wasn’t preached in the Gospels.
Europeans view the quirky morality of American politics with befuddlement. Their centrist Christian democratic parties, for example, share with socially conservative Americans a reverence for the sanctity of human life, but for them that sanctity applies across the board to include an abhorrence of the death penalty, which they view as inhuman punishment.
They also generally believe that the state — as the collective extension of the will of people — has a moral responsibility to guarantee sustenance and dignity to everyone. Their fundamental self-view in relation to society is different from ours: they too see themselves as individuals, but also as members of a larger family, and to them, their responsibility to one another is strong enough that they are willing to tax themselves to make sure their convictions are expressed in practice.
Europeans are puzzled when they see a faction of Americans view the plight of the poor not as a social problem, but as a moral failing outside government’s purview.
Maybe our mindset comes from America’s unusual demographic makeup as a nation; we comprise various tribes, ethnicities and religious traditions. It’s only human to look out for one’s own identity group, and to view the idea of collective welfare as a resource grab by someone else’s.
We should remember that America was founded on greater principles than being “only human.” Sometimes, it’s wise to return to basics.