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Friday, November 9, 2007

Divided We Fall

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After the 2000 U.S. presidential election—in which George Bush eked out a narrow victory over Al Gore after the Florida chad fiasco—it became oh-so-apparent that this nation was seriously divided. The commonly used illustration of this divide was the Red State-Blue State map, on which the electoral votes for each candidate by state were colored red for Bush and blue for Gore. From this was extrapolated the relative political and social bent of any region of the country: Red signified a conservative, religious, and traditional view, while blue represented a liberal, secular, and progressive outlook.

Soon, demographers began playing with the numbers, dividing the nation into red or blue counties and even into red or blue voting districts. The national map that the county-by-county tabulation produced appeared more purple than red or blue on the coastlines and along the Mississippi River, while "flyover country," the Plains and Mountain states remained predominantly red.

The district-by-district map showed even more purple. These maps inspired the coining of a new term, the "purple state." Politically, a purple state is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, of which Pennsylvania, for instance, is a prime example. Democratic political adviser James Carville wryly described Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between." Without its two major, left-leaning cities, Pennsylvania would be a red state, since its heartland is composed of mostly rural, religious folk, many of which still hold the solid, traditional values of the Pennsylvania Dutch and other conservative ethnic groups.

The mainstream media has trumpeted the country's divisions, drawing attention to the differences to the point of exaggeration. Pundits on both sides have played into the stereotypes, often using sweeping generalizations to characterize those on the other side (and sometimes those on their own side). In the last few years, however, several scholarly articles have been published, decrying the red state-blue state "hysteria" and criticizing the media and politicians for ignoring the majority of Americans—some say as much as sixty percent of the population—who consider themselves moderates, the bulk of the so-called "silent majority" whose voices cannot be heard above the din of the extremists. These overlooked centrists evidently comprise Purple America.

Purple Americans are the swing-voters in elections. Too frequently, they hold "nuanced" (read "compromise") positions on the major issues, many of which are either impossible or mere semantics. For instance, they may support homosexual civil unions but oppose homosexual "marriage." On immigration, they may support "undocumented workers" but oppose "illegal aliens." On the Iraq War, they may support the troops but oppose the mission. On taxes, they may support soaking the rich and corporations but oppose tax hikes. On entitlements, they may support reform but oppose decreases in payouts and services. Whom they vote for in any election depends on which candidate covers their hot-button topic. In other words, many of them are rather lackadaisical about most matters, but a candidate's agreement with them on their pet issue will swing their votes his or her way.

Thus, what emerges from these demographics is a severely divided country, whether the scholars wish to admit it or not. The staunch conservatives and tie-dyed-in-the-wool liberals on either end of the spectrum are buffered by a large mass of indifferent, tuned-out citizens who can be led about by a demagogue from either extreme by pandering to their self-interests. These middle-of-the-roaders are like the "cows of Bashan" of Amos 4:1, people who are sated on the fruits of their prosperity yet indifferent to the vital problems afflicting the nation.

In His prediction of their doom in verse 2, God hints at their gullibility in being swayed by others: "Behold, the days shall come upon you when He will take you away with fishhooks," describing the Assyrian practice of inserting hooks in their captives noses by which to lead them away. Just as they weakly followed their Israelite leaders to their nation's downfall, so will they likewise follow their conquerors into slavery.

The divide between Right and Left in America is the battleground between two irreconcilable ways of thinking. In the end, one or the other must prevail; there is no chance of them co-existing for long. The difference can be distilled down to those who believe in truth and those who believe in relativism. The former hold that truth is objective, that it exists in its own right, and people can aspire to understand and follow it. The latter consider truth to be subjective, that it is what each person decides to believe, and people are free to forge their own paths toward enlightenment. Ultimately, the difference comes down to those who believe in Deity and those who do or will not.

It is not apparent how long the current hostile truce between these two factions will hold. Perhaps the upcoming presidential election will provide insight into the speed and direction of the national ethic. Yet, optimistic and hopeful as we might be, it is difficult to foresee national revival. The social indicators—things like abortion, illegitimacy, marriage, crime, church attendance, etc.—are not improving as a whole, and as each year goes by, behaviors that were once thought beyond the pale are accepted into the mainstream. These are not signs of a society on the upswing. The oft-remarked parallels with the declines of the great empires are legion.

Where does one turn in times like these? King David supplies the answer in Psalm 11:3-7:

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men. The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.

The answer to our divided nation, then, is simple: Each individual must turn to God and work to be found among the righteous and upright whom He loves. Will we?