Go Jonny Gomes: Political Gratitude in Play

Official Red Sox Photo

Official Red Sox Photo

If I were looking for a nearly perfect expression of social or even political gratitude, I’d have to look no further than Jonny Gomes and his remarks last night after the Red Sox beat the Cardinals 4-2, tying up the World Series. The Sox leftfielder was a last-minute stand-in for Shane Victorino, whose lower-back problems were acting up, and in the top of the sixth, he jumped on a sinkerball that didn’t sink and drove it over the leftfield wall in Busch Stadium. The three-run homer put the Red Sox on top, where they stayed.

Speaking to the press afterward, Gomes—who had a heart attack when he was 22, survived a car accident that killed one of his best friends, and was no stranger to poverty and homelessness while growing up in northern California—had this to say when asked for his thoughts:

What’s going on inside here is pretty special, magical. There’s so many people and so many mentors and so many messages and so many helping paths and helping ways for me to get here, that there’s a lot more than what I could bring individually.

Among the “helping paths” that Gomes was alluding to were those provided by the town and citizens of Petaluma, California, which saw to it that he and his older brother had enough to eat and a place to sleep through many hard times. A visible sign of his gratitude is the “707” stitched into his glove and shoes. It is the area code of Sonoma County, which includes Petaluma.

I realize that Gomes wasn’t trying to score a political point here, but he wasn’t just talking baseball, either. At that news conference, the 32-year-old was delivering what amounts to a countercultural message. The fashion of the day is to preach some variation of the I-did-it-all-by-myself gospel. In contrast, Gomes teaches the a-lot-more-than-what-I-could-bring-individually ethic.

And who are the did it it all by myselfers? In our time, they are often the ones who have reaped the greatest rewards from our winner-take-all economy, and who are troubled by the notion that they may have obligations in return. Not just personal but social obligations—taxation and other duties related to the common good.

What’s missing from the wealth gospel is a breath of reality: Truth is, government and society are involved in the production of wealth, from top to bottom. But what’s really lacking in these preachments is political gratitude. My definition of that—in our social context—is fairly simple, and minimal. Political gratitude is an acknowledgement of the tangible benefits one receives from living in the political community we call the United States of America. If you’re an oil company executive, for example, this means acknowledging the special benefits derived from leasing millions upon millions of acres of public land from the government, at what amount to rates far below any conceivable market value. For everyone, it means acknowledging the many ways that the public aids personal wellbeing and private wealth accumulation.

Aristotle said that if you want to understand what virtue is, look at a virtuous person. On the day after Game 4 of the Series, we could say: If you want to know what political gratitude is, listen to Jonny Gomes. …read more

Cliff Deal: An Answer to Whose Prayers?

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black

While surfing cable channels during the fiscal-cliff clatter of New Year’s Eve afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder about one news ticker in particular: “Senate Chaplain Prays for Fiscal Cliff Deal.” Did the chaplain believe that God has a position on whether there should be a deal before midnight January 1, as distinct from an agreement that would surely materialize some days or weeks after going off the cliff? And if the divine will were to cut so finely, how would he, who is not divine, know?

Then I looked up the story behind the ticker, which did more justice to the prayer offered up by Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black.

A former Navy chaplain and Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Black didn’t exactly go over the theological cliff by invoking God’s endorsement of the Biden-McConnell plan. The chaplain gazed at the edge. He asked God to “lift them”—lawmakers—“from the darkness and hopelessness” of those hours at the fiscal cliff. “May they take the tide that leads to fortune, rather than risk a national voyage bound in shadows and in miseries,” he intoned.

Other than perhaps the good reverend, whose prayers were answered by the deal struck before midnight and approved later by the Senate and House?

It’s in the nature of a political compromise that there’s no simple answer to that question. But among those who might be a bit relieved are the hard-working, low-earning Americans who receive so-called “refundables” at tax time. That’s a word you probably didn’t see in the news tickers.

This particular story goes back to the Bush tax cuts—which were not quite as lopsided as many liberals believe. While these packages delivered the greatest goodies to the rich, they also included expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor and the child tax credit. Both of those are refundable, meaning that the government will cut you a check if you qualify but don’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes. The Obama administration further expanded the refundable credits in 2009.

Set to expire at the start of 2013, the credits were tucked into the final cliff-averting agreement. That’s big, especially if you earn a small income.

The mother of all refundables, the Earned Income Tax Credit, can deliver a few thousand dollars a year to hard-pressed workers and their families. Kathy A. Saile, who handles domestic policy issues for the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, recently gave me a view of this from down below the middle class. She previously served as a case manager at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, where many of the residents commuted to jobs, in some cases two or three of them. Saile told me in a telephone conversation in November that this credit alone often “made the difference between families staying in the shelter and getting on their feet” and into their own apartments.

Referring also to the refundable per-child credit, she noted: “The Church has always been a strong supporter of these tax credits, because they’re pro-work, and they’re pro-family, and they help get people out of poverty.”

True, but clambering out of poverty will also be a little harder for many people, in another respect. Cliff negotiators choose not to salvage the payroll tax cuts enacted during Obama’s first term, cuts that kept hundreds of dollars in the pockets of struggling workers. And that is one reason why the deal is a mixed blessing for those Americans who are always dangling precariously off the cliff. …read more

The Other Romney (and Obama) Videos

A broad Christian coalition unveils the poverty videos

As the post-debate spin cycle continues, it’s clear who was left behind in the huffing at Hofstra on Tuesday—the 42.6 million people who dwell below the poverty line. Maybe they should be grateful that along the way of indicting President Obama’s economic policies, Mitt Romney mentioned poverty in passing (which is more than Obama did). Aside from that hit and run, the steady mantra of the evening in Long Island was “the middle class.”

The poor shall always be with you, but not so much in election year discourse. Still, there was a resonant moment back in September when Obama and Romney sounded as though they were reading from the playbook of Matthew 25 (“As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me”).

As I report in this week’s Our Sunday Visitor, Romney and Obama appeared in separate videos in which they grappled with the moral challenges of domestic poverty. These were not secret videos, taped behind closed doors. The campaigns produced them in response to a request from the Circle of Protection, an anti-poverty coalition of Christian leaders spearheaded two years ago by the Sojourners community.

Leaders of the initiative made much of the harmonious convergence between the two contenders. And there was a fair bit of that, on the surface at least.

In his message, Romney said he was grateful for “the opportunity to share my plan to protect the poor and vulnerable among us.” Obama said his own faith teaches him that poverty is a moral issue, and “The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper.” Each message ran a little over three minutes and was unveiled at a Circle of Protection press conference on September 12.

Both Romney and Obama spoke of poverty reduction as an urgent priority (“more important now than at any other time in recent memory,” the Republican said). Both vowed to slash the deficit, but Romney promised to “proceed carefully,” adding: “Our government rightfully provides a safety net” for the needy that must remain intact. And, aiming straight at his opponent, Obama said the poor and struggling shouldn’t have to “sacrifice even more … just so we could offer massive new tax cuts to those who have been blessed the most.”

The commonalities faded as the two spoke of how they would tamp down poverty levels. The thrust of Romney’s message was that this would happen as a consequence of a more robust economy, ushered in by his administration (and its plan that he did not specify). Obama spoke more about specific government action, including health insurance coverage and other “vital assistance for the least of these.”

The Faith Factor

There was nothing earth shattering in these messages, and they drew little notice beyond the constituencies of the Circle of Protection, which brings together leaders of some 50 evangelical, liberal Protestant, and Catholic organizations. (In that sense they might well have been, for all practical purposes, secret videos.)

But what the Obama/Romney videos tell me is that that politicians feel they have to say the right things about poverty, when they’re in the right settings. And I can’t think of a context other than faith-based discourse that would lead both party standard bearers to speak with such sympathy and resolve about the poor, even for just three minutes.

Maybe this means there should be more, not less, religion in politics. Signs are that young evangelicals, for example, are finding little use for the politics of the religious right. In the future, evangelicals may not be cheering when Republicans say unflattering things about the poor, or when Democrats say nothing at all.

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