Culture Ethics Opinion Politics

Why picking a president shouldn’t be about individual choice

A voter leaves the booth after casting her ballot in the Pennsylvania primary at a polling place in Philadelphia on April 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Charles Mostoller *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PALLY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on April 27, 2016.

(RNS) What criteria do we use to pick a president?

We hear the daily stats and buzz, but presidential elections are about the big picture — where we want to go and the best way to get there. This means looking not only at political options but also at the way we humans are set up — how we’re wired. When public policies don’t account for that, we have reduced horizons, diminished resources, and polarization.

How are we wired? Relational theologies in the Christian and Jewish traditions observe that we are separate and distinct beings but we become unique through the many relations that affect our development, starting in earliest childhood. Those relations usually begin with family but they extend out to community, nation, and international relations — entities that provide our education, health care, and economic opportunities.

In short, we are distinct persons in relation, amid our situatedness. Our individuality or separability and our situatedness are inseparable. Most of us recognize this from our own lives. We cannot become who we are without caring for the relations that care for us.

David Brooks called this the meaning of covenant, the bond between singular persons that protects not private interests (as contracts do) but relationships, mutual care and responsibility.

Relational theologies say something really interesting: This how we’re wired, because it’s how God is wired.

Here’s what they mean: God is radically different from any worldly thing. God is not a force like gravity only bigger, but rather the reason there is something rather than nothing. God is the source of all that exists and of the particular way each thing is.

Since all this emerges from God, we “have” something of God “in” us.

Said another way, we are in God’s image. St. Thomas Aquinas called this God “intimate” and “innermost in all things.”

In short, we are radically different from, separate from, God yet in intimate relation.

This separateness from God yet intimate relation with him is the key to everything, to existence itself. There is no-thing without both together –because that’s how we are; we are distinct from each other and in profound relation.

Accounting for this in economics and politics is not a matter of being nice or PC. It’s a matter of biology and physics. Evolutionary biology shows us we are not governed by the “selfish gene” but by a “hyper-cooperative” nature in which “reciprocal altruism” structures not only families but also large networks and interactions among highly mobile people. Were it otherwise, we would have killed each other off.

Post-quantum physics finds that the trajectories of sub-atomic particles are guided by relation to other particles’ trajectories. As physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner write, “our actual world does not have separability.”

So too, Scripture. At the beginning, the Cain and Abel story notes the violence emerging from loss of reciprocal responsibility. Forty-five chapters of chicanery, lying, and betrayal later, Joseph and his brothers learn to forgive each other. A prime theme of the Gospels and the Pauline books is similarly to bring all — the poor, diseased, and outcast — into the arena of reciprocal care.

When we lose sight of separability-amid-situatedness, we get too much of one or the other –oppressive dictatorships and stultifying conformity (excessive situatedness) or greed, abandonment, and alienation (excessive separability).

With persistent focus on separating — on the exit from common aims and projects — people begin to assume others are doing the same. The financial practices prodding the 2008 financial crash are one example.

With too much separating, people also become unmoored. Free to choose but with few large aims to guide one’s choices, a person becomes not unsatisfied but incapable of finding satisfaction. Even assuming we could develop priorities and purposes on our own, we would lack the networks, policies, and institutions to realize them.

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and is a regular guest professor at Humboldt University’s theology department in Berlin. Her new book, “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics and Theologies of Relationality,” will be out in early 2016. Photo courtesy of Marcia Pally

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and is a regular guest professor at Humboldt University’s theology department in Berlin. Her new book, “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics and Theologies of Relationality,” was published in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Marcia Pally

Today, we’re hurting from excessive separability. We’ve lost sight of our covenantal setup. We worry about dimming futures because we are not working for our common goals and future. Doing that would reveal shared needs and goals and differences, which need be approached relationally, by asking, in pastor Joel Hunter’s words, “why the other side is for the other side” and brokering the answers into mores and policy.

That’s the framework for deciding who should lead the nation. Who will best account for our unique talents amid mutual impact and responsibility? This was the vision of our Constitution, which seeks to found a more perfect union.

(Marcia Pally’s new book is “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.”) 

About the author

Marcia Pally

ADVERTISEMENTs