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Six Challenges to the American Experiment


We are now well into the political season in the United States, and in an age of hyper-partisanship I am going to laying out six important issues I believe will have a profound impact upon American democracy in coming years. I will aim for a relatively nonpartisan discussion by avoiding the names of politicians and political parties. These issues are important enough that at some point in the future when historians are looking in retrospect at this period in time, they may well view this era as pivotal in terms of how these issues were addressed. Most of these concerns will impact the Church either directly or indirectly, and either adversely or positively depending upon resolution. While this is not a comprehensive list, in my mind they do seem to loom as among the more important. They are as follows: 

1. Postmodernism—as distinguished from substantive political issues, postmodernism is a process discussion and is key to understanding something about the current state of politics in the United States, where an ever-increasing number of electorate are attracted to partisan groupthink and seek only information that most closely meshes with a partisan narrative of the world. Largely gone are demands for objectivity from those dispensing information—and in its place are spin-doctors, and purveyors intent upon creating an alternate universe through false caricatures dressed up as truth. The victims—those who treasure truth and seek to shun the prevalence of intentional misinformation in the public domain. Unfortunately the jungle of junk data creates an ill-informed electorate, and consequently has a corrosive effect on democracy. This state of affairs will only end when consumers of misinformation and distortion (the manipulated) collectively abandon partisan news outlets as a primary source for information. In its place would come a renewed commitment to post-partisan objectivity where all sides of issue are considered, and not just a preferred perspective. This could open the door to constructive and pragmatic solutions to many of the problems our nation confronts. Supporting bipartisan and post-partisan candidates over hard ideologues could help make this a reality.[1]

2. The Writ of Habeas Corpus—In December 2011, the National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law, which among other things contains a provision authorizing the U.S. military to pick up and imprison individuals from anywhere in the world without charge or civilian trial, including American citizens. In former times, signing this Act into law would have been politically unthinkable, but in the post-9-11 world most people seem more comfortable in sacrificing Constitutional rights on the alter of security. This provision will probably not become a direct political issue for the fall presidential election since one candidate signed this legislation into law, and there is no indication his opponent would pursue a different course. The primary locus for change will likely be at the judicial and legislative level. No matter whether an individual favors or rejects the above provision, there should be bipartisan agreement that it represents a fundamental diminishment of rights and protection under the Constitution. Unless it is overturned by the courts or by future legislation from Congress, an important Constitutional right will have been compromised.[2]

3. Confusion of Public vs. Private Morality—Most would agree that there exists a secular form of morality that is the proper domain of government. Such a category is composed of laws that protect citizens against a range of harms that might otherwise occur—including laws that protect life, liberty and property. But there are some who clearly seek more—including in the mix a range of “sins” that have roots in sectarianism. The range is varied and wide, and comprises such things as attempts to ban or limit embryonic stem cell research and/or therapies, private conduct between consenting adults, contraceptive services, and regulating commercialism on so-called sacred days through blue laws—these among others. As most should recognize instinctively, legislating a sectarian agenda can be sort of a slippery slope, because once starting down this path, there is no obvious standard for drawing a line between one sin and another sin. Certainly if proponents can find a secular basis for rationalizing legislation against any given perceived sin, the First Amendment will afford little protection for those adversely affected. A defining election in either direction could dramatically influence public policy in this area.

4. Objectivist Economics—Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy is currently on the political ascendancy and has been the subject of discussion in a wide spectrum of media. So, what is this philosophy all about and what is its significance? In short, at its core and in its purest form it proposes survival-of-the-fittest economics, cutting loose all social programs and safety nets. Every person would become their own end, rather than the means to the ends of others, and this would have particular significance to those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Under the objectivist model there would be no government except the police, courts of law, and the armed services. The goal is to seek a capitalist system unfettered by regulation or social programs of any type—in other words no public entitlements, including public education, Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. In fact the goal would be for no public anything, just individuals who are looking out for themselves.[3] Some readers may find this philosophical approach attractive, but make no mistake it would be a radical departure from the historic past. These ideas are very much in play for the November election at both the executive and legislative levels, and voters will have a chance to decide if this is the path they want to take. 

5. The Grover Norquist Pledge—if you have ever wondered why the Federal budget process has become so dysfunctional, no need to look any further than Grover Norquist, and his “no tax” Pledge that 279 member of Congress have signed promising not to raise taxes under any circumstances. For those who have signed this pledge it seems not to matter that federal taxes are near the low end of the past 75 years, nor does it seem to matter that a huge fiscal imbalance exists between revenues and expenditures. In saner times such a pledge would have been viewed as irresponsible for the simple reason that it elevates less important priority over the undisputed most important priority—sound fiscal policy.[4] The choice readers will have this November is whether or not to support candidates for public office who have signed this pledge or whether to consider a more responsible alternative.   

6. Corporatism—is being defined here as any large business interests that become ends in themselves, who seek unfettered regulation as to economics and conduct—with a dominating allegiance to customers and shareholders, and little or no allegiance to either country, community or employee. There are a number of issues that could be discussed here, but let’s consider an issue that Americans will be dealing with for many years to come—free trade. This innocuous, and perhaps affirmative sounding phrase has a number of positives, but also negatives. It has allowed corporations to be become global citizen with loyalties directed away from country, community, and employees. This has led to a rising prevalence of outsourcing to the lowest common denominator—to the least regulated, least burdensome, and least costly markets. After all, why should a corporation humor OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and such, or pay a living wage when outsourcing can make these problems go away? These new free trade realities are very much reshaping labor markets around the world, and for the world’s richest economies it has unfortunately created downward pressure on both wages and regulations that otherwise protect employees and consumers. The question voters must confront is whether they should tolerate governmental laws and policies that are supportive of free trade when a product produced elsewhere poses a danger to the environment, to consumers, or to workers in other countries through dangerous and abusive labor practices in the producing country?  Free trade will continue to alter American life, short of electing leaders who demand that free trade must be connected to fair and ethical trade—where basic working conditions are deemed to meet minimal standards of humaneness, and designed to protect these important values regardless of the outsourced location.[5]

So this, then, is my short list of concerning issues. A defining election that moves decidedly in one political direction or the other could profoundly influence the future direction of the country on each of these issues. Yet most elections are less than defining so most of these items will likely continue to fester until enough sentiment or damage builds to move in a different direction.

Those fascinated by the Adventist understanding of eschatology will likely have a keen interest in the disposition of issues number two and three above. Meanwhile the Christian commission to assist the powerless and those in need will likely drive interest in issues four and six, for these are economic game changers. Number five will likely be of high interest to anyone with common sense involving basic math, and the unspoken question before the electorate will be whether they will elect politicians that are severely encumbered in their decision-making on fiscal matters, or whether they will elect those who will have a free hand to rationally guide the country through troubled financial waters. Failure here will not only have very negative economic consequences on the country, but will ripple out into the mission of the church.  Finally, for Adventists still interested in “truth” there should be a natural interest and concern for issue number one, for the cultural trend is to forget the truth and go with the facts that support a cherished narrative.

Now, it’s time to hear what issues are on the mind of Spectrum Blog readers.


Image: Jasper Johns, MAP, 1961.

Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.

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