On the way home from work tonight, I was listening to NPR. During a story about the presidential campaign, the reporter claimed that Obama and Romney have “vastly different visions” for the nation. I thought about that statement for a while, and I realized I disagree with it. I don’t think the candidates differ in their vision; I think they mostly differ in the strategies they propose for realizing the nation’s visions.
As I kept driving, encountering more traffic than usual because of construction and an accident, I started thinking about the yards in my average, suburban neighborhood. For the most part, I would guess that my neighbors and I have something of a common vision for the landscape of our yards. As I work in my yard, I realize two hopes guide me: beauty and sustainability. I mow and trim the lawn, I drag the hose around to water, I pull weeds and plant flowers around the house and next to the street because I want to see beauty. At the same time, I also seek sustainability: I want to make sure this little plot of land continues to serve my family well as a place to play, a place to relax, and a place to live our lives. And when our time to live on this lot is done, I want the next occupants to be able to coax their own vision of beauty out of this place, too.
The differences in the yards on our street have little to do with vision. In fact, my neighbors and I often come together around our shared visions of beauty and sustainability. We offer each other complements on a well-mowed lawn or a colorful display of blooms, making our evaluations based on our shared vision for the landscape of our street. We advise one another on how to increase beauty and promote sustainability. We offer each other surplus plants and other tools, along with information about how we have been about to grow them to be as beautiful and sustainable as they can be.
The differences in our yards, I think, are related to each homeowner’s strategies for enacting the vision. I find flowers more beautiful and more sustainable than grass. Therefore, over time, I am pursuing a strategy of reducing the square footage of my lawn and increasing the square footage dedicated to flower beds. Some of my neighbors believe that a uniform, lush, green lawn is beautiful, so they strategically mow more often than I mow, water more frequently than I water, and use more chemical fertilizers than I use. Most of my neighbors do not seem to have the time, energy, money, inclination, or other resources to fuss very much, so they choose a strategy of keeping the grass mowed, tending a few bushes or perennials, and cleaning up now and then. Still, by accomplishing these maintenance tasks, they seem to buy into the prevailing vision of beauty and sustainability.
And I think the differences between the candidates similarly have little to do with vision. Both candidates use similar language to communicate a vision for the nation. Their vision language is the language of the civic religion which dominates our culture. Usually, that vision is cast in terms of prosperity, security, justice, and that high mark of modernist humanism, freedom. The words are sometimes different; Obama used a lot of vision language about hope in 2008, for instance. But he described that vision of hope in a way which Romney, McCain, or any other candidate could not contradict.
That is not, of course, to say that the candidates are the same. But the differences between them are differences in strategy. Can we best promote prosperity by increasing the rate at which the wealthy are taxed and on the wealthy and investing more money in education, health, anti-poverty, and other social programs? Or can we best promote prosperity by decreasing taxes on wealthy people and businesses to encourage more investment in business, increase employment, and foster charitable giving? Do we promote security by increasing the resources spent on the military, or do we promote security through foreign aid programs and diplomacy? Can justice best be promoted by allowing people who are in homosexual relationships the same legal rights as everyone else, or is justice best defended by defining the legal unit we call “family” in the same way we have for the last several generations?
I don’t think the NPR reporter was accurate in saying the candidates have vastly different visions. But I appreciate that she is willing to use language about vision because I think vision is an important conversation. What if we were to engage in political conversations about the vision which most candidates offer, rather than allowing arguments about strategies to distract our attention? At least two things could happen. First, we might find that we have more in common with each other than we now think. And second, we might really start to see new possibilities for dialogue and social change. Those of us who are disciples of Jesus, for instance, might ask ourselves how the Biblical traditions support and challenge the visions of our national civic religion which the candidates most often speak about. Is the national vision of freedom the same as the vision of freedom we find in the Bible? When a candidate talks about prosperity, is he or she describing a vision which would make sense to Jesus? What is the basis of our hope? Of justice? Where does a Biblical vision of wholeness fit with the visions which the candidates are casting?
As I dig up more of my grass and plant more flowers and shrubs in its place, I contemplate the vision of beauty and sustainability which I share with my neighbors. As I listen to the candidates, I likewise contemplate the vision of the nation and the vision of my faith, too. And I wonder why we can so freely complement, advise, and share with each other around one set of visions, but we don’t ever speak to each other about the others.