God and the State
By Dr Selwyn Cudjoe
October 26, 2020
In his 1980 presidential debate with President Jimmy Carter, Republican opponent Ronald Reagan looked the audience in the eyes and asked: "Are you better off [today] than you were four years ago?"
The answer was "no" and Reagan went on to trounce Carter in a landslide victory.
Until January of this year, US President Donald Trump had hoped to use the same argument (that is, the economy) as the wedge issue in the 2020 elections. Believing the electorate would have answered in the affirmative, Trump took for granted that he would be sailing into the sunset for another term. Thus secured, he would have been able to carry on with his racist, reactionary message of hate and lies.
But then in February the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement entered the political arena, almost coming out of left-field as it were, leading Trump to wonder if God had sent these plagues—he certainly saw the Black Lives Matter movement—to warn him about what lay ahead for the United States. Given his limited abilities, Trump was at a loss as to how to handle the devastating impact of these two life-changing events that would have such a devastating impact upon his election prospects.
America lost over 22 million jobs in the first two months (March and April) of the pandemic, while the Black Lives Matter movement was making it clear that decent people in the US would not tolerate the constant murder of black men and women.
Meanwhile, a disproportionate number of black and brown people were being killed by the pandemic for which the administration had no explanation. The inaccessibility of black and brown people to proper medical treatment contributed to these uneven outcomes, but Trump and his administration were not yet able to accept this fact.
Although the pandemic was killing black people in droves (230,000 people have been killed since it began in February), the Trump administration still felt that a strong economy would have allowed him to be victorious. But this wasn't entirely accurate. Last Friday, the Financial Times/Peter G Peterson poll reported that 46 per cent of all Americans felt President Trump's policies had hurt the economy, as opposed to 42 per cent who thought his policies had helped. Only 32 per cent of Americans feel they are better off today than they were four years ago when the Trump presidency began (FT, October 21).
If the economic argument failed, Trump's felt his next political move was to rely upon evangelicals who supported him initially. Biden is a religious man; Trump is not, although he had no problem in forcibly using tear gas to remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square and surrounding streets in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2020, to hold up a Bible, upside down, in front of St John's Episcopal Church, to proclaim the sanctity of law and order (and possibly the fatherhood of God). The New York Times called it one of "the defining moments of the Trump presidency".
Biden did not need to ferret out an opportunity to demonstrate his genuine spirituality and humanity. The incidents of his life prepared him for the present role in which he finds himself. Evangelicals by and large have supported Trump, but the Catholics seem to be rallying around Biden. This is how Howard Fineman captured the essential Biden: "Joe Biden, a stutterer in his youth, meets a 13-year-old boy, Brayden Harrington, who stutters. Biden sits him down with a tool he himself used to tame his disability, a book of poems by the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats.
"Together, man and boy read the poems. After much effort and support from family, friends and a possible president, Brayden is healed, at least enough to bravely go on TV to endorse Joe. The story even touched the likes of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway." (Washington Post, August 22).
It is only his deep faith that has taken him through some saddening moments in his life, such as the loss of his first wife and the death of his two sons. He attends church weekly, carries rosary beads with him, and tells stories about how the nuns treated him as a young boy at school. These elements have led to the humility that we observe in Biden, stutter and all. It goes without saying that Biden's deep faith is one of his chief political assets. Lauren Fedor writes: "The former vice-president has made concerted appeals to Catholics, an increasingly racially and ideologically diverse group who make up around a quarter of the voting population and are seen as reflective of the wider electorate" (FT, October 21).
There are many Catholics in some of the key states (such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio) who Biden must win over in order to defeat Trump. Although President Trump won the Catholic vote by a seven-per cent margin in 2016, Biden, it is hoped, will cut into that support in 2020. Although Trump leads Biden 52–44 among white Catholics, present polls show Biden is doing better among Hispanic Catholics. He leads Trump by about 40 points.
In nine days, the citizens of the United States will vote to determine their fate as a society. While there is no way to know if the fates sent the US a devastating pandemic as a warning to its civilisation. Maybe Howard Fineman was on to something when he said: "Biden is now trying to do something daring; to wrest the mantle of God from the party that claims to own Him, and to use the debacle that is Trump to cut the legs out from under the GOP."
Incidentally, if Biden wins, he would be the second US president of the Roman Catholic faith.
Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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