Rhode Island Politics - Not Just the Economy

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

If I were to nominate the most intense professional sport in Rhode Island, it wouldn’t be baseball, basketball, hockey or football. Without a doubt it’d be politics, and in case you’ve missed it, the new season is underway.

The next twelve months will provide an endless stream of political drama – a circus, sideshow, spectacle, orgy – you choose the description that works for you. Regardless of your take, however, the impact is unavoidable since we’re about to elect Congressional reps, a new Governor, General State Officers, members of the General Assembly, and a variety of local officials. Real political insiders will also be interested in the selection of a new Speaker of the House, a powerful position in Ocean State politics. Wow . . . How I wish I could be a radio talk show host for the next year!

I admit it; I’m a political junkie. I follow political news pretty closely and if I weren’t a cleric, I’d probably run for something or other. In His wisdom, though, and perhaps to protect the public, the Lord has led me down a different path.

All of this is background for my article this week which addresses the local political scene, and it was sparked by a comment of a rookie candidate for Governor. “There’s only one key issue, and it’s jobs and the economy,” the newcomer said. “That’s something that every Rhode Islander can agree on.”

Sorry, Mr. Candidate. Your statement that “the only key issue is the economy” doesn’t work for me. As one Rhode Islander and voter, I need to hear a little more.

Certainly the state of the economy, including the creation of jobs, is an extremely important issue. A depressed economy affects the common good, hinders the ability of the state to function effectively, and inflicts grave harm upon many individuals and families. Anyone aspiring for public office these days must be aware of the consequences of the economic crisis, and be equipped with practical solutions that will help us emerge from the abyss into which we’ve fallen.

It’s also worthwhile to point out that all the members of the community have a role to play in economic development. If we’re to solve our problems and live together peacefully, we’ve got to move beyond partisan politics and special interests. But an effective leader can do that – he, or she, can bring people together and build a working consensus while also respecting individual rights and concerns. This is what the Church means whenever it speaks of “solidarity” – a selfless, common concern for one another.

My point here is that political campaigns, including those taking place in Rhode Island, have to be attentive to and willing to address issues above and beyond the economy.

Pope Benedict emphasized that value clearly in his Encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate.” There the Pope wrote, “Progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient.” (#23) And again, “Development must include not just material growth but also spiritual growth, since the human person is a unity of body and soul, born of God’s creative love and destined for eternal life.” (#76)

In short, I don’t want my political leaders in Rhode Island to be merely professional business types, technocrats, social scientists, or elite academicians. I want my leaders to have a heart and soul, to be aware of and concerned about the human condition. And I want the candidates to address the issues that are part of the larger picture, issues that contribute to the spiritual growth as well as the financial wealth of our citizens.

Therefore I’m looking for candidates who will explain their stance on the dignity of human life and how that translates into action. I want candidates to address the value of marriage and family, and explain to me how homosexual marriages won’t erode the traditional underpinnings of our society. I’d like to find candidates who’ll support the comprehensive reform of the health care system in a way that preserves important moral values. I’d like to see candidates embrace authentic educational choice and describe to the public how such competition would be good for our community. And I want candidates who can repair the economy and maintain fiscal discipline without placing the burden upon or targeting the unemployed, the homeless, the indigent elderly or the immigrant.

For the long-term well-being of our state, candidates for public office need to address these issues and explain their positions. And citizens, especially those involved in the electoral process, need to push the agenda, ask the right questions and hold the candidates accountable for their statements.

Pope Benedict wrote, “Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is . . . The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God.” (#78)

I recognize fully that the role of political leaders is very different than that of religious leaders, and I certainly don’t expect politicians to adopt the Pope’s teaching as their platform. I’m enough of a realist to understand that political realities don’t always mesh smoothly with spiritual values. Nonetheless, if we don’t infuse the political process with some awareness of the human condition, some concern for moral values, our progress will be superficial and all our work will be in vain.