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Jason E. Miczek
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and his vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., arrive at a campaign rally Aug. 12, 2012 in Mooresville, N.C. at the NASCAR Technical Institute.
We are falling prey, in the United States, to the temptation to equate “freedom” with selfishness.
This is ultimately a counsel of despair and the direct antithesis of the biblical values of love and compassion.
The selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president throws this problem into stark relief.
Jesus of Nazareth was absolutely clear that we have a responsibility to care for one another. Jesus instructed us to “love one another” (John 13:34). Cultivating the virtues of empathy, compassion, and support for other people is the way we love one another in an individual and in a social sense.
The virtue of selfishness, however, is becoming more and more permissible. Much will be made of the influence of atheist philosopher Ayn Rand on Ryan. Ever since Ryan put out his draconian budget proposal that slashes essential programs for the poor and gives big tax breaks to the rich, Ryan’s attachment to the works of Ayn Rand has been highlighted. Jonathan Chait, in the pages of Newsweek, referred to Ryan as a “Rand nut,” and called out Ryan for launching a “war on the weak.”
Yes, Ryan’s attachment to the works of Ayn Rand is revealing of his own views and it’s deeply problematic. But the problem of selfishness as a virtue is far more widespread and corrosive in American society than the views of any one person.
Through decades of conservative ideology, the concept of freedom itself has been narrowed to mean simply ‘it’s okay to be selfish.’ In fact, caring for our fellow citizens is regarded as the antithesis of our own individual freedom.
The military’s former slogan of an “Army of One” has become the “Nation of One.” Me, myself, and me.
The whole Grover Norquist tax “pledge” is so illustrative of the degeneration of the idea of freedom. This is a “pledge” conservatives in Congress have signed, promising never to vote for programs that would raise taxes. Norquist himself says those who are in favor of the “pledge” are, in fact, “everybody [who] wants the government to leave them alone.”
“Leave me alone” is not the transcendent value of freedom as freedom for one another, it reduces freedom to freedom from one another.
Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Iceman Cometh” is a chilling reminder of what happens to people who make a virtue of selfishness. One of the central themes of the play is how the obsession with individual freedom can become self-obsession. In O’Neill’s universe, this is a counsel of despair.
In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama ran on a platform of hope that meant political change. In “The Iceman Cometh,” hope is a pipe dream, an illusion, as in a famous speech from the play.
But the biblical value of hope transcends both. In the Bible, hope comes from the capacity we actually do have to “love one another.” Compassion is the well from which we actually can draw hope for the future.
Biblical truth teaches us that selfishness is profoundly destructive.
The extreme of the “freedom agenda” is actually a counsel of despair. You have to give up hope in humanity in order to hold such a view. It is, as the O’Neill play shows, finally an extreme form of skepticism toward all human relations and social progress.
This national election has now become a referendum on whether we will choose the value of selfishness or of compassion. The depth and the height of our core national value of freedom is at stake in this choice.
Freedom isn’t selfishness. My freedom ultimately depends on my capacity to feel compassion for you, and the freedom we achieve together in mutual responsibility.
To believe otherwise is a counsel of deep despair.