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How should we handle charity?

First lady Michelle Obamaddresses Democratic National ConventiTuesday night Charlotte N.C.  |  J. Scott Applewhite~AP

First lady Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night in Charlotte, N.C. | J. Scott Applewhite~AP

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:33PM

President Obama’s re-election campaign has done a pretty good job of creating the impression that Mitt Romney, having walked through the doorway of American opportunity, quickly slammed it behind him.

No doubt Romney would protest that it just ain’t so, that he cares as much as any Democrat about reaching back and helping others succeed. And he might very well be telling the truth.

The crucial difference between the two candidates and the two parties is in how they see that metaphorical hand reaching back.

The Republicans see it primarily as an act of charity, a personal decision by individuals who get ahead to reach back and help individuals of their choosing who lag behind.

Communities that vote overwhelmingly Republican are filled with churches, clubs, societies and organizations whose main purpose is to help others. And they do help others, immensely, every day.

It’s a tradition that goes back to colonial times, when its prime motivation was rooted in religion — as it still is for so many Republicans. Calvinist theology taught the successful to see themselves as blessed by God and obliged by God to help others less blessed. But it also taught that success was a sign of being right with God, while lack of success showed some flaw in one’s relationship with God. In its cruder form, the message was that lack of success was a sign of sin.

So charity was a way not only of giving the sinners a helping hand, but also of publicly reinforcing the message that they were, indeed, sinners.

That tradition dominated the American view of the helping hand through the end of the 19th century.

By the early 20th century, though, a revolution was occurring. The Progressive movement was on the rise, spreading a new message: Lack of success was a sign of failure not by the individual but by a society that limited the individual’s opportunities, no matter how hard he or she worked. That premise dramatically changed the view of the helping hand. Now it was no longer merely a personal decision to bestow charity, but a decision to push for structural change. Without that change, all the charity in the world would merely perpetuate the problems and ensure that some people would lag behind, that they’d never get the help they needed to make it through the doorway of success.

In a democratic republic, structural change can never happen at the whim of one person, but has to be achieved through the political process. So in the Progressives’ view, the helping hand had to be extended by the body politic as a whole — through government.

That’s what first lady Michelle Obama meant when, in her Democratic National Convention speech on Tuesday, she said, “You reach back.” She meant that we, the people, change our laws and policies to make sure everyone can get through that doorway.

Insofar as this election is a choice between those two visions of the helping hand, it’s a choice that 21st century voters will make between 19th century and 20th century worldviews.

When a myth is eclipsed, it doesn’t always die. Often it lives on in the shadows, just waiting for a chance to make its comeback.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

History News Network

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