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A Theology of Local Politics

The yellows, blues, whites, pinks and purples of the wild flowers along the roads and byways of our county have been augmented this spring by hundreds of political signs entreating us to vote for certain of our neighbors and friends seeking public office.

It is gratifying to see that so many good folks are willing to assume significant responsibilities by serving in positions which, for the most part, provide little or no financial remuneration. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Further, the winners can expect to receive many criticisms from their constituents. One can only assume that most of these candidates desire to either make some good contribution to the quality of our live or to right some injustice–real or imagined–by someone currently in office. Similar political races are underway across the nation.
 
Baptist “dissenter” theology played a formative role in the emergence of grassroots democracy in the United States. Early in our history, the doctrine of “soul competency” embraced the belief that in order for individuals to be responsible before God, for themselves and for their behavior, they must be free.
 
It followed that freedom could best be won and preserved if citizens elected their own rulers and held them accountable for doing right and promoting the general welfare and the common good
 
The first act is underway in our biannual drama of selecting those who will hold political office in our county.
 
Many of the candidate signs among the wild flowers at the crossroads of our county support persons running for the school board. The current board has voted to close one of the schools and consolidate it into the three others, guaranteeing this will be a difficult and likely a thankless job.
 
Removing children and youth from one school and melding them into another will not be easy. The new students may be unwelcome and threatening to the ways and benefits of the old. Angry parents will be looking for things to justify their anger. The resourcefulness of teachers and administrators will be put to the test.
 
The towns where the schools are located have been competitive with one another for many years. This attitude has influenced the school board. Traditionally, members have sought to obtain a bigger slice of the education-dollar pie for their school, meaning there are fewer funds left for the others.
 
The superintendent, meanwhile, has sought to make all of the schools effective in educating and preparing the students to earn a good living as adults. Unless county’s citizens can also learn to cooperate in ways that put first the well-being of all of children and youth, those who are successful candidates for the school board appear destined for four more years of frustration.
 
Eight years ago a new reform-minded set of county commissioners was elected in the wake of a scandal that sent a former commissioner to prison. Many of us hoped that cooperation in efforts to better all persons in the county would result. Alas, cooperation was short-lived.
 
The new commissioners eventually yielded to pressures of “road-grader diplomacy”–fix the roads of those who supported you in the election, but neglect the roads of your political enemies. While the county desperately needs steps to be taken that would coordinate travel across the county, each little district stays focused on its own wants and needs.
 
A 17th-century dissenter theologian would likely look at our condition and declare that we have forgotten the teaching of Jesus about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We are in bondage to the selfishness of sin.
 
For democracy to work among us, we need to repent and become true followers of Jesus. We must battle our tendency to be selfish. We need to focus upon the common good. We must not allow successes of the selfish to convince us to accept their approach to life.
 
Many signs along the roadways solicit votes for four candidates for sheriff. Given the growing epidemic of illegal drug use, this, too, is a difficult job. The temptations for law enforcement officials are many. Their tasks are of great importance. This vote is crucial.
 
Unfortunately, all the persons elected to these offices that provide vital services to the citizens of our rural county will find themselves thwarted by lack of funding. Alabama’s old constitution does not allow for “home rule,” so there is little local officials can do to remedy this financial problem.
 
Powerful lobbies keep property taxes low. The “Wal-marting” of retail sales has caused counties that have not attracted a Wal-Mart to lose sales-tax revenue to neighboring counties that have. Consequently, schools, road departments and other services in many rural counties are deteriorating.
 
Another hotly contested race is probate judge. Two men are seeking this office. One is a lawyer. He is married to the daughter of a former probate judge and has lived in the county for about 20 years. The other is a local farmer who has made a good success in his farming enterprise. He was born and raised in the county. It will be interesting to see whether relationships or training will win out in this race.
 
Another race is for representative of our county and part of neighboring Tuscaloosa County to the state legislature. A long-time incumbent is being challenged by a man whose campaign is spending far more money on advertising than a state representative earns in a two-year term. Some wonder where the money coming from, why, and to whom this will candidate be beholden if he wins.
 
Grassroots democracy is a wonderful system with a theological base. But it must be worked at in order to accomplish what it is intended to do.
 
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.