Although media titans Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are both critical of President Obama’s policies, they deal very differently with the President’s intentions. A close look at that difference in light of the western religious and philosophical tradition offers a clearer perspective on the President’s policies.
O’Reilly summarized his view on the Jimmy Kimmel show as follows: “I like Barack Obama as I liked George W. Bush. I think they’re both patriots . . . I think they’re both trying to do what’s best for their country. So I admire that. I respect that.” This view is charitable and gives Obama the benefit of the doubt. It recalls Jesus’ admonition to “judge not lest you be judged.”(Matthew 7:1)
In contrast, Limbaugh judges the President’s intentions harshly, as this passage from his website makes clear:
[Obama] knows what tax increases do. They retard economic growth. So . . . the fact that he intends to raise taxes and double the debt is as great an indicator as you need of what his intentions are for this country and our budget and our overall structure . . . This is not somebody ‘in over his head,’ . . . He knows exactly what he’s doing. [Limbaugh goes on to say that Obama is harming the country.]
At first thought, O’Reilly’s view is more Christian than Limbaugh’s. But closer examination of Jesus’ words challenges that notion because immediately after saying, “judge not lest you be judged,” Jesus softened the admonition, saying that we will be judged by “the way” we judge and by our “standard of measure.”
Even more significantly, a dozen or so lines later Jesus used an analogy to specify the way we should judge: “A good tree does not produce bad fruit, nor a bad tree good fruit. By their fruits you shall know them.”
Thus, the full context of Jesus’ comments reveals that saying O’Reilly’s view is Christian and Limbaugh’s is unchristian oversimplifies the matter. A more accurate assessment is that they reflect different aspects of the same overall religious teaching. The question is, which judgment of Obama’s intentions, as opposed to his actions, is more in keeping with Jesus’ words? Given that Jesus did not make a clear distinction between intentions and actions, we must look to philosophy for an answer.
Discussion of intentions is always problematic not only because they are often difficult to discern, but also because even the noblest intentions can produce horrible consequences. Also because, as Thomas Aquinas noted, people never choose evil for its own sake but instead for some good they wish to achieve. For example, people steal to improve their financial situation and commit adultery to achieve sexual pleasure. The same is true of more extreme cases. Hitler’s intention in exterminating Jews was to purify Aryan blood, and Stalin’s intention in killing millions of his countrymen was to unify the country and create order and stability. The relevant ethical principle, of course, is that not even the worthiest ends can justify evil means (though they may mitigate culpability for a person’s actions).
If we apply Aquinas’ insight, we must say that O’Reilly’s view that President Obama “means well” or “wants the best for his country” is charitable and in keeping with Aquinas’ perspective, whereas Limbaugh’s view is neither. In fairness to Limbaugh, it should be noted that Obama himself has made it tempting to question his intentions. As a lawyer and former instructor in constitutional law, he knows the boundaries of presidential action, yet he crosses them anyway. Also, as a formerly vocal advocate for fiscal responsibility, he knows the dangers of rising deficits and debt, yet he spends with abandon. Such behavior seems to shout “bad intentions.”
The larger point about judging intentions, however, is this: if everyone has good intentions, as Aquinas held, it is pointless to discuss them at all, whether charitably, as O’Reilly does, or uncharitably, as Limbaugh does. It is far wiser to focus on the reasoning and actions that proceed from the intentions, as well as the resulting consequences. In addition to being reasonable, that approach is consistent with Jesus’ observation, “by their fruits you shall know them.”
Such a focus would result in an argument that may be briefly stated as follows:
President Obama undoubtedly intends to make the U.S. a better country than he believes it has been. However, the way he has chosen to achieve that intention—by transforming America—is misguided. Transformation is appropriate only in systems that are fundamentally flawed and irreparable (for example, communist systems). America is neither. Its problems are, in fact, easily solvable by returning to its core principles—that is, by restoration rather than transformation.
Moreover, in pursuit of his misguided goal, the President has pursued policies that have done more harm than good. He has usurped powers that belong to the other two branches of government, driven the country deeper into debt than it has ever been, created havoc in the nation’s health care system, and encouraged a spirit of divisiveness among social classes.
This argument is one that reasonable people of different political persuasions can accept. It does not alienate conservatives by extending the benefit of the doubt beyond the limits of common sense. Nor does it alienate liberals by accusing the President ofconsciously choosing to harm the country. Instead, it acknowledges the President’s good intentions but focuses on the errors in thought and action that underlie his policies, as well as the resulting consequences. It therefore invites a bi-partisan effort to put politics aside and correct the situation.
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