Americans seem to have accepted (consciously or not) the secular, humanistic complete dichotomy between character and personal ethics and political/governmental (i.e., public service) responsibility. I don't think that is a Catholic outlook at all. It is not even a secular American political ideal, since the Federalist Papers talk a lot about character (I would say that the Founders presupposed it - basic Christian morality - in politicians). Is there no place for high moral character in so exalted an office? This is a basic distinction as well.
Can we seriously entertain the notion that a man who has had hundreds of affairs, is fit for the highest office in the land, head of the most powerful military force on earth? This should be a no-brainer, at least for Christians. The "private life vs. public service" dichotomy has been used to justify almost every sin imaginable, from homosexuality to abortion to divorce to contraception, greed and corporate corruption, on and on.
John Adams, the second President of the United States, wrote about civil character:
- We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
The Republicans are the opposite: they stress the personal and family issues but neglect social issues such as corporate greed, racism, inner city decay, universal medical care, and those things which make for a better body politic and community besides the accumulation of personal wealth and free enterprise. Interestingly, this reflects the historic (and still applicable) dichotomy (in Protestant circles) between the "fundamentalists" and the "social gospel." Both parties, however, seem to be edging towards pure libertarianism. I see this as the trend in the next generation. They will fight over the peripherals (for the game of politics' sake), but unite in their opposition to the Christian societal ethos.
Personal character in the Presidency is as important as correct policies, and I think a known severe lack of it is as much a disqualifier as wrong policy views. On the other hand, in reality, I would say that lack of character and wrong policy tend to go hand-in-hand, and that there exists a more-or-less direct correlation. Take President Clinton: he lived out a radical 60s sexual libertinism, so his policies consistently reflected that outlook: abortion on demand, even to full term, homosexual rights, "loathing the military," radical feminism, etc. His social views on the controversial gender/feminist issues (and also the environment, a la Gore) are completely in accord with that of the radical advocacy groups of the Left.
It should also be pointed out, however, that many of the social programs in vogue at present were begun and pushed by the more forward-looking Republicans of the 80s (and opposed by most liberal Democrats): education reform and choice, welfare reform, an unencumbered economy without government interference, anti-Communism (which proved prophetic), urban free enterprise zones (championed particularly by Jack Kemp), anti-drug and abstinence policies, etc. Clinton and the Democrats have attempted to co-opt these policies for themselves, hoping the public would forget that they were largely initiated by progressive Republicans and the conservative intelligentsia lying behind their thought (William Bennett, Thomas Sowell, George Gilder, George Will, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Novak, Milton Friedman, et al).
Unfortunately, the great majority of the public simply fall according to dogmatic and polemical party lines. Catholics and other Christians ought to advocate a "third way" of moral and political consistency, which avoids the great shortcomings of both major parties. Catholic social thought has given us much groundwork for how such a program could work out.
Can a personal scoundrel be a good politician, and even further the "Christian" and "traditionalist" agenda? I would say that this is entirely possible, provided that his sins are not primarily such that they affect the populace or governance directly. As it is often said, the "bad popes" of the Renaissance cared so little about theology that they hardly made any proclamations on it. The difference between a man with morally conservative policies who is a scoundrel and President Clinton is that - chances are - the Republican scoundrel will feel himself to be a hypocrite at some level. He feels that he is a tormented, divided soul, unable to live up to his own ideals.
Martin Luther King, though not a Republican, comes to mind, because he was an intensely committed Christian and a pastor, and most admirable in many ways. As I understand it, his repeated extramarital flings caused him no end of self-incrimination and guilt. He felt himself a weak human being who couldn't conquer that fatal flaw in his character. His best friend Ralph Abernathy wrote in his book that King had slept with a woman in his motel room the very night before he was shot. But he felt guilt.
Bill Clinton didn't appear to feel any guilt (I would argue that his celebrated "mea culpas" were more of politics and "sorry for being caught" than of true repentance). And why is that? Because obviously he has accepted the premises of the Sexual Revolution in the first place. He sees nothing wrong with messing around. He sees it as nobody's business. This very brazenness is what led to the public consequences which he had to endure. He felt it perfectly appropriate and necessary to deceive the public and his administration in order to further his own - shall we say - sexual preferences.
And that is precisely the difference. Nixon did the same thing, from the political center (he was not a conservative, in my book). His personal sins became public, involving the apparatus of government, and abuses of power. His famous paranoia was institutionalized, just as Clinton's compulsive lying and perversion have been. I agree that the purpose of the politician is to achieve certain policies, and if he is in favor of them and truly works toward that goal, while falling short personally, then it is permissible to vote for him while maintaining principles, without compromise.
But the scoundrel who comes up with the morally correct policy is far less hypocritical than the person who appears to have certain principles which he then forsakes in order to sell his soul to a political party. Such was the case with Clinton, Gore, Gephardt, and Jesse Jackson, who all identified themselves as pro-life at one time (and indeed, all those who claim to be "personally pro-life" but not enough to push the view legislatively). Curiously enough, they all underwent a transformation as they sought to run for President. This sort of change - to my mind - indicates a character flaw so deep and profound that it would immediately cast into doubt one's competence and trustworthiness for office.
I contend that an immoral policy position (especially on a bedrock, watershed issue like abortion or euthanasia) immediately disqualifies one. A politician who espouses an agenda which runs, by and large, directly and irrevocably counter to Christian values and beliefs should not be voted for by Christians. On the other hand, a person who stands for Christian values in his positions but is discovered to be less-than-stellar in his own personal life would be discounted only if his sins were extreme, brazen, or longstanding. If no one knows about it, then it obviously isn't an issue. If it is found out, then it might be relevant to competence and trustworthiness, depending on the nature of the hypocrisy, and how it intersected with public duty and execution of the office.
By this criteria (and I don't claim to have worked through this problem satisfactorily, by any means), both Nixon and Clinton fail the litmus test for honorable statesmanship. They both failed the twin tests of personal character and non-abuse of the powers and prestige of the office. Someone like Kennedy and Johnson, On the other hand, didn't fail these tests, as far as the public was concerned, simply because they weren't aware of the problems of promiscuity in both these men. Had someone told me personally - as a voter - about the sexual decadence of JFK and LBJ, I suppose I wouldn't be able to vote for them in good conscience. But they did manage to be halfway decent Presidents (I'm trying to be non-partisan here) - thus proving that personal lack of character need not always translate into public corruption.
The only question I would have to resolve would be to determine how much personal decadence is required in order to disqualify one from office beforehand, irregardless of whether it caused them to abuse their power. To me, that is the most intriguing question here. But the question of the high importance of character in political leaders was, It seems to me, clear-cut in the Federalist Papers and the general thought of the Founding Fathers. I agree with George Will that "statecraft is soulcraft" (to some extent, anyway).
As things stand at the moment, however, I see many more immoral policies - directly contrary to common Christian values - being espoused by the Democrats than the Republicans. That doesn't mean that Republicans are on the side of God. Things are not nearly that simple. I look at this more on a policy-by-policy basis, rather than party basis, and in many instances, I feel that neither party has the best insight - that they are both wrong, or that both hold partial truths, which require a third way (and more often than not the Catholic Church provides that option - if only a candidate would be so bold as to take it). Christianity is the standard by which both parties (and individuals, and nations) are judged, just as the Moral Law was originally thought to be the rule by which all human law was judged.
There was a time when Christians could vote for either party in good conscience and in good faith, with acceptable reasoning on both sides, as there weren't issues on the table which directly violated Christian morality. To me it is self-evident that we can't vote for those who sanction - even praise - murder.
The Democrats' vaunted concern for social issues is not all that it's cracked up to be, when one looks at the results. Look at the Great Society. Has that ended poverty? Of course not. I would maintain that it has, rather, exacerbated the problem, per Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, Jack Kemp and others. The inner cities and black communities have been devastated by these policies (this is unarguable), because they didn't take into account personal morality. Right intentions led to disaster, but Democrats today will not admit this. Look at affirmative action. Ditto. Has it ended racism? Of course not: it makes it a more serious problem, day-by-day, because it is a lousy "band-aid" on a gaping wound, whose root causes go far deeper than how many "minorities" are hired at a particular company. That's "kindergarten reconciliation" as far as I'm concerned. So we must factor in results, not just good intentions (which I readily grant).
There is a world of difference (in "personal morality") between Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but no one can accept abortion on any grounds (Ford and Nixon were equally lax on abortion, I believe). There is no legitimate, moral rationale for doing that. Carter simply becomes (assuming he is truly ambivalent about abortion) a case of Burke's "good men doing nothing." One can compromise in politics on any number of issues and not compromise their Christianity. Abortion is clearly not one of those issues.
It is claimed that politicians may simply be ignorant about abortion, but in this day and age, there is virtually no excuse any longer for such ignorance, after years of public discussion and controversy. Would anyone seriously maintain, e.g., that today's politicians are invincibly ignorant about what goes on in partial-birth abortion, where the brains of a full-term baby are barbarically, brutally sucked out? When I was pro-choice, on the other hand (before 1982), I was so utterly ignorant about abortion that I thought all it was was the removal of a miniscule blob of tissue - hardly a human, if at all (I was well brainwashed by feminism and radical liberalism). The minute I learned that we were talking about fully-limbed human beings with brain waves and heartbeats, who felt pain, who looked like babies already (and this is true at 8 weeks at the latest), I turned pro-life, and passionately so.
It would be quite difficult to argue that politicians today don't know what legal abortion entails. If they are that ignorant, they have no business making policy about anything. When it comes to partial-birth infanticide, we're dealing with a wicked refusal to admit immorality and evil. No one seeing a photo of what abortion is or does (or hearing the diabolical, unspeakable procedures described) could possibly uphold it from a Christian moral standpoint. Murder is a matter of straightforward, obvious, easily understood moral law, innate in all of us.
In my opinion, any Christian who votes for a pro-abort candidate is guilty of sin, for they are giving their sanction to murder, thereby making its continuance possible, by their enabling behavior. Other issues are not as clear-cut as this one. I think that a Christian who votes for a pro-abort has done so little thinking about the application of Christian morality and the law of love to culture and real life, that he can hardly be said to have a coherent Christian position at all (note, I'm not saying he is not a Christian at all).
If that means I am a "one-issue" guy, then so be it. Some things are indisputable. I don't care how much flak I get for speaking truth. I am duty-bound to do that about the prevailing evils of our time. I agree that people and motives are very complex - it isn't often so black and white, even when the issue is. It is an outright diabolical deception for a Christian to be deceived on the issue of abortion; yet I think we must say that they are still responsible to know better.
When children are being murdered every day, other lesser (but not unimportant) issues do tend to be set aside. I see nothing wrong with that. Once we root out the obvious evils, then we can concentrate on something so relatively mundane as procedural and philosophical politics. I wish it weren't so - that America would have a lick of moral sense instead of this insanity that we have today -, but that's how it is. If, for example, Adolf Hitler (theoretically, of course) held "Catholic" policy stands, all down the line, except for his belief in the propriety of the extermination of Jews, a Christian could vote for him? This is the flip side of the caricature of the so-called "single-issue" voter who is passionately concerned about abortion, as the leading and most hideous social sin of our time.
There is a big and essential difference between voting for someone who doesn't take the proper position (where properly debatable) as you understand it on every issue, and voting for one who espouses flat-out immoralities and barbarities. I would say the Christian can consistently vote for the former, but not the latter.
Some think that politics is not a fit area of discussion in the context of theological discourse or specifically Christian apologetic discourse. I reply as follows:
- 1) The Catholic faith (and Christianity in general) pertains to all areas of life. Jesus is Lord of all of life;
2) Politics is an area of life;
3) Therefore Catholicism pertains to politics, and vice versa;
4) Apologetics is the defense of the faith (in my case, Catholicism, though often my material is applicable to all Christians, where commonalities exist);
5) Granting all of the above, therefore politics is a relevant subject matter for apologetics.
If we don't apply our Christian beliefs to "secular affairs," then they aren't worth much in the first place, and we have been duped by the (thoroughly humanist) secular-sacred dichotomy which is now rampant in our post-Christian society. In fact, the culture we now have might be directly attributed to the wholesale withdrawal of theologically conservative Christians from the political arena, in the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1880s-1920s.
Political philosophy has been part of Christianity explicitly at least as early as St. Augustine's City of God. It is in the Bible as well (e.g., Romans 13). This is an aspect of the Christian worldview and theological outlook, which the apologist attempts to defend. Chesterton did much political philosophy, and he is considered one of the leading Christian apologists in the 20th century. Francis Schaeffer made it an extension of his apologetics. This is all of a piece. I agree it is somewhat distant from apologetics per se (defending doctrines, etc.), but it is certainly not irrelevant. After all, Christian apologetics is a half-sister of Christian philosophy.
American civil religion has always played a large role in American culture: "Manifest Destiny," Anglo-Israelism, the Puritan ideal, the extreme Calvinist deluded and self-important ethos (e.g., the outrageous myth that capitalism is primarily or exclusively a Calvinist invention). Sadly, too, it took the Unitarian Jefferson and liberal Presbyterian Madison to bring about institutionalized religious liberty: the old-guard Anglican establishment and the remnants of Puritanism would have none of that, any more than the Anglicans allowed religious freedom in merrie olde England and its brash, unruly and ungrateful underling, Ireland (Catholics were allowed religious freedom only after 1829, I believe). By contrast, Catholic Maryland was the first tolerant American colony. That quickly changed when the Puritans came to power there.
Some contend that the Pledge of Allegiance is a sort of idolatry, which no Christian ought to countenance. I find this a bit exaggerated. The Pledge consists of the idealistic talk of national anthems, boy scout oaths and other patriotic material. No one but a child or a naive simpleton (Gomer Pyle type) would take it absolutely literally. I don't think it is necessarily blasphemous or idolatrous or an act of self-worship to recite this - all other things being equal (nor to salute the flag, etc.). It was a Catholic, who called for the addition of the clause "under God." I once met the man's son, who is a priest.
On the other hand, I do think it is altogether worthwhile to point out the potential dangers in such nationalistic pledges or creeds. I think the erroneous notions which tend to accompany these sorts of patriotic things are dangerous, but we can't blame all that on the Pledge itself, I don't think (or, for that matter, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence) any more than we can blame the Bible itself for the myriad excesses associated with the distortion and misinterpretation of it. But I'm quite open to being persuaded on this. I am no apologist for either America or unbridled, thoroughly materialistic capitalism as it has evolved to be. I just call 'em as I see 'em.
Those who oppose things like the Pledge would, it seems to me, have to throw out at least one relevant passage from Holy Scripture, which is far more "extreme" and "offensive to Christian sensibilities," if not downright idolatrous:
- Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment . . . for he is God's servant for your good . . . he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer . . . the authorities are ministers of God . . .
(Romans 13:1-2,4,6; RSV)
America is not unique in the sense of creating an idolatrous civil religion which runs counter to true Christianity. I think, e.g., of the Communist countries with their official atheism, of so-called "Enlightenment" France with its enthroning of the "goddess" reason, over against Christianity and the Catholic Church, of the longstanding acceptance of immorality, prostitution, and pornography in northern (ostensibly Lutheran) European countries, etc.; virtually universal institutionalized contraception and abortion in formerly proclaimed "Christian" countries, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox alike. I find those things far more an affront to God than a supposed identification of the Kingdom of God with America.
It is not idolatrous to say the Pledge of Allegiance nor to even think that America is unique in some spiritual sense (no President has proclaimed himself to be God, to my knowledge - though Bill Clinton often acted like a debauched Roman emperor), as long as the person doing such things makes a clear distinction between the merely civil and spiritual realms. In other words, I don't think that the language itself causes one to engage in idolatry or to undermine the Kingdom of God, rightly understood.
I think that the multi-national corporation capitalist ethos has been destructive to American culture and Christianity in many ways. I have thought a lot lately about what was lost when the North won the American Civil War, and that perhaps the "South was right" (considered entirely apart from slavery, which - it is argued by the South's current defenders - was inevitably on the way out anyway). Along these lines, I tend to sympathize with the economic thought of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc (Distributism or Agrarianism, or small business, entrepreneurial capitalism). The multi-national corporations exploit cheap labor in other countries, and this is arguably wrong, on Christian ethical grounds. I believe that there is a balanced, non-socialist and Christian (particularly Catholic) critique of present-day capitalism.
I would argue that the Catholic social view is neither left nor right but "radically center." I would say the same about Catholic dogma, on the theological plane. America has been guilty of many extremely serious evils: e.g., the treatment of blacks and Indians. Slavery was America's "original sin." The genocide of the Indians is our most heinous and indefensible sin, apart from the slaughter of the innocents which has occurred legally these past 29 years. The latter butchery is, of course, far greater in number. One might also recall General Sherman's atrocities in the South during his "march to the sea" during our Civil War in the 1860s, or the abominable treatment of prisoners of war in both north and south at that time.
The centers of power and information in America have long since been secularized (Harvard went Unitarian in 1802, not 1902). The Constitution itself is a very secular document. Many of the great poets and literary figures, e.g., were already post-Christian (Ralph Waldo Emerson and his un-Christian Transcendentalism comes immediately to mind). Christian nation? Hardly! At best we could say that Christianity was a significant influence on America and American history, primarily through the two Great Awakenings and the original Puritan heritage. Most of the Founding Fathers were Unitarians or extremely liberal Protestants, by any criteria (as a side note, in my research back in the mid-80s, I didn't find that Franklin and Jefferson were deists, as is often incorrectly stated - but they were somewhat close to that position).
The more apt analogy of America today is not "God's country," but rather, a closer identification with Moloch - the god of child sacrifice (see 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; 19:5-6; 2 Ki 23:10; Jer 32:35), even consciously so. Abortion is the sacrament of radical feminism and the sexual revolution, and of our increasingly unisexual society. So we have come full circle to the ancient pagan deities and abominable practices. That's why I see America as a (consciously or semi-consciously) pagan nation, rather than as a pretender to any semblance of a Christian worldview or identification. A cursory look at the sitcoms, universities, or the media today (where God and religion are routinely belittled and mocked) leads one to believe that America is pagan, not Christian by any stretch of the imagination.
The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel (echoing Paul on the subject -- 2 Cor. 3:17), wrote:
- Is liberty alone, regardless of what we do it, regardless of good and evil, of kindness and cruelty, the highest good? Is liberty an empty concept - the ability to do what we please? Is not the meaning of liberty contingent upon its compatibility with righteousness? There is no freedom except the freedom bestowed upon us by God; there is no freedom without sanctity.
(God in Search of Man, 170)
Many Americans have felt alienated and used and abused by the rougher elements of capitalism and American culture: blacks, Indians, Hispanics, the poor, unorganized labor, women. I suppose some may think I sound like a political liberal now :-), but I would say that this is simply the Christian and biblical concern for the oppressed and downtrodden. America has tended to downgrade and despise such people (particularly the poor) by assuming that they brought their conditions upon themselves in every case, since the "righteous" person will always prosper, according to large strains of thought in traditional Calvinism and Puritanism, as echoed today by the anti-biblical nonsense of the hyper-faith preachers such as Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland.
Despite vehement protests by those who wish to deny it, there is such a thing as a cultural war in America. This is undeniable. The secularists and radical leftists are fighting conservatives and traditional religious people for the "soul" of this country (with a large libertarian "middle" also involved). How long that has been going on, and its fundamental causes, are disputable (I would place it to some extent in the founding ideas and documents), but the fact of the cultural war is unarguable, in my opinion. To simply point this out is not "causing" polarization, but only identifying the present crisis and division. One must identify a problem in order to overcome it.
I would argue that it is very difficult to consistently synthesize political liberalism (in today's far-left, post-Sexual Revolutionary sense) with conservative Christianity. The two "liberalisms" tend to go hand-in-hand (another huge discussion). On the other hand, those who speak truth boldly are always accused of being "unloving." We see how Jesus was received by the Pharisees. The common people loved Him, but the self-righteous religious leaders despised Him. The prophets were hated; the Apostles were hated. Those who are clearly speaking profound truth (from a Christian, biblical point of view) get the same treatment and bum raps, and people caught in the illusions and delusions of radical secularism - even paganism anymore - do not take kindly to their beliefs being identified for what they are.
Moral (Burkean, Johnsonian, Chestertonian) traditionalism or the moral law, or the natural law, of which the Founding Founders spoke is rapidly being annihilated by legal positivism and relativism. This natural law is more akin to C.S. Lewis's "Tao" (broad-based, common agreements on morality and ethics) than Catholic dogma, though I would say that Catholicism is the most consistent manifestation of it. It is no coincidence that many of modern conservatism's leading lights (Buckley, Russell Kirk, Buchanan, Sobran, William Bennett, Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, Bernard Nathanson, Richard John Neuhaus, George Gilder, Michael Novak, William Bentley Ball, Antonin Scalia) are Catholics. I used to take note of this as an ecumenical Protestant, and it helped me (along with several other factors) to respect and ultimately espouse Catholicism myself.
As for Rush Limbaugh, he is what I would call a highly-principled "secularist conservative." He speaks about God in only the most general terms, much like Jefferson and Franklin and Adams and Madison (all either Unitarians - Jefferson - or what I would call "extremely theologically-liberal Protestants"). The "messenger" (which is what Rush is, in many respects) of Christianity, conservativism, or tradition, is always looked-down-upon. It goes as far back as Socrates and Jeremiah and (more recently) St. Thomas More and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (all great heroes of mine). One can be zealous in defense of truth. It is a fine line, I suppose. People didn't love Malcolm Muggeridge when he punctured their bubbles and mocked the delusions and fantasies of secular man, either.
In the ongoing battle of ideas and ideologies, there is a need for people who can describe succinctly what is occurring. It helps to clarify the sense of purpose and meaning for the "troops," so to speak. In my opinion, the Catholic Church and other traditional Christian allies are the "right side," not the Republicans. I would never confuse mere party ties with spiritual warfare; even "cultural struggle" at its deepest levels. Politics has little use for God's Providence or Christian ethics. Can a Christian "make peace" with a radical secularist - indeed anti-Christian - agenda? This is hardly possible for a Christian seeking to be consistent. So when a Christian speaks out against this agenda, exposes it, identifies it, he is accused of being "divisive" and utilizing "incendiary polemics." We need people like that . . .
The Christian must speak the truth in love. But there is a time for blistering, excoriating rebukes and condemnations (which are loving, as well, in that they need to be heard by the recipients for thier own good). One thinks of Jesus' descriptions of the Pharisees: "brood of vipers," "whitewashed sepulchres," or Elijah's humorous mocking of the idolaters on Mt. Carmel, St. Stephen's scintillating speech to the Jews preceding his stoning to death, etc. God, Prophets, Apostles . . . no mean company. I submit that those on the receiving end of such critiques almost always think the remarks are not loving. The prevailing secularist culture has elevated "Tolerance" to the level of idolatrous Deity.
It is not compassion per se that the Catholic conservative opposes in the political liberal today, but a fake, posing, hypocritical, sanctimonious and condescending (and too often, pro-abort) "compassion" which offers mere words, symbolic gestures, and feigned "concern," but little in the way of concrete solution or action. Conservatives tend to approach problems philosophically and intellectually (i.e., from the mind). For that reason (and others) they are accused of being "cold" and "heartless," etc. But this doesn't follow. Solutions to huge, multi-faceted problems do require much reflection and thought.
On the other hand, liberal "good intentions" without common sense and sound economics and a consciously moral (and/or traditional) framework have brought us the "Great Society," affirmative action, radically secular and feminist sex education, corrupt welfare practices, our marvelous public schools, and many other utterly-failed programs which have demonstrably exacerbated rather than solved problems. I say it isn't compassionate to not recognize that things are far worse than when such well-meaning programs were set up. To make this critique and to accept the reality as it is, one need not doubt the sincerity or good faith of liberals. Conservatives are habitually denied the same benefit of the doubt when we disagree as to methods for alleviating social problems. If we don't agree to the failed and futile liberal agendas we are immediately labelled as "heartless." Of course that is sheer nonsense.
Compiled by Dave Armstrong on 24 January 2002.