Drew Christiansen
Catholic reflections on the 2012 elections

I must begin with a confession:

Bless me, my friends, for I have plagiarized my title, “Keeping Our Heads Amid the Craziness.” In the interest of full disclosure, as we say in journalism, I acknowledge I freely adapted it from a lecture the Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henniger gave to the Georgetown-Wall Street Alliance at the height of the Republican primary campaign last winter.

I agreed with many points Dan made on electoral reform and was prepared to negotiate on a few others. In fact, I was delighted that he and I were agreed on so much of the reform agenda. But, when, in answer to a question, he told the audience that in his heart of hearts his ideal candidate for president was retiring Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, I thought perhaps he had spent too long among the crazies. Or, was it me? Had I been carried off by our recent extreme weather, in a tornado or derecho, to the other side of Oz?

But both Henniger’s sense that something was awry in our political culture and his conviction that action had to be taken to restrain the fruitless frenzy of contemporary American politics appealed to me. Now a veteran Republican staffer, Mike Lofgren, has written an insider’s account of the mania on Capitol Hill. The Party Is Over: How the Republicans Went Crazy, the Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, painting a picture of dysfunction in even more vivid colors. Early on in the campaign season, Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Tom Mann of the moderate Brookings Institution offered a similarly sober assessment in It’s Even Worse than It Looks that was ignored by the partisans and the media for raising the curtain on the collapse of American government from the top.

In any case, for some time I thought I would build the first half of my talk about some of the same issues of electoral reform Henniger and other authors take up. In effect, I would have made a Neo-Madisonian argument for tweaking, and perhaps even attempting some restructuring of, our political institutions to meet conditions that the Founder Fathers never anticipated, like a 24/7 news environment, unending campaigns, the professionalization of political operatives and huge cash expenditures. So, I was ready to discuss proposals like regional primaries, time-limits on campaigning, campaign finance reform and curtailing, if not ending, the filibuster. (I confess that long ago, after watching close-up how bills make their way through Congress—the way the sausage is made as Otto von Bismarck said—I had come to believe, along with some notable Congress watchers like Ornstein and Mann, that, given our national polarization we might be better governed under a parliamentary system.) You would also be right to assume that I considered critiquing the resistance to compromise, voter suppression, the rise of plutocracy and the subversion of majority rule. But . . . But . .

Fanaticism v. Reason

But, at some point, the downward spiral of empty rhetoric, mutual accusation and shallow sloganeering in the presidential campaign became just too great for me. I realized responsible citizenship demanded something far deeper than structural political reform. Reform of political structures presumes a degree of sanity and humanity we seem to have lost as a nation.

Ordinary political virtue has not proven strong enough to resist hate speech, to halt fantasy issues like birthism and religious slander from spreading like viruses, to inhibit gross misrepresentation of opponents’ positions or discourage the cultivation of rage and the infection of extremism that increasingly afflicts the American body politic.

We Catholics have not been immune from these national afflictions. We at America were vilified for daring to suggest that not all the church’s difficulties with state and federal policies, or with judicial decisions, amounted to a war on religion and Catholicism in particular. We were unfairly criticized for not supporting every priority the bishops’ conference had advanced over the years.

For the record, let me say, we are pro-life, anti-abortion, but not uncritical of the strategy and tactics of pro-life activists. You will find more bishops in our pages writing about the priorities of the conference than in any other Catholic journal. Furthermore, the conference continues to turn to America to makes it views known, as with Des Moines’s Bishop Richard Pates’s election reflections in the August 13-20 issue, “In This Together,” or to promote its programs as in an article by Green Bay Bishop David Renkin in an upcoming issue announcing plans for observance of The Year of Faith.

I am relieved, I must admit, that the bishops’ conference has moderated its rhetoric, narrowed its program to the one goal we have always backed, the broadening of the definition for religious institutions claiming exemption from the HHS mandate, and that in a non-partisan way Cardinal Dolan has offered public prayer at both the Republican and Democratic conventions, undercutting worries about the hierarchy’s political partisanship. Just yesterday Cardinal Dolan led a session at conference headquarters on international religious liberty educating his audience on far more egregious infringements of religious freedom than Catholics suffer here.

There were other intra-Catholic skirmishes too. One surrounded Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan, now the GOP vice presidential candidate, and his invocation of Catholic Social Teaching in support of his proposed budget, “The Path to Prosperity.” On that issue, I recommend you read Vincent Miller’s article “Saving Subsidiarity” in our July 30-August 6 issue. To put it in the language we heads of non-profits have learned from the private sector, subsidiarity is about “right-sizing” institutions including government. It is not a preferential option for small government.

Against this background, I want to argue that the fear generated by existential anxiety, expressed now in political extremism, can be overcome only by the purification of our affections that accompanies genuine holiness.

That, I admit, may sound lofty and abstract. I hope it will become more concrete as I move along, as I fill in with historical detail, contemporary political references and literary images.

I am deepening the argument of Nicholas Cafardi and his colleagues in their anthology Holiness and Voting and in Cafardi’s America article “Keep Holy Election Day” (July 18) which was made available for you this evening . As my successor as editor in chief, Father Matt Malone commented, mine is an essentially Augustinian argument, as old as Plato and as modern as Pope Benedict XVI. I am pushing the Cafardi argument to a deeper level, one at which some people will be uncomfortable. This level of analysis demands a certain degree of self-examination and political self-criticism. For that reason, it may make ome people all the more anxious. Still others who may be dismissive of interconnecting religious experience and politics even in cautious ways may be all the more unwilling to explore the deeper sources of “Our Divided Political Heart,” as E. J. Dionne calls it. But, since you have skipped the Packers’ opener to be here tonight, and since you have seen the published description of the topic, I assume me none of you fits those categories.

This form of argument I am making would have been familiar to Americans at mid-20th century from the work of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, though Niebuhr would put less trust in the possibilities of holiness than I do. It would be found, with the more positive Catholic turn. Usually, we don’t need to go so deep into our religious experience to address political questions; but, if my reading of the deep sources of our national malaise is in any degree accurate, then we should look to the best our religious tradition has to offer to heal us.

As Jesus said about his teaching on marriage, I say tonight about politics as the citizen’s vocation, not everyone is capable of following this road to citizen discipleship. But let those who can, do so.

My first hope had been to invoke rationality and sanity against the rampaging “animal spirits” in the American body politic. But neither calls for rationality, nor appeals to sanity can save us from the flight to extremism. There is, after all, no pure reason, as Kant hoped. Our reasoning is always intertwined to some degree with feeling or, more accurately, our affections. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, an interlocutor with Pope Benedict on this issue, even claims that reason cannot be disentangled from our interests. So, there will be simply times when the crazies can just not be talked down. It doesn’t mean they are right.

One function of consciousness, especially in the western Christian moral tradition, is to provide self-criticism. Pope Benedict’s view, contrary to Habermas, is that reason has access to objective truth by which we can evaluate our own behavior. As a practical matter, we can get some distance from our own actions, and we can even assess our own motives. The whole of the western philosophical tradition rests on Socrates maxim, “Know Thyself.”

Of course, we all know where that conviction got Socrates: the enmity of his fellow Athenians and death by a draught of hemlock. Political frenzy is a dangerous thing, and philosophical self-awareness is seldom strong enough to withstand its fury. Political craziness has taken the life of sages, like Socrates, and saints, like Thomas More. Plato, trying to capture the impact of Athenian political distemper on Socrates, depicted his master as a man buffeted by a sandstorm. That’s an instructive description about what reason can hope to achieve in our present political climate. If I were to sketch a cover image illustrating the current political scene, it would be of voters queued up at the polling place enveloped by a blinding sandstorm.

Sanity Requires Balance

Sanity, too, is harder to come by in these times than we think. Sanity requires a humane balance in our responses to life. It is the opposite of being monomaniacal or fanatical. What we call ‘sanity’ the Greeks called sophrosyne. (We in the Latin West know it in a dressed-down form as the cardinal virtue of temperance.) It is the quality of a well-integrated personality. Like, ‘sanity,’ which derives from the Latin word for health, sophrosyne may be translated as ‘healthy-mindedness.’ Positively it connoted a proportion in one’s inclinations and actions, balance in the dimensions of our personality; for example, between action and reflection, or work and recreation, or, more simply, between eating and exercise. In politics, it might entail a balance between partisanship and devotion to the public interest, between vocal and canny opposition and the willingness to compromise, between advancing individual rights and promoting the general welfare.

E. J. Dionne in his new book Our Divided Political Heart calls up two classic American films as icons of our current political divisions. We are torn, he writes, between the images of ourselves as Gary Cooper, the lonely marshal in High Noon, and as Jimmy Stewart, the community banker, in It’s a Wonderful Life. We think we have to choose between liberty and community. History shows, and Dionne’s book argues, that “We are a nation of individuals who care passionately about community.” Like the ancient Greeks, he contends, the solution for America today is not choosing one or the other, but finding “a balance” of values.

In Greek ethics, the sane person, the sophron, lived by the maxim “Nothing in excess.” Unfortunately, later tradition, particularly in the Latin West, overplayed the avoidance of excess and took the virtue to mean, moderation and self-control in a narrow sense, and the understanding of sophrosyne as a dynamic sense of personal balance was lost to a dull, buttoned-down conformity. We find an American model of the sane man in Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. His modesty and self-control are essential to his character, but not to the extent of suppressing the underlying passion for justice.

Athenian democracy, with its factions, the tragedies of superpower leadership, the punishing costs and defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and its revolving tyrannies, was no exemplar of political sanity. Ancient Athens with all its gifts was a tragic hero, plunged by political frenzy into disaster.

Whether in ancient Greece or in contemporary America, a healthy balance is hard to achieve in politics. Thomas Jefferson, like other Founding Fathers admired the heroes of the early Roman Republic, like Cincinnatus, who represented the virtue of a modest, public-spirited citizen of a self-governing city. Washington, who willingly resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army and retired from the presidency after two terms, stood in the line of Cincinnatus, for that reason the association of his officers and their descendants took the name the Society of the Cincinnati.

Though an undeniably great man and a gifted leader, Washington was a paragon of self-restraint. Jefferson, the leader of the democratic republican movement, however, secretly engaged in the worst sort of gutter politics. Had he lived today he would be consulting with the likes of Dick Morris and Karl Rove. Furthermore, with the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson turned the young American republic into an empire. Despite his professed republicanism, and his genius and his learning notwithstanding, Jefferson proved himself a man of excess.   

Sanity as a quality of mind is opposed to the kind of fanaticism we witness in contemporary American politics. For fanaticism is an expression of hubris, the overweening, self-deluded pride that ultimately brings disaster to the whole political community. The fanatic brooks no compromise. He says, “Let justice [as I see it] be done, though the heavens fall.” The sane person resists apocalyptic, winner-take-all positions because she appreciates that “if the heavens fall,” how much will be lost. The sane person understands life is made up of a great many goods that cannot all be fully satisfied. Whether in our personal lives or in the commonweal the role of wisdom is to find a stable adjustment of goods, “a balance” of values. In Catholic Social Teaching, moreover, the role of political authority, that is, government, is precisely to balance and regulate society’s competing interests, where societal compromise have not been achieved whether through mutual agreement or a balance of power.

Anger is Not the Answer

The sterile stalemate in Congress and the frenzy in the presidential campaign are expressions of a peculiarly shallow form of radicalism in American politics today. More and more, Americans have grown attached to their own anger. The Tea Party and the liberal feminist wing of the Democratic Party are quintessential expressions of this addiction. We are addicted to the sense of power anger gives us, as misplaced as it may be, and to the temporary political victories it may win us. Like a drug addiction, that sense of power is illusory, and its impact, destructive. It is a matter of misguided feeling, not effective power. It can only obstruct, denigrate and oppose.  

Anger as a passion, of course, has a positive function: protecting the good. We generally suggest that when we speak of “righteous anger” roused by a gross injustice. Righteous anger has a proper role—righting injustice—and, as long as it aims at protecting a victim, making a correction or bringing about an improvement, it avoids destructive excess. But because of its power anger can easily fall into excess. Corrupted, it turns into rage, a blindly destructive force, like the wrath of Achilles. His grief, and his anger, knew no limits. Historic American democracy is based on limits: checks and balances, individual rights, the rule of law. An anger-driven politics that openly defies and manipulates those checks and balances is corrosive of the body politic.

So, it is with the anger we find at every turn in contemporary American politics. Whether it appears among pro-choice Democrats or anti-tax Republicans, political rage brooks no differences; it demands complete conformity to a platform of opposition or narrowly crafted policy aims. Taking anything short of an extreme, purist position warrants ending the political careers of well-respected politicians who in a sane world would be considered elder statesmen, to run extreme candidates against them, to flood the airwaves with negative ads, to bring in outside money to overwhelm candidates’ local support. Anything goes. Everything an opponent does is bad, even adopting policy initiatives proposed by a think tank with a kindred ideology. Rejectionism is the mainstay of anger-driven politics. Comity becomes a memory, and being on the attack becomes a way of life.

Political Courage

Anger has a positive face; we call it courage. Courage is the virtue that withstands danger, hardship and difficulty for the sake of the good. It is essential to overcoming fear and, more to the point, the anxieties that motivate fear. Courage is the life-affirming power of anger. The greater the anxiety in a society, the greater the anger, the less likely are we to see exemplars of political courage in public life.

 The Nation’s Katrina van den Heuvel has written, “There was a time when this is how we defined political courage in America,

a politician standing up for deeply held principles, in opposition to his party and a popular president, regardless of consequence.”

Think of Edmund G. Ross of Kansas who cast the decisive vote in the acquittal of Andrew Johnson. Think of Senators Mark Hatfield and Sam Nunn who collaborated across party-lines to help bring the nuclear materials of the former Soviet Union under control. Think of Frank Church’s investigations of the CIA and William Fulbright’s criticism of the Vietnam War. These senators were able to break with party discipline for the sake of the common good. Van den Heuvel continues:

But today, we have adopted a new and distorted definition of political courage, one that rewards those who claim to be making hard choices, when in truth there is nothing hard about what they’ve chosen.

When political courage is largely known by its counterfeits, then our society is in trouble.

Think of the bathos of Robert McNamara’s confession of his failure to oppose President Johnson on the Vietnam War in the docmentary The Fog of War some 40 years after the fact. McNamara was an enormously talented public servant, who eventually did good on the world stage, his confession was welcome, but despite his great intellect he failed to stand up in the moment of crisis.

Vote Smart, a non-partisan electoral assessment service sets candidates’ truthfully telling onstitutents what their policy positions are as the number one test of political courage today. Of course, in this era of attack ads, 24/7 news channels and viral videos politicians avoid what Merle Miller, writing of Harry Truman, called “plain speaking,” The inability of the public to learn what either presidential candidate will do when elected is symptomatic of the failure of political nerve in our society.

Courageous votes are even harder to find. During the Vietnam War, conscientious politicians included memorable Democrats in the president’s own party, like Wayne Morse, Bella Abzug and Frank Church. But outstanding Republicans, like John Sherman Cooper, Mark Hatfield, Charles Mathias and Don Riegle also joined the opposition. At the time of the Iraq Invasion in 2003, however, only four Republican congressmen joined a couple dozen Democrats to oppose the war. There were no Senators of either party. Among the four House member were Ron Paul and Chuck Hagel. On the eve of the Senate vote to ratify President Bush’s decision to go to war, Senator Hillary Clinton, representing New York State, refused even to discuss the issue with a delegation of diocesan social action directors from New York State dioceses. How much courage does it take to listen to constituents with critical opinions? A whole lot, it would appear.

Holiness and the Conscientious Voter

Recently I have been reading the mysteries of Louise Penny, a Canadian novelist, and a detective series she has built around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté de Québec. One of the most appealing things about her Gamache mysteries is the interweaving of art, philosophy and theology in a wholly natural way. Gamache is not a believer in any conventional sense. A self-described “lapsed Catholic,” he is a typical secularized Quebeker, critical of the province’s clergy-ridden past. But he is not an unbeliever. Like my late anticlerical Italian grandfather, he carries a book of devotions with him in his jacket pocket; in Penny’s latest novel The Perfect Mystery he finds God through Gregorian chant; he understands how the scriptures plumb the depths of human existence, and he recognizes living saints—without the Gamache mysteries getting either saccharine or pedantic. Penny is religious mystery writer for a secular age.

In one mystery which I only recently completed, The Brutal Telling, Gamache reflects that Saint Paul had it wrong that greed is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10). Fear, Gamache believes, is the root of all evil, and, like St. John, he sees a link between fear and love. Fear is generated by the threat of the loss of what we love. What Penny misses, though I can imagine it appearing in a later novel, is the Evangelist John’s maxim, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18).

Love driving fear from the heart is the theologian’s antidote to Gamache’s realist belief that fear is the root of all evil. Of course, “perfect love” is ordinarily found mostly at the limits of our human experience in graced moments, like Martin Luther King’s Kitchen Experience, as David Garrow relates it in Bearing the Cross. When King was exhausted by threats during the Montgomery bus boycott, feared for his family and longed for the company of the mentors from whom he had gained strength, he heard a voice early one morning while he sat in his kitchen over a cup of coffee, ordering, “Martin Luther, stand up. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.” For the remainder of his life, that brief moment of grace sustained him in time of trouble. In the Kitchen Experience, fear had been cast out.

In moral theology, courage involves facing the negativity in our selves and in the world around us. It is not necessarily expressed in public acts of valor. Aquinas points to the courage of martyrs and argues that the patient suffering of martyrs and confessors is equally an expression of courage as the bravery of a soldier in battle. Courage, therefore, involves overcoming the negativity within as well as without us. The martyr’s patience overcomes fear, as does the nonviolence of the civil disobedient. So, it should be in politics as well. Courage entails keeping our anxieties in place, even reducing them, muting our fears, so we can reach out to others, listen to them, find common ground with them and work together with them for the good of all.

As I noted with the example of King’s Kitchen Experience, the stilling of our fears, the awakening of creative courage comes, in the most liberating way, by grace, not by our own doing. But, generally, as with King, only after long suffering, real anguish and much wrestling with God. As with King, too, a moment of grace can sustain us through later crises. Sometimes we have known such moments in our own lives: in the loss of a loved one, in coping with illness, in undergoing the trials of aging, or in caregiving to others. But we can know it as well in our active lives, too, when we face great need and feel a great desire to serve, only to find all the normal channels of action blocked. It is in that way that politics becomes an opportunity for holiness.

Driven to Our Knees

The other night I was sitting after dinner with a financier, an elder statesmen among Catholic investors, who knows Washington well from the days when he was a lobbyist. We talked about the difficulty of decision in this election, and he volunteered that this was one election he was bringing to the Lord in prayer, for he honestly didn’t know what to do. And then he named the various types of prayer, from the Rosary to the Mass, to which he brought his concern.

“I have been driven many times to my knees,” Lincoln said, “by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere to go. My own wisdom, and that all about me, seemed insufficient for the day.” Those moments of perplexity when we turn to God in utter openness provide the beginnings of holiness in the active life, including politics.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writing of peace as the religious affection that crowns civilization, wrote that one of its effects is “subsidence of the turbulence that inhibits.” The effect of grace, in other words, is to still our anxiety and the self-preoccupation it produces, to free us to work for a more inclusive good. Whitehead, who had to have been an action-oriented mystic to describe the effect of religious experience so clearly, also wrote of peace that “it is the purification of the emotions,” driving out negative emotions like fear and so clarifying and strengthening positive emotions, like generosity and magnaminity, that allow us to identify with the other and, indeed, to embrace the whole of humanity.

Peace is a fruit of grace, however, not something we can insure for ourselves. We can, however, dispose ourselves, like the senior financier I told you about was doing, by taking our electoral choices to prayer, a prayer not only of petition, but of purity of heart that allows us to put aside self-interest and partisan allegiances to become sincerely open to the promptings of the Spirit.

If you find yourself anxious, angry, always ready to fault and discredit the other side, if you are aware that you have become unbending, opposed to compromise, straining to score points against others, ever ready to launch a nuclear strike against the other side, then you are very far from being a citizen disciple. It is time to take stock of what negative affections are doing to you—not to mention to others. You can, at least, bring those dispositions to prayer, even, in time, perhaps to confession.

God frees us from our sins, but the first expression of courage in a Christian citizen’s life is to confront the distortions political passions have worked on our own selves. The second expression of grace is to desire the dispositions that will sanctify political life or at least will transform our own engagement in politics to be more Christian. We need not worry about anyone else, just ourselves. Politics is a notoriously difficult arena in which to be Christlike, but it can be done.

The Purification of Our Political Affections

Mark Hatfield once related that when he was governor of Oregon, he met with a lot of clergy on a wide variety of issues, but the streetcorner preacher who most ministered to him came to visit him in the governor’s office each week and simply asked, “Governor, would you like to pray together?” Now, it wasn’t so much that they prayed that made it a Christian encounter, though the shared prayer was an intimate expression of solidarity in the Body of Christ, but that the preacher empathized with the Governor, understood his need for God’s grace and disinterested personal support and was creative enough to find a way in which he could do that. It was his willingness to see the governor as a child of God and to address Hatfield’s needs rather than fill his own that made the preacher’s visit Christian witness. Only when that same spirit informs our own political acts that we can regard ourselves as authentic Catholic Christians in the public square.

One more example, if I may, just to illustrate the how purification of the affections relates also to political dissent of an overtly moralistic sort. Having come of age in the 60s and trained as I am in social ethics, I am inclined to be sympathetic to the causes of civil disobedients, but often not to their tactics. After teaching in Berkeley, where civil disobedience seemed to materialize out of thin air, I came to undersand that those routinely doing C.D., though motivated by high ideals, were often acting out of a need to validate their own worth. Their witness was a way to affirm their identities rather than to achieve their stated goal. They were acting out of anxiety and an emptiness within.

I finally discovered a mode of protest that seemed to me in keeping with the love ethic at the heart of Christianity. The Sanctuary Movement in the desert Southwest, borrowing from Pennsylvania Quakers, conducted what they called, in contrast to civil disobedience “civil action.” It consisted of two parts. First, they undertook not to disobey the law, but rather to provoke authorities into enforcing existing law, especially those provisions which protected the dignity of the subjects of government action, like illegal aliens. Secondly, their demonstrations were directed not at getting arrested but at befriending the authorities and engaging them in conversation.

By contrast with habitual civil disobedients, the civil action groups transformed their protest into a genuine Christian witness, treating their adversaries as human beings and building relationships with them rather than inflating their own identities by creating hostile tension with others.

Gandhi would have agreed. His Satyagraha always included respect for the adversary and a readiness to break off a campaign if hostile incidents began to occur. He famously even fasted nearly to death to end Hindu-Muslim fighting that had begun with one of his campaigns; and in his last years he joined with a Hindu nationalist, who had once conspired to assassinate him, to overcome interethnic rivalry in the independent India. My point is that holiness comes to politics only when we endeavor to inhibit our negative attitudes and disposition, reach out to others with understanding and find loving ways to bring about change.

Contrite and Humble Hearts

Our campaigning the next two months, our conversations and deliberations, and finally our voting offer us, as Nick Cafardi has argued, an opportunity for holiness, but only if we allow our faith to chasten our political passions. For “contrite, humble hearts,” as the Psalmist writes, newness of life is possible, and with it joy for the sinner, for the communion of saints, and for all people.

We can take comfort, I believe, from the religious transformation of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not a churchgoer, though, like most people of his era, he knew the Bible well. His writings show he was deeply affected even by the stately cadence of the King James Version. As I said earlier, his responsibibilities as president often drove him to his knees. Late in his first term he seems to have found something of a spiritual director in a Quaker woman, and it is at that point when the trials of the country’s divisions seemed to begin to take on for him a genuine religious meaning. So, in his Second Inaugural Address he acknowledged the war was brought on by the sins of both sides and might demand still more national penance to undo the evils of slavery; and he went on, as one who has savored God’s peace, to give voice to an uncommon magnimity—“with malice toward none and charity for all”—and to extend the hand of comfort to all, “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

Let Lincoln’s lesson be our own. Peace, the religious affection that is the crown of civilized life, Whitehead wrote, is often the fruit of tragedy. The Civil War was Lincoln’s, and the nation’s, greatest tragedy. Our present national divisions have the making of another tragedy. If we are to escape that terrible fate, it will because in their hearts some Americans will have learned Lincoln’s lesson: honestly recognizing the deep faults in the way we conduct our politics and finding our way, with God’s help, to the compassion and magnamity that is Lincoln’s legacy. Healing those divisions will mean we are first disciples of Jesus, “faithful citizens” as the bishops write, and then participants in political life. The American Experiment will not have failed because we have acknowledged the harm done to us personally and then to the political community by hyper-partisanship. We will enjoy civic peace because, like alcoholics, we understand that we can’t escape the downward spiral of political negativity without God’s help, and we will enjoy the blessings of liberty because we have allowed ourselves to be changed by a grace that opens wide our hearts to all God’s creatures, so we can undertake a new politics in a new land. By God’s grace and under his discipline, we can be what we pledge: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America. This talk was delivered at Marquette University on September 13, 2012 as the Annual McGarrity Lecture.

Comments

James O'Brien | 9/26/2012 - 7:57am
When will there begin to be moral outrage in the Church at President Obama's disastrous drone policy? http://livingunderdrones.org/ http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/every-person-is-afraid-of-the-drones-the-strikes-effect-on-life-in-pakistan/262814/

It's having a devastating effect on civilians in Pakistan and Yemen... May we beat swords into ploughshares.
John Zolkowski | 9/24/2012 - 11:24pm
An excellent talk that echoes the dilemma most Catholics face when going to the polls: no single candidate nor political party fully embraces what I believe is right and just. Because of its checks and balances, American government is inherently inefficient. It's hard to blame any one individual or party. Therefore, a spirit of trying to find some common ground may be what is necessary for progress, or making the world a better place as Jesus would have it. As JFK put it, "Compromise need not mean cowardice." Finding the underlying universal principles on all sides ought to be the goal of our executives, legislators, and judges.
Dawn Webster | 9/24/2012 - 4:18pm
Wonderful article. Loved the education it provided on how the different streams of religious and philosophical thought come together. But for the purposes of voter education, surely the most helpful advice to voters is to tune out the noise and ask themselves the question we teach children to ask:  What would Jesus do?

On every dimenison of every issue, the WWJD question yields clear voter guidance:

Would he tell the poor to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
Would he welcome foreigners?
Did he approve of the amassing of great personal wealth and earthly goods while the poor go without food, healthcare, housing?
Would he approve of tax cuts for the wealthy who are told over and over again to "redistribute" their wealth and come follow him?
Would he promote war?
Would he want us to be good stewards of the earth?
http://freecatholic808.com/2012/09/23/recognizing-intrinsically-evil-practices
MARILYN SHERRY | 9/20/2012 - 3:16pm
A wonderful and very comprehensive talk.   As a Marquette graduate and a political activist, I was very thrilled with this inspiring and very helpful talk.  I plan to share it with others.
FRED CLOSE | 9/20/2012 - 1:46pm

If the conversation is to be fruitful, it is necessary to stay with the facts. A person is a person, no matter how small. It is NOT TRUE that, as Mr. Rushiau stated, that 'A fetus may develop into a human person," IT IS ALREADY A PERSON! This is not only de fide, it accords with scientific fact, though some in the medical profession now falsely deny this. The unjust war against "unborn" children, against women, the family and reality has now been explicitly opened also against conscience and the Church. This unjust war, under cover of law, actually destroys "actually present human persons wrongfully," some of them "dead men and women walking."

Only "driven to our knees" as President Lincoln said, will we, like Patton's soldiers, "know what to do". In ancient times (think the Maccabean revolt) to be zealous for the Lord seemed to involve, even require, violence. Closer to our own time the Christeros war, south of the border, evoked a zeal of this kind also, but successful as it was on its own terms, peace came "not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord" in the martyrdom of the heroic Mexican martyrs. Just like Jesus' zeal for the Lord's house led directly to his passion, death and resurrection. See the movie "For Greater Glory" or read the book.
Christopher Rushlau | 9/19/2012 - 3:09pm
Do the first two comments suggest that your effort is failing?  Quoting Chesterton, "It's not that it's been tested and fallen short, but that it hasn't been tested."
What is the rule?  So would ask a common law judge of past centuries as part of a panel.  The goal is to articulate a rule for society, to guide its conscience.
Calm is nice, but "if you want peace, work for justice."  Is abortion the ultimate issue?  A fetus may develop into a human person.  An unjust war destroys actually present human persons wrongfully.
A legal regime may institute an ongoing war against some group.  African slavery in the US is an example, and it flourished under the rule of law.
So how was the law wrong, that people should have noticed?  What does the Constitution say about slavery: something about "three fifths of other persons not taxed" or something like that.
You face not just personal anxiety in facing injustice, but organized anxiety, to coin a phrase.  A roomful of people may try to shout you down.  Your tenure may be denied.  Your job at the Village Voice may be taken away from you.  What sustains you?
If you see a systematic attempt to deprive a group of people of their dignity under the rule of law, you, to quote General Patton on why his soldiers should fight hard in the coming battle against the Nazis, "will know what to do."
I'm talking about Israel.
FRED CLOSE | 9/19/2012 - 3:06pm

Then Cardinal Ratzinger's 2004 statement did allow a vote for a pro-abortion candidate not for that reason, but for another, "Proportionate" reason. But this only begs the question, what is "proporionate" to this holocaust, this shackling of a once proud nation to a culture of death in the name of healthcare? Please, do the math!

The article was a good one, even if Fr. Christiansen was too quick, even much too quick, to label as "unfair" criticism of America's seemingly uncritical acceptance of a health care law, now saddled with the infamous HHS Mandate. His ending was better to echo St. Paul's: "I plead with Evodia just as I do with Syntche: Come to some mutual accomodation in the Lord."

Beyond Lincoln, Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in his Forward to Msgr. Luigi Guissani's "The Religious Sense": "He (Guissani) holds up to the light the infinite worth of the human person and, as he does so, he helps us to realize that it is in the light of the ultimate that the penultimate takes form. In an era that ill-dignifies human beings in so many ways, Guissani reminds us that human dignity is not for sale."

Luke Hansen | 9/19/2012 - 1:28pm

Please cite where Pope Benedict "answers" this. I'm only aware of his statement (as Cardinal Ratzinger) in 2004, which contradicts what you are representing as his position: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0403722.htm. At least based on his 2004 memo, you are accusing Cardinal Ratzinger of meaningless "chatter."

Eric Simontis | 9/19/2012 - 12:55pm
Forgive me, but I was surprised at the length that this article goes without coming to any succinct conclusion.  As a Catholic voter, it would seem to me, the issue has been asked and answered by our Pope.  We cannot vote for anyone who would favor abortion, which is "intrincically evil".  That's it-everything else is just chatter.  

Thanks and God bless