The Don and Hil Show: Overcoming our addiction to politics
When I recommended that we should avoid wasting our energies on the 2016 US presidential campaign, I didn’t say much about the common good. I didn’t mention it in my initial salvo, Politics is dead: This year, avoid the quadrennial silliness. And I mentioned it only once in the sequel, The Death of Politics, revisited with critics in mind.
All I said was “we must vote or not vote depending on what we think will be most conducive to the common good.” By that I meant that there is no moral obligation to cast a vote in any given election; the relevant moral obligation is to use our right to vote, if possible, in a way that promotes the common good. But in some elections, our understanding of the issues is insufficient to make such a judgment; in others a deliberate strategy of withholding our vote may help to bring about a better situation in the foreseeable future; and in still others—and I would argue most—there will be no significant way to promote the common good through voting, no matter how well we understand the issues.
In recent weeks, the likely Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump, has moved closer to the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, on the most important moral questions facing our nation. Both favor abortion, for example; Trump has been inconsistent on key marriage and family issues; and both have succumbed to the reigning gender ideology. Their primary differences are in prudential areas in which equally good (or bad) candidates can morally disagree. As Phil Lawler pointed out just a few days ago (see Sex education? No, we're witnessing the pursuit of ignorance on matters of sexuality), our Western cultural elites and those who follow them are now largely blind to reality. It is a case of intellects seriously darkened by a combination of fallen nature, overweening pride, and shameless desire.
In the United States, at least at the upper levels, no political candidate can win an election without going along with our dominant culture’s denial of what is real. To take a perfect example, we live in an era in which the leading sports network (ESPN) has just fired one of the greatest baseball pitchers in history (Curt Schilling) for stating on Twitter that it was “pathetic” that we need inclusive restroom laws to prevent us from acknowledging the obvious differences between men and women.
Schilling, though hardly the ideal spokesman, was talking about laws designed to prevent us from recognizing and acting in accordance with reality.
Politics and the Common Good
The sine qua non of politics is the protection and promotion of the common good. While people will differ on the best policies to pursue for this purpose, the common good always and everywhere demands at least a basic civil recognition of the natural law, for the natural law is the first source for understanding the fundamental goods which are common to all persons. A political order which does not, at least implicitly, recognize the natural law is incapable of protecting and promoting the common good. In our era of secular utopianism, beginning perhaps with the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, the increasingly catastrophic evidence surrounds us.
The first rule of the common good for the political order might have been drawn from the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. Thus the first requirement of government is at once to avoid coercing citizens into doing evil and to avoid creating legal protections for those who do evil. This is far different from failing to act against particular evils, a decision that will include considerations of priority and prudence. In fact, when a government reaches a point at which it routinely protects, promotes and even coerces involvement in significant evil, it loses its legitimacy and may (if possible without greater harm) be morally replaced. The reason is that to have a moral claim to authority, a particular government must attain at least a minimal effectiveness in protecting and promoting the common good.
Anyone who knows any history will recognize many situations in which (a) the government in power did not protect and promote the common good; and (b) there was insufficient strength in other sectors to transform or replace that government. In other words, there are times and places in which it is impossible to serve the common good through politics—or at least impossible to achieve results that are remotely proportionate to the risk and effort involved.
This was certainly the case, for example, in the Soviet Union until shortly before its collapse, and at one time or another in any country with a Communist government. It would appear to be true in those Islamic countries most influenced by Jihadists. It has been true at one time or another under various ruthless dictators. And it is now true, or perhaps all but true, in most Western nations, for the obvious reason that Western culture is no longer healthy enough to recognize and honor proper political goals. In fact, our dominant culture actively mocks any attempt to carefully inquire into “the good” at all.
Alternatives to Politics
Modern Western culture is too “sophisticated” to adhere reflexively to the natural apprehensions of the good which are so commonly transmitted by tradition (though, of course, never without some admixture of error, never without some need for purification). In this sense, its marked disdain for tradition is another aspect of its denial of reality. Unfortunately, darkened intellects almost always confuse desire with reality. Even worse, the darkened intellect perceives reality as a threat. To admit the existence of anything higher, larger and superior to personal desire is to recognize the necessity of moral change. This has always been true, and it explains why living in darkness is invariably to some extent a personal decision, though one very often made with seriously impaired freedom.
Under these circumstances, I insist again the we need to develop effective alternatives to political action. Logic suggests that a successful alternative must introduce a greater freedom into the minds and hearts of the men and women who share our space in the social order. Some of this can be achieved through education, some through the inherent attractiveness of doing good to others, and still more by promoting a life of grace through the Gospel. These three, obviously, are easily combined. It has been the Church’s mission to combine them constantly, with greater or lesser effectiveness, throughout her long history.
It may be that we have squandered, over the last hundred years, our opportunity to effect substantial cultural change through education and social service. We are already beginning to see the Church driven out of social services by the State—although as yet this is still mostly a matter of operating with grants of tax money, which the Church should not be doing in any case. It is an open question whether a truly massive educational effort—such as widely-available Catholic-sponsored free schools—would be allowed to operate.
But in fact it would be nearly impossible to launch and responsibly staff a massive educational or service system without leveraging the Church’s own diocesan and parish structures. For this reason, perhaps the most important task at hand is the continued renewal of the Church. Why is this constantly neglected as a key component—surely the most important component—of the common good? We need a new generation of inspired, committed, counter-cultural and sacrificial Catholics to expand the Church’s reach from a small percentage of her own members to a significant percentage of…everybody.
Clearly, it is time to remove the bushel basket (Mt 5:15, Mk 4:21, Lk 11:33).
I grant there is no particular solution immediately in sight. But it is possible, in our present situation, to make significant continued progress in renewing the Church, whereas it is impossible to make significant progress in politics. One of the heresies of our age is that politics is the quick fix. We have too often taken that secular drug. We must break the habit; we must overcome the addiction.
Haven’t the highs become less and less satisfying? In fact, haven’t they all but disappeared? Assuredly this is the first and clearest sign of a grossly misplaced faith.
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