Political battles vs. sacrificial service: The Brooks paradox revisited

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 02, 2015

My colleague Phil Lawler has identified a problem in David Brooks’ tactical recommendations for social conservatives (see ’Helpful’ advice for social conservatives: ignore causes, deal with effects). I agree that there are grounds for suspicion, but I am not at all sure that Brooks’ advice is wrong.

It just so happens that on several occasions I have given the same advice myself—no, not to “ignore causes” and “deal with effects” (that’s an oversimplification), but to recognize that in an era in which good politics is all but impossible, the perennial Christian path of direct spiritual and social service to our neighbors beckons. To sample my argument, see especially The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like? and The Credibility Wars: Where We Go from Here.

Now clearly one can see good reason for Phil Lawler’s caution in Brooks’ frank admission of his position on the narrow left-right political spectrum: “I am to the left of the people I have been describing on almost all of these social issues.” This means that, despite his professed admiration for “social conservatives”, Brooks in fact broadly opposes the political implementation of their traditional Christian values regarding marriage, family, sexuality, and life issues.

When somebody who claims to admire but emphatically disagrees with Christians argues that they will be best served by abandoning politics, it is prudent to question the motivation. Moreover, surely the analogy in Phil’s closing paragraph raises serious questions that a Christian ignores only at his peril: It would be paradoxical to work hard to rescue those who are harmed by modern secularist policies without attempting to do what one can to change those damaging policies.

Paradoxical, yes: But it would still be the best course if there were no way to change those policies.

The Question is a Strategic One

Still, disingenuous or not, Brooks claims to be making a strategic or tactical argument: Stop putting energy into political battles which prudence suggests there is no way to win at present; instead concentrate on transformative social and spiritual projects which are far more likely to help real people at the present time. Such projects also provide superlative opportunities for successful evangelization, which just might create a subculture that can one day wield political muscle (though that would not be the very best motivation).

To illustrate this advice with a single example, we are talking about the difference between putting one’s resources into crisis pregnancy centers (which work) and putting one’s resources into attempting to restrict or eliminate abortion by law (which does not work, and has not worked now for nearly two generations).

Of course, it would be wrong to insist that those with a genuine calling to and aptitude for politics should not “waste time” looking for political opportunities and mobilizing like-minded voters when and if such opportunities arise. But surely it is right and good, as a simple matter of prudence, to concentrate most of our energies on evangelization and social service in a period in which, by every significant measure, political success has proven to be all but impossible.

It is true that some very responsible people argue that we have been making headway against abortion at the state level, pointing to the many laws and regulations that are adjusted each year. Unfortunately, I disagree. Such adjustments are typically infinitesimally small and, if they have any significant bite at all, they are quickly invalidated by Federal courts. And what of the questions of contraception, pornography, homosexuality and gay marriage? Nothing.

There is almost no significant local politics in the twenty-first century West, and until that changes—or until our culture is converted from the bottom up—political progress will remain essentially impossible. In our current cultural climate, the number of ordinary folks who care enough to risk their political liberty, their economic well-being, or their social standing is extremely small. This is a climate in which the vast majority of leaders in every sector accept the values of the dominant secularist worldview. Accordingly, they find ways to penalize those beneath them who do not say and do the “right” things.

Political outcomes in recent years have therefore always been less favorable than even the best polls would suggest. And nowadays we are increasingly losing even in the polls.

Brooks Revisited

With Phil Lawler, then, I reject any refusal to acknowledge political causation, or any refusal on principle to engage politically when there is a chance of success, especially out of fear. I also eschew any confusing false dichotomies. It is possible to work in more than one area at the same time, emphasizing now one thing and now another as opportunities allow.

But my assumption is that all of our efforts will be moral efforts. If that is so, then it falls to prudence to determine which paths offer the greatest chance of real success. We must never do evil but, in doing good, we must also remember that a failure of prudence is a deficiency of a virtue. To draw on Scripture, we are called to be not only innocent as doves, but wise as serpents (Mt 10:16).

At the same time, it is not a bad thing to escape our modern preoccupation with politics. We Christians can be as guilty as our secular neighbors in accepting the contemporary myth that only political victories really matter. Without ignoring politics, I would argue that a thorough rejection of this myth is necessary not only for more effective Christian witness, but also for living a fuller Catholic life.

If we propose to continue our preoccupation with politics going forward, we could easily put all our energies into “religious liberty” on the assumption that this political question is more important than anything else. And if this political fight distracts us all—bishops, priests and laity—from evangelization and direct service to our neighbors, the Devil will be very, very pleased. Again.

And so we return to David Brooks. I had already pointed out in 2013 that the “culture wars” metaphor was a political dead-end. Therefore, I can hardly fault Brooks for suggesting the same thing. He may be, as he alleges, a friend, or he may be our worst enemy. But in either case he is at least two years late with his advice. In hindsight, there may be good reasons to suspect he is twenty years late.

Unfortunate as all Western politics is, do we really think it is the primary source of our problems? Do we really think that to be less active politically is to ignore the root cause? I would not recommend whatever is good in this advice as a retreat. I would recommend it as an advance.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Jul. 06, 2015 10:24 PM ET USA

    I agree with pateradam3. The Catholic Church has always been one of the greatest charitable institutions in the world, and still is. This fact cuts no ice at all with her adversaries, who are bent on achieving their own objectives. But the chief work of a follower of Christ is to bear witness to the truth: "in season and out of season": not to be just one more manipulative politician among many others gaming for power.

  • Posted by: pateradam3 - Jul. 05, 2015 2:55 PM ET USA

    The Church of Christ must never be silent in face of such moral evil as so called homosexual marriages and must always pursue every avenue, political ones included, of advocating for public policies and laws that conform to the law of God. To withdraw from public debate simply because it appears that the culture cannot be changed would be to forsake our mission as prophets with Christ. Direct service to people must never be neglected, but preserving morality in law is a form of charity as well.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Jul. 04, 2015 4:44 AM ET USA

    I agree with Brenda and add that the Church should get out of the Social Justice business, the climate change business, the income redistribution business and back into the eternal life business. In other words we should all get back to the basics of saving souls, ours and others.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 03, 2015 10:37 PM ET USA

    As goes Mexico City, so goes Washington DC. By the end of the Revolution in the 1920s, all power became centralized in Mexico City. The Catholic Church in Mexico was not only dead, but illegal. A few brave priests would cross the border from San Diego and other border locations. They would do so by stealth of night to confect baptisms, hear confessions, and say Mass. One of these was my pastor for a few years. Just as all eyes turn to Mexico City for approval, so is it becoming that way here.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 03, 2015 10:26 PM ET USA

    "There is almost no significant local politics in the twenty-first century West." As they say at my university, "You got that right!" I attended some precinct meetings a few years ago. Thought I'd play my part in opposing "He Who Must Be Obeyed" from the grass roots level. What I encountered at those meetings was propaganda, self interest, money-grabbing schemes at every elbow, and general disinterest in new blood and new ideas. Mostly they wanted to hear themselves talk. A disgusting experience

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 03, 2015 9:35 PM ET USA

    Not that every point made on this site is "dead on" (sometimes not even close), however, the vein of thinking above is about as close as might reasonably be expected. "Unfortunate as all Western politics is, do we really think it is the primary source of our problems? Do we really think that to be less active politically is to ignore the root cause?" Of course the contagion of informed intellects and unwavering wills must be engaged to bolster the witness and to disintegrate the mythology.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jul. 03, 2015 8:17 PM ET USA

    Brenda is so right! Once the Church got addicted to government money, Catholic teaching got tossed down the drain. As Our Lord said, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." Mammon won out with most of the bishops. Sacramental marriages done in private will be the new norm for Catholics. Keeping the State out the marriage contract is not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Posted by: FredC - Jul. 03, 2015 5:54 PM ET USA

    If the pro-life people did not call constant attention to the evils of abortion, many more abortions would be occurring.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jul. 02, 2015 3:29 PM ET USA

    I also think that religious liberty is a lost cause. There will be nothing in the near future to stop the gradual chipping away - and increasing hostility. I think the Church would be wise, now, to do two things: get out of the civil marriage business and stop taking government funds of any kind. This would leave us free to do exactly as you suggest - evangelize and begin to change root causes.