Politically Correct Morals; Morally Correct Politics

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Politically Correct Morals; Morally Correct Politics

Guest Columnist

Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric
California State University, Sacramento

Frequently lost on Christians is the distinction between the moral and the sacred, between virtue and holiness. Take the recent remark by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel who asserted, “I go to church for my moral leadership,” noting, “You can be the nicest, most moral person in the world; I don’t want you to be my president” unless you believe in deregulation and cutting taxes.[1] The clear implication was that policies, not morals, are what matter in a President. The statement—assuming, charitably, that it was a sincere expression of belief and not a Realpolitik soundbite to keep shallow evangelicals’ consciences numb—is not one that has any possible standing in any era of Christian thought with which I am acquainted. This is simply not how Christians have ever understood politics.

The relationship between politics and virtue is complex, but the first step in thinking clearly about that relationship is to recognize that it is an old problem, and Christians have built upon past insights.

Aristotle, in a much-misunderstood phrase, defines human beings as political-animals. What he means by this is that humans are by nature drawn to build communities “designed for the sake not of life alone, but of the good life.”[2] The good life is found in living out those virtues that build the commonwealth, that create the very possibility of a life together—and a rich, peaceful, happy life together, if these virtues are maturely cultivated. They are known as cardinal virtues, public virtues, and they are the foundation of civic virtue. Any compromise of these public virtues may result in a temporary advantage for one party, but the compromise will always undermine the unity that makes us a fellowship, a community, a nation. Make lying a norm in your party and you have taken a step toward making lying the norm in your culture. When that happens, you have made a good life (where we work together, build together, bear hardship together, and enjoy together the fruits of those common labors and sorrows) less likely; indeed: less possible. If you abandon public virtue or champion those who abandon public virtue, you—not someone else: you—have hollowed out the foundations of your country. Courage, fortitude, integrity, justice, self-control, wisdom: these virtues (and the list is not exhaustive) work together, balance one another, become a concert of beauty in a mature, well-ordered life and in a mature, well-ordered nation.

But here is what the Christian must remember. Virtues are essential to a nation, but they are not holiness. Aristotle himself notes this distinction at the end of both the Nicomachean and the Eudemian Ethics. The civic virtues are essential to build a political life that does not end in the calamity of tyranny. But beyond civic virtue is a separate and higher call: living in accordance with the Divine. Aristotle believed this higher calling could only fall upon those unique souls with powerful intellects, powerful education, and a powerful mastery of the public virtues. It is part of the Christian message that, in fact, everybody—even the poor and the uneducated and the sinner—might choose citizenship in the kingdom of God. And if you choose that citizenship, you must pursue the higher virtue of that Kingdom, namely holiness: faith, humility, service, hope, love.  Citizenship in God’s Kingdom is open to all—but required of no one.

Public virtue, however, is required of all, whether they choose to pursue holiness or not, whether they choose to join Christ’s Church or not. And anyone—Christian or non-Christian—who compromises public virtue while pursuing political victory poisons the whole system of trust and undermines the possibility of “one nation.”

The United States government neither endorses nor prohibits any religious faith. That is a founding principle of its covenant documents. In such a country, it is obviously wrong, of course, to ask our politicians to set an example of holiness. That is, indeed, not their task.  No politician should presume to teach us how to pray or read scripture. But let no fool believe this means that the President’s failings in the public virtues are irrelevant, so long as his policies match yours.  That is as broad a road to tyranny as could be paved.  Just ask Aristotle. Or Augustine. Or Dante. Or, if you ignore McDaniel, your own conscience might guide you on that question.

[1] Interview with Chris Cuomo, CNN Live, March 14, 2019, 9:13pm.

[2] H. R. Rackham, in the Loeb introduction to the Nichomachean Ethics, p. xvi.

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