Blending Commitment and Politics

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 62-64. Used by permission.


The notion that politicians must not permit their religious sensibilities to affect political decision-making has reduced political dialogue to a seminar on pragmatism.

The notion that politicians must not permit their religious sensibilities to affect political decision-making has reduced political dialogue to a seminar on pragmatism. Political leaders might benefit from reflecting on a distinction Max Weber made between the morality of saints and the morality of politicians. In his classic essay "Politics as Vocation," Weber did not seek to remove ethics from politics but urged politicians to blend ethical commitment with a pragmatic ethic of responsibility.

In our highly secularized environment, politicians are intimidated from expressing a commitment to ethical standards. At best they fall back instead on safe phrases like "family values." Afraid of being branded as moralists, or even worse, proselytizers, politicians cling to surface arguments that remain in the public’s comfort zone, choosing sides in the familiar debates on school prayer, pornography, media immorality and abortion.

Without an ethic of commitment behind our ethic of pragmatic responsibility there is no guide to being responsible. We have elevated pragmatism to the sole measurement of our political behavior. What moral discourse there is occurs in easily digestible sound bites:

Murphy Brown sets a bad example; adoption is better than abortion; and (one of my favorites from Pat Buchanan) school prayer makes students productive.

Václav Havel, an author and the president of Czechoslovakia, argues in Summer Meditations (Knopf) that "all genuine politics" has a moral origin. Ralf Dahrendorf, writing in the New York Times, reflects on Weber’s notion of politics and comments that "Havel’s every page breathes the spirit that made him the authentic spokesman of the Eastern European revolution of 1989, which was in his words about ‘living in truth." What is paramount to Havel the writer and what he now seeks to implement as a political leader is the belief that what finally matters is not power but "decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility and tolerance."

Our attention, however, is focused almost entirely on solving short-term problems. Alice Hoffman’s novel Turtle Moon has a character named Lucy, a young divorced mother distressed over the behavior of her teen-age son. Reflecting on the physical complaints she hears from other mothers about their children, she thinks, "There is, after all, strong brown soap for poison ivy, iodine for cuts and bruises, mud for bee stings, honey for sore throats, chalky white casts for broken bones. But where is the cure for meanness of spirit? What remedy is available for unhappiness and thievery? Certainly, if it were anywhere in Florida, Lucy would have found it, since the sharp yellow afternoon sunlight hides nothing. It’s the sort of light that makes it difficult to begin all over again and doesn’t allow for much invention. You are what you see in the mirror above the sink—in Lucy’s case, a pretty woman with slightly green hair whose son hates her."

It is very difficult for our society to acknowledge the reality of "meanness of spirit," for there is no immediate cure for such a fundamental flaw. We do not solve the problems of urban decay by the application of brown soap or iodine. There is something seriously wrong with our society, but we do not begin to identify it. We have allowed the triumph of secularity to lull us into believing that meanness of spirit can be cured by a few Band-Aids, or ballistic missiles, or junk bonds.

To fill the vacuum left by the departure of religion from our public realm, with its diminution of spiritual goals, ideals and priorities, we have adopted a language that is ethically neutral. That neutrality leads us to elevate secularity to supremacy. The question that excites us is not, What is good? or What is just? or What is best for the larger community? but, Where’s mine? The Los Angeles looters were first cousins of the Wall Street pirates who loot our corporations with their buyouts, or the CEOs who demand and receive salaries and bonuses equal to the budgets of some countries.

Having lost a sense of transcendence in our common life, we look for meaning in power, achievement and success. As a nation we have no basis of measurement by which to judge what is of value. A cover story in Newsweek inspired by the Murphy Brown discussion asked, "Whose values?" The question is proper; but the answer from Newsweek was remarkably obtuse. Accustomed as I am to seeing religion blanked out in secular discussions, I was still surprised to find that Newsweek’s various writers on the topic managed to ignore religion. One interview referred to the Baptist background of a woman who discussed how she raised her four sons. The interview itself, however, allowed for no reference to such basics as, say, the Ten Commandments, or sacrificial love, or loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

One headline, "The Original Sin," suggested that here at last the topic might be examined within a religious framework. But alas, the reference was not to Eve, Adam or the fruit of the tree, but to a John F. Kennedy speech calling for deficit spending to jump-start the economy, a step the writer believes started us down the road to economic ruin. The "original sin" of the title referred to a sin against the one god in our culture that really matters.

Religious language is enough a part of our history that the magazine could play with the term "original sin" in the headline. Meanwhile, while media and political leaders carefully avoid religious references, a majority of Americans are expressing their frustration and anger either by not voting or by embracing candidates who promise quick and easy solutions to complex problems. It is time we said to our leaders that while we don’t expect to elect any saints to public office, we have had more than enough of political pragmatism rooted in nothing but the desire to win the next election.