Character and Politics

fightingdonkeyelephantThis week, during the Republican National Convention that has nominated Donald Trump, there’s been a big discussion on my wife’s Facebook page about a post I wrote back in February on the Republican primaries.

I think my key lines then were these:

“The question is: what does that say about our culture – and what does it do to our culture, if we elect someone with such positions to be the figurehead of our nation?”

“Who are we as a nation? What do we aspire to? This is the deeper importance of politics. These are the questions our faith helps us answer – and the questions our faith demands that we involve ourselves in.”

I would like to say a little more about these questions as we head into the general election.


Let me first say, I have not decided whom I will vote for. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, seems to be trying harder to get my vote than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton; I’m surprised to say, I like his positions on the issues much better. But I don’t know. Politics is about prudential decisions; it can be hard to decide about means and ends.

But this isn’t a blog about politics; I’m trying to offer perspectives from the Tradition about our spiritual life.

There are two reasons that I think the ultimate question should be about character.

First, politics is about both means and ends – our goal, and how we think we can best get there. Many of our discussions are about means: pretty much everyone agrees that our policing should be fair, our social policy should help people be happy, our economy should create opportunities, our foreign policy should keep us safe. But how can we get there?

Character affects how we see even the means. It affects what we think is fair, what kind of opportunities we want, what counts as safe. The Church and the Tradition warn us, for example, that people who support terror – carpet bombing cities, killing family members of terrorists, torture (these issues are discussed in the Summa, too) – are not creating a “safer” world, because they are creating an even more immoral world. They warn us that fairness must extend to neighbors who are different from us, including, for example, people who have escaped to our country from terrible situations in their own. Character affects how we pursue our goals.

But even more, character affects what we think our goals are. A classic dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas says, “as a man is, so does the end appear to him.” A lustful man imagines happiness to be something different from what a chaste man seeks. One of the questions we must be asking – maybe the central question – is what each candidate wants the world to be like. What is their goal? What kind of society do they want to create? What do they consider tolerable and intolerable, good and bad? Do they even want a just society?

I know, I know, it’s popular these days to say that all politicians are corrupt. And in a sense, yes they are: they’re human, and our culture doesn’t help. On the other hand, in my personal opinion – you can disagree, this isn’t a politics blog – people like Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George Bush, and yes Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore may have been wrong about many things, even deep-down things, but they had a kind of decency, or at least propriety, that not all candidates share.

For Catholic Americans, abortion is often a litmus test. I think it should be. But like a literal litmus test, the question is not merely whether it turns the paper red or blue, but what it reveals about the substance being tested. Abortion is a single issue because it is not a single issue, it reveals something about a candidate’s character – about their vision of the good life for society. A candidate who thinks that the right to kill life in the womb is somehow fundamental to the good society is a candidate with a warped idea of what makes a society good. Abortion matters because of what it reveals about character.

Character is the question.


Now, it is difficult, across a nation of over 300 million people, to know the character of any public figure. Sometimes we are wrong. But appearances matter too.

The president is above all a figurehead – both for the country and for the party he or she leads. Someone might be a crook on the inside and very pleasant on the outside – or, as some have argued this cycle, a person might be very pleasant on the inside but just act like a horrible person in public. But that public image matters. It says something about the country – and the party – that they lead.

Our votes help create the culture we live in.

What elements of the candidates’ characters do you think matter most to us as a nation?


Should We Imitate the Amish?

people-field-working-agriculture-largeMy family recently had the good fortune to spend a day with an Amish family on their farm. It is an interesting opportunity to think about how we are like and different from the Amish, and how we might imitate some of their best practices.

The first thing to say, of course, is that the Amish are devout Protestants. They are like us in that they are trying to orient their life around their Christian faith. They are unlike us in that their faith is Protestant.


A key way we are more similar than at first appears, and thus there is an opportunity for us to learn from them, is that the Amish do not reject all technology. Rather, they are careful about technology.

They have “bishops,” but I think this means local lay leaders. These lay pastors gather together twice a year to find consensus. It is in these gatherings that they make decisions on technology. (Here already is an interesting similarity and difference: we would never ask the Magisterium to intervene on questions of our bathroom lighting; but perhaps we would do well to have lay communities who discuss such issues.)

Over our friends’ dining-room table hangs a battery-powered flashlight. Modern, yet primitive. But in their bathroom there is a kerosene lantern – and a Bic lighter. They hang their clothes to dry on a line outside, but they wash them in a modern washing machine. The machine is powered, however, by a jet of water . . . I can’t remember where the jet comes from, but anyway, there is no electric line to the house.

In the workshop is a modern electrical saw – connected to a car battery. Many of their tools work on car batteries; they also have a diesel generator for the barn. But on the sewing table in the house there was a notable absence of a sewing machine. The cows are milked using a high-tech vacuum system that attaches to old fashioned milk cans.

In short, the point is not that they reject all technology. The point is that they move slowly and carefully.

We too, who do not reject all technology, could benefit from some healthy skepticism about how technology affects our lives. Cars, lights, certainly screens, and even many mechanical conveniences in our homes – they all make good servants but terrible masters.

How much do electric lights improve our lives? I ask this writing, on a laptop of course, in my windowless basement office at school, mindful both that I’d be in absolute darkness without lights – and that I’d much prefer we didn’t have windowless offices.


A second way the Amish are not so different: they are not necessarily farmers. Just as many of them are carpenters, and many live in small towns.

You don’t have to live on a farm in order to question the role of technology in your life. One of the reasons my family lives in a dense city is so that we can walk to the grocery store, to church, to friends’ houses, to the park, to some parts of work, etc. Let us just distinguish the farm question from the too-much-technology question. Even the Amish make that distinction!

The key question is how technology affects our lives, and whether we let it interfere with greater goods, such as family and our relationship with creation. For us as for the Amish, these are questions of living a devout life.


And yet the key way that the Amish differ from us is that they are Protestants – a radical form of Protestantism. They are a radical wing of the Mennonites, who are perhaps the most radical wing of Protestantism. There are two key differences.

First, the Amish embrace a kind of Protestant piety called “separation from the world.” Although this specific Amish family was very welcoming to pagan Catholics like us, deeper than the Amish concern about technology is their concern about non-Christians, strictly defined.

The Catholic position on this issue is best defined in a line from St. Paul: “I wrote to you in the letter not to associate intimately with fornicators; yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you must go out of the world” (1 Cor 5:9-10). Paul makes a distinction between “intimate association” (it’s a fancy word in Greek) and “going out of the world.”

We are called to be leaven. We are called to be in the world but not of it. We can learn from the devout Amish desire to be careful what paganism we allow into our homes or our churches. But we cannot flee the world as the Amish do.

That’s tricky. There’s no way around it: simplistic answers are easier to apply – and usually wrong. Every heresy is an effort to make complicated things simple and clear.

A second problem is related to the first: radical Protestantism, including the radical Amish, pit faith against reason, and even man against God, in ways that Catholicism doesn’t allow. There is a thin line between prohibiting idols and smashing icons. The Amish happily ignore that line. They reject books, and learning, and art, and politics. Nowhere in their house is there an image of Jesus. We can take inspiration from their devout life, but the Catholic answer has to celebrate the image of God more than that.

What is the role of technology in your life? How could it be better?

Chaput and Francis: Christ, not “Christian Civilization”

Last week I had the opportunity to hear the great Archbishop of Philadelphia, the Capuchin Franciscan Charles Chaput, speak at a conference on St. Francis of Assisi hosted by the Dominicans in New York City.

Here he speaks on a really important point today. In our cultural wasteland, lots of young Catholics are eager to rebuild a Catholic culture. But Catholicism is not about building a culture; Catholic culture itself was not built on the desire to build a culture. It’s about Jesus.

chaputThe philosopher Rémi Brague once wrote that “Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about ‘Christian civilization.’ What mattered to them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself; they were Christians, not ‘Christianists.’”

We need to remember that simple lesson. The Catholic faith is not an ideology. It’s a romance. It’s a love affair with God. We’re a people who believe in Jesus Christ – not the ideas, but the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for our sake purely out of his love for us. And living the Catholic faith should be an experience of gratitude and joy that flows from a daily personal encounter with God’s son and a communal relationship with God’s people.

saint-francis-of-assisi-detailThere’s a reason the Church calls St. Francis the vir Catholicus, the exemplary Catholic man. Francis understood that gratitude is the beginning of joy, and that joy in this world is the aroma of heaven in the next. He reveled in the debt he owed to God for the beauty of creation, for his friends and brothers, and for every gift and suffering that came his way. He treasured his dependence on the love of others, and returned their love with his own. He gave away all that he had in order to gain the deepest kind of freedom – the freedom to pursue God, to share God with others, and to experience life without encumbrance or fear.

-“Without Gloss: Francis of Assisi and Western Catholicism,” Speech at the Catholic Center of New York University, April 25, 2014

Read the entire talk here.

One gloss: those who try to make this point today – including Pope Benedict, very frequently, despite the complete mis-characterization of him, especially by his fans, as a “culture” guy – often use the language of Chaput’s second paragraph above: “love affair,” “romance,” “personal encounter.” But I think the point is better made by the first and third paragraphs: especially, “Christ, and the reverberations of his coming,” but also, “the aroma of heaven,” “gratitude,” “the debt he owed to God,” “the pursuit of God.”

These phrases are, I think, much richer than the Protestant language of “personal relationship,” while making the same point.

“Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence.”