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?


Politics and Culture

Politics_0I was recently discussing politics with a friend in Washington, DC. She is a faithful Catholic and involved in high-level things in Washington. Someone who knows some things.

But when it came to the upcoming presidential election, she said she had trouble caring. Apart from appointing Supreme Court justices, she said, the presidents don’t really do anything. “I don’t see what difference it makes. Democrat or Republican, and which one, they all end up more or less the same.

Now, this is not a web page of political commentary, and I have no intention of delving into particular issues or records or positions. But I think my friend’s question, “What difference does it make?” can help us think about the connections between faith and politics.

These connections point both ways. On the one hand, our faith can help us think about political candidates. On the other hand, our involvement in politics is an important expression of our faith. Faith helps politics and politics helps our faith. Politics is part of Catholic spirituality.


Here’s the central insight of this post: politics is about culture. When Bill Clinton was running for president, there was a saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That is, people don’t really care about all the other little arguments: what they care about is the economy. Well, for the Catholic, we have to say, “It’s the culture, stupid.” It’s always about culture.

Without wading in too deep, I think some of our candidates illustrate the point. One party (I’m going to talk about the other one, too!) is committed to abortion as a basic human right. There’s lots to say about the marriage debate, but for us as Catholics the point is simply this: that party is also committed to saying there’s nothing special about the relation between one man and one woman that has traditionally been called marriage. That party, furthermore, refuses to recognize the right of the Church – of the Little Sisters of the Poor! what a remarkable choice – to exercise its charitable functions while maintaining its beliefs about right and wrong.

Now, there are legitimate questions about how much economic difference these debate make in the long run. But the bigger point is, what kind of a culture are we creating? The President is a figurehead, a sign of what we believe as a country. Indeed, our laws themselves are a kind of figurehead. They have practical consequences – but before that, even more important, they indicate our values as a country. They both express and, by that very expression, shape our culture. To be a country – a culture, a civilization – that shrugs its shoulders at the family, religious liberty, the right to life: all of these things shape who we are.


Now, my friend would acknowledge all of this, and would not vote for candidates who hold those positions. But there are other problems in the other party.

Two major candidates in that party brag about their willingness to kill innocent people in the Middle East. We can debate terrorist policy, ISIS, Iran, Iraq, and all the rest. But one of the candidates was recently asked in a debate about his plan to “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern cities. Carpet bombing means indiscriminate, not just shooting terrorists but bombing all the people who live near them. Traditionally, it is precisely an act of terrorism: make the country capitulate by terrorizing them. He embraced the term.

Another candidate was asked about his plan to kill the wives and children of terrorists. He too embraced that plan. He said if they’re going to fight dirty, we must too. We must become like them.

Both candidates embrace torture. One of them quibbles about the legal definition, apparently concerned more with whether its legally allowed than whether it’s right and good.

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? It might not “make any difference” in terms of whether we beat the terrorists (or it might) – but that’s not the main question. The deeper question is what happens to our culture when we embrace targeting innocent civilians as a governmental priority.

Maybe they wouldn’t even follow through on these promises – but to elect someone who makes those promises – as major priorities – is to destroy our culture. Maybe we as Catholics can’t sway the election – but we can at least voice our opposition.

Standing with the popes and the bishops, I would suggest (more controversially, perhaps) that the way we treat our immigrants has similar effects.

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 answers – and the questions our faith demands that we involve ourselves in.

What kind of culture do you think the various candidates are promoting?