Name any social policy and there is sure to be a religious leader who has an opinion. The religious leader states his or her position in absolutes. For the religionist, the issue is a matter of high morality; no alternative position is acceptable. These religious leaders and the general public routinely fault the daily give-and-take in partisan politics for putting opportunism, gridlock, grandstanding, obstinacy and hypocrisy above moral principle.
The legislative process is a moral endeavor, says President John Kennedy (1917-1963) in Profiles in Courage (Harper Collins, 1956). An impatient public does not appreciate “the art of politics, the nature and necessity for compromise and balance,” he writes. The public is “too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals [when in fact] politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals.” Democracy is maintained by flawed people who are “engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion.”
Are principles then irrelevant to public life? Hardly. Though abiding principles do not come with specifics on each detailed proposal nor do they yield strategy or timing, principles give essential guidance. For an effective legislator, politics is a vocation about “compromises of issues, not of principles,” says Kennedy. A politician who “begins to compromise his [or her] principles on one issue after another,” he concludes, “has lost the very freedom of conscience which justifies his [or her] continuance in office.”
Profiles in Courage goes on to detail eight U.S. Senators who at a crucial moment put principles ahead of party loyalty and popularity. Yet even in those moments, Kennedy says, an assertion of high principle comes with calculation. Several examples in the book are about race relations, before and after the Civil War. An antebellum Southern senator decides that the principle of a United States is of higher value than the expectations of his constituents and his loyalty to his party. Introducing a pro-abolition bill, however, will be ineffective. Instead, he supports a mechanism that will delay war. He calculates that a decade’s worth of uneasy peace is worth the loss of his reputation. His principled stand, as it turns out, did not prevent the war but it bought time during which the North became stronger and the institution of slavery weaker. In other words a principled stand does not guarantee perfect outcomes; compromise is always in the mix.
There are many issues deserving attention from faith-inspired citizens: abortion, ecology, immigration, national defense, labor relations and more. With rare exception, religious leaders are advised not to take the shortcut of moralizing on these and other issues. Instead, here are alternative strategies:
1.) Support conscientious legislators. Host a support group or forum in one’s parish where politicians can explore the meaning of their work. Send along compliments when matters are resolved in an acceptable way.
2.) Be a strong, persistent voice in the public square. Over and over explain one’s religious position, using as much natural law or common good language as possible. Never stop asserting the whys and hows of pro-life or pro-planet or pro-civil rights. No matter how basic the explanation may be, there are many, many citizens and politicians who simply do not know why a religious person might oppose abortion or support unions or oppose pollution.
3.) Organize votes. Moralizing (like throwing around the threat of excommunication) likely hardens the position of politicians. Putting voting-blocks together gets attention. Bishops and other Church employees should not endorse candidates nor wade too deeply into the specifics of a piece of legislation. But lay members of any denomination can do retail organizing. Supporting an alternative Democrat in a blue district is better than hollow preaching. Supporting an alternative Republican in a red district will shake things up.
There are grifters in politics for sure. Here in Illinois some go to jail. But there are thousands of moral politicians in municipal, state and federal bodies that approach their work as a vocation. Do they ever hear their job framed in spiritual terms in their congregation, their synagogue, their mosque? There are hundreds of politicians who are capable of putting a moral principle ahead of a special interest, ahead of a party leader’s expectation, ahead of expediency. Not at every hour, on every issue. Not in big moralizing, grandstanding circumstances. But within the deliberative process of democracy, many politicians know how to frame a principle in reasonable terms and at times come away with a moral victory.
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)