2cornucopias

Politics and the Devil by Charles J. Chaput, Part I

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2011/12/01 at 11:01 AM
Politics and the Devil  by Charles J. Chaput,  April 11, 2011
A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square—respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies. We cannot simultaneously serve the poor and accept the legal killing of unborn children.

I have chosen to address the theme of “politics and the devil,” not because I plan to suggest that anyone in our national political life has made a pact with Lucifer—although, given the current environment, you never know; it’s not the sort of thing you’d put in a press release—but because it is the title of an essay by the late University of Chicago philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. Kolakowski was a former Marxist, a very gifted scholar, and a skeptic about many things—but not about the reality of evil or the nature of the devil. One of the disturbing things for Kolakowski’s secular colleagues was that he talked about Satan not as a metaphor or legend or the figment of neurotic imaginations, but as a living actor in history. That deserves some discussion, but let’s start at the beginning.

Politics often works like a virus. The simpler a political slogan is, the faster people absorb it, the faster they transmit it, and the less likely they are to really think about it—which means they don’t develop an immunity to its content.

For example, a theme we’ve heard from many of our cultural leaders over the past few years—at least when they’re not battling over the economy or health care—goes like this. America needs to return science to its “rightful place” in public life. And of course, who can argue with that? Science does an enormous amount of good. Obviously, science should have its rightful place alongside every other important human endeavor. But one thing that this theme often means, in practice, is that we need to spend a lot more money on research. Especially the controversial kind. And while we’re at it, we should stop asking so many annoying ethical questions, so that science can get on with its vital work.

I want to focus on those words “rightful place,” an interesting phrase. A “rightful” place suggests that there is also a wrongful place, a bad alternative. And words like right and wrong, good and bad, are loaded with moral judgment. A “good” law embodies what somebody thinks is right. A “bad” public policy embodies what somebody thinks is wrong, or at least inadequate.

All law in some sense teaches and forms us, while also regulating our behavior. The same applies to our public policies, including the ones that govern our scientific research. There is no such thing as morally neutral legislation or morally neutral public policy. Every law is the public expression of what somebody thinks we “ought” to do. The question that matters is this: Which moral convictions of which somebodies are going to shape our country’s political and cultural future—including the way we do our science?

The answer is pretty obvious: if you and I as citizens don’t do the shaping, then somebody else will. That is the nature of a democracy. A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square—respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies. Politics always involves the exercise of power in the pursuit of somebody’s idea of the common good. And politics always and naturally involves the imposition of somebody’s values on the public at large. So if a citizen fails to bring his moral beliefs into our country’s political conversation, if he fails to work for them publicly and energetically, then the only thing he ensures is the defeat of his own beliefs.

We also need to remember that most people—not everyone, of course, but most of us—root our moral convictions in our religious beliefs. What we believe about God shapes what we think about the nature of men and women, the structure of good human relationships, and our idea of a just society. This has very practical consequences, including the political kind. We act on what we really believe. If we don’t act on our beliefs, then we don’t really believe them.

As a result, the idea that the “separation of Church and state” should force us to exclude our religious beliefs from guiding our political behavior makes no sense at all, even superficially. If we don’t remain true in our public actions to what we claim to believe in our personal lives, then we only deceive ourselves. Because God certainly isn’t fooled. He sees who and what we are. God sees that our duplicity is really a kind of cowardice, and our lack of courage does a lot more damage than simply wounding our own integrity. It also saps the courage of other good people who really do try to publicly witness what they believe. And that compounds a sin of dishonesty with a sin of injustice.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Denver and the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. This essay is adapted from the keynote address Archbishop Chaput delivered as part of the University of Notre Dame student-organized Right to Life lecture series.

Copyright 2011 the Witherspoon Institute.  All rights reserved. Re-printed on this blog with permission.  


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