The Susan Rice unmasking story is at base a story of placing political gain ahead of national success. Now, it may be that Ms. Rice and others like her believe that their political success and the success of the nation are so deeply intertwined that they are essentially the same thing, but that is a frightening thing to contemplate. The self-aggrandizement involved cannot help but call to mind Lord Acton’s famous quote about power, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Moreover it makes every thing personal. There is no truth independent of the individual.
Princeton Theological Seminary finds itself in the middle of a similar debate. They recently invited a conservative pastor to receive an award and later withdrew the award because the pastor’s views on women and the LGBTQ community were protested. The debate about this from the conservative and liberal sides illustrates quite well that on one hand we have a person seeking the independent good (even if you think they miss the mark) and on the other we have someone seeking something to do with the self. If we seek an independent good there is a debate to be had and a compromise to be reached. But if what we seek is something to do with self, then no compromise can ever be reached for the party that is motivated only by self cannot move anywhere else. There is no debate with, “I want macaroni and cheese,” discussing the relative health benefits of this dish versus other starchy sides dishes is a pointless exercise in the face of such self-generated desire – as any parent knows. There is only “You will get it,” or “You will not get it.”
It should be clear how this way of thinking changes the nature of our politics, no longer are they about working together to define and achieve a national good. Now they are about gaining sufficient power to force one’s desire on the nation. Suddenly Lord Acton makes a lot of sense. No longer is it politics in pursuit of a great nation, it is political war. Now, all tactics are justified. There is no incivility for their is no national order to preserve. There is only the political battle. (Seriously – ESPN has released guidelines on political talk. ESPN! Look, I am no pro sports figure, but I was in locker rooms all the way up to SEC football and I can promise you politics never came up. Now everything really is political.)
The most frightening thing about the Rice unmasking story is not that it happened; political operatives have been using the power of government to achieve political ends, legally and illegally, as long as the nation has existed. No, the most frightening thing about this story is that when it has happened in the past (anybody remember the Nixon administration?) the nation united around its condemnation of the bad actors. Not in this case. We are so polarized that many in the nation are quickly lining up to support Rice’s actions. We are clearly a nation adrift, more concerned about our side winning than what is best for the nation.
Once again, the problem with our politics is not our politics, it is us. Moreover, in the PTS story we see the same problem has deeply affected our religious institutions – the very institutions that are supposed to be a counter force to this tendency in politics. The PTS story also illustrates a point I made a few weeks ago; Protestantism does not seem to have much of a clue what to do in a situation like this – in fact seems mired in it. Evangelicalism, as a distinct branch of Protestantism, has carved a place for individual religiosity, but in that individualism lacks the necessary cohesiveness to function as an effective counter force.
Theological and ecclesiastical differences notwithstanding, it is time to stand behind and support Catholicism as the bulwark the nation needs desperately right now. I am not asking anybody to join the Catholic church – heck I cannot even bring myself to do that. But I do think we need to let them take the lead on these matters cultural and political, and follow that lead devotedly.
Finally, it is time for all of us to examine our own religiosity. Is it something we do in pursuit of some form of self-satisfaction? That self-satisfaction takes many forms, from self-righteousness based on charity to simply feeling loved. But true faith is not about us, it is about God. We do not follow God because of what He does for us, we follow God because He is God, and the right place for us is as His creations. We follow God because He is good and we are therefore good when we are in proper relation to Him. God created and it was good. It is high time we fell in line with that good.