Tag Archives: politics

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas: When Ideology and Theology Meet

by Fr. John Garvey

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When I was involved in draft counseling during the war in Vietnam, I had a liberal friend who knew I was anti-war and was also opposed to the death penalty. She was shocked when I said I was also opposed to abortion. When I told her I thought I was being pretty consistent, she didn’t get it. As she saw it, I was violating a kind of liberal package deal.

A couple of years later I met a man who was not at all liberal. He was very much in favor of both the death penalty and abortion rights, and saw no inconsistency. I found myself sadly agreeing with him: he was consistent.

What made him consistent was a total absence of any sense of the sacred. He didn’t think of life at any point as sacred. He wasn’t liberal in any sense of the word. He had a kind of heartless sense of the convenient: get rid of murderers and other unwanted criminals and also get rid of unwanted unborn children––anything or anyone who might interrupt his life was fair game.

My liberal friend was a more complicated case. She did have a half-baked sense of the sacred, of some value that should attach to a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth to or kill the life in her womb, and she knew that innocent people might be mistakenly con-victed, and that even guilty people should not be killed.

But neither had a sense of life as truly sacred. Nor, I think it must be said, do those who call themselves pro-life and defend capital punish-ment based on the argument that the murderer has forfeited the right to life by taking the life of another. In both cases—one side often secular and the other side often ostensibly religious––there is a sense that a life’s value depends somehow on our end of the deal, our sense that a life is of value (because completely inno-cent, as in the case of the child in the womb) or that a life has forfeited its sacred status (because it violated the sacred status of another life, as in the case of a murderer).

This makes us too important, and God’s role as creator a wimpy cameo. How I regard the life of a child in the womb––whether I want it to be born or not––does not matter in the face of the fact that this unique being exists. To argue that it is a tiny collection of cells and therefore unimportant is not far from arguing that it is not so grave a matter to murder a dwarf as it is to murder a giant; it makes my attitude toward a life more important than that life’s existence, its God-givenness.

To argue that the life of a murderer can be taken because the murderer has violated the life of his victim is to say that the murderer gets to define the limits of the sacred. The terrible fact is that the murderer’s life is sacred, because God has willed that life, and none of us has the power to cancel the holiness of having been called into existence from nothingness. We may wish to cancel our vocation; in the horror of some lives it may be an overwhelming desire. But we cannot. And Christians have to bear witness to the sacred character of all human beings, no matter how innocent or how guilty, all of them people for whom Jesus Christ died. We are not our own. This applies to the newly conceived baby, and to any murderer on death row.  IC

What We Want in Our Political Leaders

by Fr. Thomas Hopko

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Some of us Christians don’t necessarily want our political leaders to be “observant Christians.” We know ourselves and our histories too well for that. We also don’t want our countries to consider themselves “Christian nations.” We also know what that can mean. So what do we want in our political and civil leaders? Because politics is the “art of the possible,” we want leaders who can practice the political art without selling their souls to the devil. We want people who can achieve maximal results for the common good, as they understand the common good, with the recognition that others can legitimately see things differently than they do. And we want leaders who know that there is no perfect and lasting good in this world, and never dare to promise such a thing to anyone.

We want leaders who listen to others, tell the truth and learn from their mistakes. We want leaders who resist reinventing themselves every few weeks to please and appease one or another political constituency or voting bloc. We want men and women who do not demonize their critics and opponents while alleging to respect them deeply. We want leaders who can compromise their convictions within acceptable limits, without betraying their consciences, in order to achieve the best for the most, as they understand the best to be, in cooperation with their political opponents. We want people capable of changing their minds and admitting their errors. And we want leaders who don’t seek “all or nothing” in ideological battles that no one wins and that produce countless casualties. In a word, we want free human beings to lead us, not ideologues or demagogues.

In the American setting, this would mean that when some argue that the invasion of Iraq was an egregious analytical, tactical, political and military error, those who disagree would not label them weak-willed cowards who are betraying our brave men and women in the armed forces and surrendering our nation to evil powers. Or, as another example, when some voice their opposition to abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage, their opponents would not accuse them of being heartlessly cruel monsters who oppose modern science and technology, abhor women and minorities, and want people to suffer uselessly as they glorify human agony and pain at the sufferer’s expense. Or, when some Americans think that illegal immigrants should be treated kindly and that ways should be found to integrate them productively into society, their opponents would not call them anarchists who oppose law and order and treat working people with contempt; just as when others say that they want to keep as many jobs as possible in America, with just wages for American workers, their opponents would not accuse them of being selfish and retarded enemies of economic freedom and the system that made America great.

Some of us want political leaders with the courage to conduct an all-out campaign against global and domestic terror, crime, injustice and neglect of  the neediest by sacrificial spiritual, economic and philanthropic actions that begin with their nation’s strongest and richest people. And we want them to resort to carefully planned and responsibly executed police and military operations to contain evil only when absolutely necessary, as the very last possible option. We also want all people, not just the poor, to sacrifice equally for justice, freedom, peace and well being for everyone. We want leaders – who tend to be among their country’s wealthiest citizens – to be the leading exemplars of such self-limiting sacrifice that would, for the most part, cause them little personal suffering while costing them plenty of money that they hardly need for their personal and familial well being.

In a word, we want leaders who are not prisoners of power, profit, possession, position, privilege and pleasure. We want men and women who demand from others what they demand first from themselves, and who do for others what they would want others to do for them and their loved ones. Some of us Christians in the United States are convinced that the first step in reconstructing American political leadership is a radical change in the way we elect our leaders. We want an end to the agonizingly extended, disgracefully expensive and endlessly analyzed campaigns that exhaust peoples’ patience and sanity, and lead them into all kinds of temptations. We want a nation governed by people whose actions prove their genuine care and respect (not to say love) for everyone, including America’s most violent enemies whose children will be America’s even more violent enemies if things don’t radically change in our country, both among ourselves at home, and in our dealings with other peoples and nations.

If such political leaders would emerge in America, and indeed in all nations of the world (whatever their present political systems), their religious convictions, authentic or alleged, wouldn’t matter in the least to some of us Christians. Such leaders would, in fact, be an answer to our prayers. We would be their strongest, most faithful and most grateful supporters even when we disagree with some of their policies. We are also aware, when expressing our hopes, that – as an old proverb puts it – we get the leaders, both religious and political, that we deserve.

Fr. Thomas Hopko is Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York.

IN COMMUNION / FALL 2006