Can the policies and the person be separated?
I am not following the Trump Senate trial, nor did I follow the previous impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. I have grown weary of this particular species of public affairs. Indeed, I am weary of the whole genus of American politics and, for that matter, the other genera of the taxonomic family known as reality television.
Yet as America's political-entertainment complex rolls on, its vomits up some interesting questions for the culture. In particular, how does a social movement, broadly understood, cope with the failings of its champions? Does the movement compromise its integrity?
That question is now being put to some Christian leaders in the United States — largely from the Evangelical churches — for their support of Donald Trump.
This can arise from conflicts in policy positions, or from the personal character of the president himself.
The former has been a problem particularly for Catholics, whose leadership in the United States has long had two primary public policy advocacies — pro-life and pro-immigration. Trump advances pro-life policies but also is making treatment of illegal immigrants harsher. So America's Catholic bishops praise the former and condemn the latter.
Neither political party is strong on both issues. That is a long-standing problem. The more pressing one is related to the character of the president himself. What to do when the champion of an issue does not live coherently the values behind it?
That's the accusation made against Evangelical and other Christian leaders who are very public in their support for Trump's presidency, particularly because of its strong stands in favour of life, religious liberty and Israel. At the same time, there is Trump's history of adultery and sexual harassment, the crudeness of his rhetorical style, insulting and belittling of others and his rather loose relationship with the truth. Is all this a model that Christian leaders should promote? To the contrary, should they not express their dismay? If they do not, are they morally compromised, having sold out for a policy outcome?
There is a parallel to the last president who was impeached, Bill Clinton. During his presidency, several women accused him of sexual misconduct. Monica Lewinsky acknowledged a consensual affair that was clearly recognized as an abuse of power, the feudal lord of the manor, as it were, helping himself to the maidservants.
Yet the feminist establishment, led by Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem, rallied to the president's defence, disparaging, if not vilifying, the women that he treated shabbily and shamefully, and perhaps criminally. The venerable Betty Friedan said she simply didn't care what Clinton did, and Nina Burleigh famously declared that she would be pleased to sexually service the president personally "just to thank him for keeping abortion legal."
Politics is often a choice between two not very good options.
Canada had something of a similar experience with Justin Trudeau regarding the groping allegation and his use of blackface. His public policy positions and partisan affiliation mattered a great deal. A conservative partisan would likely not have survived politically.
Twenty years after Clinton, the # Metoo movement has shuffled him toward the shadows and ensured that his sexual predation will be the second paragraph in every obituary. No American now argues that being right on policy gets you a pass on treating women badly.
Twenty years from now, will Christian leaders look back at the Trump years in a similar way? Actually, the debate is on now. It is no secret that mainstream American Protestant and Catholic leaders include few Trump supporters, and overseas that drops to close to nil.
Yet American diplomacy under Trump on religious freedom is stronger than the Vatican's. Last Friday, Trump became the first president ever to attend the March for Life, which has been the largest single demonstration in Washington for decades, drawing about 100,000 pro-life people into the streets.
Can the policies and the person be separated? Should the latter matter if the former are good? After all, a head of government is not a pastor.
In the tradition of Christian spirituality, there is a bit of advice from the great mystic and spiritual master, St. Teresa of Avila. Asked about what qualities to look for in a spiritual director, she responded that the ideal would be someone both learned and holy. But if that was not available, it would be better to have a learned director who is not very holy than to have a holy director who is not very learned. The learned will give good direction, which is the whole point of having a director.
During the Cold War, something like that principle animated foreign policy around the world: He may be a thug, but he's our thug. We gave a pass to all sorts of unsavoury behaviour for those on our side.
Politics is often a choice between two not very good options. What to do when the man himself is not good?
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Trump giving Christians one holy headache." National Post, (Canada) January 31, 2020.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2019 National Post
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