Saturday, February 18, 2012

'Augustinian Sensibility' and Politics

St. Augustine of Hippo
What does that mean?

We were honored and had the distinct pleasure to have Michael Cromartie of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center (yes, that is not an oxymoron; there does exist such a place in our nation's capital) speak at two recent classes we held at Duke University for budding citizen-politicians we are now training at The Institute for the Public Trust. (see below)

Michael is an expert at the nexus where public policy, faith and the media intersect...and if the recent brouhaha over the Obama mandate for health insurance issued by the Catholic Church was any indication, his services will be needed now more than ever it seems.

His lecture was insightful, entertaining and helpful, as it always is, but one thing really struck us this time when he explained what 'augustinian sensibility' should really mean to people in the public arena and all of their varied supporters:

'Don't expect too much out of your elected leader(s) because you are surely going to be disappointed when they don't deliver what they promise during the campaign.'

Think about it.  We all want our favorite leader to lead us all to the Promised Land, just as Moses led the Israelites out of the desert and to the River Jordan's very edge.  (Remember, Moses screwed up and didn't get to lead his people into the Promised Land. Joshua did)

But how can 1 person in a pluralistic society like America ever lead ALL of us to the Promised Land when we all have such different and varied definitions of what the 'Promised Land' looks like?

Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1981 after trouncing Jimmy Carter in the lop-sided 1980 election on a wave of 'American Pride and Western Cowboy Spit and Determination!' only to fall short of his stated claims to balance the budget and make the federal government 'smaller' during his term.

It doubled in size.  From $591 billion in 1980 to $1.143 trillion in 1989.

President Barack Obama came into Washington in 2009 on a palpable sense of 'Hope and Change' because many people believed he was a 'transformational' leader on the order of Mahatma Gandhi of India and Abraham Lincoln combined with FDR and was somehow going to make life better for everyone...and balance the budgets at the same time.

He failed as well.

What the heck happens between a campaign and actually having to do the hard work of governing?

Everything it seems.  Campaigns are 'fun' and promises are 'easy to say' on the campaign trail.  Just ask George H.W. Bush 41, he of the 'Read My Lips; No NEW Taxes!' promise at the 1988 Republican Convention.

But the Founders wisely set up a gauntlet course where no one person or faction could ever get 100% of everything they wanted in any single session of Congress or presidential term.

Although you have to admit that Obamacare came pretty darned close to getting everything the President and the Democratic Party wanted in terms of passing a massive new piece of legislation that will permeate every sector of the nation, including the Catholic Church, for decades to come, don't you?

Part of it is because many people confuse our democratic republic with pure 'democracy' where majority votes rules in every instance.

It doesn't in Congress.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, the way the rules of the Senate are set up, many times a minority of 41 Senators can, and will, slow down legislation to make sure that the rights of the minority party, be they Republicans or Democrats, will not be trampled by a stampede of legislation from the dominating majority led by a President of the same party.

Just as the Founders envisioned it.  They were as opposed to concentrated power in any office of government as they were for the promotion of liberty and freedom for the citizenry.  It can be a confusing and yet delicate balance especially to millions of voters who vote for someone and expect everything the winner says will get done will actually 'get done!'.

Let's take a look at where an 'augustinian sensibility' might help cool the flames of politics out there and bring some reason and common-sense to our public discussions about civic issues:

  • Will any President bring total happiness and 'fairness' in terms of creature comforts to the entire population?  Not likely unless he is a total magician or Santa Claus.  It is simply impossible for any President or Congress to change the American system overnight and start redistributing all of the assets and wealth any better than the current free enterprise system does on a daily basis where owners pay workers out of their savings or investments.
  • Will any President or elected Member of Congress or Senate be able to keep the price of gasoline from skyrocketing if Iran closes off the Straits of Hormuz? Nope. Gasoline prices are a function of supply-and-demand and/or 'fear' of future supplies versus demand. Foreign policy might help dictate the direction of gas prices but unless we elect a future Jed Clampett President one day who controls a supply of newly-discovered oil greater than all OPEC countries combined in the Tennessee foothills, a US President has very little to do with the price of oil in the world markets.
  • Will any President or Congress ban any abortion from being legal in the United States again?  Or, to the converse side, remove any restrictions now on abortion in the country so that abortion-on-demand will happen anytime, anywhere and for any reason? No. In fact, it can be argued that American politics has been held hostage to the abortion debate since Roe vs Wade in 1973 and the debate has raged between the 49-yard lines, to borrow from a football analogy. Being 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice' has become sort of a proxy that has further polarized our national discussions to the point where we can not even get pro-lifers and pro-choicers to agree that balanced budgets are a good thing anymore.  To our collective detriment.
  • Will any POTUS or Congress ever solve anything anymore?  That is a good question in these days and times.

Two other quotes Michael passed along bear repeating in this context:
Max Weber : 'Politics is the strong and slow boring of very hard boards' and
Reinhold Niebuhr: 'Politics is the method of finding approximate solutions to basically insoluble problems.'

Maybe we should listen to these guys, St. Augustine and Michael Cromartie while we are at it.  Then maybe we will stop trying to kill each other all the time in the public square.

Augustine did have one great quote that might apply to politicians as well when they say they want to be a 'uniter, not a divider':  'Lord, make me chaste.  Just not yet'. (from his great book, 'Confessions'. Read it. You'll see why for a long time, it was the second-most read book in the world behind the Bible)

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1 comment:

  1. These edicts that are issued such as one of the first the 'contraception decree' are the product of a well orchestrated campaign. The people issuing the edicts operate from the power to persuade rather than the power of persuasion. Mr. Cromartie has a tough row to hoe. Other faiths can be counted on for support till a larger consensus is established. People need to understand today it's this minority targeted,eventually they will get around to the apathetic.An insidious foe that has been preparing for decades is claiming they didn't start the fight they are rational and compromising. Cardinal Dolan is a already prepared,the eternal city was not a tourist destination. Whatever comes the Cardinal has a strategy. The Supreme Court might be his ace in the hole. I think the Cardinal will keep his remarks to a minimum. Last year when the Cardinal met with the Administration both sides sized each other up. When the administration issued a decree after much in house bickering their timing was terrible,exposing their weakness.Then administration media machine rolls out certain clergy and Catholic Charities to assure the people the matter is settled. They don't speak for the Pontiff.I have no idea how familiar the president is with philosophy, after reading 'Dreams From My Father' I know he has been exposed to ideological subversion and while he was deciding what to do in Afghanistan he was reading 'Three Cups of Tea' not what I'd be reading. One choice would be'Street Without Joy' a book another failed American Commander and Chief failed to read.I would have holed up at Camp David for a week or more alone.


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