Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Religion and the Coming Campaign

Aristotle, who was right more often than he was wrong, appreciated that practical wisdom  depends significantly upon experience, which would argue against our contemporary obsession with youth (cf. Nichomachean Ethics, Book 6, Chapter 8, 1142a). As a general rule, at least in normal times, that would certainly seem to be true. Even in a time of crisis, it is likely to be true. In his admirable new biography, Churchill : Walking with Destiny (Viking 2018), Andrew Roberts emphasizes how Churchill's whole life, the offices he had held, the unique experiences he had had, all prepared him for the unprecedented challenge he faced in 1940, "fortified by sixty-five years of conscious or unconscious preparation." 

Not all crises are the same, however, and some crises - such as the one we are experiencing in contemporary Western democracies - may sometimes challenge that conventional paradigm, by highlighting the fundamental failure of the presently empowered political class and hence inviting voters to look elsewhere when electing new leaders. Even if Churchill may indeed have been superbly prepared to assume the Prime Ministership in 1940, it was in fact only the catastrophic failure of the British political Establishment that created the crisis which made Churchill's appointment possible. 

Without excessively exaggerating the historical parallel, it is evident that we are again at a similar moment when it comes to selecting suitable leaders, having been so ill served by the presently empowered political class. Hence the surprising plausibility of one of the youngest candidates ever to propose himself for the presidency. I refer, of course, to "Mayor Pete," South Bend's 37-year old Mayor Peter Buttigieg, who is not only the youngest candidate to enter the presidential race so far but also the most overtly religious (or at least the one most comfortable talking in religious terms).

Buttigieg's political experience as the 37-year old mayor of a modest-sized midwestern city is certainly limited. On the other hand, being a mayor of even a modest-sized city is actual executive experience, more executive experience than decades spent making speeches and casting votes in the U.S. Senate. (Although the Senate seems fertile soil for presidential ambitions, in fact only three senatorial showhorses have moved directly from the Senate to the White House - Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.)

And Buttugieg can claim more military experience than almost all the other candidates. When I was growing up, such experience was, of course, the norm. Not only is military service inherently desirable in someone who proposes him or herself as a national leader, it also offers perspective. Military service typically introduces a future leader to other citizens from backgrounds other than his or her own. It also exposes one to real enemies, which ought to provide perspective and so make it harder to treat as enemies fellow citizens with whom one simply disagrees.

Add to his executive and military experience his elite education, and "Mayor Pete" more than meets the minimum threshold of preparation for serious consideration of his possible candidacy - in a way which, while conventionally reassuring, allows him to retain the outsider edge that heightens his appeal.  It frees him to highlight the fact that he comes from the next generation in line, a generation uniquely positioned to present a different perspective on the accumulated mess his generation has been forced to inherit from the presently empowered political class.

Only time and the bizarre process by which we pick our presidents will determine whether Buttigieg personally has what it takes to be a serious candidate. The fact that he has made such a strong initial impression, however, highlights the evident desire of many for someone different from the established and predictable.

Of particular interest in terms of his newness is his ability and willingness to engage from an explicitly religious perspective, in the process exposing the scandalous hypocrisy of so much of the American religious establishment. Back in 2016, it was Southern Baptist Russell Moore who famously diagnosed that scandalous hypocrisy, when he said, "The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about."

A practicing Episcopalian, Buttigieg is not the only candidate who attends Church, but he seems to be the one who speaks most explicitly and with apparent fluency about Church and why Church matters. If older, established generations of politicians have settled into certain patterns of pigeon-holing religious faith and practice, one of the potential advantages of generational newness may be the ability to escape that tired-out, pre-packaged approach. 

That tired-out, old, and hopefully increasingly descredited approach was reflected in Hillary Clinton's failed 2016 campaign. Despite being a lifelong, devout Methodist, Hillary Clinton proved unable to project her religious faith and its commitments in the context of her campaign. After Clinton's defeat, The New York Times'  Amy Chozick (“Hillary Clinton’s Expectations, and Her Ultimate Campaign Missteps,” November 9, 2016) recounted how a year earlier supporters had invited her to address a prestigious Saint Patrick's Day event at Notre Dame University, the sort of event which Bill Clinton was eager for Hillary to do. But her campaign declined the invitation on the theory "that white Catholics were not the audience she needed to spend time reaching out to."

Imagine if instead she had spoken at that event! Imagine if she had used the occasion to talk about her own Methodist faith and commitments and made a connection with the substantive social teachings of the Catholic Church (about which admittedly many American Catholics have heard hardly a word) and the magisterium of Pope Francis!

Coming from a  different generation and hopefully less trapped within the prejudices of the previously empowered generation of political leaders, a candidate with some of the strengths of a Pete Bittigieg could be uniquely positioned to undo the poisoned knot of religious-political partisan polarization and re-introduce this country to what the Religious Right and the secular left have conspired to deprive it of, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27)

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