Saturday, April 02, 2011

Two Governors

I’ve personally attended only two lectures by governors in my life. The second time was this week, when Governor Haslam of Tennessee came to JPII as part of our “Distinguished Lecturer” series. The first time was in 1984, as a senior at Notre Dame, when I attended a lecture by Governor Cuomo of New York. Coincidentally, both talks were about the same topic: How should one’s Christian faith inform one’s political leadership? They gave strikingly different answers to that question.

Cuomo’s speech centered on abortion and was hailed in the press as an example of enlightened tolerance. As a Catholic, he said he fully respected the authority of the bishops that abortion was wrong. He would uphold that view, he said, for his wife and children. But as governor of a state that was predominantly pro-abortion, he did not believe it was proper to impose his religious belief upon his constituency. In a pluralistic society, one cannot govern by one’s faith, lest others’ freedoms be infringed upon in the name of his religious belief. This “personally opposed but cannot impose” position became the foundational position of a generation of politicians since that time.

Haslam, a Presbyterian, reasoned differently, drawing on the ideas of Pope John Paul II. Freedom, as the pope understood it, must be linked to the truth, or else it ends up being a pretense for tyranny, as the stronger person asserts his “freedom” over the rights of the weaker party. The pope was an unapologetic defender of the truth, known for directly challenging the assumptions of socialism and the excesses of capitalism with great vigor.

Did that make him boorish and judgmental, as we often regard people who claim to know “truth”? No, said Haslam. In fact, he was recognized as a model of Christian civility, admired by even those who disagreed with him. That was possible because John Paul II understood his Christian faith as a “gift, not a club.” Instead of using the truth of one’s faith to club people over the head, as we are often tempted to do, we should speak the truth while manifesting the gifts of our faith, namely, temperance, forgiveness, patience and kindness, to name a few. Haslam said that Christian politicians should never waiver from the convictions of their faith but must live out that faith in a manner that is charitable and befitting of their Christian vocation.

It is ironic that between the two governors, one Catholic, the other Presbyterian, the Presbyterian makes the more “Catholic” argument. Democracy in the Catholic tradition is a means and not the end, as Cuomo assumes. The end is the “common good,” whereby human dignity is protected and thrives. All laws must serve that common good. Exalting the notion of individual freedom to the extent that we cannot “impose” a value system on someone, even when that person uses his freedom to trample on the freedom of others, is self-contradicting. Further, it strips us of the ability to make any laws premised on a moral assumption. If we believe rape is wrong, can we not “impose” laws which punish rapists? Thieves? Murderers? Or should we merely be "personally opposed" to these things?

Thomas More, in Robert Bolt’s famous play “Man for All Seasons, ” confronts the same issue that both governors addressed. Though he is opposed in conscience to the divorce and remarriage of King Henry VIII, should he assent to the divorce out of loyalty to the king and in the interest of the peace and unity of England? More is unequivocal:

“I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

The vetting of candidates during an election cycle serves an important public purpose: Candidates should make known their moral positions, and where they are evasive, we should pin them down. In my view, once elected, we should then expect them to govern according to the convictions of their conscience and their faith. If we don't approve of what that turns out to mean, we vote them out of office in the next election cycle.

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