Politics

Why politics matters, and why it doesn’t

We treat politics as if it were religion and miss what the Church has to teach us

Why politics matters, and why it doesn’t

All Unattributed - PD

Soon we begin the three-month season of loud dinner-table arguments, broken friendships, Facebook rages, guys slugging each other in pubs, as well as lots of “How’s the weather?” non-discussions of politics — otherwise known as the period between the major party conventions and the presidential election.

We put a lot of emotion into politics, judge other people by their political choices, act as if the election were the one thing in life that really matters. Just saying the names “Clinton” or “Trump” can be like throwing blood into shark-infested waters. In other words, we treat presidential politics as if it were religion. Or else we bail, because it’s just too much to deal with. The Mennonite option can appeal strongly.

Even Catholics who claim to believe that in this world we have no enduring city (Hebrews), that we move through life as aliens in a strange land (St. Peter), do this. Just think how quickly you jump into action when someone attacks your candidate or praises the other, or when (increasingly common in Catholic circles) he attacks both. It’s that instant, emotional reaction that gives away your real commitment.

I’m not nearly as politically-minded as I was when I was younger, but I find myself leaping to take down anyone who speaks in favor of a certain candidate of whom I have a low opinion. I find myself having to suppress critical thoughts about his moral character and intellectual capacity.

If we feel too much, we ought to feel something. The Church says: Yes, how we organize our political life matters a lot. It changes people’s lives. Some politicians and policies work better than others. When bad things happen politically, the poor and vulnerable get hurt the most. We must do what we can in our system to make things better.

The Church also says: But politics isn’t everything.

Precepts yet more perfect

Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the beginning of what we now call “Catholic Social Teaching,” deals with the problems of “labor” (working people) who were often exploited by “capital” (the owners and employers) and offers a vision for the good society, where capital treats labor justly and charitably, and labor cooperates and doesn’t become socialists.

He speaks bluntly about what this means. “To misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain … is truly shameful and inhuman,” he writes when he describes the employer’s responsibility.

Leo believes justice in this world matters. He cares deeply about our economic good in this world and especially about the life of the workers and the poor. His was not a “pie in the sky when you die” religion, the kind of Christianity the ruling classes have pressed upon the poor.

But the pope also tells us that suffering injustice trains us for the next world. “The Church, with Jesus Christ as her Master and Guide, aims higher still,” he writes. “She lays down precepts yet more perfect.”

The Church does this because she knows we’re meant for something bigger. Leo explains: “God has not created us for the perishable and transitory things of earth, but for things heavenly and everlasting. He has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place. As for riches and the other things which men call good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance, or are lacking in them — so far as eternal happiness is concerned — it makes no difference; the only important thing is to use them aright.”

Jesus did not take away “the pains and sorrows which in such large proportion are woven together in the web of our mortal life. He transformed them into motives of virtue and occasions of merit; and no man can hope for eternal reward unless he follow in the blood-stained footprints of his Savior.”

It’s not what we’re used to hearing. Even Catholic politicians tend to speak as if politics is the only thing that matters and our first concern is our happiness in this world, defined materialistically. Everyone wants our money and our votes and so they try to make us feel that the next election is a choice between Heaven (them) and Hell (their opponents). The more excited we get, the more easily they can manipulate us.

Leo’s two sides

To take the two sides of Leo’s encyclical: First, we can do better ourselves and we can work to make the world better. How we live matters. Public policy matters. Our political and economic choices change other people’s lives. The poor depend upon our making good choices. We can’t bail out. We cannot say “a pox on all your houses” (the Mennonite option) and drop out.

Second, the world will still be a painful place no matter what political choices we make. People don’t stop being sinful even if a nation elects the best politician with the best policies, and no nation ever does that. People will always suffer. The workers and the poor will still suffer the exploitation Leo condemned. No political achievement is ever unmixed with evil. No achievement lasts. Power tends to corrupt.

The answer is Christ and his Church. Leo wrote at the end of Rerum Novarum: “Since religion alone can destroy the evil at its root . . . the primary thing needed is to return to real Christianity.” Treat politics seriously, but don’t expect it to save the world. Someone else will do that.

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David Mills

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.