How to find out what the candidates think about what ultimately matters
After the debate, a few pundits scoffed, and a lot more would have scoffed had they not been spending their column inches on Donald Trump. Those silly Republicans, banging on about God again. They think God’s on their side. They want to impose their religion on the rest of us. Yay for the separation of church and state! Boo for Fox News and the religious right!
But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the question was a good journalistic question. It tried to get the Republican candidates to say something useful about their religious commitments rather than let them give the politician’s usual pious but vague answer when asked any question about his fundamental beliefs.
As I wrote, ask a politician about his faith and you’ll get wind and blather. You know the sort of thing: Faith very important, wouldn’t be the man I am without it, learned it at my mother’s knee while eating her apple pie, affects everything I do, source of my concern for [fill in the blank], crucial for our country, etc. In other words: 1) I’m a man of faith, so you should like and trust me, but 2) but my faith doesn’t have much real content, so you shouldn’t be scared of me. You, the voter, are intended to feel about the way the politician holds his faith the way you’d feel about him holding a basket of puppies.
Asking the God Question, or if you want, the Question About Fundamentals, doesn’t let him get away with this. The question gets at the foundation on which he builds everything else he does. As G. K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy (over-stating the matter a bit in the case of landladies), “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.”
We need to know what someone who might become president believes about the most basic things. We think it important for a voter to know a politician’s record, but still more important to know his philosophy. And/or (for these purposes) theology. At present, we have to judge politicians as we’d have to judge an architect when we can see only the upper stories of his buildings. We can’t judge his work rightly — and decide with confidence whether to hire him — without seeing the foundations.
When a candidate says he wants to increase liberty — which every candidate on right and left says in some way — we would like to know what he thinks liberty is, and where it comes from, and what limits can be imposed on it and by whom, and most of all who it is that has this freedom and what that freedom’s for. Otherwise we get a muddle where a candidate can insist on individual freedom in choosing how to treat workers and deny it in choosing whether to carry a baby to birth, or the other way around, with no clear way given to distinguish the two. When a candidate isn’t bound by principles he’s stated in a way that publicly binds him, liberty gets defined not by any eternal, objective standards but by what his supporters want, or at best by his instinctive but usually defective feeling for what’s right and wrong.
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