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What St. Thomas More and Saul Alinsky had in common


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John M. Howting III - published on 07/01/17

"I can’t help but wonder if Alinksy learned about Thomas More while working with Catholic Churches in Chicago."

When Robert Bolt wrote his play about Thomas More, he titled it A Man for All Seasons (a description from More’s friend Desiderius Erasmus). The descriptive nickname has weathered the seasons for nearly five centuries because it is true. “He is more important today than when he lived and he will be more important in the future than he is today,” wrote journalist G. K. Chesterton upon More’s canonization in 1935.

Everything that Thomas More defended in 1535 was under attack in 1935 and is under attack today. Thomas More was defending principles, and institutions that are always under attack: marriage, religious freedom, and the rule of law. The last of which is oft overlooked but vitally important. The rule of law is a persistent theme throughout the play and subsequent film. When More’s future son-in-law, Will Roeper, encourages More to arrest Richard Rich, an argument transpires:

More: Go he should if he were the devil himself until he broke the law. Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law! More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that! More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

More’s “devil’s speech” inspired many Catholics to pursue a career in law, including Antonin Scalia who regularly recited the speech to students who urged that judges brush the law aside in pursuit of their own moral judgment. Scalia’s reverence for the rule of law and contempt for those who sought to tear it down came from Thomas More and A Man for All Seasons.

Of course, one does not have to be a lawyer to admire Thomas More. Activists and organizers would do well to study him. More demonstrated the value of standing on principle without trampling on the law. Consider the community organizer Saul Alinsky. When Saul Alinsky sought to shut down a theatre he did so legally. Alinsky never stormed a stage. As Alinsky tells us in Rules for Radicals: He recruited ethnic minorities, fed them copious amounts of beans, and sent them to the theatre. Their flatulence became a source of irritation for other patrons. When ushers removed the flatulent activists, Alinsky noted to the media that only law abiding ethnic minorities were removed and therefore this was a case of bigotry. Distasteful and unethical, but not illegal. There was no lawbreaking in the deployment of flatulent activists.

Alinsky did some crude and disgusting things, but Alinsky would not dare tear a road through the law. One might say, he was a practitioner of uncivil obedience. “Alinsky would use the law as a shield,” wrote Andrew Breitbart in his book Righteous Indignation. Alinsky understood that to trample on man’s law would involve opening a Pandora’s Box that would unleash endless violence, much of which would be directed at himself. And so, Alinsky would crudely, distastefully, but not illegally agitate. I can’t help but wonder if Alinksy ever learned about Thomas More while working with Catholic Churches in Chicago.

In our season college professors are being threatened with physical violence, congressmen are facing gun fire, and artists are shouted down. We should pray for an end to this utter disregard for the rule of law. We do not need another civil war. We need peaceful reform. To better understand the importance of the rule of law and to honor the Patron Saint of Lawyers I recommend everyone read A Man for All Seasons.

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