Democratic politics challenge the soul. The whole process is one of the most profane spectacles imaginable. Not only do the worst human cravings for power and wealth, influence and fame, come immediately to the fore in our candidates during campaigns. They inevitably involve all the rest of us too in trying to identify where, amid the welter of all-too-human vices, it may still be possible to find some measure of justice, virtue, humanity, and—yes—even the sacred.
As Churchill reminded us, democracy seems unbearable until we compare it with the available alternatives. Tyrannies of various kinds always suggest themselves: philosopher-kings, rule by the saints, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the expertise of the technocrats. Both popular government and autocratic regimes contain enough sheer evil to incline a person of integrity to shun the whole sordid mess. Yet somewhere in all of this, the old notion of the sacredness of the governance of men and women, whatever our repugnance at the process, must find a place.
The recent complaints about the influence of religious groups on politics simply muddy the waters further. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, for example, has opined that the Christian Coalition’s influence over the Republicans on abortion realizes “Jefferson’s nightmare”: “For the first time in U.S. history, a major political party is driven by religion.” This is not only factually mistaken (Does Lewis think abolitionism and Prohibition were humanist crusades? Or is it self-evident that Jefferson, of all people, would have thought protecting the right to life a sectarian threat?). It misconstrues the relationship of religion and politics. Our founders did not expect America or political parties to be purely secular.
Admittedly, identifying the properly sacred in politics is hard. Even the Church’s social teaching in recent years sometimes suggests politics is a non-sacral activity. John Paul II has toned down natural law language that connected human law to divine law, and emphasized the sacredness of the person created in God’s image and likeness. Protecting the rights of such persons, he believes, is a primary task of government. Given the evil messianic regimes of this century, his stance is quite understandable. But what of governance itself? Is politics a mostly technical activity akin to many others, but no more sacred than science, medicine, or art?
Governors used to be thought of as serving as a kind of secular shepherd for God’s people. When viewed in that light, the leader, even the democratic one, faces vast responsibilities on all sides. Governing becomes a sacred task about which leaders will have to give an account, not only to the people in periodic elections, but to God himself someday. Perhaps the loss of this sense has something to do with the general downward drift of our political culture.
When Abraham Lincoln was president, we saw how governing in a democracy intersects with a recognition of the sacred realities involved. Justice, for example, is not only a legal achievement—at least for Christians—because we know that it is impossible to do the good without divine help. We may have institutions that give us more or less equitable outcomes, but real justice between people requires both a legal structure and divine grace.
I would not like to see a sacral politics in this country that would simply identify one party with the will of God. That kind of sacred politics has been responsible for any amount of mischief. Lincoln’s remark during the Civil War that God could not be on both sides, that both might be wrong, that right lay in trying to be on God’s side, expresses the kind of wisdom about religion necessary in a pluralistic, democratic polity.
Yet Lincoln’s connection of his responsibilities with a nation existing under God cannot be overlooked without inviting disaster. If democratic politics means mere competing opinions, we wind up with the kind of empty postmodernism in which not only is it possible for all sides to be wrong, no side can be right because there is no right.
The pope has warned us in Veritatis Splendor that this view of democratic life—that relativism guarantees liberty—actually undermines the truths that undergird liberty and instead will lead to tyranny. Signs of that are already all around us. It may be hard to discern what is true and holy in politics, but if we do not try, the false and profane will continue on their merry way unopposed.