Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
So, you’re depressed by the election? Perhaps even nauseated? Spending too much time surfing Craigslist looking for a rent-to-own catacomb to hole up in for a few decades? Given up on thinking that things couldn’t get worse?
Join the growing rank of those who believe that political culture in America is growing ranker every day.
But there is a sunny side to this seemingly hopeless political decay, and two facets of it in particular are worth examining.
First of all, and I think most important, it reminds us that we, as Christians, do not put our faith in politics, but in God, the Most Holy Trinity.
For too long, in our modern secularized world, we have been told that we don’t need God. The state can take care of it all—and here “all” means “all the needs of our bodily existence in this, our only life.” There’s nothing beyond this life, the secular evangelists proclaimed, and nothing above the needs of the body: no God, no heaven, no soul. There is no sin except the sin is inefficiency. Therefore, we need to allow the political state to take over as the new omnipotent and benevolent power. The state will give us in this life what the old fictional “God” only promised in the next—just have faith in the state, and even more, in the leaders of the state.
That kind of faith has misled us into placing all our hope in a political process which we believed would produce men and women of the highest intellectual and moral caliber at the political helm. Instead, it has produced political candidates that almost no one is voting for, but almost everyone is voting against.
Such is the proper penalty for those who place faith and hope—which, if I recall, were once theological, not political virtues—in mere mortals, and fallen ones at that. Or even worse, in political systems.
So, cheer up! We’ve been handed a providential opportunity to recall and reaffirm the fundamental doctrine at the very heart of Christianity: the world is fallen, and human nature has been wounded so deeply that there is no real hope except that God became man.
The first Christians, born into the alien Roman Empire, understood that very well. Rome expired in steaming heaps of political corruption, brutality, economic chaos, and military overreach. The Church rose out of Rome’s ashes, not by politics, but by evangelizing amongst the ruins.
So, we’ve been in worse political situations. That doesn’t mean that we should be complacent. But those first Christians—our real Founding Fathers (and Mothers)—didn’t make things better by ever more zealously throwing themselves into politics, and hoping for the very best. The first Christians made politics better by throwing themselves ever more zealously into the evangelization of actual people.
It paid off, in the long run. One good thing then led to another: changed souls changed the culture, changed morality, changed laws, and yes, eventually transformed political institutions. But the first was not last, and the last was not first: that is, changing souls must come first, before political institutions can be transformed, because (as Plato rightly pointed out, and the Church affirms) political institutions are always a reflection of the condition of the souls of their citizens. Without virtue in the souls of the citizens, there is no hope for soundness and integrity in the political order, and there is no hope for virtue to re-inhabit the souls of the citizens without re-evangelization.
And now a second, related facet. Another part of our problem, and hence part of the cause of our feelings of despair with the current presidential candidates, is that we have too much faith in the political system, as a system. Somehow, we got the notion that democracy, as a system of government, automatically produces the best political fruit.
That is a fairly serious confusion, one which even our own political Founding Fathers didn’t share. Read the actual Constitution, and you’ll find that the Founding Fathers ratified an elaborate system of selecting presidents through an Electoral College made up of electors chosen by the legislatures of each state, not by popular vote in something called a “Primary,” nor by some political party machine. In other words, the Founding Fathers tried to construct a system that wouldn’t produce someone like the candidates we have today.
What happened to that system? To make a long, complicated story short and simplified, not very long after the Constitution was ratified, party politics started to develop, and that meant that, soon enough, political candidates would be chosen by party leaders behind closed doors. Bully your way up the party ladder, and you became the party candidate (hence Hillary Clinton). Partially as a response to the control by party bosses, a “democratic” reaction set in, which eventually produced the very odd and winding Primary, as a way to take the power of selecting presidential candidates from the political party bosses, and put it into the hands of the people (hence Donald Trump).
Now you might think that the original Electoral College was bad because it was not democratic, but it was an attempt to avoid the very thing that is making you feel politically nauseous with the candidates produced by jettisoning the original Electoral College system.
So, that’s the second facet of the sunny side of our political nausea: not only does it give us an opportunity to rediscover our Faith in God, but it also provides us with a chance to revisit the wisdom of the Constitution—not as an object of faith, but a document of political prudence.
There, now I’m off to take some Pepto-Bismol.