Politics During Holy Week: Putting First Things First

By Jim Tonkowich Published on April 2, 2015

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus famously observed, “The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.” And there is no better time to remind ourselves of that truth than during Holy Week.

In his A History of the American People, historian Paul Johnson notes, “The imposition of Prohibition, and its failure, illustrates perfectly a number of important principles in American history.” Among those are “the widespread belief in America that utopia can be achieved in the here-and-now and the millennium secured in this world, as well as the next” and that this “can be achieved by compulsion and law.”

Nothing has changed since the Volstead Act. Americans — on the left and the right — possess an unwavering faith in politics. We believe that if we push the right buttons and give the right incentives by passing and/or repealing the right laws, all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Except that they won’t.

Examples abound.  Just as Prohibition was going to fix alcoholism, the Affordable Care Act was going to fix healthcare. The War on Poverty would alleviate poverty and the War on Drugs would keep our children safe. No-fault divorce would safeguard marriage and family and so presumably will allowing or not allowing same-sex couples to marry.

College administrators think the same way. Faced with out of control drunkenness, sexual libertinism that has revealed itself for what it is: sexual abuse, and racist chants — things they’ve ignored for at least forty years — they rush to regulate thereby restoring virgin academia and, most important, keeping away the bad publicity that makes fundraising more difficult.

Not that laws don’t matter. Laws teach. As George Will wrote in his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, “Democratic government must be a tutor as well as a servant to its citizens because citizenship is a state of mind.” Laws through their blessing and cursing inform us about and form us into the people our lawmakers believe we should be.

Will, however, is quick to insist that without a guiding philosophy, laws teach a cacophony of contradictions driven by interests rather than reasons. This is why laws can never be “the first thing.”

Is philosophy then the first thing? No. Philosophy requires a belief in reason as a reliable guide to the good, the true and the beautiful. And our culture no longer believes in reason as a reliable guide to anything. Ask anyone who has attempted publically to present a reasonable case for marriage between one man and one woman or counter-evidence to the catastrophic global warming narrative. Reasons are answered with threats and name-calling demonstrating the widespread disdain for God-given reason.

All of which is to say that we’re charged with a cultural task before we’re charged with a political or even philosophical task. For if the foundation of a building is unsound, it doesn’t matter how carefully you build, the roofline is going to be crooked, the structure unstable and no one will want to live there.

Pope St. John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, writes in The End and the Beginning, “[John Paul] insisted that democratic politics and market economies were not machines that could run themselves; rather, democracy and the market required a vibrant public moral culture to discipline and direct the tremendous human energies let loose by freedom.” Culture always comes first and a healthy culture, John Paul taught, is rooted in the Christian faith.

During Holy Week, we remember, reenact and celebrate the deepest root of the Christian culture that built the West and that the world so desperately needs today. Just in the Catholic Easter Vigil, a long series of Bible readings answers our most basic human questions: Where did I come from? Where am I going? What’s wrong with the world? What can correct what is wrong? How do I live a good life?

Rooting ourselves once again in the story of redemption — of the cross and the empty tomb, of death and new life, of atonement and resurrection — we prepare ourselves for the great task. As St. John Paul challenged thousands in 1997, “Go forth now along the roads of the world, along the pathways of humanity, while remaining ever united in Christ’s Church. Continue to contemplate God’s glory and God’s love, and you will receive the enlightenment needed to build the civilization of love, to help our brothers and sisters to see the world transfigured by God’s eternal wisdom and love.”

Regardless of the state of the union or the state of the world, Christians walk in hope. How can it be otherwise? We know that Christ is Risen!

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