Reading, Humility and Kavanaugh
The Supreme Court confirmation hearings have shown just how broken our civil discourse has become. There is an answer.
“When you get where you’re going, don’t forget; turn back around. Help the next one in line. Always stay humble and kind.”
I had the words of that Tim McGraw song in my head as Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the Senate were beginning to wind down. Some of the girls Kavanaugh has coached in basketball over the years were sitting in on a crash course, at times, with how broken our civil discourse has become — which included regular disruption from screaming protesters.
The Current Cultural and Political Mood
Humble and kind is just about the opposite of the current cultural and political mood. And yet there it was, creeping in, during moments such as the one when Kavanaugh introduced the girls, by name and grade, to the room. There were other moments too, like when Kavanaugh talked about his volunteer work feeding the homeless with Catholic Charities.
“We are all God’s children. We are all equal,” he said.
A Different Tone
That tone was very different than much of the noise swirling around the nomination, much of it stemming from bitterness about Republicans having refused to hold hearings or a vote for Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court pick in the final year of his administration. That tone suggests a way out of what ails us. It has everything to do with virtue.
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, writes about this in her new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.
“Reading well is in itself an act of virtue, and it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return,” Prior writes. “The attentiveness necessary for deep reading requires patience, the skill of interpretation requires prudence, and the decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.”
Our Proper Place
Prudence. Temperance. Justice. Courage. Faith. Hope. Love. Chastity. Diligence. Patience. Kindness. Humility. These virtues could go a long way toward making our politics saner, more just and merciful, not forgetting the human person who will affected by laws and rulings. Prior writes in a particularly striking way about that last virtue in the list: “Without humility, without an understanding of our proper place within the order of creation, we cannot cultivate the other virtues.” A Christian who teaches at an evangelical school, she adds: “We cannot even come to Christ, or to true knowledge, apart from humility.”
In his testimony, Kavanaugh cited Matthew 25: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.”
Likewise, Prior writes: “The Beatitudes describe the characteristics of the humble: the poor in spirit, the weak, the mournful, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. But the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t merely praise these qualities; it offers a paradoxical promise in which all of those who are last shall be first.”
The Necessity of Humility
Prior writes movingly of Catholic author Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, many of which deal with the sin of pride and the difficult necessity of humility. She recalls O’Connor once being asked why she wrote and responding: “Because I’m good at it.” This, too, wasn’t a far cry from the Senate hearing room. Again and again, Kavanaugh took a healthy pride in the judicial decisions he has written. About O’Connor — but perhaps it could be applied to Kavanaugh — Prior writes: “At first glance, this reply might seem conceited of proud. But the truth is that knowing what we are good at and what we are not, doing what we were supported to do and not what we aren’t, being what we are supposed to be and not what we aren’t, is the essence of true humility.”
Prior describes “everyday kindness” as “the greatest sort of heroism.” It may not drive headlines, but it could set us on the right course.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at [email protected]