The GOP Needs a Candidate with a Huge Soul
As we approach the Iowa caucuses the fight is heating up about which Republican candidate deserves the support of committed Christians. A core of long-time Evangelical activists has strongly endorsed Ted Cruz — and been answered by fervent counterblasts. In the New York Times, David Brooks claimed that Cruz is a vindictive Pharisee, possessed of a pagan “brutalism,” a charge ably answered by The Stream’s own Jay Richards, and by Hunter Baker over at The Federalist, who delves into Brooks’ own recent book to show how Brooks misreads Cruz’s character. Again at The Federalist, Paul David Miller (a Rubio supporter) accuses Cruz of reducing Christian witness to a form of “identity politics,” a question I’ll address in depth in my next column.
We can differ on many issues, on prudential questions such as whether it’s more authentically Christian to favor installing democracy in majority Muslim nations such as Syria, or whether that will end up (as it did in Iraq) enabling genocidal Islamists. (For my take, see the recent column “49% Vegetarian, 51% Cannibal: Democracy Is Not Good.”) But when we choose a candidate, we aren’t just ticking off issues. We are also weighing character, and asking ourselves whether this person is someone we trust with the ultimate earthly power, the “Sword of Caesar.” So let’s step back for a moment and think about character in the classical Christian fashion, using the categories that arose in the early church and have shaped our moral discourse ever since: the Seven Deadly Sins. At the end, I will leave it to you to apply these tests to the candidates, since The Stream offers no endorsements.
As I learned while researching The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, the worst of those vices is envy. It’s the sin that stirred in Satan while he spied on Adam and Eve, as Milton painted so powerfully in Paradise Lost. It’s that ache we might feel when we see someone enjoying good things that are out of our reach, but we don’t merely want to gain the same thing for ourselves. (That’s simple jealousy.) What really scratches our itch is to smash what the person has, then gloat over them in the ruins — as Satan did, at the whole human race, until Christ opened heaven. St. Thomas Aquinas set Envy as the lowest and darkest sin, since it does not even aim at anything good — but at the suffering of others. It’s Envy that drives us to take delight when gorgeous celebrities have ugly divorces, get bad plastic surgery, or go to prison. Roughly half of the “click-bait” on the Internet traffics in Envy; the other half is bikini pics.
The opposite of a deadly sin, you might be surprised to learn, is not a virtue. Instead it’s another, mirror-image sin. So if envy wants evil things for others, its mirror image is pusillanimity (pettiness of soul), which doesn’t dare to want good things for ourselves and for those we love — really, really good things, such as life, liberty and happiness — in this world and in the next. A pusillanimous person might kind of vaguely hope that things like that will come his way, but deep down he isn’t convinced they are possible, or worth the strife. So what does he do? Jesus told us: He takes the talents his Master gave him, and buries them in the yard. Or with Pilate he washes his hands. It’s their tiny souls that make European leaders submit to Islamic colonization: If you don’t love what’s really great about your country or treasure its spiritual heritage, and you’re not willing to sacrifice for the next generation, why not turn the place over to the jihadists who envy it? It’s not as if you’re using it. …
In between these icy poles is the fertile golden mean, the virtue we’re meant to practice: magnanimity, or “greatness of soul.” The great-souled person (like Edmund Campion or William Wilberforce) will fight like a tiger against his own worst impulses, and unjust actions by others, to obtain a truly good thing for himself or his family. When he sees someone else enjoying such things, he is glad on their behalf. He doesn’t view the world as a zero-sum squabble over a fixed quantity of happiness. In fact, it increases his sense of well-being and hope when he sees others prosper, even in areas where he might be lacking himself. The squat and the sedentary, the homely and halting, ought to look at the lithe and athletic with calm admiration; likewise, simple folk should be grateful that the wise are out there — so long as the brainy don’t also turn out to be bullies. When the wise are also humble, we look to them with thanks, as to wise pastors and teachers.
A great soul is what we need in a leader, especially in times as evil as these: someone who dares to hope for great things for America, but not at the unjust expense of other nations. Someone who wishes to lift up the poor, without tearing down the prosperous, to gain justice for minorities but not by maiming the majority. And of course, we need someone whose “great soul” expresses itself in smart and principled political action — someone who is brave, prudent, measured and fair. (For you pointy-heads out there, I just rattled off Aristotle’s four Cardinal Virtues.)
The Seven Deadly Sins and the 2016 Election
With these things in mind, the 2016 presidential race comes into painfully sharp focus. The Democrats are simply and crudely trafficking in envy, though it masquerades as justice. When the thugs of #BlacklivesMatter terrorize a shopping mall, or the social engineers at HUD seed the suburbs with future crack houses, they aren’t really aiming at undoing any injustice. They’re just smashing things for the sake of it. Wasting millions that could have clothed and fed countless refugees close to their homes, and instead flying them across an ocean to collect American welfare benefits and throng American mosques — that’s not about saving lives. It’s a piece of moral grandstanding whose real intent is to “stick it” to frightened American Christians. Not settling for the Supreme Court’s power grab over marriage, gay activists have moved to bankrupt Christian bakers and florists who won’t cater their weddings — one could go on all day, all week, offering more depressing examples of what could be summed up best in a hashtag: #thelefttwiststheknife.
The Republican race is of far greater moral interest. What we’re seeing in the rise of insurgent candidates is an upsurge of anger at the apparent pusillanimity of the GOP establishment. The Republican Congress won majorities in both houses on promises of fighting the Democrats’ envious policies tooth and nail — as the Democrat House fought Ronald Reagan. Instead, we see in the latest omnibus budget deal an unconditional surrender of the “power of the purse,” the most crucial weapon for reigning in tyrants since the Magna Carta. (Franklin Graham was so disgusted by this deal that he quit the GOP.) For all the bluster and bravado, we are indeed funding the organ traffickers of Planned Parenthood, and the resettlement of unvetted Muslim refugees, and Obamacare, and the new embassy in Havana, and a long list of other radical Democrat policies, any one of which might have precipitated a government shutdown fight. Effectively we have no separation of powers, since every policy and priority is dictated by the president. When he’s a Democrat.
After dozens of such one-sided “compromises” over eight years, we are seeing a backlash against any candidate whom conservative voters consider pussillanimous. Competent managers like Jeb Bush, who in less radical times might have made persuasive runs for the White House, are rejected because they are “low energy,” and palpably not angry, not outraged at the left’s radical power grabs. Even when they differ with Democrats, it seems to be with a shrug, as if they were quibbling over details of policies that are fundamentally sound. When one side is thundering forward with savage self-righteous vigor, the other side cannot respond with halting, tentative efforts — or it will get steamrollered, as happened in the omnibus budget. Voters fear that the oncoming leftist juggernaut would flatten a pussillanimous candidate, and so they are not taking chances.
And many voters are going too far. Because it’s perfectly possible for conservatives to play the envy game. We can crave the cultural privileges that the left has seized for itself and its pet victim groups: the right to be thin-skinned, to sneer with contempt not just at the policies but the persons we disagree with, to fancy ourselves victims on trivial pretexts, to be tribalist and intolerant. We can indulge these malicious hobbies, on the pretext that it is “payback.” But the answer to a long run of pussilanimous leaders is not to find one who can harness the power of envy to our agenda. It’s to search out a great-souled man, who is strong enough to be angry when the good is gravely threatened, but can laugh off his enemy’s insults and remain the happy warrior. Let us pray for the gift of discernment, and for the grace to really want what is good.