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Seven Deadly Political Sins
Self-examination is a useful exercise. I’m grateful to Henry Olsen, Micah Meadowcroft, Josh Hammer, and Michael Lind (in a cognate posting) for their reflection on the sins of the American right. I’d like to add my voice to this collective mea culpa. As a sometime theology professor, I’ll key my observations to the classical list of seven deadly sins.
Pride. Movement conservatives compliment themselves as “men of ideas,” unlike progressives, who operate with an open-ended opportunism, always ready to advance their agenda. Like single malt Calvinists, we divide into ever-smaller factions, each running two-week seminars for college students over the summer and hoping to add to our coven of true believers. We would rather be right than effective, pure than victorious. Our pride closes in upon itself in self-referential self-regard as we retreat to the sanctum sanctorum of “principle.”
Envy. One hears the laments: The left has the universities. They have the foundations, media, and the commanding heights of culture. Liberal paladins get sinecures at the Kennedy School of Government. They were invited onto the Charlie Rose Show before he was done in by one of the other deadly sins. Enough! The liberal establishment has assets that are rapidly becoming liabilities. A homogeneous media operating in an ideologically gated community leaves the left ignorant of what most of the country is thinking. Toxic universities are likely to become electoral millstones. But envy blinds, which is one reason why those of us on the right can’t see our country any more accurately than those on the left.
Lust. There is a burgeoning world of pollsters, strategists, campaign advisors, know-it-all pundits, fundraisers, and donors who whisper promises of power. DC is a city of seduced and seducer. Sex is not evil, and political victory is no sin. But when the pleasures of power are separated from the ends of governance, we easily use and are used. NB: This deadly sin is bipartisan.
Gluttony. Another bipartisan sin, it is manifest in our insatiable appetite for politics. We do not contend in order to sustain the American way of life. We live to contend.
Avarice. Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol is threadbare. He accumulates but cannot spend. Note, by contrast, that LBJ had a project for which he was willing to squander his electoral bastion, the Solid South. Nancy Pelosi paid out capital in order to secure the Affordable Care Act. Name one Republican initiative has been so politically profligate.
Acedia (sloth arising from despair). Those on the left cheer themselves with the conceit that they follow “the arc of history.” We wallow in Lost Causes, telling ourselves stories of defeat. Minority Majority nation. Takers outnumbering makers. The young are against us. Religion is in decline. This election is our last chance to “save the nation.” Our default mood is a paralyzing “Doomerism,” as a young friend frustrated with the conservative movement put it.
Anger. As I look back on recent years, I regard anger as the most deadly of the seven deadly sins, politically speaking. We look at America in 2020 and are disgusted. Gay marriage, Bostock, anti-fa, tech censorship, family breakdown, elites transferring loyalty to the global system, scientists on the Chinese payroll—we boil with rage. Who did this to our country?!?
This, too, is a bipartisan sin, though the left is enraged by other things. Why are black men being killed by police? Why aren’t women equally represented on corporate boards. Why were none held accountable in 2008? Who is holding us back?!?
It was the rage of Achilles that broke the deadlock on the plains of Troy. Anger has a central role in political life. Properly understood, it is necessary. It motivates those not imprisoned in their pride or greedy for power to put down the affairs of private life and enter the fray of political competition. And in any event, there is plenty to be justly angry about in the ruin of twenty-first century America.
But anger threatens to overwhelms us. Ta-Nahisi Coates cannot see our country in its always mixed condition of beauty and ugliness, love-worthy and despicable at the same time. His anger blinds him. The same holds for the American right. We hurl imprecations at Portland, Seattle, and other deep blue cities, not able to see that they are, in fact, more live-able, more prosperous, and more accommodating to the needs of twenty-first century Americans than many deep-red cities.
In the Christian tradition, love is the only sure medicine for sin’s desiccation. We live in a country full of vices, brutalized by mass culture, captive to consumerism, exploited by the rich, and very nearly shipwrecked by a generation of political malpractice. But it possesses a beautiful landscape, has witnessed heroic deeds that awe the imagination, and possesses a preternatural capacity for self-repair.
A “love politics” does not shy away from partisan conflict. It need not blunt its rhetoric, nor must it pretend to agree about things that we do not (and should not) agree about. But love demands that the first word about the United States and the 300+ million people living in this crazy quilt country is “yes,” not “no.”
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