As a US election year unfolds, how does Christianity apply to politics? Plough’s Peter Mommsen sits down for a conversation with Cornel West and Robert P. George – friends, colleagues, and public intellectuals who hail from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Plough: The mission of Plough is to “apply Christianity publicly,” to quote from our founding document written in 1920. One hundred years on, we’re still committed to tackling the questions both of you have spent careers addressing as distinguished Christian political philosophers. Cornel, you’re known as a leftist: What is your fundamental critique of the left? And Robby, what is your fundamental critique of the right?
Cornel West: For a lot of people, left means liberal. They think of MSNBC, CNN, and the Democratic Party. That’s not what I mean by the left: I’m talking about the tradition, both secular and religious, that pushes back against the logic of the market, that pushes back against corporate power. There ought to be much more of a focus on the primacy of the moral and the spiritual than what I see on much of today’s left.
Robert P. George: The form of American conservatism that I am attracted to is old-fashioned liberalism in the tradition of James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. A tradition that views freedom as important, not as an end in itself, but as a means to other ends. It focuses not simply on the individual, but on the institutions of civil society, which help transmit to new generations the basic values and virtues that they need to have successful lives.
Where the contemporary conservative movement goes wrong is when it becomes too individualistic, so focused on freedom that it begins to see freedom as the end itself. Take the market, for example. We conservatives ask more of the market than it can give when we imagine that any result produced by a market is by definition just. That’s simply not true. There are independent moral standards by which we must judge our political and economic institutions.
West: There’s a common strand of critique between Brother Robby and myself, which is a profound rejection of idolatry. Market, state, race, gender: all of these can become idols. An idol is anything that is deified and fetishized rather than placed under the cross. That idolatry leads to spiritual poverty.
Speaking of spiritual poverty, we live in the richest society in history, yet we see what’s been called an epidemic of loneliness: deaths of despair to addiction and suicide, and rising rates of mental illness among young people. Why?
West: Let’s go back to Tocqueville. There’s a chapter in Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, called “Causes of the Restless Spirit of Americans in the Midst of Their Prosperity.” He talks about loneliness, isolation, spiritual disquietude. He could see what was required: social forms that would help people find fulfillment in relationships and communities.
The Catholic tradition is much better on this than my own Protestant tradition. Catholic social teaching understands that need for solidarity and subsidiarity. It understands the role of those layers of association between the family and the nation-state.
George: Secular ideologies have told people that material prosperity will give them what they’re looking for in life. Well, we’ve got the material prosperity, at least a lot of people do. There are places that were once mired in poverty that are now flourishing materially. But even in those communities, why are so many unhappy? Why are so many lonely? They’re looking for something more than happiness – they’re looking for joy, fulfillment, a sense of wholeness, a sense of being part of something that matters. They’re looking for God.
You’re both talking about a vision of human flourishing and of the common good that grows out of Christianity. But in a pluralistic society, can this Christian vision be translated into politics?
West: The Christian way of life allows us to look unflinchingly at the wretchedness in the human condition, and still emerge with joy, with a commitment to perseverance. Happiness in the modern sense is not really part of Christian discourse. The Declaration of Independence tells us that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that’s a secular influence. When it comes to spiritual food, I don’t really go to brothers like Thomas Jefferson. When you’re committed to trying to love people, really trying to be a neighbor, then you run into W. H. Auden’s wonderful question: How do you learn to love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart? That’s the call, that’s what’s demanded, that’s the wretchedness that we must look at unflinchingly. But it doesn’t turn you into a nihilist, or to revenge or hatred. What’s on the other side is following Jesus: “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
George: Human flourishing has got to be something more substantial than just “happiness” considered as a pleasant psychological state that might be induced by serotonin-stimulating drugs, or hedonistic living, or by wielding power over others. We are embodied creatures who are also rational souls. And we can make choices that advance our flourishing in our physical and intellectual lives. We can eat well; we can think carefully; we can nurture our relationships with family members and friends; we can appreciate excellence in literature, music, art and architecture, sports, and other domains; we can delight in the beauty of nature; we can love and honor God. We can make choices that define our character.
With all this in mind, looking at the 2020 presidential election in the United States, what do each of you see as the most urgent task for politics?
West: The crisis of the common good, the crisis of democracy, is very deep. We need to convince people to really be citizens – to think about the public interest – rather than to be just consumers or constituents, viewing politics as something that helps you get your piece.
George: Two things that are integral parts of any promotion of the common good are the sanctity of human life, and the dignity of the marriage-based family. If life in all stages and conditions is to be protected and honored, that means we’re going to have to genuinely care about, and care for, people. All must enjoy equal protection under the law: all races, male and female, born and unborn, frail and healthy.
The trouble, of course, is that politicians will claim to take these issues seriously, but very often they don’t. Trump has delivered on some pro-life promises. I believe that this is basically transactional. And it raises the question about whether, in the long run, the cause will be damaged by the taint of association with Trump, and with those of his other policies that are clearly not consistent with a pro-life ethic.
Most conservative Christians in this country have swung behind our current president –they’re willing to overlook the policies Robby mentions because he delivers pro-life judges. Does that show a failure by Christians to draw necessary lines?
West: I don’t think that the vast majority of Christians who voted for Donald Trump were, or are, excited about him. A slice, but not the vast majority. Most of those Christians feel caught. They chose between a milquetoast neoliberal candidate who looks down on them, and Trump, who they didn’t really like but who they felt was a politician willing to speak to them in a manner that was not condescending.
I think most Christians find President Trump’s behavior degrading. It’s very important that we don’t use any lazy stereotypes to characterize even evangelical Christians’ relation with Trump. Brother Robby and I were recently speaking at Liberty University in Virginia, a conservative evangelical school whose president is the prominent Trump supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. We didn’t run into any uncritical defenders of Trump there at all.
As prominent public intellectuals, both of you have been pressured to line up loyally behind your parties’ candidates.
West: Yes. But our Christianity leads us to tell even the candidates we support that we will bring critique to bear when we disagree.
Christian witness has got to cut deeper than politics. It comes down to the relation between the cross and the flag, you see. No nation will ever exhaust the cross. No politician will ever exhaust the kind of truth we as Christians are to bear in the world. We believe in witness over and against political power. In 2008 I supported Barack Obama, but I was a critical supporter. Now I support Bernie Sanders. If Bernie wins, though, I’ve told him already, “I will come down hard.” He knows that.
George: Cornel has been exemplary on this. He had been an early supporter of President Obama. But when Obama started engaging in drone warfare at a level far beyond anything that had happened in the Bush administration, with large numbers of civilian casualties, Cornel went so far as to call him a war criminal. Cornel did not allow himself to be backed into a position where he couldn’t criticize on moral grounds something that he thought was wrong.
When Donald Trump got the Republican nomination in 2016, I was under a lot of pressure to get behind him. I couldn’t do it. And when Hillary Clinton got the nomination that same year, Cornel was under pressure to get in line behind her for fear that if her side didn’t support her, Trump would be elected. But he could not in conscience do that. Both of us found ourselves excommunicated.
When it comes to Christian witness, being willing to take attacks from both sides seems to go with the package.
George: There’s always the temptation to stay on the team so that you can be a good influence. That’s sometimes legitimate. But sometimes you just have to say, “No, I cannot be part of this.”
West: If you’re feeling a no, but don’t have the courage to say the no, then you’re a sycophant. If there’s anything alien to the Christian way of life, it is sycophancy, because the cross is always pushing us in a direction that’s over against the world.
George: There’s also a temptation, which both of us resist, to steer clear of the political domain for the sake of purity. But I don’t think that’s the Christian way. Christians understand the difference between the city of God and the city of man, but we also understand that it’s part of our vocation to do what we can for the sake of the common good. That means taking part in public life in some way, to the extent that we can do so in good conscience.
Let’s talk about an example of public witness, somebody Jesus called “a prophet and more than a prophet”: John the Baptist. What can he teach Christians as we think about our political life?
West: There’s a parody of John the Baptist in Albert Camus’s novel The Fall: the character of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who just “reads the newspaper and fornicates.” And Jean-Baptiste has nothing to say. John the Baptist is the inversion of this: he has a fundamental calling to utter forth who the God-man is. He’s got the courage to do it, and is willing to pay the ultimate price.
Being part of the prophetic tradition has something to do with a unique calling: one that involves a sensitivity to suffering and a willingness to pay a cost.
George: So what is John the Baptist’s mission? Well, it is to call people to repentance. He says, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Now there’s a temptation to think none of this has anything to do with politics, or justice, or the common good. People think: John’s just saying you’ve got to get yourself straight because the kingdom’s coming, and you’ve got to be ready. It’s all about your personal rectitude.
I think that’s a mistake. Why was John martyred? The answer is striking. He criticized the king for being in an unlawful marriage, for violating the moral order on which society depends.
The king could’ve said to him, “John, this is none of your business. You go back out there by the river, baptize people, tell them to repent. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’m taking care of myself here.” John died because he criticized the “private” immoral behavior of the king – because he didn’t see that as purely private. He saw institutions like marriage as critical to the common good. So why did John the Baptist die? For the sake of bearing witness to the common good, to marriage as an essential component of the common good – an institution whose significance transcends the merely “private.”
The question of marriage and family seems linked to the deaths of despair that we talked about earlier. Fifty-five years after the Moynihan Report controversially warned of the social fallout from family breakdown among African Americans, we’re seeing the same phenomena playing out among working-class whites and Latinos too: significant percentages of children born out of wedlock or growing up without a father in the house, proportionally fewer people getting and staying married. What’s happening to families, and what ought we to be doing about it?
West: One thing that is contributing to this situation is the commodification of the family. Raising children is, or should be, a non-market activity – just like falling in love and having a healthy marriage – but we do these things within a market culture. That applies in situations both with and without racial subjugation. If families aren’t able to sustain themselves economically, it’s hard to keep them together.
But on the other hand, it’s true that people still have choices, and choices depend on and shape your moral character. There’s interplay between all of these factors. White supremacy and racism are very real, but so are economic and cultural structures, and so are the choices that people make. We need to look at all three when we talk about the damage that has been done to families, communities, and children.
Militarism and American imperialism are also factors, of course. This is what Martin King understood: if you live in a nation that projects militaristic movies, TV, and cartoons in the beginning of children’s lives, they’ll learn that this is how you deal with conflict. Some of what causes family breakdown is just human nature, but you don’t get the same problems in every culture.
George: First, we need to send a message of personal responsibility and agency to everyone. Conservatives are right about that. Second, we need to address economic injustices. The left is right about that.
And then we need to build a healthy marriage and family culture. The church and other institutions of civil society have a role to play in that. Government also has a role: first, in avoiding policies that undermine the authority and integrity of families. And second, government – perhaps on the local level – can work with churches and other institutions to develop programs that help people to get married and stay married, and encourage the involvement of not just parents but grandparents in the lives of children.
To do that, we as a society must first agree that strong marriages and families are good. And as you’ve both pointed out elsewhere, that’s where we run into a problem: on many issues like this, our society has lost confidence that there is a truth we can all agree on. Instead, many have absorbed the idea that any claim to truth is simply an assertion of power in an us-versus-them struggle for dominance. How do we overcome this crisis of truth?
West: We Christians understand truth as a species of the holy: a post-truth world is a post-holy world. This is a form of spiritual breakdown. It’s not new at all. This goes right back to an argument made by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: might is right. But Thrasymachus’ argument is just not true. Today it’s common to hear people speak of “my truth” and “your truth.” That’s just new jargon expressing a spiritual breakdown that’s been a threat to human beings ever since we were made.
We have to call out this hostility to truth for what it is. We need to be able to say that no, might is not right; truth exists, and we can seek it together. That’s the way that’s more humane, more loving.
George: Cornel was in Harvard Yard for Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address; I heard it over the loudspeaker system. One of Solzhenitsyn’s great lessons was the importance of living by truth. In resisting Soviet tyranny, he said, we must do it with truthfulness. We need to recognize and honor the power of truth, what Pope John Paul II called “the splendor of truth.” We have to speak the truth plainly.
As you mentioned, Cornel, Christians understand the truth as something holy. Jesus said, “I am the truth.” The truth is not a proposition, but a person.
West: It’s this mystery of the Word made flesh. This is a distinctive feature of our relation to a God who, out of an indescribable love, was made flesh. That being made flesh leads toward the crucifixion. The love is still pure, flowing, and made available to us. But the crucifixion was the world: something in us that killed him. That’s something to linger on, and yet he loves us enough to deliver us.