The following address was delivered at the October 28, 1998, Red Mass for the St. Thomas More Society in Dallas.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before I begin, I’d like to thank Bishop Grahmann and tonight’s organizers for their wonderful hospitality. It’s a great pleasure to be here, and I’m always grateful for a chance to share conversation and a good meal with people who love the Church. That’s how we bishops continue to learn: by listening to all kinds of people, including the men and women here this evening. So, while I happen to be the speaker tonight, I’ll also try to be a good listener. If you don’t like what I have to say — or even if you do — write me. I always write back, and especially if you make good sense, I promise to steal your ideas.
I want to talk briefly tonight about the connection between personal character and public leadership. I don’t believe they can be separated. In fact, I’m going to argue that effective public leadership depends intimately on the character of the elected leader. But I need to make two quick preliminary points, and then three more substantial points, in the process.
First, we’re meeting tonight on the brink of a very important election day around the country. I don’t need to encourage the professionals in this room to vote. You already know how important it is. But I do want to urge every Catholic voter to study the issues and candidates in light of Catholic teaching.
Then bring an active Catholic conscience into the voting both. Voting is something each of us should welcome and pray over. Every vote is a moral statement. If we don’t use it, we’ll inevitably lose it. If we want officials who act with both intelligence and high moral character, the only way we’ll get those qualities is by enforcing them at election time.
Second, we have a White House in crisis. Regarding President Clinton, let me just say this: He has publicly apologized for his sin and asked for forgiveness. I’m certain we accept that. He certainly needs our prayers, and it’s not our place to doubt his motives. Whether he should resign, or be removed from office, or remain as president is beyond the goal of my remarks here. As a pastor, I have no opinion on the matter. But neither can we talk about tonight’s topic and simply ignore events in Washington. The best I can do is say honestly that my remarks are not directed at any particular candidates or officials. They are directed to all of them — and to each of us, because we each share in the responsibility of electing them.
Those are the preliminaries. Now let’s move on to the substance. I have three observations, and each relates to the other. I’ve always had an interest in history because it tells us so much about ourselves. History is to culture and community, what memory is to individuals. A man with amnesia loses a good part of his identity. A people who neglect their history have exactly the same problem. History teaches us about the best and the worst in ourselves. And one story from Greek history has always been a classroom favorite because it’s so heroic and dramatic. It’s the story of Thermopylae.
Thermopylae is a narrow mountain pass. It’s the place where the Spartan King Leonidas and 300 of his men held off a Persian invasion in 480 B.C. long enough for the Greek city states to rally their forces and eventually defeat the invaders at the Battles of Salamis and Plataea. Leonidas and every one of his men died fighting in the pass. But they bought just enough time to make the critical difference. I’ve never been to Thermopylae, but I’ve been told that you can find an inscription in the pass, to this day, which reads:
“Go tell the Spartans, thou who passeth by, that here — obedient to their commands — we lie.”
There’s a reason why this story has survived 2,500 years in our imaginations. Leonidas and his men made subsequent Greek victory possible. He promised to place his life between his people and their enemies, and he kept that promise. It’s an example of how history can turn on the character of a single leader. In fact, that’s what history is. History is a record of the encounter between character and circumstance.
Americans of my generation, of course, grew up meeting King Leonidas as a cartoon lion on Saturday morning TV, along with “Underdog” and “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” Sic transit gloria mundi. But my point here, my first observation, is not that our elected officials should emulate dead Greek war heroes. Rather, I mean that personal character does matter tremendously as a foundation for public leadership. We all instinctively know this. But in the late 1990s, an army of political consultants would like us to believe otherwise.
Let me give you one example. In the debate over whether to censure, or even impeach, President Clinton, some have argued that we need to put aside our alleged puritanism and judge him on the basis of his managerial performance alone. The logic goes like this: We don’t ask about the sexual escapades of our auto mechanics, or gardeners, or surgeons, or stock brokers. We judge them strictly on the quality of the job they do for us. A president is just another professional whom we hire on temporary basis. If he gets the country running smoothly and profitably, his private life is nobody’s business but his own.
This is bad reasoning on several levels. And not only bad, but dangerous. First, it demeans the office of the presidency by reducing it to the equivalent of contract labor. Second, it demeans the national community by equating it with a business enterprise. Anyone who takes even a quick look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or “The Federalist Papers,” understands that the Founders had a lot more in mind than a good commercial environment. America began as an experiment in ideas and ideals. High ideals. It’s entirely appropriate that a president be held to higher standards of sobriety, decorum, self-sacrifice, personal conduct and moral character than the owner of a hamburger franchise. And that higher standard of conduct should apply to anyone in public leadership — but especially to elected officials, in whom the people have invested their trust.
Over the past 17 years, writers James Kouzes and Barry Posner have been studying the 20 most common characteristics of admired leaders. In every one of their surveys since 1981 — in every part of the globe, and in every type of organization — honesty has ranked as the single most essential quality in a leader. The reason is obvious. Duplicity kills trust, and trust is vital to building and sustaining community life. According to the authors, “If people are going to follow someone willingly, whether it be into battle or into the boardroom, they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust. They want to know that the would-be leader is truthful and ethical.” Real leadership — including the kind required by public office — can never be described in terms of mere professional skill. It’s always a blend of both character and competence. This is why competence ranks only fourth in leadership-quality studies. It’s valuable and necessary. But it can’t make up for a lack of personal moral character.
My second observation flows from the first. Personal moral character will either determine the choices we make and the actions we take . . . or it will be corrupted by those choices and actions. In other words, there’s no way of insulating who we are from what we do. The political leader who claims to be “personally opposed” to abortion and then votes to protect a so-called right to choose abortion, is complicit in the destruction of innocent human life. In doing it, he places his soul in very grave jeopardy. I could probably find a more elegant way of saying that, but we’ve just seen that honesty is the best policy — so we might as well employ it starting now.
Catholics believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a “Gospel of life.” We believe that this Gospel is not only a complement to American political principles, but also the cure for the spiritual confusion now disrupting our public discourse. What that means in practical terms is this: We can’t simultaneously commit ourselves to human rights, while destroying the weakest among us. Nor can we practice the Gospel of life only as a private piety. American Catholics must live it courageously, as a matter of public witness and civic responsibility — or we’ll lose it even as a matter of private principle.
We need to remind ourselves that real democracy is often very impolite. And real pluralism is not a tea party: Real pluralism always involves a degree of conflict. It demands that people of faith will work tirelessly to advance their deeply held beliefs by every legal, ethical, non-violent method available to them. This is what it means to be leaven in society. If we’re leaven, we need to offer our culture the whole Gospel, even when the message is unpopular. That’s our vocation as believers. Every person baptized in the Catholic faith is a member of the “people of life,” and every one of us, without exception, is sent by God to evangelize the world.
What exactly does that mean for Catholic elected officials? It means they have an obligation to root their public service in their faith — particularly on issues regarding the sanctity of life. It also means that those who don’t, create grave scandal, thereby leading others into serious moral jeopardy. Every political leader is accountable for his or her exercise of power. Appeals to party policy, majority will or pluralism can never excuse a Catholic public official from defending the right to life.
The same applies to each of us as citizens. Voting is a creative act of participation in building the public community. Therefore, every vote does matter because it’s an exercise of power and of moral character, for which we’re responsible. We get the elected officials we deserve. Their virtue — or their lack of it — is a judgment not only on them but on us. Because of this, we need to understand that every political choice we make, also affects the persons we are. Private conviction is not a separate universe from public life. It’s the soil from which public action should flower. When we claim to believe one thing, but act in a contrary political manner, we choose a kind of schizophrenia. We contradict ourselves. And the result is the sort of confusion we find in Washington and other centers of public life today.
That leads to my third and final observation. High moral character is even more important today in our public officials than it was 100 years ago. Therefore we need to be more, not less, attentive to the standards we apply to ourselves, and to those who represent us.
Most of us here tonight will remember Marshall McLuhan’s famous comment that “the medium is the message.” We live in an era when image and personality often eclipse traditional debate in deciding who wins or loses an election. The elected leader has become our primary medium of political meaning; the embodiment of our hopes and perceived needs. And that means the leader is also the message. Therefore the personal character of a mayor or governor or president is often more influential — not less influential — in creating society’s wider political climate than at anytime in the past.
Here’s another factor. The moral foibles of a Ulysses S. Grant or Rutherford B. Hayes a century ago might scandalize Washington or even hurt national policy. But when and if they took place, they would occur within a very widely shared Jewish-Christian consensus which would contain the damage and provide the moral vocabulary for correcting it. We have nothing like that consensus today. Virtually any behavior can be, and is, justified as a private matter, or an issue of personal conscience.
What we do have, of course, is lots of information. We’re a knowledge society with a tidal wave of information. We have so much information from so many new devices and technologies that it’s clogged up, and broken down, our ability to make sense of much of daily life. And this incoherence of data — our inability to organize experience fast enough to make satisfying sense out of it — reinforces the role of the leader in bringing meaning out of confusion.
Finally, we have television. TV has worked a global cultural revolution well beyond Mao Zedong’s wildest dreams — but maybe a little differently from what he had in mind. Author Neil Postman talks about American politics and TV in a brilliant little book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death”: “In a world of television and other visual media, ‘political knowledge’ means having pictures in your head more than having words.” As a result, says Postman, “Any serious candidate for high political office in America [today] requires the services of an image manager to design the kinds of pictures that will lodge in the public’s collective head.”
Complicated ideas and arguments have no place in a political commercial. There’s no room for them. And anyway, they’re unwelcome. In fact, political TV advertising is deliberately crafted to address the psychological — not the intellectual — needs of the viewer. They’re a kind of instant therapy. That’s why TV political ads don’t want to provoke intelligent questions. Just the opposite. They want to pitch quick and easy answers.
“In the shift from party politics to television politics,” says Postman, “we are not permitted to know who is best at being president or governor or senator, but whose image is best at touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent . . . Like television commercials, image politics is a form of therapy, which is why so much of it is charm, good looks, celebrity and personal disclosure. It’s a sobering thought to recall that there are no photographs of Abraham Lincoln smiling; that his wife was in all likelihood a psychopath; and that he was subject to lengthy fits of depression. He would hardly have been well suited for image politics. We do not want our mirrors to be so dark and so far from amusing. [In effect,] just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic political substance for the same reason.”
All this has a profound impact, of course, on the nature of our public life. Our problems seem intractable and huge. Our institutions seem remote and depersonalized. And the lack of substance in our political discourse, compounded by the shallowness of television, has created a culture which is deeply credulous and deeply skeptical at the same time. This is why we need good leaders like never before. This is why we urgently need to have our wits about us when we vote next Tuesday.
Let me leave you with one final thought. George Orwell, the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm,” was never a friend of the Catholic Church. But he was a man of principle, and he had a measure of political wisdom which Catholics can readily understand and respect. Half a century ago, he wrote a brief but powerful little essay called “Politics and the English Language.” I recommend it to you very highly because it still has relevance in our time. In it, he observed that “In our day, political speech and writing consist mainly in the defense of the indefensible.” He was talking about the way in which left and right totalitarian regimes had subverted the meaning of words, in order to mask their political repression and their violence against human dignity. But his remarks could very easily be applied to the vocabulary of America’s civil war over abortion, euthanasia, eugenics and embryo experimentation today.
History matters. And it’s now our turn to create it. Unfortunately, knowing history’s mistakes does not prevent us from repeating them on an even larger scale. In our century, we’ve seen what can happen when words become unmoored from their meaning. We cannot afford political leaders who become unmoored from personal character. We will not survive a public square which becomes unmoored from right moral conduct.
Therein lies the importance of the vote we cast next Tuesday. May God bless our country with leaders worthy of its ideals. Thank you.
Printed with permission from the Archdiocese of Denver.