May 01, 2012

That’s my husband you’re talking about: A defense of politics & politicians

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

Everyone loves a good lawyer joke, even lawyers.

If you were a lawyer, however, and had a friend who never missed an opportunity to run your profession down, tarring all its members as greedy ambulance-chasers, at a certain point you’d start to take it hard.

A few years back my husband happened to go in for his annual check-up shortly after the President gave a speech about health care reform which left the impression that doctors routinely jack up prices to enrich themselves unjustly at the expense of hapless consumers.

My husband’s doctor is a liberal Democrat and voted for the President, but he and his colleagues in the practice did not take the remark kindly. They are hard-working, conscientious, care about their patients and do an enormous amount of pro-bono work.  They didn’t deserve to be painted as lazy fat cats exploiting the poor.

For similar reasons, as the child of political activists, a one-time pro-life lobbyist myself, and the wife of a congressional staffer, I swiftly reach my limit of people saying they hate politics and dismissing all politicians as corrupt.

It isn’t true. In a political career that spans over decades, my husband has had the privilege of working for and with not just one, but a series of wonderful individuals. Not good on some kind of sliding scale for the morally backward, but good in the sense of being among the finest people one could hope to know. 

They were not always right about everything of course (who could be?) but they were uncommonly dedicated people, full of wit, integrity, moral courage and sincere concern for justice, the common good and the defense of the weakest among us.

As a life-long Washingtonian, it’s not my experience that people in politics are especially corrupt. Some are. It’s hard to reach the level of senator or high-level cabinet member and have anyone tell you anything but “yes” ever again. That makes it difficult to keep perspective.

On the whole though, people come to Washington young, bright, wholesome, idealistic and determined to change the world for the better.

For a few years it’s exciting to be a player in the corridors of power. Over time the thrill fades and people learn that lasting cultural change is not accomplished quickly. They start to find the bureaucracy soul-crushing and dispiriting.

In my observation it’s at that point that political people do one of three things. They leave, going home to other careers. They sell out and start working the system for perks. Or they take a hard look at their core convictions, start taking their faith seriously and dig in for the long haul of defending the culture.

Yes, there’s corruption in Washington, but there are also any number of serious Christians and people of other faiths who are among the finest people you could know. They deserve our prayer, respect, encouragement and polite debate rather than contempt and eagerness to believe the worst.

In spite of what you’ve heard, it’s not true that “politics” comes from “poly” meaning “many” and ticks, meaning “parasites.” You may be tired of the trappings of political campaigns: negative ads and candidate’s families and personal lives on a dissection table. You may be exasperated by low-quality journalism, which loves to report rumors, gaffes and polls in lieu of digging for facts.

All that is indeed tedious, but it isn’t politics properly speaking. Aristotle famously called man the zoon politikon, or political animal, meaning the human person is made for community. Politics is the art of ordering community life well, and Catholics –called to build a civilization of justice and love-- are obliged to take an interest.

This is why Pope Benedict has spent the past several years practically begging for courageous Christian politicians capable of engaging the political order with arguments from reason that persuade our fellow citizens. Politics isn’t ultimate. It can’t get us to heaven or create heaven on earth. But it can create what Augustine called “the tranquility of order” so as to foster human flourishing and create space for faith and culture.

“Why don’t the bishops do something!?!” is not a valid Catholic approach to cultural crisis. To govern the Church, to teach, to sanctify: that’s the three-fold office of the bishop.  The nuts and bolts work of politics is the realm of the laity, who are called to offer their expertise in service to the common good.

This obligation becomes more critical the more dissatisfied we find ourselves with political trends. Rather than retreating from the public square, we’re called to speak up, educate our fellow citizens, create or participate in citizens groups –or perhaps run for office ourselves.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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