MILWAUKEE – Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, editor-in-chief of America magazine, shed light on the presidential election during the Jesuit Fr. Richard A. McGarrity Lecture on Faith and Culture, Thursday, Sept. 13, at Marquette University.
During “Keeping Your Head Above the Craziness,” Fr. Christiansen drew upon ancient Greek culture, U.S. history, and the work of writers in his own publication to make the case against the anger and rage that he saw as invading the political process.
“Reform of political structures presumes a degree of sanity, and the humanity we seem to have lost as a nation,” he said to the more than 350 attendees.
Fr. Christiansen, 67, voiced concern for what he termed the “infection of extremism” and “the downward spiral of empty rhetoric, mutual accusations and jealous sloganeering in the presidential campaign.”
The priest, who headed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Peace and Justice for seven years, said the start of American democracy was “based upon limits, checks and balances.…”
“Anger in politics that openly defies and manipulates those checks and balances is corrosive of the body politic,” Fr. Christiansen said.
Using pro-choice Democrats and anti-tax Republicans as examples, he continued, “Political rage demands complete conformity to a platform of opposition and narrowly crafted policy.”
Fr. Christiansen referred to a recent book by E.J. Dionne, “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,” in which the Washington Post columnist notes that Gary Cooper is the marshal, Will Kane, in “High Noon” standing alone while Jimmy Stewart, as George Bailey, is the community-minded banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“We think we have to choose between liberty and community. History shows, and Dionne argues, we are a nation of individuals who care passionately about community,” the priest said. “Like the ancient Greeks, he contends that the solution for Americans today is not choosing one or the other, but finding a balance of values.”
Fr. Christiansen said that “rationality or appeals to sanity,” which he defined as being the opposite of “maniacal,” would “restrain us from extremism” in politics.
“Responsible citizenship demands something far deeper than structural and political reform,” he said. “Reform of political structures presumes a degree of sanity, and the humanity we seem to have lost as a nation.”
The priest added, “Sanity, as a quality of mind, is opposed to the kind of fanaticism we’ve witnessed in contemporary American politics.”
Fr. Christiansen, who holds a doctorate in religious social ethics from Yale, said that the balance people seek in their personal lives should also exist in politics.
“Balance between partisanship and devotion to the public interest … and the willingness to compromise between advancing individual rights and promoting the general welfare,” he said.
Fr. Christensen said that courage, which he termed “a life bringing power,” was needed in politics.
“The greater anger, greater anxiety, (and) less likely we’ll see courage,” he said.
Referring to President Harry S. Truman’s phrase, the priest said that politicians avoid “plain speaking” in age of 24/7 news channels, attack ads, and videos that receive worldwide views.
“The inability of the public to learn what the presidential candidates will do when elected, unwilling to say what they will do when elected, is symptomatic of the failure of political nerve in our society,” he said.
He cited the late U.S. Sens. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., and Frank Church, D-Idaho, as examples of politicians who had courage when they stood against their political parties in opposing the Vietnam War.
The priest noted that the courageous “keep (their) values in place,” but in such a way that they “can reach out to others, listen to them, find common ground with them, work together with them for the good of all.”
Noting that “peace is a fruit of grace,” Fr. Christiansen encouraged the audience to take its choices to “prayer, petition, with purity of heart.”
“If you find yourself anxious, angry, discrediting the other side, aware that you have become unbending, opposed to comprised, then you are far from a citizen disciple,” he said, adding, “Be Christ-like; it can be done.”