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Last Word - November 2009

Christian Politicking

As the election season ends it is worth our while to reflect on how we have conducted ourselves as Christians in the political debates and how we ought to conduct ourselves in the political process that continues year-round.

In recent years we have seen a coarsening of political debate in America. I am not sure when it began. My own opinion is that it started with talk radio and cable television: these “entertainers” who make their living and attract their following by tearing down others. Such folks are more interested in having an issue than having a solution. It’s better for ratings

However it began, it has now taken the form of more than just criticism of the proposals and become vicious and sarcastic attacks on an opponent’s very person. It is not just that I disagree with the proposals of the President or of the Speaker of the House or of this or that spokesperson for the opposition party. It has become visceral hatred for persons and disrespect for the dignity of the person of the opponent. For me, the most extreme example was a recent case of a person claiming to be a Christian minister declaring that he “hates” the president and wishes he would die! Surely Christians engaging in political debate need to be better than that.

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household at the Vatican, made a valuable observation on this when he wrote that Christians have an important contribution to make to politics which does not have to do with the content of politics but with its methods, its style. “Christians must help to remove the poison from the climate of contentiousness in politics, bring back greater respect, composure and dignity to relationships between parties. Respect for one’s neighbor, clemency, capacity for self-criticism: These are the traits that a disciple of Christ must have in all things, even in politics. It is undignified for a Christian to give himself over to insults, sarcasm, brawling with his adversaries.”

A lesson I learned many years ago is that disagreements almost always stem from conflicting values. It is not that one person has all the truth and the other is simply wrong. Rather, when we find ourselves on opposing sides, it is because one side is emphasizing one genuine and authentic set of values and the other side is stressing a different, also valid, but conflicting set of values. While values may not clash in theory, they often do in practice. The key to resolving such conflicts is in indentifying the true values that underlie our different positions in a spirit of cooperation for the common good and work for answers that protect both sets of values as well as possible.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal