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JerusalemIn the later second century, an anonymous author wrote a Letter to Diognetus. As people come to grips with the events of November 6, we might do well to remember the limits of what we should expect from our—any—country, and the extent of our duties to a higher power. 

They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers.  Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country. They marry as all men, they bear children, but they do not expose their offspring. They offer free hospitality, but guard their purity.  Their lot is cast ‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘after the flesh’ (2 Cor. 10:3).  They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20).  They obey the appointed laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.  They love all men and are persecuted by all men. They are unknown and they are condemned. They are put to death and they gain life. (quoted in O’Donovan and O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius:  A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 12-13)

Certain good and important institutions, beliefs, and practices are under assault today.  But no cause is lost, any more than a cause can, finally, be won.  However bad things get in the coming months and years—and I expect them to get quite bad for those who refuse to “progress” toward full immersion in the culture of death—it would be prideful to believe we face hardships of the same magnitude as those in whose spiritual paths we seek to follow.  Lowered expectations (though not despair) in the world of politics may be a gift in that they may help us concentrate on more important, permanent things.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Bruce, yes, lowered expectations are the key to sanity in the world of politics — especially for those of us who work in it. As a colleague said of his days working in the state legislature: "Legislators are truly representative of the people they represent." He didn't mean that as a compliment.

  2. Thanks for that, John. My own favorite quotation comes from Mencken: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

  3. While I appreciate what you are trying to say, I disagree on all 3 counts:

    #1. It is misleading to say that no cause can be won. I think I know what you meant by that, but still, we should try to be explicitly clear in not endorsing the Buddhist vice of praising impermanence and moderation for its own sake. The entire goal of Christian philosophy is to integrate our every effort, every little cause we may be a part of, into one unified cause for the mystical Body of Christ. We should maintain a sense of the linear nature of history. Life is inherently dramatic because the consequences of what we do ultimately produce dramatic results. Not only can the cause be won, but the cause WILL be won.

    #2. It is not at all prideful to believe we face hardships of the same magnitude as those in whose spiritual paths we seek to follow. We should not erect artificial barriers between ourselves and the saints of the past by mythologizing about heroic eras. Rather we should embrace these saints in as close and familiar a way as possible. They were ordinary men and women just like us. We distance ourselves from them at our own peril.

    #3. Lowered expectations in politics is not an apt way to describe the way forward. It's too half-hearted and strikes me as a lukewarm approach. Either we should support political goals that can be realistically enacted, or we should simply quit being politically active. Period. And really, it's not political expectations that we should seek to avoid; rather, it's particular cultures that we should seek to avoid.

    If the time for constructive participation in American political parties has passed–and I think it has–then political organizing is just worldly folly. Both major parties are part of a culture that supports an expansive state that is on a collision course with insolvency. We can no more avoid what's coming to this nation than the captain of the Titanic could avoid hitting an iceberg 15 seconds before impact. It's simply too late. I would say that the American people have already made their decisive choice, and preaching to people who have already made an informed choice to reject your message is a frivolous waste of energy.

    Now don't get me wrong–reaching outward with evangelism is still a worthy endeavor. It only works, however, when there are self-governing Christian communities that are capable of attracting new members from those who are capable of recognizing that they are truly lost. Given the current situation, I think all emphasis should be placed on making such Christian communities smaller, more faithful to orthodoxy, and more communal in nature, because at present, they are too large, too loose, and too socially fractured and atomized. Perhaps it's time to start rereading the Didache.

  4. GEF, This is a civil and reasonable response. Is there a back story here? Do you think that the skepticism that Bruce Frohnen and I and others offer about politics and political action is illegitimate because it is directed toward the national obsession with politics? An example. I really could have cared less about who won the Presidency ("There ain't a dime's worth of difference") and I don't think that it will make much difference to our rush toward the fiscal cliff. But I was very interested in a local contest for Probate Judge in our county, because that is one office where an official being pro-life and pro-family can make a big difference in the way we live our lives. We also elected in Michigan two Supreme Court justices who really believe in the rule of law, as opposed, for example, to the national Supreme Court Justices appointed so often by Republican Presidents. Let's focus the arguments. The assumption that everything is routed through the nation-state is both false and pernicious.

  5. Boethius' teaching about man's varying fortune applies just as well to his emotional comportment towards the body politics. It is natural that men should at times despair, at times enthuse, depending on the turning of the wheel. The key – and I think this was the point of the article – is not to make an ideology of either.


  6. I don't usually enter into the comments ("I agree with John Willson" seems hardly worth writing, let alone reading). But I'd like to follow up on John's reference to local politics. One of the greatest losses suffered in our feckless search for a national solution has been the atrophy of local politics. Many positions go uncontested, these days, because nobody thinks they matter. But some of the most damaging policies today are mandated, not by the courts, or even federal regulations, but by ignorant local officials. Just two examples: Christmas carols at "Holiday" concerts are not, in fact, unconstitutional, but many boards of education seem to think they are. Also, many parishes and congregations face great hostility when they attempt to expand or build new churches because the local board finds them a drain on the tax base (their property is exempt from taxation). Decent, literate, religion-friendly people in these posts would make a real difference here and in many other important areas (e.g. zoning for more traditional neighborhoods, de-funding left-wing "public service" programs, etc.). Local government matters, but has been abandoned, largely, to people who either don't know what they are doing, or are intentionally doing bad things.

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