Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Michael Gerson writes an elegant and spot on editorial in today's Washington Post on sin, virtue, aspiration, hypocrisy, humility and mercy.  A must read.
Categories > Religion

Discussions - 14 Comments

"This recognition should lead toward the most underrated of the moral virtues: mercy. Yes, people are baser than their highest ideals. They are also nobler than their worst moments. This does not make the distinction between base and noble impossible. But it makes a little grace appropriate."

I never cared for Gerson or the malign influence he exercised on Bush and conservatism. I care little for Souder. Christian ethics is misplaced here (recall Churchill on the limits of Christian ethics). First of all, grace is given by God; we mortals can only hope and pray for it. Second, where is mercy in Aristotle's list of virtues? Does it belong under the faux friendship, truth-telling, or wittiness of the "social virtues," at the end of NE IV? Or does it really belong with justice?

Should we be merciful to Helen Thomas? (See the comments on Richard Adams' post below, esp. the enlightening thoughts of Tim Seibel.) Does our mercy weaken our justice?

Shouldn't we be strengthening our own resolve not to do wrong? Does this come from expectations of mercy or the desire to be just--and ultimately to have truly good friends?

He is being compassionate. Certainly that is needed, person to person. How it plays in politics might necessarily be different. I didn't like Compassionate Conservatism either and thought it put civil government in God's place. That doesn't mean I don't believe in charity.

On a personal level we treat someone like Helen Thomas with all grace possible. If she had shown a little grace and compassion (not to mention clear thought) we might not be as upset with her. Ultimate grace is given by God, and we can only hope and pray for that, but we hope with expectation since god is the God of Grace.

But surely we are expected to be gracious to one another, as well.

"As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another: as good stewards of the manifold grace of God." 1 Peter 4:10

"And be ye kind one to another; merciful, forgiving one another, even as God hath forgiven you in Christ." Ephesians 4:32

"Bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if any have a complaint against another: even as the Lord hath forgiven you, so do you also." Colossians 3:13

"For judgment without mercy to him that hath not done mercy. And mercy exalteth itself above judgment." James 2:13

Finally, and a favorite:

"Let your speech be always in grace seasoned with salt": Colossians 4:6

We need justice and the just in office. While I am unsure of what I think about Mr. Souder or keeping him in politics, as Gerson seems to suggest we should, he's right about this:

"Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: Judge ye true judgment, and shew ye mercy and compassion every man to his brother." Zechariah 7:9

An Jesus said to the Pharisees, "But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness." Matt 23:23

I don't about Aristotle so much, though we are all happy to reconcile his Ethics with Christian ethics whenever we can. We all also know that doing wrong makes a mess of things and beyond God's judgment, we should do right just to avoid making a mess.

And Joe Conason picks apart Gerson's piece pretty nicely, smashing handily that tired, old conservative trope that in practice tends to translate to IOKIYAR - It's OK If You're a Republican:

Talk about tired old tropes, first from him, now from you.

Do go on, Kate...

"The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence."

That says it all. Craig's piece is a pretty weak attack pretending that so many liberals don't actually hold "school boy relativism."

Yes, Gerson countered the criticism of Conason (and Scanlon) preemptively with that paragraph. They don't even see it, being satisfied with their prejudices.

I apologize for having tossed together that long comment in a terrible hurry. Editing is good, in our writing and in our lives. Who wouldn't edit pieces of life if he could?

The real reason I came back to this topic to write more is to remember the election of 1884. Grover Cleveland while running for president might have wished to edit some parts of his life. Short--cutting to Wikipedia, which says that when a young man,"Cleveland did enjoy an active social life" (one heck of a euphemism) in a boarding house and saloons. Grown respectable and politically active over the years, his personal morality problems came after him in the 1884 presidential election. His opponent was the Republican, James G. Blaine, who had a reputation for public corruption. Some Republicans, and eventually the nation, decided Cleveland's politics were the important point and his honesty, public and private was a winning factor in the election.

Of course, if you read about Cleveland's politics -- golly, he's a Democrat I could vote for; they don't make Democrats like him anymore.

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Can we resurrect him?

Returning to the point of grace: "Let your speech be always in grace seasoned with salt." We can't let our grace get so sweet that we lose our standards.

Conason responded to that paragraph (quoted by Tony above) directly:

"But where is the liberal who says (or thinks) that right-wing moral hypocrisy proves fidelity to be a "joke"? This liberal is a silly stereotype existing only in the minds of conservatives, meant to comfort them as they suffer repeated embarrassment on their own side of the aisle, from Newt Gingrich to Mark Sanford and now Souder....

Again, he ought to name the liberals who reject "all standards" in favor of shameless decadence. Because as far as I can tell, the average liberal in or out of politics is just as likely to uphold ordinary moral standards as the average conservative. Indeed the liberals – as measured by the rates of divorce and teen pregnancy in the blue states, for instance – perform better on the "morality" scale. (For the latest data and sharp analysis of this contrast, consult the fascinating new book Red Families v. Blue Families, by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone.)"

If anyone is operating on "prejudices" Kate, I think Gerson's providing a fine example in his laughable caricature of liberals as nonchalantly amoral.

Gerson ends with this:
"This recognition should lead toward the most underrated of the moral virtues: mercy. Yes, people are baser than their highest ideals. They are also nobler than their worst moments. This does not make the distinction between base and noble impossible. But it makes a little grace appropriate."

Right, conservatives have a lesson to teach us about mercy (Careful!! Mercy is a relative of "compassion" and "empathy" - terms that seem to twist conservatives into angry knots, for some reason.) The people who impeached a president over a stained dress, treat torture of prisoners as something akin to a sacrament (and paint our torturers as heroes), shrug at execution of minors (see a recent post here at NLT) and the developmentally disabled, and see their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as deeply and profoundly moral, not to mention put Glenn Beck on a pedestal despite, well, pretty much everything he does (mocking a woman for her miscarriage, for starters) - these are the people who can teach us about the quality of mercy?

I think not.

"The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals."

Sure, duh, obviously - you'll get no argument from me (or, a hefty majority of libs and lefties), but then, that's not really the point.

I think it's something more like this (in addition to what Conason said, and I wrote above). The ideals themselves, either ably demonstrated in real life, or quietly held and passed along, are more important than the self-righteous horn-blowing and suspicious moral grandstanding that comes from people who, it is entirely safe to wonder, probably don't really hold those ideals so closely themselves. Not to mention the infuriating and disgusting levels of hypocrisy. If the ideal is so darn wonderful that a pol feels it necessary to make it an important part of his pandering... er.... campaign, then you'd think he/she would be making that extra bit of effort to really live up to the ideal.

Anyone with eyes to see, who doesn't limit their take on reality to NLT and/or FoxNews, will notice that when it comes to sex scandals of all types, Repubs outdo Dems by at least a 3-to-1 margin - at least.

Numbers aside, a classic example of a "traditional family values conservative" who almost certainly didn't even believe the words coming out of his mouth, has to be former U.S. Senate candidate Paul Ryan of Illinois (consider how his failure possibly helped Obama's rise). Here's what Ryan had on his campaign website:

"As an elected leader, my interest will be in promoting laws and educating people about the fundamental importance of the traditional family unit as the nucleus of our society.

In the wake of the recent Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruling that has spawned similar lawsuits in other states, it seems likely that defending traditional marriage and codifying that defense will be required at the federal level. As such, as a United States Senator, I would support legislation such as Senator Bill Frist’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), provided the language remains clear in the defining of traditional marriage and protecting the traditional family unit."

and here's what his wife stated during divorce proceedings:

"In her 2000 filing, Jeri Ryan alleged that after she and Jack Ryan left the first sex club they entered in New York, he asked her to go to another. She said he told her that he had gone out to dinner with her that night even though he didn't want to and "the least I could do in return was go to the club he wanted me to go."

She described the second place as "a bizarre club with cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling."

"Respondent wanted me to have sex with him there with another couple watching. I refused," Jeri Ryan continued. "Respondent asked me to perform a sexual activity upon him and he specifically asked other people to watch. I was very upset.

"We left the club and respondent apologized, said that I was right and he would never insist that I go to a club again. He promised it was out of his system."

But later, Jeri Ryan said, Jack Ryan took her to Paris where he again took her to a sex club without first telling her where they were going.

"I told him I thought it was out of his system. I told him he had promised me we would never go. People were having sex everywhere. I cried. I was physically ill. Respondent became very upset with me and said it was not a `turn-on' for me to cry. I could not get over the incident and my loss of any attraction to him as a result. "

Maybe that's a "traditional marriage" if Marquis de Sade is one's tradition, I guess.

But they did have a son, so their split certainly had direct and palpable impacts on other people. I wonder if Paul Ryan will inculcate his traditional values to his son, perhaps taking him to his first swinger club (to meet GOP head Michael Steele? haha) rather than his first baseball game?

The thing is, there's vast amounts of evidence that many of these people who are shouting their Traditional Moral Family Values from the rooftops don't actually care for such values at all - at least, past the point which they feel they must USE such rhetoric to snag votes of gullible moralizers. Failure to live up to one's ideals is one thing, but cavalierly flouting them is another.

Whoops, forgot links. For more on the noble and honorable Paul Ryan - Family Values Candidate, see here:

and here:

I also enjoyed his commentary on how his privacy was violated (revealing his creepy ways pre-split) when the divorce records were unsealed when one of his early tactics (before his principled concerns about privacy) against Barack Obama was to have a campaign worker follow Obama around 24/7 with a videocamera and record everything he did, nonstop.

Is Jack Ryan the same person as Paul Ryan?

Oops - yes, of course. I meant Jack Ryan in all cases where I wrote Paul. Maybe I was derailed by J for Jeri or something...

Here is the guy we keep talking about on here -- That is Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The last syllable of that state's name is "sin" and maybe that is important to you and something you find important or significant.

Gerson was saying that conservatives have a lesson to learn in mercy. I think you have said that, too.

Jack Ryan: I remember reading about this and thinking the guy didn't have a chance in Republican politics or anybody's politics. I can't even imagine the Libertarians running him for anything. He seems like a nasty piece of work. I don't see why you are exposing us to all of his transgressions, except to be nasty yourself. Did Gerson mention him? Were you hoping Jack Ryan and Paul Ryan were the same person, knowing conservatives like the latter guy? What the heck were you doing?

Whoa, whoa - relax, Kate!

I made a simple mistake of typing Paul when I meant Jack. Truth be told, I didn't know, or consciously remember, that there was a congressman named Paul Ryan (who also happens to be a Republican - what are the odds?). I corrected myself. Do note that my links all go to stuff about Jack Ryan. Jack. Not Paul. And where did "we" talk about Paul Ryan? Only I made that little blunder. I've only been talking about Jack Ryan. I've not heard a thing about any Paul Ryan scandals. He might be a wonderfully moral man.

So now it's that Gerson was really scolding the conservatives? Come on. He clearly said he'd "rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies."

So, first, his claim that the liberals who mock the Traditional Family Moral Values conservatives' hypocrisy "mock all standards as lies" is just flat-out silly. As I said, mocking hypocrisy is not denying the standard, it's expressing disgust and amusement with the hollow grandstanding and self-righteousness. You'll get to do this too when Dennis Kucinich or Rachel Maddow get busted for torturing Muslims in their basements, okay?

Secondly, as I was pointing out in the case of JACK Ryan (not Paul or John or Bill or whatever other generic name could go before Ryan), I think that a lot of these Noble Defenders of Virtue don't really care so much about the virtues and morality as much as they do the power, money and audience that they can acquire by spouting off to a certain voting demographic (many of whom DO genuinely care about such things) and pushing their buttons. It's not like Jack Ryan is the only example, either. We could get into the wholesome Vegas-Atlantic City lifestyle of Bill Bennett, or Gingrich's shenanigans at the exact same time he was pushing for Clinton's ouster for grave moral transgressions (although if forced to compare them on a lowliness scale, I'm not sure Gingrich would come out on top), or any of the myriad Republican sex offenders. I don't think that Jack Ryan really did "recognize standards" on those moral issues he promoted so much before (perhaps he does now, who know); I don't think he - and plenty of others like him - actually did hold those ideals in any serious sense.

What do you mean that Jack Ryan didn't "have a chance in Republican politics"?? He won his primary in '04 and sounds like a fit with the tea party crowd - "During his Senate campaign, Ryan was a proponent of across-the-board tax cuts and tort reform, an effort to limit payout in medical malpractice lawsuits, as well as a proponent of school choice." (Wiki) Had it not been for the revelations of his creepy personal life (which, perhaps should not have been revealed, but since they were, we can see the laughable chasm between his stated ideals and his actual behavior) he would've raked in plenty of conservative votes, of course.

"I don't see why you are exposing us to all of his transgressions, except to be nasty yourself."

I didn't realize you were so delicate. As you've said before, "nasty in politics is not really a problem for [you]."
I "exposed" you to his "transgressions" to point out that he's a prime example of someone who didn't just slip and fall from his high standards that he truly, deeply believed in.

Just consider it "tough love," Kate.

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