John Adams famously wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We seem to be hell-bent on testing his prescience.
Adams’s admonition is often quoted as proof that the American founders desired to form a government based on Christian principles, but this gets it exactly wrong. Rather, our second president realized that a government founded on liberal principles would require the perpetuation of the pre-liberal or non-liberal norms extant among the people to be sustainable. The preceding but less-well-known lines of Adams’s letter make this clearer: “[W]e have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”
Patrick Deneen argued in “Unsustainable Liberalism” that liberalism itself corrodes the pre-liberal norms and institutions that sustain and structure liberal societies. We need not accept the inevitability of this corrosion to observe that it has in fact occurred. There are any number of data points we could marshal to corroborate this observation, but perhaps the most ubiquitous in this election season is the despairing assumption that universal moral norms not only cannot be, but should not be applied to politics.
There’s nothing new about the idea that religious people need to submit their beliefs about morality, like their bags and jackets, to inspection before entering a public space. Like security checkpoints at federal buildings, the list of prohibitions has only increased over time. In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to doff his Catholicism to gain access to the White House, but it was his potential Romish allegiances, not religiously-inspired moral opinions themselves, that were at issue. Now Senator Tim Kaine confesses—no, brags—that he regularly acts against his religiously-informed conscience (and against human life) in order to fulfill his official duties. Secularization has proceeded from screening out certain especially incompatible beliefs (the temporal authority of the Church) to imposing new duties that supersede those of any church or conscience.
Conservative, orthodox Christians have rightly decried this progression as destructive both to the ability of religious persons to participate authentically in liberal society and, by extension, to liberal society itself. It is not an act of humility but one of mutilation to amputate one’s faith in order to fulfill some secular political mandate—whether it be a bureaucratic directive or a party’s litmus test. This is the end result of the secularization of the public square: the elevation of politics, defined in the post-Christian era almost exclusively as the ability to exercise power, over religious and conscientious obligations. Against this kind of uninhibited politics, both Adams and Deneen would agree, our liberal constitution has no power.
The most effective weapon secular liberals have against Christians in this regard isn’t coercion but despair—despair that engagement in politics and a clear conscience are incompatible. The extent to which this despair—dolled up as tough-minded pragmatism—is marshaled by respectable liberals in support of Hillary Clinton should be shocking, but by now it’s just normal. Matthew Yglesias, an ageless sprite who emerged fully-formed from the head of Jeremy Bentham, specifically argued that the Democratic nominee’s bald corruption and criminality would make her an “effective president.” And if by “effective” he means (and he does) “capable of exercising power as efficiently as possible,” he’s probably right.
One of the most frustrating aspects of a frustrating election season, though, has been watching so many conservative Christians give into despairing of the compatibility of morality and politics. Time and again I’ve seen Christians who in every other circumstance assail secular liberalism dutifully regurgitate secularists’ pablum: Politics is a dirty business, they say, and so the personal morality of our leaders is of no consequence—indeed scrupulosity is a drawback. This is bad enough, but they go on: Voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for the Republican nominee are weak-minded prudes who value their own delicate consciences over political reality. (How this contempt for conscience differs from, say, Kathleen Sebelius’s is never explored.) In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Eric Metaxas even put “moral purity” in scare quotes and suggested that God would judge harshly those who don’t get their hands (and souls) dirty with the “odious” but pragmatic Trump.
This kind of “dirty hands” thinking, which posits that general moral norms can and should be violated when an apparently worse evil can be avoided, finds no support in traditional Christian thought. Our first duty is always to avoid sin and to pursue virtue, and that begins with a well-formed conscience. There can be no haggling with the Lord over when conscience really matters. We must never think we are so clever that we can flirt with the evil one and leave it at that. If you would like to argue that voting for a dirty candidate is morally good, so be it. But it is incoherent and dangerous to counsel overriding one’s conscience to cast that vote, or to say that such a vote is bad but necessary due to the worse alternative. A morality that requires immoral actions in extreme situations cannot be called Christian, and indeed it cannot be called morality at all.
And yet the concept of “dirty hands” does have some recent popular and academic vintage. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Americans were on edge about further terrorist attacks. The pop culture figure of the zeitgeist was Jack Bauer from Fox’s terror-drama 24, who did terrible things with minimal regret to save American lives. Meanwhile in the academy, celebrated Christian thinker Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote “A Reflection on the Problem of Dirty Hands” as a contribution to a burgeoning literature on the morality of torture.
Elshtain’s thesis was that strong-minded leadership sometimes requires violating general moral norms against certain kinds of coercive interrogation techniques. These actions were not good, but necessary evils that the effective leader must come to terms with. Humorously in an essay providing an elaborate justification of torture, Elshtain wrote that these leaders “should not write elaborate justifications of [torture].” The naiveté of this idea—that “dirty hands” thinking can be sequestered to the decision-making elite—has been demonstrated convincingly by the ubiquity of “dirty hands” thinking, whether about terrorism or politics, among otherwise levelheaded Christians.
The application to electoral politics is easy to see: In our democracy, the people are said to have the power. We are the leaders, and we have to get our hands dirty in the filth of modern secular politics. But in denuding our political witness of anything discernibly Christian or even discernibly moral, we simply participate with the secularists in the decline of liberal political norms. Liberal constitutional government, as John Adams so presciently wrote, requires Christians to act like Christians, not like secular liberals with cross necklaces tucked under our shirts.
This doesn’t have to mean monkish quietism (though the prayers of holy monks would be much appreciated), but it certainly does mean that compromises of principle are unacceptable. Apologizing for an appalling nominee makes the authentic Christian faith—the faith that values meekness and detachment and suffering—more appealing to exactly zero people. We have other modes of political participation available to us: local and state campaigns, grassroots organizing, building intentional communities, and so on. This is an opportunity to think creatively and realistically about what Christian political witness will look like going forward.
Regardless of who wins this presidential election, we are embarking on a new and frightening time for Christians in America. But the appeal of holiness, conscience, and, yes, moral purity is timeless. In any political dispensation—even and especially amid the coming persecution—we can do nothing better for ourselves, for our society, and for the Body of Christ than to pursue relentlessly that which is true, good, and beautiful. This is Christian hope, and it is the antidote for political despair.
Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.