Commentary Magazine


Jody Bottum’s World-Weariness

Joseph Bottum, formerly the editor of the conservative-leaning religious journal First Things, has written an essay in Commonweal magazine titled, “The Things We Share: The Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” The essay got a big assist with a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Bottum isn’t saying he personally supports same-sex marriage; he’s saying he believes the Catholic Church should give up its opposition to the government sanctioning same-sex marriages. His shift on the issue has elicited, and will continue to elicit, quite a response, including this insightful one from Rod Dreher. 

I want to set aside for the moment Bottum’s arguments related to same-sex marriage and focus instead on a quote Bottum gave to the Times.

“I’ve given up on politics,” Mr. Bottum said, as we sat on his wide porch after lunch. “I’ll vote Republican, because I’m a Republican. But I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.”

I have several reactions to this, starting with this one. What exactly does it mean to “give up on politics”? To give up on the importance of national elections? To give up the battle of ideas in which politics is the arena? To give up on the back-and-forth about matters like war and peace, justice and injustice, and the moral good?

Memo to Jody Bottum: Politics is one place–not the only place, but one important place–where we work for the good and health of our earthly city. Politics produced the American Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights Act. In the 20th century politics produced leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill, and FDR. There are many other achievements and individuals one could name. Are we supposed to believe such things simply don’t matter anymore? That we should be indifferent to who our political leaders (and therefore, among other things, our Supreme Court Justices) are? Is politics just one giant game of Trivial Pursuit?

Such a view isn’t intellectual or morally serious–and because Bottum is a serious individual, I assume such statements must be the product of something else. I’ll assume world-weariness for now.

As for Bottum’s claim that “I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.” This statement, too, is false. As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, sometimes culture is upstream of politics–but sometimes politics is upstream of culture. The interaction between the two is constant and ongoing. 

“A polity is a river of constantly changing compositions,” George Will wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft, “and the river’s banks are built on laws.” The laws of a nation embody its values and shape them, in ways large and small, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect, sometimes immediately and often lasting. The most obvious examples from our own history concern slavery and segregation, but there are plenty of others, from welfare to education, from crime to drug use, to Supreme Court decision like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade.

Laws express moral beliefs and judgments. Like throwing a pebble into a pond, the waves ripple outward. They tell citizens what our society ought to value and condemn, what is worthy of our esteem and what merits our disapprobation. They both ratify and stigmatize. That is not all the laws do, but it is among the most important things they do.

The welfare system we had for much of the 20th century undermined personal responsibility and upward mobility–and the passage of welfare reform in 1996 started to reverse it. Rudy Giuliani’s policies in the 1990s helped transform New York, not only making it a far safer city but dramatically improving its spirit and ethos.

One final example: In April 1963 a group of eight Birmingham clergy members made an argument about the limits and dangers of political activism. In the Birmingham News, the clergymen criticized civil-rights activism as “unwise and untimely,” and urged Christians to show patience. (Perhaps they even believed the only way to end segregation was to rely on “enchanting” individuals like George Wallace and “Bull” Connor.)

Martin Luther King Jr., then in the Birmingham City Jail, began writing a response. “Frankly,” he said, “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the views of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” Dr. King’s counter-argument was simple and convincing: patience for political injustice comes more easily for those who are not currently experiencing injustice. The result was one of the masterpieces in American political thought, King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Changing a culture of bigotry required not just waiting for changes in hearts; it required changes in laws. And the important work of instituting the right laws won’t be achieved by the world-weary among us.

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