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“There’s nothing quite so dangerous as a man of principle”

July 22, 2011

House Speaker John Boehner declared the other day that he would not “compromise his principles” to reach an agreement with the President on raising the national debt limit.  Admirable?  Consider these thoughts:

“A democratic society depends on at least a two-party system, and one in which the two parties are not far distant from each other.  And if you get into a situation of polarization, where there is great distance between the two sides and no possibility of further discussion, then this is a form of the demonic.”

Said only yesterday about the crisis over raising (again) the national debt limit, the powerful urge to slash government spending, and the refusal to consider any new tax revenues, even by closing loopholes in the code?  No, it was said in 1986 by James Luther Adams during colloquies with Ronald Engel and me, subsequently published in An Examined Faith (see Books & Publications page).

“Demonic”? Adams continued: “It means yielding to the temptation to believe that one has found a pipeline to the infinite, and that one knows the will of God unambiguously.  That’s a rather dangerous thing.  T. V. Smith, at the University of Chicago, used to say, ‘There’s nothing quite so dangerous in Congress as a man of principle.  You can’t talk to him. You can’t get some kind of compromise.’”

Compromise, of course, is a smarmy word in our ethical vocabulary.  Good people don’t compromise their principles.  Except that in politics moral principles are often claimed where party ideology is the true motive.  And today we have the ugly spectacle of fundamentalist religion—the old time pipeline to the will of God—upping  the ideological ante.  Definition: an ideology is a group’s self-serving theory about “the way things are.”

A lot of President Obama’s supporters have been wishing he were not so reasonable, so accommodating, so—well—compromising!  Myself included.  But maybe he’s just reminding folks in his nicely modulated voice that politics is always “the art of compromise.”  Definition: a compromise is when both sides give a little.

Moral language is always contextual.  It means different things in different situations.  Many of the no-new-taxers in Congress have taken the Gover Norquist  pledge never-ever in any way-shape-or-form to raise taxes.  As a “party” action, the pledge becomes a kind of covenant, a mutual promise among a group.  To “go back on ones word” now becomes a betrayal, a broken covenant, much worse than having made no pledge at all.  Jesus understood the problem and spoke against swearing oaths: “Let what you say be simply Yes or No” (Matthew5: 37).

A colleague once sharply disagreed with me when I said that covenants could be demonic.  I think he was enamored by the centrality of “covenant” in the Bible, as when God says, “I shall be your God and you shall be my people” (Jeremiah7: 23).  I simply asked him to explain to me Isaiah’s denunciation of those who have made a “covenant with death” (see Isaiah 28: 14-22).  It means: they foresee and still invite destruction.

It’s also called selling your soul to the Devil.  Recently at the Castleton Festival in Virginia we saw a version of the familiar tale, Igor Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du Soldat.”  Headed home from the wars, a soldier trades his violin to a peddler for a book of magical wisdom.  The play is fanciful, the music captivating, and the conclusion disturbingly tragic.  We went away asking, how could such a seemingly happy tale end so badly?

Just so, our political drama is turning tragic: “We all fall down.”  But this is no children’s game.  When did it begin?  Perhaps as recently as the financial crisis of 2008.  The bailout of the behemoth banks may be the original sin of today’s political dyspepsia: nobody trusts anybody anymore.  — G. K. B.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. doodi permalink
    July 22, 2011 1:14 pm

    Ain’t that the truth! Democrats compromise, republicans stand their ground. As a strategy in a win/lose game, the reps clearly have chosen the better one. As far as a strategy for good governance goes, not so good.

  2. November 16, 2011 8:58 pm

    To Bill Baar, who wonders why I would say that “moral language is always contextual, [for] it means different things in different situations.” First, excuse me for taking so long to respond to this very reasonable request for clarification, at the least! I’ve been distracted, especially by the James Luther Adams lecture, which I’m posting here on the JLA Workshop page.

    To address your question: No, I don’t mean to affirm moral relativism, sometimes called “situaltionalism.” I meant to say (but did not clearly say): Yes, we should have moral “principles,” but when when we mean by this that we know what is absolutely right and would never, “as a matter of principle,” diverge from that, and hold this up as a virtue of moral rectitude, when in fact it ia a stance that denies what I call “the principle of huminity,” a stance that says, “this is what I believe, but I may be wrong”–then we are wrong, unequivocally wrong. I believe that nothing is good without good will. So standing on your “princples” is not good enough.

    Hey, thanks for getting me started on this! GKB

  3. November 17, 2011 6:00 am

    Even when you made a promise to constituents who elected you? The recent batch of Congressman often elected based on a firm promise to voters not to raise taxes. So it’s ok to break that promise? In fact, as you suggest here, it’s wrong not to break this promise.

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