It will take decades to understand the impact our 24/7 bingeing on polarized thinking and talking is having on us. In the past few weeks, however, we can see at least one outcome – our institutions are losing the ability to tolerate someone who tries to change the subject from our right-left, conservative-liberal, red-blue noxious conversation. This is particularly true for people possessing the kind of character that has been shaped by religious values, worldviews, and ideas.
Consider two examples from the month of April: former FBI Director James Comey, who is a strong United Methodist, and soon-to-become former chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, Patrick J. Conroy, SJ, a Catholic priest and Jesuit. Both men got slammed in April because they tried to talk outside the lanes of our narrow binary conversations.
In the first case, Comey is trying to jump-start a national conversation on leadership and values. But, his new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, has unleashed instead an unprecedented torrent of criticism from nearly everyone, especially Democrats, Republicans and journalists. Of course, lots of people do not like Comey, and many claim he is driven by his own self-righteousness and self-interest. But, is that really true? Or, is this a person of character who is trying to change the subject of our relentless divisiveness?
On Sunday evening, April 22, a crowd of more than 700 people at Seattle University had the benefit of spending nearly an hour and a half with James Comey. Many of the people were expecting an angry man, filled with animus against Donald Trump. Instead, they encountered a warm, humorous, serious, and thoughtful person who was humble enough to question his own decisions and the motivations behind them.
Journalists (and many politicians) are misrepresenting, misinterpreting and misunderstanding Comey’s book because they are reading it through the lens of our polarization bingeing, and they are trying to force it into the wrong literary genre – the political memoir. The key to identifying the right genre for A Higher Loyalty is found in the first few pages, in which the author explains the experiences and role models that formed his understanding of a good leader and his reference to the famous Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. If you want to understand why Comey prosecuted Martha Stewart, released the Clinton emails, and made announcements so close to a presidential election – read Niebuhr who provided the former FBI director with a complicated, nuanced and infinitely realistic religious/philosophical orientation to leadership and life.
Reinhold Niebuhr was a German Evangelical minister who took his first pastorate in a Detroit parish comprised mostly of workers at the Ford Motor Co. At the time, the world lionized Henry Ford as an industrialist who built a profitable business, while simultaneously increasing the social and economic welfare of his workers. Niebuhr knew differently. His congregants often struggled financially and became pawns in a pretty elaborate public relations campaign for Ford automobiles. Getting involved in working to improve worker conditions, the young Detroit pastor began wrestling with the fundamental nature of evil and good. He later moved to Union Seminary in New York as a professor, and became a public intellectual for the nation and world, promoting a Christian social ethic (often called Christian Realism) that eliminates, as Charles Lemert puts it, the “pious swagger” normally associated with people of faith seeking to influence politics and society. Reinhold Niebuhr knew that a democracy had to balance rights and freedoms with social and economic justice, and he developed a rigorous intellectual position located between opposites. He also believed that pride was the most dangerous vice for an individual and constituted the most destructive social sin of an institution. In the political arena, the sin of pride leads to a nationalism that can easily become idolatry.
James Comey did his honors thesis in religion at the College of William and Mary comparing Niebuhr’s thought and another American public theologian, Jerry Falwell, founder of the so-called Evangelical social movement known as the Moral Majority. Comey concluded in his 1982 senior paper that Falwell’s religiously-motivated political action was susceptible to the very prideful national delusion about which Niebuhr warned. If you know Niebuhr’s thought, A Higher Loyalty looks very different than the way most people are discussing it.
Comey does have some less than generous observations about key political leaders. But, in good Niebuhr fashion, the former FBI chief’s harshest judgments are reserved for himself. He admits to cowardice, indecision, grandstanding, mixed motivations, and miscalculations about outcomes from his behavior. More significantly for a student of Niebuhr, Comey admits to a pridefulness that he has tried to keep under check his entire adult life, often times with the snarky help of his wife. An ethical leader for Comey is someone who is always self-aware and a master of balance – kindness and toughness, confidence and humility, seriousness and humor, political astuteness and a fierce commitment to apolitical decision-making. The book is ultimately about trying to learn how to keep opposites in balance in a political era in which everything is imbalanced.
A second person to pay a price for trying to change the subject in our polarization is the current chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, SJ. House Speaker Paul Ryan forced Conroy, who has served in the role since 2011, to resign several months before the priest’s term expired. There have been suggestions that Ryan, a Catholic, sought the ouster of the priest, in part, because of a prayer the Jesuit gave during the tax reform bill debates in the fall of 2017. The prayer asked God to give Congressional leaders the wisdom needed to write a bill helping everyone, not just a few. The actual prayer, which was delivered in the capitol on November 6, 2017, included these words:
“May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Ryan later criticized Conroy, telling him the prayer was “too political.”
It is too early to understand the full story around Fr. Pat Conroy’s resignation, but it is likely the news media and politicians will get his story wrong, too. The secret to making sense of Patrick Conroy requires an appreciation for the Catholic social justice tradition, the Second Vatican Council, and a change in missional direction within the Society of Jesus during the 1970s, when the Jesuits decided that religious faith must promote justice in society or it is null, void and inauthentic.
Conroy, like Comey, does not see the world in binaries. He believes that authentic faith must promote justice, and we need to learn how to make complex ethical decisions in a world more gray than black and white. Because of this, many would like Conroy silenced.
Because Comey and Conroy are people of character does not mean they are wiser than others, or that they never make wrong decisions. It also does not assure their action is free from the influence of ego or self-interest. It does mean, however, that they have the habitus of mind and heart to question and challenge the pack-mentality of our polarized times. It does mean that they try to follow the good, even when it is inconvenient, and are willing to risk their own reputations in the process.
Comey and Conroy are flawed humans like everyone else. But, they are also men of character and breadth of vision in a narrow time of cancerous polarization. They hold up a mirror to our behavior that we want to avoid at all cost. As long as we are not forced to look into the reflection of the higher values of the human condition, we can keep fighting without fear that someone will prick our conscience.
Update: May 3, 2018
In another example of the complexity of the relationship between religion and culture, faith and politics, the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has decided to rethink his decision to enforce the resignation on Father Patrick Conroy, SJ.