God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
The “Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr, 1943.
I wrote back in the summer about how politics, for the person of Christian faith, should be important but not Important. In other words, as much as we understand that politics has real and immediate consequences for the lives of millions and for the life and direction of our communities, states and nations, and so is deserving of our attention and energy, yet it is not worthy of our ultimate attention and energy. This is part of what it means that we are to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.
This is also essentially what differentiates people of serious Christian faith from secularists. For many of the latter, politics carries ultimate meaning: there is nothing higher or more permanent than the political order, and it is in that order that the most important questions are answered. This is why, so often, political parties and platforms offer what can only be described as eschatologies—worldviews promising eventual and lasting answers to what ails our world. Of course, there is a price to be paid for such answers: the followers are asked to “buy in” completely. On the Republican side, one must not only be right-thinking on economic issues but also must buy in to the party’s view of foreign affairs and defense matters, gun rights and immigration policies, and opposition to abortion and gay rights as well. The message from the party pundits is something like: “to the extent you buy in to our agenda, and to the extent that our agenda is successful at this election—THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION IN RECENT MEMORY FOR CRYING OUT LOUD—then, to that extent, you will find the answers and you will find meaning. And on the other side, the Democrat professional politicos seem also to say to us that we must buy in totally: to a statist view of society and well-being, to government programs as the option of first resort for solving social problems, to liberal and even radical views of social and moral issues, to a severely individualistic view of civil rights, and a whole host of related positions. Again, the promise seems to be that only if we buy in with all our hearts and all our minds will we see the benefits of membership in the Club.
But, it seems to me, in the linkage is the lie. In other words, there is no good reason as a matter of political or moral philosophy that a person of integrity cannot pick and choose. Why can’t I be pro-life and pro-poor? Why not for a traditional understanding of civil rights—that all rights are limited, both by practical necessity and by offsetting obligations—and at the same time still advocate for basic equality of all persons? Why can I not say that I am for humane immigration policies but also for common-sense limits on public welfare programs? Most intelligent and decent people I know eventually end up “picking and choosing” amongst the political issues. But of course the political classes do not like this, for it represents a kind of independence that they find threatening.
So I, for one, plan to go on picking and choosing which parts of whomever’s agenda that I find sensible and leaving the rest of it alone. For I hold to another worldview, another eschatology, one that says that such monumental questions as who should finally be in charge of things—(I have repeatedly offered myself for the job but so far no one has taken me up on it)—are not ours to control. We can work for the best ends as we see them, but we must know that we can but see partially, as through a glass darkly, but that there is One who can see clearly, and who is finally in charge of things.
Meanwhile, suffice it to say that the elections did not go entirely as I had hoped. Some of my candidates won but many lost, some of my friends running for office had success and some did not, some of the measures I most detested passed, and some I had liked failed. And so, I woke up Wednesday morning not very content; in fact I was, as alcoholics and other addicts talk about, “restless, irritable and discontent.” And it took me about half a day, including a recovery meeting, to remember the basics: that I am to pray for courage to change the things I can, of course, but also for serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and for the wisdom to know the difference. Does it seem very odd to you that, for awhile during the campaigns, I fell prey to the temptation of thinking that I had some power over what would eventually happen? For me, any delusions along this line were washed away with the Eastern seaboard sands, as a major hurricane brought misery to the lives of millions, and along the way threatened a major disruption of the elections as well. It was then that I first began to remember that I have no control over such things as hurricanes, disasters, and certainly not over mundane and ordinary things like political elections.
To descend to the absurd, this is all not that different from another theatre, where I absurdly act as if I had some influence: every Saturday in the Fall when I somehow think that, if I only wear the right hat or the right color, if I make popcorn, or don’t, or put butter on it, or refrain, or sing the old fight song well, or badly, that somehow all of this will help the Oregon Ducks or the Arkansas Razorbacks win. Of course, even in the sphere of “relative importance” college football is in a different time zone than political elections, but the point is still the same. There are some things over which I have absolutely no control. My job is not to worry about those things, but only to pray for the serenity to accept them, and then get on asking for courage—guts—to go out and change those things I can. Which, for this addict anyway, always starts with myself.