On the wisdom of not clinging to power

Fresno Bee, Feb. 18, 2024

We have entered an era of bumbling gerontocracy. The crusty old codgers clinging to power are embarrassing.

Consider the recent report of the special investigator in the Biden classified documents case. The report said that since Biden is a congenial old duffer, a jury would not convict him of mishandling official documents. The special counsel said, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory… He is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him.”

This has been red meat for the “Let’s go Brandon” crowd. And the Biden backers claim it is a partisan hit job. But the other side is no better. Trump is accused of fomenting an insurrection, among other crimes. And left-leaning pundits have chronicled Trump’s gaffes and mental slips, including how he confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, and his bizarre recent claim that liberals want to rename Pennsylvania.

In a better world, both candidates would step aside. This will be a depressing dumpster fire of an election year. But perhaps we can learn something along the way about leadership and power.

A good leader should be smart, truthful and thoughtful. He or she should be courageous and compassionate. And a leader should not cling to power.

Plato explained, over two thousand years ago, that the best leaders are usually the least eager to lead. Would-be tyrants lie, cheat, and cajole their way into power. Virtuous people will not play that ugly game.

Plato said that wise rulers must be compelled to rule by a sense of justice and duty. He concluded that the best rulers are those who are “most reluctant to govern.” This sounds bizarre and almost impossible. Can we really imagine a person who serves as a matter of duty, and not because they desire glory?

George Washington may provide a model. When asked to consider the presidency, Washington said he would rather stay home. He said, “it is my great and sole desire to live and die in peace and retirement, on my own farm.” But if he were called upon to serve, he said, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

Perhaps this was a kind of false modesty on Washington’s part. It is possible for a manipulative person to say “no” to power as a strategic ploy. They might deviously hope that a public display of humility will be persuasive.

But Washington’s writings reveal a man who was focused on questions of virtue. Washington wanted to be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of his country with “an upright zeal.” This is how he put it in his Farewell Address, as he voluntarily left office after two terms at the age of 65.

Washington’s decision not to run for a third term established the basic norm of the two-term presidency. This norm was put into law after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency.

Scholars debate the reasons for Washington’s refusal to run for a third term. But most seem to think that he really did desire to retreat to a private life at Mount Vernon. The consensus view seems to be, as one scholar put it, “in turning away from further service, Washington established himself as a model of selfless leadership.”

Selfless leadership is a noble idea. The best leaders should be reluctant to serve — but do so willingly, out of a sense of duty. They should want to be known as honest people. And they should have the constancy of character, and orientation toward virtue, that Washington called upright zeal.

They should also possess wisdom. Wisdom is different from quickness of wit. Young people are quick and witty. But wisdom comes with age and experience, and with a mellowing of the passions.

So, the age of our leading candidates is not the only thing that matters. What matters more is whether these old-timers are wise and virtuous, and whether they insist on clinging to power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article285541682.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Freedom Day: From Jefferson and Adams to Trump and Biden

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2024

Religious Freedom Day” is January. 16. The day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed into law on January 16, 1786. The law was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and carried forward by James Madison.

It is worth reading the whole document. It is not long. But it does contain dense prose that brings together a number of important points from theology and political philosophy. Before summarizing it, we might note how different things seem today from the time of the founding. Jefferson and Madison studied philosophy, religion, history, and politics. They spoke moderately and with reasoned arguments.

These giants are quite different from the leading Republican candidate for president, who has been talking a lot about religion. In a Christmas post, Donald Trump wrote of Joe Biden and others he calls “thugs,” “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL.” And before Christmas, in Iowa, Trump said, “Our country’s gone to hell. As soon as I get back in the Oval Office, I’ll immediately end the war on Christians … Under crooked Joe Biden, Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before. And also presidents like never before.”

This Christian nationalist dog whistle fails to acknowledge that the Constitution makes persecution of any religion illegal. It fails to recognize that in our system of checks and balances, the president does not have the absolute power to declare war on religion. Trump also fails to understand that Christmas is a time of joy and love, not grievance and resentment.

Of course, Trump is free to say what he wants. Thanks to the founders’ wisdom, we have freedom of speech along with religious liberty. The Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that there can be no war on any kind of religion. It also allows Trump to damn his opponents to hell.

Now let’s consider that Virginia Statute. The law states that faith ought to be free from coercion because God created the human mind free. The government should stay out of religion because coercive state power corrupts the nature of faith.

The law notes that the men who lead churches and states are “fallible and uninspired.” It also claims that these faulty mortals have “established and maintained false religions” throughout history. Such crooked men end up warping religion when they try to impose their opinions on others.

The statute further says that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” This means that every person has the same civil rights, no matter what they believe (or don’t believe). Civil government exists to maintain peace and good order. Beyond that it should not go. The state does not exist to enforce religious orthodoxy.

The statute concludes by paraphrasing the philosopher John Locke, saying, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” There is a suggestion here that political coercion tends to undermine truth. At the same time there is the hope that if people were left alone to develop their own consciences, truth would win out and we’d all be better off.

These are important ideas found deep in the heart of the American tradition. They also remind us of a different kind of political tone. The founders valued civility, moderation and restraint. Of course, from time to time, the founding generation engaged in heated political rhetoric. These men were human, after all. In the election of 1800, supporters of John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson of being an atheist. William Lin, a clergyman who opposed Jefferson, said the election of Jefferson would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Despite that hyperbole and animosity, Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled after their respective presidencies ended. They went on to exchange a number of letters in which they discussed religion and philosophy. These letters show that Jefferson was not an atheist. Nor was Adams an orthodox Christian. Rather, these were inquisitive minds trying to make sense of religion.

It is religious liberty that allows us to think critically about our beliefs. In the long run, wisdom is found in free and moderate discussion. And it is better to argue reasonably than to wish that your opponents should rot in hell.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article284146833.html#storylink=cpy

Want a happier new year? Seek truth, goodness, and beauty

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2023

In the new year, we should seek truth, pursue goodness, and surround ourselves with beauty. Truth, beauty, and goodness are linked. To live well and have a happy new year, we should resolve to ask ourselves three questions. Is it true? Is it good? And is it beautiful?

New year’s wishes and resolutions are often less enlightened. That’s because we are often confused about happiness. Perhaps we think that happiness is something that happens to us—like winning the lottery. Or we confuse power and influence with happiness.

But happiness has little to do with external goods. It is not an object. Nor is it given to us by someone else. Happiness is a by-product of the daily struggle to live well.

Ancient wisdom teaches that fame and fortune are fleeting. The same is true of health, and even life itself. The external goods we desire and pursue are beyond our control. Businesses go bankrupt. Diseases, storms, and accidents afflict us. Social life involves conflicts and disputes. And politics is chaotic and often ugly.

Some external goods are necessary. Money is useful. It helps to live in a safe home and neighborhood. But the key to happiness is not acquiring wealth or living in a mansion behind a guarded gate. It is also useful to have a good reputation. But fame is less important than the glory-seekers think. A healthy body is important. But physical health is less valuable than health of the soul.

Truth, goodness, and beauty are more substantial and enduring than fame and fortune. True statements are not subject to the opinions of the masses. Logic, mathematics, and science remain stable, while the opinions of the world swirl about. And despite propaganda and fake news, the truth is there, waiting to be known.

The same kind of stability is found in a good person. Liars and cheats are unpredictable. Braggarts and loud-mouths rage and fume. And crooks have crooked souls. But good people are trustworthy and reliable. Their integrity makes them steady and resolute.

A good soul is also beautiful. Beauty is harmony and proportion. In music, beauty is heard in the balance of a chord and the pattern of rhythm. A good life is marked by this kind of patterned concord.

The Confucian tradition explained harmony and goodness on analogy with music—and with cooking. A delicious meal involves the right balance of spicy and sweet, flavors and textures. So too with music, and with life. The parts of life must be measured and coordinated with wisdom and restraint. When life give you lemons, you should make lemonade. And when things fall out of rhythm, you need to get back on the beat.

Some traditions suggest that the transcendent goods of truth, goodness, and beauty put us in touch with the divine. Plato said virtuous human beings became godlike. Plato imagined the gods as true, good, and beautiful. The essence of the divine is a kind of eternal stability and glowing beauty. To live well, we should try to live in a way that imitates that ideal of perfection.  

Of course, perfection is not available for mere mortals. Happiness is not always easy to obtain. We are fallible beings in a broken world. Human life is an ongoing process of overcoming challenges. Great art comes from struggle. The same is true of scientific achievement and business success.

Understanding the value of struggle can provide us with inspiration and hope. This world contains much that is ugly, dishonest, and evil. The wickedness of the world can make us resentful. It can lead to despair. It can even seduce us into giving up on the task of living well.

In a corrupt world, it is easy to become corrupt and complicit. It is more difficult to struggle on, and to remain steadfast against the seductions of the world. The gods do not struggle to be good, beautiful, or true. But human beings must work at it. The struggle to live well is part of the project of being human. That’s why as the new year dawns, we make resolutions. We need to continually renew our commitment to being better, more truthful, and to living a more beautiful life.

The Joy of Secular Christmas

What do secular people do at Christmas?

A Christian friend recently asked me how nonreligious people like me celebrate Christmas. I said, “Well, we put up a tree, decorate the house, eat cookies and drink mulled wine. We give presents and have fun with friends and family. We sing Christmas songs and watch Christmas movies.”

Nonreligious people pretty much do what everyone else does. We don’t go to church. But Christmas is much more than going to church.

This may come as a surprise to those who insist that we keep the “Christ” in “Christmas.” But Christmas can be enjoyed without the dogmas of Christianity. The decorating, gift-giving, eating and drinking have very little to do with Bethlehem and the birth of Christ.

More Americans embrace Christmas than are Christian. Christianity is the religion of about 63% of Americans. But one recent survey indicates that more than 70% of Americans plan to put up a Christmas tree in 2023. Another survey (from an obviously biased source—the American Christmas Tree Association) puts the number above 90%.

I know lots of nonreligious people who decorate their homes and put up a tree. Indeed, the tree is not originally a Christian thing. It comes from the pagan winter rituals of northern European. Christmas trees were not usual in the United States until about a hundred years ago.

Christmas is a weird mash-up of German, English, and American traditions. This includes much of the “magic” of Christmas as conjured up by Hollywood films. Hollywood teaches us that Christmas is a time of spiritual transformation, when Grinch and Scrooge learn their lessons, when George Bailey discovers that this is a wonderful life, and when children of all ages keep the magic alive by believing in Santa Claus.

This stuff is fun. It involves the spirit of play, magic, and fantasy, and the familiar nostalgia of repetition and ritual.

One scholar, Christopher Deacy, has argued that secular Christmas is in fact “religious”—as a set of rituals and communal practices that have a broadly “sacred” significance (even if not specifically Christian). Christmas makes a festival of consumerism. But it is also about transformation, love, gratitude, generosity, wonder, and hope.

Those Christmas values are not uniquely Christian. Indeed, the American and Hollywood versions of Christmas are decidedly secular and inclusive. You don’t need to be Christian to enjoy the fun.

People do not typically say at Christmas, “You must accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” That’s ultimately what it means to keep Christ in Christmas. The religious story is about the birth of a savior—the “Christ,” which means the anointed or chosen one.

The Christian tradition teaches that God became man through the mystery of the virgin birth. Christ is born in Bethlehem to save us from sin. This makes it possible to be reunited with God, and to merit eternal life.

All of that theological stuff is mysterious and miraculous. How and why did God become man at that place and time? It is a mystery. Why do we need salvation from sin? The fundamental assumption of Christian theology is that without the savior, we are doomed. And how does the birth, life, and death of Christ accomplish this? Well, that’s a mystery that requires faith.

The Christian joy celebrated in hymns like “Joy to the World,” rests upon a deep sense of sin and fear of death. Christian joy includes a sense of relief and gratitude directed toward a mysterious God, who condemns sin. But the incarnation of Christ somehow transforms God from a harsh judge to a loving father.

Thus, Christian joy is tinged with fear and gloom. This may explain why the Puritan colonists of early America were anti-Christmas. They viewed Christmas as a frivolous celebration tainted by “pagan mockery” and “mad mirth.” As I explained in previous column on Christmas, “For Puritans, salvation is serious business. Merriment in this world distracts us from the need to be saved from sin.”

Secular joy is different from Christian joy. Nonreligious folks who make merry at Christmas are not worried about sin or the metaphysics of salvation. We know that death is always present, as we remember those we’ve lost and those at risk of dying.

But at Christmas, we do not dwell on death. Instead, we affirm life. Here we are, together again. We celebrate despite our mortality. We are fortunate to laugh and sing and play with our loved ones. We know that someday the party will end. But while the candles are still burning and the songs are being sung, our hearts are warmed by love, gratitude, and the joy of secular Christmas.

Christmas peace and the anti-political turn

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2023

Donald Trump is threatening to govern as a dictator. Joe Biden is cruising toward impeachment. And partisan bickering never seems to end. But it’s a mistake to fret too much about the absurdity of American politics.

The crises of our republic matter. We live in a broken world. But the ugly mess of political life is less important than we think. There has never been a perfect country. To obsess about politics is to fail to understand that politics cannot solve spiritual problems.

So, I disagree somewhat with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who wrote an interesting recent column on “The Spiritual Unspooling of America.” That “spiritual unspooling” includes loneliness, suicide, drug overdoses, polarization, violence and hate.

Murphy suggests that the antidote is a better kind of politics. Sure. Better politics might help. It would be nice to live in a good country led by honorable people. It would be wonderful to live in a world of harmony and peace. And we should work toward those goods. But as I argued in a recent column, humanity is constructed of “warped wood” not easily made straight.

The real solution for “spiritual disintegration” is, well, spiritual. Harmony, peace and honor have always been in short supply. Learning to accept the tragically flawed reality of political life is an essential part of wisdom. Once we understand this, we can look elsewhere to find solace and hope.

Our spiritual malaise will not be solved by better politics. Your flourishing does not depend on Trump or Biden. Politics is not the highest good. The best and most important things transcend political life. These transcendent goods include spirituality and art, love and community.

This anti-political idea is clear at Christmas. The story of the season is of a new conception of power, born of humility and existing apart from politics. Christianity teaches about a kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus was not a political leader. He raised no army and was murdered by the state. According to one important story, when Satan tempted Jesus with political power, Jesus refused.

The turn away from politics is a common theme in the world’s wisdom traditions. The Taoist sages avoided politics. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left China because he was fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of Chinese politics. The wisdom of Buddhism aims to cultivate nonattachment, which looks beyond the tumultuous fires of social and political life. And the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus encouraged his followers to “live unnoticed” in a garden sheltered from political turbulence.

Unfortunately, it is easy to be seduced into an obsession with politics. The partisans and the political media encourage this obsession. Political squabbles keep us glued to our screens, while helping the partisans raise money and get people to the polls, and into the streets.

But political obsession is a recipe for anxiety and despair. The more upset we become about politics, the more we focus on things that are really beyond our control. Instead of cultivating our own gardens, we get frustrated. And when things go wrong — as they always do — we end up angry and hopeless.

Rather than obsessing about politics, we need to understand that spiritual health is found in religion and other deep sources of meaning; in small local and loving communities; in music, art, and ceremony; and in connection with the wonder of nature.

Spiritual integration depends upon a set of habits that are good for body and soul. It is cultivated in silence and solitude. It is nurtured by love. It flourishes among friends and family. It blossoms when we discover wisdom, wonder and gratitude.

The bad news is that we are easily distracted by the crises of the moment. The partisans and the news cycle feed the frenzy of political frustration. The good news is that higher goods are easily obtained, if we turn off the TV and rediscover the world of nature, spirit, and loving community.

This does not mean we should drop out of political life, as Lao-Tzu did. Citizenship requires us to pay attention. And ethics demands solidarity with those who suffer.

But at Christmas, we should also remember that comfort and joy are found beyond the halls of power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article283061398.html#storylink=cpy