NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P ete Buttigieg, like Elwood Blues, is on a mission from God — or so he seems to think. Penguins beware.
Buttigieg has managed to make an impression on the impressionable by insisting that God must surely regard air pollution as, in the idiotic idiom of the time, “messed up.” The sin of presumption apparently has been omitted from Mayor Pete’s negligent Episcopalian Sunday school curriculum.
It is remarkable how far this meretricious kind of thing goes with the mush-brained partisans who dominate our political discourse in anno Domini 2019. Christian conservatives were writing about the moral relevance of environmental attitudes as early as the 1930s: T. S. Eliot, noting contemporary concerns about soil erosion and unwelcome changes in agricultural practice, argued that “a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.” Papal encyclicals and apostolic letters have addressed related subjects. Volumes have been written on them. To this, Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg of Harvard and Pembroke College, Oxford, adds:
The usual hearts twittered in the usual way. Why? Because they feel the sanctifying presence of the Paraclete? No, because they detect in this line of rhetoric an opportunity to wrong-foot Republicans, who take up their crosses and their AR-15s alternately. It is cheap rhetoric, but it is the sort of thing you’ll enjoy if you enjoy that sort of thing. “Take it up with Jesus, loser!”
You can get a good sense of the intellectual vacuity (and religious sterility, if you’re interested in that) of this mode of politics from, e.g., Kirsten Powers’s banal and illiterate conversation with Buttigieg, written up for general amusement in USA Today. (You will not be surprised to read that Mayor Pete has “started a crucial conversation,” and has proceeded from cliché to cliché.) Powers, when she is not half-chiding her fellow Christian for showing what she considers excessive grace to people who have naughty political ideas (one wonders what she would consider insufficient grace), hits the reader with a few insights that are not exactly blistering in their originality: Jesus, she says, never mentioned abortion (but then, neither does the Constitution), while He did speak a great deal about looking after the poor. Powers writes this as though Christianity had been planted in a cultural vacuum and as though “feed my sheep” were synonymous with “vote for the party of the welfare state no matter what other horrifying business may be on their agenda” — and as though these kinds of issues had not been the subject of centuries of Christian inquiry. The New Testament is silent on the questions of, among other things, child pornography and cannibalism, but Christians are not expected to maintain a morally indifferent attitude toward these. Still less would Christians be expected to maintain such indifference in the face of the Supreme Court’s happening upon a right to cannibalism lurking in some unexplored constitutional penumbra and the subsequent establishment of a franchised chain of coast-to-coast cannibalism outlets enjoying public subsidies.
Willi Schlamm observed that the problem with capitalism is capitalists, and, likewise, the problem with Christianity is and always has been Christians, from Saint Peter forward. Christians should of course be on the defensive about — among other more significant things — our relationship with Donald Trump and Trumpism, where applicable. But politics is about choices and tradeoffs. Buttigieg worries about factory pollution and feeding the poor, but he apparently is unable to do the elementary mental work of connecting the two: Rather than starving to death or dying of exposure, the poor in the developed world enjoy a relatively comfortable and secure standard of material life because of those factories and the pollution they produce. The high-yield modern agricultural techniques that gave poor old T. S. Eliot the willies feed humanity and are the principal reason the only famines the world has known in recent years have been man-made, created by politics. Factories don’t only produce pollution, and they don’t only produce tractors and life-saving medicines; they produce both, which makes real life more complicated than the cheap moralism that impresses intellectually stunted progressives.
How do we balance concern for the environment against concern for economic production, or the desire to act publicly in the interest of the poor and in the pursuit of public goods against the concern for liberty, of which private property is a necessary buttress?
Those are questions answered by politics and by politics alone; Scripture is of only indirect use to us there. Christians go to the polls to face the same unappetizing menu as any other group of voters and are under no especial disability on the matter of identifying and acting on their own political interests as they calculate them. Buttigieg represents the latest in a long line of disappointed little inquisitors who believe that they can provoke a politically potent “religious Left” into existence with sophomoric accusations of hypocrisy — as though there were not at least as much compromise within political parties and movements as between them, as though such compromise, including compromise on issues of real moral importance, were not only a necessary but a desirable feature of politics as conducted in a non-totalitarian context.
The necessity of tradeoffs and compromise in ordinary politics is not an unlimited moral license. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil . . . and justify the wicked for reward.” Every politician, and every one of their cheerleaders in the media, would do well to meditate on those words. But until the Kingdom of Heaven is established in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, there are only imperfect choices on offer.
In any event, I do hope the divine-right-to-abortion crowd will forgive their co-religionists if we roll our eyes a little while they pretend for five minutes to care what the pope thinks about x, y, or z, but only when it serves partisan Democratic interests to do so, or when they pronounce with Falwellian certitude that Jesus would have supported a cap-and-trade regime or federal subsidies for sex-change operations, or that some notion of Bible-based morality renders tax reform impossible. We could all do with fewer lectures on “grace” from the people who would dispatch federal bayonets to force septuagenarian nuns to underwrite contraception coverage in order to press a petty political advantage for no purpose other than precedent and humiliation.
I will not presume to speak on behalf of the Almighty — who has not, as a matter of fact, requested my opinion on the matter — but even taking into account that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that He seems to have a bizarre and occasionally cruel sense of humor, it is difficult to imagine an omnipotence worth having that is constrained to express itself through the instrument of Pete Buttigieg, who looked at creation and saw that it was . . . messed up.
“Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don’t fail me now.” The Blues Brothers had a mission from God, too — and a much more developed systematic theology than the one clouding the mind of the esteemed gentleman from South Bend, Ind.
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