‘What matters?” It’s a question Charles Krauthammer, psychiatrist-turned-Pulitzer-winning columnist, asks in the first sentence of his new book, a memoir-ish collection. The book is called “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.” He explains how the working title for the book had originally been “There’s More to Life than Politics” and was going to include just about everything but politics. Naturally, though, a man who “left a life in medicine for a life in journalism devoted mostly to politics” couldn’t disengage.
Thanks be to God.
There is, of course, much more to life than politics. But as Krauthammer points out, there is actually no escaping politics. “Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything,” he writes, “because, in the end, everything ... lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.”
When we think that we are above politics, that we don’t need to get our hands dirty paying attention to who it is we are electing, or to policy and pending decisions, we are shirking a responsibility. Disengagement is dangerous; engagement is our civic duty.
How do you get your politics right? There is a symbiosis between right living and healthy politics. Our politics reflect our individual and community lives. Character matters are political matters.
Cynicism about politics can be seductive, as it is conflict and scandal the media thrives on; it’s often the worst of it that we focus on. But politics are necessary. “Politics is,” Krauthammer writes, “the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.
“First and above all else,” Krauthammer writes, “you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness.” The “glories yielded by ... successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.”
The alternatives, he says, are “deranged Stalinist politics” in North Korea, creating “a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material.” Or “Taliban Afghanistan, which, just months before 9/11, marched its cadres into the Bamiyan Valley and with tanks, artillery and dynamite destroyed its magnificent cliff-carved 1,700-year-old Buddhas lest they — like kite flying and music and other things lovely — disturb the scorched-earth purity of their nihilism.”
One beautiful Saturday this October, 15 men at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River, Mass., were ordained as permanent deacons in the Catholic Church. They serve as heralds of the Gospel, commissioned to “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” Later that day, I was present as Deacon Tim delivered his first homily, at his parish church of St. Stanislas. He echoed Pope Francis, who echoes the Gospel, in encouraging those in the congregation to come to know and trust God and His infinite mercy. Faith, he said, is trusting enough to change your life.
Heaven knows the world could use both mercy and justice, with confidence in the truth.
We have a choice. Do we seek and encourage the good — in our lives and, yes, in our politics? These things — our lives, our ethics, the quality of our enterprises, our dedication to stewardship of the gifts we have been given and men have died to protect — are intimately related. We’re free to disengage, but it’s really not a moral option.
“Campaigns and elections ... personalities and peccadilloes (are) things that come and go,” Krauthammer writes. “Partisan contention that characterizes the daily life of a democracy -- the tentative, incremental, ever-improvised” are political realities. But what are they informed by? What are we arguing about? What are we fighting for? What are we working toward? Who are we? Who do we live for? These are things that matter. Politics without conscience and conscious abandonment of politics are recipes for civilizational disaster. Politics aren’t everything, but they are inescapable. Wise engagement makes all the difference. Men of faithful dedication, living lives of discernment, light the path in communities and in the halls of power. We know the alternatives, and that’s not a choice we can live with.
(Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online www.nationalreview.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)