Michael Cromartie’s Speech at Providence Launch Event
Michael Cromartie, who had served as a contributing editor for Providence and as Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, passed away yesterday. In honor of his legacy and work, the following is a video and transcript of his speech at Providence’s launch event in November 2015.
Well, thank you. I want to first of all say thank you to Mark Tooley and to IRD for coming up with this idea and coming up with this great Journal. It could not be more timely and more urgent. The lack of knowledge on basic theological and Christian doctrine in this town is well known around the country, but especially in this town among the media, among some of our politicians.
You may have heard the story about five years ago: A Republican and Democratic senator were having lunch in the Senate dining room and the Republican said to the Democrat, “You know the problem with you Democrats is you don’t know any religious people. The fastest growing segment in the voting population is secular. The people self-identify as secular and I don’t think you know anything about religious doctrine or any religious believers. In fact, I would say to you, I would give you 20 dollars right now if you can recite the Lord’s Prayer.” And the Democrat said, “Sure I can do that.” And then he said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Whereupon the Republican reached into his pocket, pulled out 20 dollars and said, “I didn’t think you could do it.”
So, the urgency of this educational project is ever important. Recently, I was at a conference about three weeks ago, and I said to a friend of mine (who is a pretty well-known lawyer in this town, a syndicated columnist, also a person who identifies himself as a libertarian, and I’ll try not to say his name), “So, who’s your favorite candidate right now in light of the debates?” He said, “Oh, my favorite candidate is Rand Paul.” I said, “Okay he’s at two percent, not a lot of hope there. Who do you hope for next?” He said, “None of them. I don’t like all of them. All the others just want to go and drop bombs on people and I won’t vote for any of them.”
Now, this is a Christian, a lawyer of a good mind, but the neo-isolationism and the libertarianism in his thinking [is] so infused in it that he said ‘I won’t vote for anybody unless it’s Rand Paul’. And this is really, really an incredibly short-sighted way of thinking and it shows a deep lack of understanding of the kind of global threats we are facing in our world today and the kind of threats we need to anticipate.
So, the way I like to phrase my arguments and my comments is: What is my wish list for this Journal? What are the things I’d like to see? Well, first of all, number one, in each issue, as you’ve already done in the first issue, I would hope that you would always touch on the importance of understanding properly the Just War Theory and its tradition, especially always updating it in our age of terror. Because of the ongoing influence of the theologians John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, there is a huge undercurrent of Christian pacifism growing among not only young people, but also professors at some of our most prominent Christian colleges. I believe strongly that this must be combated, and it must be combated not because we love war but because we know that there are evil people in the world who would like to kill innocent people.
And so, a constant updating of the Just War Theory is urgently and always needed because this is our dilemma: on the one hand, going to war causes great and terrible, terrible evils. But on the other hand, not going to war can permit even greater evil in genocide. Allowing evils to happen to people is not innocent behavior. Having clean hands is not innocent. I would highly recommend to you the Oxford theologian, Nigel Biggar’s new book called “In Defense of War” where in the whole introduction of the book, he lays out real stories of slaughter and genocide in a graphic way. In fact, I almost brought it with me and would read it to you, but it would ruin your lunch. But it is so graphic of the terror and the slaughter and the massacre of people. And Biggar begins his book “In Defense of War” and said, “Now, what do we do about that?” And he says, “I’m going to defend a theory here. And the people I’m going to critique in my chapter, namely Yoder and Hauerwas, don’t have an answer to that kind of slaughter. And in the Christian tradition, there is one.” But the point is this: whichever horn of the dilemma one chooses to sit on, our sitting there should always and never be comfortable. We need clear and rigorous thinking on the ethical dilemmas that we face but we don’t need sentimentality.
Number two: I’d like to call for, in this Journal, an evangelical revival of interest and an evangelical understanding of what Saint Thomas Aquinas called the most important of the four cardinal virtues, and that is the virtue of prudence. Saint Thomas said that without prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance cannot be achieved. “Prudence,” he said, “is the perfected ability to make right decisions.” Prudence is defined as practical wisdom and it is the process of moral reasoning by which our ideals are approximated to the contours of a very fallen and imperfect world. So therefore, a prudent person asks what are the ends that we have seen, and then they balance and weigh the ends. And this balancing process may require that we reduce the scope of some of our ends and our goals. The prudent person is not an ideologue but instead is a person who is always open to new facts and new information and willing to adjust their views according to reality.
And so, therefor prudent Christians are Christian realists who understand that our ideals must be approximated because we live in an imperfect and world. The prudent person realizes that the drawing of relative moral distinctions is a Christian’s social and political responsibility, [and] is prepared, therefor, to make imperfect choices between all terms, including not always the best alternatives we’d like to have. We should then therefor exhibit an existential and epistemological humility before the knotty complexities that our social and political options send our way, but opting out for a third way that doesn’t exist on any ballot anywhere is not responsible behavior. We have to make choices and sometimes the choices we have to make are not the best, but some are better than others. Therefore, learning to be prudent is vitally important because the dilemmas we face in this world are often fraught with ambiguity. The messiness of sin in this world makes many matters more contingent, relative, and uncertain. There will always be times and there will always be things that we hope for and things that we wish might have been. But being prudent means learning how to balance competing goods against lesser evils, while keeping a sharp sense of the many ambiguities that are at the heart of many of the ethical, moral dilemmas we face.
So, we need to introduce in this Journal, I would hope, what Reinhold Niebuhr called an understanding and what he called in Christian ethics “Middle Level Axioms”. Those are the axioms where you move from the Scriptures to prudential reasoning about a policy that’s very complex. And Neibur emphasized these Middle Level Axioms are often lacking from people on the right and the left who just jumped from a biblical text in the Old Testament straight to a policy. And Neibur very wisely taught we need to learn about Middle Level Axioms. But the Middle Level Axioms are best discovered through this recovery of what I call an evangelical understanding of prudence.
Now, number three, I hope in every issue you will make sure that you always highlight the sorry state of religious freedom in the world today and the awful persecution believers are suffering as a result. Highlight it every issue. The reason is because the suffering is not decreasing, but it’s increasing and its people, not only of Christian faiths, but of all faiths. But we do well to highlight why religious freedom, not only that religious persecution is occurring, but why religious freedom is important. And it’s actually good nations who allow it.
A person who has done excellent work on this besides Paul Marshall is a man named Brian Grim. And Brian Grim has done some wonderful research on what he calls the social utility of religious freedom and how it’s good for countries. And here’s what he says, “The empirical data are clear on two points. First, religious freedom is part of the bundled commodities,” He calls them the bundled commodities of human freedoms, “That energize broader, productive participation in civil society by all religious groups which is conducive to the consolidation of democracy and social economic progress.” Secondly, he says, “Religious freedom reduces conflict and increases security by, among other things, removing grievances religious groups have toward governments and their fellow citizens.” In summary, Brian Grahm says, religious freedom promotes stability. It helps to consolidate democracy and it lessens religious violence. Based on an analysis of all the data, it is clear that religious freedom is much more than an American pet peeve. Religious freedom is a universal aspiration. So, I encourage you to at least every issue to highlight religious persecution and the need for religious freedom.
Finally, in number four, I think it’s important for us to learn to develop, in whatever our vocation is, to learn to develop what I like to call Augustinian sensibility as we go about our work. Here’s what I mean: while affirming our responsibilities and obligations to the city of man, we need to remember that our true home is the City of God which is to come. So, while living in this earthly city we are to pursue temporal goals and to pursue justice. Parenthetically, Augustine said, “Remove justice and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a larger scale.” We need to pursue justice but we always need to be doing it with a keen sense of who we are and [an] awareness of the fragile character of our earthly communities and our earthly alliances.
We would do well to be reminded that in this world filled with profound suffering and terrible disorders, we can strive to maintain and to create an order that approximates justice and to work for fervently to prevent the very worst from happening. For instance, one of the most difficult concepts for religiously motivated political activists to grasp are these four words: Now, but not yet. Now, but not yet. The kingdom of God has entered this age now, but the final kingdom has not come, yet. Keeping this in mind is very important as we go about our business of being faithful Christian citizens [in] our various vocations and callings and having an Augustinian sensibility will give us a spiritual and emotional balance and perspective as we remind ourselves constantly that we live now at the intersection of the ages between the city of man and the City of God that is to come.
Living our lives at the intersection between the city of man and the City of God means we will always want to develop what the sociologist John Murray Cuddihy called an ascetic for the interim. An ascetic for the interim while living between the times will encourage patience and put a ban on all ostentation and triumphalism for the time being. This will cause us, I believe, to become Christian realists and not Christian cynics. We will realize that in this life there will never be [a] return to paradise. There will never be utopia and there will never ever be an end to all our friction and strife this side of the coming kingdom. Thank you very much.