The Case for Moral Courage

by William Antholis

Moral courage is, by definition, acting on principle in the face of adverse consequences. The American presidency is filled with examples of moral heroism. George Washington stepped down after two terms, despite a fear of anarchy. Teddy Roosevelt stood up to robber barons to advance a progressive agenda. Lyndon Johnson pursued the Voting Rights Act in 1965, knowing it would subvert the Democratic party for a generation.

When politics are deeply polarized, courage between and across tribes adds depth to these acts. Or, as Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute recently said, “Moral courage is the act of defending someone with whom you disagree politically.” A generation ago, Texas Democrat Jim Hightower said this differently: “The only thing in the middle of the road is a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.”

Pete Wehner’s new book, the Death of Politics, is at its core a book about moral courage in both senses—obeying principles and embracing opponents. Its great accomplishment is to provide a practical, working definition of political morality that can appeal to all Americans when our politics appear broken.

The former head of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House, and a committed Evangelical Christian, Wehner makes the case for why engaged citizenship itself must be a moral enterprise. Wehner’s vision is to weave the rights of individuals together with the needs of society, and to do so with humility, moderation and civility.

The book itself is an act of moral courage. Wehner regularly challenges a range of conservative politicians and Evangelical leaders. He regularly praises actors, thought leaders and ideas from across the aisle. He does this out of principle, not compromise or convenience.

Political morality: essential or oxymoron?

Wehner begins by showing why so many Americans feel political morality is an oxymoron. “When Americans think about politics today, their first thought is that it is inherently dirty and undignified; that most politicians are corrupt and unprincipled.” The causes of our deep division and distrust are laid out with clarity—from financial crises and growing inequality, to failed wars and health care systems, to a fractured media that capitalizes on anger, to dramatically changing demographics and social norms.

But Wehner also argues it would also be a tragic mistake to think our politics cannot be reconciled with morality. Nihilism is Wehner’s enemy, and Wehner’s pen is a mighty sword.

In Wehner’s telling, God provides the most compelling moral foundation for political life. The secular alternatives to God fall short. Wehner’s Christianity is humble, not fundamentalist. No single person’s particular view of the divine can nor should undermine someone else’s freedom of moral choice. He respectfully embraces the constructive role played by legions of non-Christians. Yet Wehner is far from a relativist. He wants all citizens to embrace public life, with moral inspiration and aspirations.

Wehner offers a moral vision that blends rational choice and character development. Our reasoning and our choices are shaped by our education, our moral environment, our life experiences, and our communal existence. Maintaining a democratic society that venerates the rights of individuals requires humility, moderation and reciprocity. Self-government also requires knowing how and when to choose between the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of society to solve problems and improve the human condition. And throughout the book, he calls on citizens to claim their own voice in this effort, and to hold leaders to account. “To be a public-spirited citizen means knowing our history and our stories, the foundations of our political system, and being civically literate… Responsible citizenship means rewarding leaders who demonstrate integrity and appeal to our better angels rather than our worst impulses.”

Wehner shows in case after case—from issues of war and peace, to crime and punishment, to education and health care, to the rights of women’s choice and those of the unborn, to the decline of a responsible media—that how we strike this balance is as important as the fact that we do so because each moral act provides a lesson to others. “History has shown that politics can be a more noble enterprise when it is twinned with faith, but only faith properly understood and properly executed.”

Four heroes and a circus clown

With clarity and precision, Wehner engages three intellectual giants to help frame these complimentary moral foundations: Aristotle, John Locke and Abraham Lincoln.  Aristotle taught us that moral character is essential to government and, reciprocally, any self-governing republic must develop the character of its citizens. In contrast, Locke placed the priority of individual liberty at the center of our moral lives. According to Locke, because individuals are imperfect, and therefore will perceive the moral world differently from one another, government’s primary roles are to provide order and protect individual natural rights. Government does this in service to individuals, and when it no longer serves the collective body politic, then individuals collectively hold the freedom to choose another form of government.

Wehner leaves it to Lincoln to help us resolve the tensions between Aristotle and Locke, between the collective and the individual, in our own politics. Lincoln embraced Locke’s belief in equality and freedom, which was most clearly articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence—even if this was denied to African slaves at our founding, including by Jefferson himself. But Lincoln also showed us that how we pursue life, liberty and happiness depends on how we treat one another. It is the reciprocity of Aristotle’s notions of citizenship that bind us and elevate us as political society.

Lincoln’s acts of moral courage were founded both on defending the principles of individual equality and freedom, and embracing our political opponents in a way that respected their common humanity. For Lincoln, how we fought the war was as important as the decision to do so. And at the war’s end, Lincoln held that reconstruction should be pursued with “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

There is a fourth hero: truth. Freedom depends on reason, and reason cannot function without truth.  Ideas and words are what connect individual moral reasoning to how a society collectively thinks and acts. If those ideas and words lose their connection to reality, then their moral force evaporates.

Wehner is not naïve. He understands that politics entails a framing of the questions in a debate, a competition of truth claims. But he insists that does not mean the abandonment of common truths. “When we lose the ability to persuade, all that’s left is compulsion and the exercise of raw power, intimidation, and silencing those with whom we disagree.” That is why acknowledging that competing arguments capture different elements of the truth is different than simply declaring “alternative facts.” Indeed, Wehner’s call to arms is to encourage citizens to engage, to reject falsehood, and to find the common humanity in one another.

This last point connects to where and how Wehner’s book is an act of moral courage against President of the United States, Donald Trump. Trump, for Wehner, is both a symptom and a cause of our current political moment. Wehner’s case against the President is devastating. He argues that Trump lacks any foundational moral claims. He holds no respect for moral reasoning in either policy or his personal life, and he lacks any understanding of how actions shape the development of public character.

The book’s moral core is so compelling that Trump’s guest appearances at times feel farcical, as though a malevolent circus clown showed up to a self-help group. But Wehner tempers his contempt of Trump with graciousness toward Trump’s supporters. He is relentlessly gracious to both grassroots supporters who elected the President to disrupt the system, and to political elites who are willing to look the other way at the President’s lies, perversions, and destructive acts as necessary evils to advance a conservative agenda.

Regardless of what one thinks about President Trump, the history of this presidency will include a chapter on moral courage. On the right, this history will show that conservatives such as Anne Applebaum, George Will, David French, Bill Kristol, Michael Gerson, and Jennifer Rubin, among others, spoke truth to power. On the left, the dead armadillos will include those who tried to understand and genuinely engage the fury that elected Trump. “Undergirding the case for compromise is the recognition that none of us is perfect and very few political issues are uncomplicated, with only good arguments and the angels lined up on one side and only bad arguments and demons lined up on the other.”

Peter Wehner deserves a chapter of his own. His signature contribution will have been to lay out a compelling a set of moral principles worth defending for liberals, moderates and conservatives alike, consequences be damned. Rather than a book of abstract political and moral philosophy, the Death of Politics provides a real world map for navigating the inverted morality of our current political moment. It also lays out a notional street grid for how we as citizens can and should behave in a new kind of polis.

Deeply moral without being moralistic, this book should be read widely—not only by our nation’s thought leaders but also by citizens far and wide.

William Antholis is Director and CEO of The Miller Center, University of Virginia.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.