Leadership in Crisis
(First published in The Greenwich Sentinel on October 13, 2018)
The past few days, weeks and months have been very difficult for those of us who wish to remain optimistic about the future of our great institutions. Two in particular are in jeopardy of losing the support of millions, and perhaps even generations, though wounds both severe and self-inflicted. I am speaking of course about the Catholic Church and the Government of the United States of America.
Church leaders through recent decades failed to acknowledge and stop behavior that was horribly wrong, sinful and evil. Certain of its leaders acted, like many fallible human beings running institutions have throughout history, to protect the institution over its mission. Their failure to act decisively in the moment allowed scandal to envelope the Church and tarnish the reputations of all the good and guiltless men and women who “labor in the vineyard.” It also bred cynicism and emboldened its opponents.
If there is reason to hope for the future of the Church – and I have faith that there is – it lies in the fact that the Church is not its leadership, its organization, its hierarchy or its traditions, but the entire community of believers itself. This horrible, inexcusable scandal is not the first the institutional Church has experienced, and it appears its leaders are now seriously facing the challenges and consequences of dealing with it. The Church also has the benefit of providential protection (Matthew 16:18), which has been tested many times throughout two millennia.
The US Government has no such divine protection. Its existence and success are wholly dependent on the support and consent of the governed. That consent is evidenced by a simple contract, albeit one of extraordinary significance in the entirety of human history– the Constitution of the United States. That document, and the principles embodied within it, is, and has been for some time, under attack by those who disagree with some of those principles or want a different kind of political reality entirely.
Every official in the US Government takes an oath to protect the Constitution. While the oaths of the President, Vice President and Supreme Court Justices vary slightly, the general oath – and the one taken by every single Member of Congress – is as follows:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
In my opinion, the greatest current threat to the Constitution comes from within and, sadly, its domestic enemies appear to include some who swore an oath to support it.
Is there anyone, of any political party or persuasion, who was not disgusted at what we saw transpire last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings? The spectacle went beyond partisan politics and descended into a reality-show parody of a Judge Judy episode. Neither party was treated with the respect expected from “The Greatest Deliberative Body in the World.” Gone was the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, replaced by the absurd proposition that allegations alone put the burden of proof on the accused. That new “principle” should put the fear of God in every citizen, for if accepted it will have ramifications far beyond cases of sexual misconduct. It also is a blatant, bare naked assault on a basic tenet of Constitutional law -- by the very people sworn to uphold it!
I am reminded of the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:1-45), in which the king had a vision of a great statue with feet of clay. We now commonly use that phrase to refer to a weakness or character flaw in people of prominence, and we should not be surprised that many of our human leaders share that vulnerability. But in this instance, the clay seems to have been made from mud and, well … “organic mulch.”
To my mind, there was one redeeming moment among the mess. Senator Susan Collins delivered a speech in the well of the Senate that was worthy of that location. I am not a fan of the senator, but I thought her speech was balanced, educational, insightful and fair. It was senatorial. It was Constitutional. I encourage everyone to read it. It gave me hope that the ship of state might eventually right itself.
I do not intend this column to be political; we’ve had too much of that these days. I hold both parties responsible for the death of reasonable, rational debate, the rise of rabid, unthinking, uncaring partisanship, pursuit of the politics of personal destruction and the weaponizing of just about every possible issue or cause. To paraphrase Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet: “A pox on both your houses!”
But we can’t simply leave it at that. We have to fix this mess. And that is up to us, We the People. We need to step up to our Constitutional role and make our voices heard. We need to vote to elect women and men who will provide effective leadership through the current and future crises we will undoubtedly face. And who realize that they are not in office to pursue their own careers, agendas or egos, but to serve us. They work for us. We are the boss of them. We expect them to do their job, so we can do ours. No one is indispensable.
The Scottish philosopher Alexander Tyler of the University of Edinburg listed eight stages common to the rise and fall of civilizations. These included: (4) from liberty to abundance; (5) from abundance to complacency; (6) from complacency to apathy; (7) from apathy to dependence; and (8) from dependence back to bondage. I personally feel that we are dangerously into the sixth stage.
People of good will form the heart of the Church and will ensure its future. Similarly, an involved citizenry is essential to the survival of the “American Experiment.”
The success of our Constitutional form of government is unique in the history of the world. It has no providential safety net, so it is up to all of us to preserve, protect and defend it if we wish to continue to share in its benefits. We hold the awesome power to hold that government accountable to us. We do that by voting.
Whatever your personal political inclination, or even if none, please vote on Tuesday, November 6th. Our collective future depends on it.