To Thine Own Self be True, II

I agree strongly with all of Shannon’s post entitled To Thine Own Self be True. I’d add an additional supporting detail in Bush’s case. I will do something I rarely do, while I’m at it, which is speculate on the personal psychology of the two presidential candidates. But, if you can’t do baseless and almost fact-free speculation on a blog, where can you do it?

President Bush’s practice of Christianity is largely a private matter, though it has a public dimension, and he refers to openly. And in his case the private and devotional element seems to be the core. According to things he has said, he has recourse to frequent personal prayer, which necessarily involves self-examination and asking forgiveness from God. This practice, if done diligently, forces a person to face his true nature, his strengths and weaknesses, to sort out flattery or unfair criticism from reality. And the essence of any such prayerful self-examination is to do so honestly, which is hard. But it is, after all, pointless to lie to yourself or to an all-knowing God.

I suspect that most ChicagoBoyz readers are of a libertarian mindest. Therefore, I imagine that most would consider Bush’s religious practices to be either irrelevant or a negative, perhaps embarrassing, basically a superstition. But I will assert that Bush’s prayer life provides him with a practical and intellectual advantage which is particularly important in a struggle like this current election campaign. Sun Tzu said know yourself and know your enemy and you will be victorious in a hundred battles. Doing either is hard, and knowing yourself may be the harder of the two. Bush has for a long time devoted the effort needed to know himself as he truly is. This strengthens him in these political struggles in many ways, most of which his enemies cannot understand.

I am not saying that prayer and examination of conscience provide some magic recipe for success. If a person lacks other important qualities needed for a particular task, he will fail. Jimmy Carter seems to have been a man who believed in and practiced his religion, but his basic model of how the world works seems to have been fundamentally defective. So despite good intentions, his intellectual shortfall doomed him to a frustrating and unsuccessful presidency. Nonetheless, an accurate and objective self-awareness cannot hurt a politician or anybody else, and Bush seems to have it, and his practice of prayer, I would suggest, has a lot to do with that.

Kerry, on the other hand, shows no signs of engaging in any such day-to-day process of realistic self-evaluation. His lack of accurate self-understanding is acutely noticeable in his lack of humor. Everyone has feet of clay, and if you know who and what you really are, if you try to see yourself and your pretensions as God sees you in all clarity, you can always find humor in yourself. Kerry’s detachment from reality, I suspect, grows in part from ordinary egotism but also from being surrounded by sycophants and hired guns who do not engage him in an honest way but sustains his delusions. Like Gore, he seems to have few real friends who could look him in the eye and tell him hard, blunt things that it would help him to hear and know. Since Kerry doesn’t know who he is, or what he is, he has nothing to offer others on a personal level. He is reduced to using words and people as instruments to obtain whatever tactical goal is in front of him, frantically scurrying to avoid turning around and looking in the mirror. Or so I imagine it. I have never met the man. But I don’t think I’m likely to be far off in my description.

These deficiencies allowed Kerry to tell a false story to himself and to others until he believes it. Nietzsche said something like this: “My memory says I did it, my pride says I cannot have done it. Ultimately pride wins.” The corollary is that pride will always win except it is resisted in some consistent and practical way. Kerry appears to have no such internal reality-checking mechanism, and this in turn leads to an absence of any external check either, in the form of sincere friendships.

Bush has incorporated an important element of self-awareness into life by means of prayer, and there are ramifications in his family life, his ability to deal with other people and his ability to persevere in struggles he embarks on or which are thrust upon him. Kerry, it seems, lacks any equivalent internal mechanism, and this shines through in all his actiivities. Kerry suffers for this, not just spiritually and personally and morally, but in the practical affairs of life as well.

Update: Great minds appear to be thinking alike today. Jim Miller has a good short post on Bush’s religious beliefs. He links to a post from Classical Values which is also good.

If you didn’t see it, this interview with President Bush from Christianity Today magazine, from May of 2004, is very, very interesting, in large part because it sounds like President Bush speaking earnestly and informally. I don’t think it was widely commented on in blogs when it came out, for some reason. This article is the basis for the factual assertions I made about President Bush’s prayer life in this post, which he describes briefly in this article.

17 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self be True, II”

  1. – One has to assume prayer is practiced in similar ways and/or yields the same results for all who practice it. I’m not sure that’s true. And given how private this is, I don’t think we can assess its effect on anyone or make a general case either way. I will certainly grant you that Bush and Blair’s agreement and commitments when it comes to Iraq and fighting terrorism is hard, if not impossible to explain on purely political grounds. So there is something there. For them, morality defines what is legal. And the former seems in no small part influenced by their faith. In the passionately secular French Republic, on the other hand, the overall attitude is that the law ultimately defines the fundamental moral standard.

    – I know a lot of people in Europe are quite uncomfortable about such conspicuous displays of faith. I actually don’t mind as long as it’s done openly. I prefer to have a senior official tell me he’s going to vote against this or that according to his religious belief instead of being told he is doing it for supposedly ‘rational’ reasons, never mind the fact that he is a closet member of Opus Dei and his stance happens to coincide with that of his fellow religious travelers. Such hypocritical ‘coincidences’ are certainly quite common on the Old Continent.

  2. Both of you have usefully and even beautifully put into words perceptions that certainly seem to make sense of their actions (and seem to be true to what we can see). Your posts helped me understand better why I trust him (not that, of course, such a person might not be mistaken in some policy or other). But all in all, trust is a nice thing to feel about a leader.

    And what you both describe helps us to understand the distinction Bush often makes between the office (that it should be respected, suits in the oval office, arriving on time – as well as executive privilege, etc.) and the man (then he makes self-deprecating jokes and doesn’t have – as Shannon points out – much trouble laughing at himself). That comes from the combination (a healthy one) of respect, pride, and humility of someone with a real sense of proportionality (which the faith Lexington describes can encourage). (If it doesn’t always, well, that doesn’t mean it doesnt sometimes do such a work on a man very well.)

  3. “One has to assume prayer is practiced in similar ways and/or yields the same results for all who practice it.”

    The first part, yes, the second part no. There is within Christianity a long tradition of doing things a certain way. So, there are similar practices which we can reasonably asssume are being followed in Bush’s case, like reading the Gospel and meditating on it, and examining his conscience. These are just extremely typical practices, and have been for centuries, spanning both Catholicism and Protestantism. So, I think I have some idea of what President Bush does and how he approaches these things, based mostly on what he says he does, and it is not particularly unusual sounding.

    “Same results” is too strong. Similar results maybe is right. Or, a certain non-neglibigle number of people seem to get similar results would be even more accurate. While this is a subjective assessment on my part, it is based on a lot of observation of myself and others, both directly and through reading.

    Of course, in traditional Catholicism, there is very much more than merely similar ways of praying, there are whole programs of religious practices which were written down and followed by lay people, all of which would include the daily examination of conscience. While this approach is not in the same degree of general favor as it once was it is still around.

    As to Blair and Bush, I agree with your comment, but I was not really talking about the substance of any particular policy position. Rather, I was talking about the character formation of President Bush, and why this gives him certain advantages which are seemingly inexplicable to his enemies.

    I agree that I would like politicians to be open about the basis for the policiies they support. Of course, many have no such basis, but that too would be worth knowing.

    Speaking as a non-closet member of Opus Dei myself, I’m always interested in hearing about these subterfuges which reportedly occur in Europe. Does this really happen very much? People whom I know personally who are members of Opus Dei may not advertise it, but they don’t hide it either and would certainly never deny it if asked or if it came up. Moreover, one point which is repeatedly made is that people’s lives as citizens are their own and Opus Dei has no formal position on political issues, and certainly not on political tactics. I have never seen anything here in the USA which contradicts this. Of course, I can only speak for what I have seen myself.

  4. To my knowledge, people do not necessarily hide their belonging to those organizations but they certainly pretend their beliefs have no influence on their decision. And why their church or organization might not have a public position on the matter, like-minded officials tend to act the same. Which, of course, reinforces suspicions.

  5. I think Americans have a perceive a fundamentally different relationship between religion and politics than Europeans due. I think is due to religion in America being highly diverse and separated from the state.

    In Europe, the vast majority of people belonged to the Catholic Church, one of the Established Protestant churches or were Jewish. The American phenomenon of every town having dozens of Christian dominations, many with no centralized authority at all and none formally or even informally associated with the state has no parallel not even in Britain or Holland.

    In Europe religion in any country means two or three giant organizations, often tax supported. A strongly religious person is inherently tied to a large hierarchal organization. I think Europeans have a far different perception of the political impact of a leader having strong religious beliefs than do Americans for this reason. A religious person comes with a lot of strings attached.

    In America, a religious person can belong to anything from the Catholic church to an ad hoc congregation that meets in strip mall. A person’s religion has little implication beyond the fact that they are religious.

  6. Shannon, your comment reminds of something Eisenhower said: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

    This: “A person’s religion has little implication beyond the fact that they are religious.” But does being religious have any implications? It may. It depends on the content of the persons religiousness and how that is expressed in action. So we are left with assessing the a political candidate (especially for an important post like President) as a whole person, including whatever substance or vacuum occupies the religious dimension of his life, which we do anyway. Knowing which denomination the person belongs to may well be a useful and enlightening piece of information. If someone tells me a candidate is very involved in his Church, that tells me something. If they then tell me the candidate is a Unitarian from Cambridge, Massachusetts, or an evangelical from Temple, Texas, I have a fuller picture.

  7. The separation is a matter of practicality as much as anything. You may whole-heartedly believe that some public policy is morally necessary by the light of your religious beliefs, but you are not likely to get anywhere with that (thank God!) unless you can find a justification that makes sense under many different beliefs. There are some bedrock things we all believe — that law-abiding people should be free to go about their business without interference from the authorities or danger from the lawless. Most successful political efforts come from shared moral beliefs.

    That said, it makes it a little easier to understand why religion tends not to have much place in the public discourse. You may fervently believe that abortion is wrong, based on the teachings of your church, but you need a different argument to persuade someone from a different church, or none at all.

    As for libertarianism and religion, I too have seen that there is a significant atheist cohort. I came at it from a different direction, though. My first guiding principle for political issues is that the least possible coercion should be used in human affairs. This is in accord with most religious beliefs as well as with the constitution. Freedom is not just the right to do as you please but the right to do as you feel you ought, without infringing on anyone else’s freedom. If your religion calls for the use of force, don’t come here. If your ideology calls for the “sacrifice” of individual life, liberty, or property for the greater common good, please stay away. Live and let live, or live somewhere else.

    My second principle is that disputes between individuals should be settled in such a way that, not knowing the parties involved, a reasonable person agree with the decision. Equality before the law and before God are not incompatible. It used to puzzle me why we are called arrogant. Later, I realized that the times I had been called arrogant myself were by someone with authority over me, never by someone who was under my authority. If you treat someone who considers himself your superior as an equal, of course he will think you are arrogant.

  8. “… you are not likely to get anywhere … unless you can find a justification that makes sense under many different beliefs.”

    Exactly right. I try to tell some of my religious friends this, and most get it but a few don’t.

    “Freedom is not just the right to do as you please but the right to do as you feel you ought … .” Bravo. Exactly. Lord ACton, whom I’m sure you are quoting from memory put it almost exactly the same way: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

  9. These exchanges are interesting. The whole area of rights seems clearly complicated by how they are derived. (Only lately have I thought of myself as libertarian – I thought it was just being Nebraskan.) Anyway, Feser did an intersting series on Tech Central; how is he seen by libertarians? Sample paragraph:

    This difference in the understanding of freedom has its parallel in a difference in what we might call the tone in which various libertarians assert the right of self-ownership. In the mouth of some libertarians, what self-ownership is fundamentally about is something like this: “Other human beings have an intrinsic dignity and moral value, and this entails a duty on my part not to use them as means to my own ends; I therefore have no right to the fruits of another man’s labor.” In the mouths of other libertarians, what it means is, at bottom, rather this: “I can do whatever what I want to do, as long as I let everyone else do what they want to do too; there are no grounds for preventing any of us from doing, in general, what we want to do.” The first view expresses an attitude of deference, the second an attitude of self-assertion; the first reflects a commitment to strong moral realism and a rich conception of human nature, the second a thin conception of human nature and a tendency toward moral minimalism or even moral skepticism. And the first, I would submit, is more characteristic of libertarians of a Lockean, Hayekian, or Aristotelian bent, while the latter is more typical of libertarians influenced by contractarianism, utilitarianism, or “economism.”
    (Edward Feser, “The Trouble with Libertarianism.”)

  10. Thanks, Lex, I was looking for the quote in the wrong place.

    Ginny, as a rule of thumb, the weak form of big theories is likely to be closer to the truth. Libertarians tend to make the same mistake as Marxists in giving primacy to economic motives to explain behavior. No doubt it is one factor, but not the greatest. There are studies that show people are more averse to a risk of loss than probability and expected value can explain, for example. More likely, economic activity is something we do to meet other imperatives.

    It’s tough to explain having children by economics. Even before college tuition, when one of my kids started ranking on me for driving a beat-up minivan, I told him “Well, it was either you or a BMW. Don’t make me regret my decision.”

    On the subject of rights, there seems to be some sense of justice that is hard-wired into us. That may be why so many public debates are framed in terms of rights by both sides. Arbitrating among competing rights while preserving the maximum amount of freedom for all seems to call for some sort of government. Rights without the power to enforce and uphold them are meaningless. The most extreme forms of libertarianism, to me, are destructive of individual rights.

  11. Mitch – good point about libertarians and Marxists, I wish both groups were more familiar with the works of Twersky and Kahneman.

    Lex- I would think the same argument could be made for an active member of a 12 step group. I wonder if you could make it for non-Xian religious groups, however.

  12. Mitch, isn’t libertarianism a prescriptive political doctrine rather than a theory of society or of behavior? A libertarian could reasonably want to structure the government in a particular way, to minimize opportunities for private or public coercion, without considering why people behave as they do.

  13. Oscar, I have no direct experience with the 12 step thing. Maybe so. I don’t know enough about non-Christian groups to say. I do know pretty well what W is doing and how it works, so I feel pretty confident assessing him.

  14. Jonathan –
    I would think that there is an assumption about human nature, society, and behavior underlying most political theories. Marxists took Rousseau’s assumption of innate goodness currupted by wicked society to an extreme and used it as a reason to wreck the existing order and start again. Human nature is completely malleable, they believed, and can be trained up to eliminate false consciousness. Remember the “New Soviet Man”?

    Libertarians, as best I can make out, tend to look at people as governed by reason. I’m with Swift in correcting that to say that they are capable of reason. Small-government advocates, including the men who drafted the US Constitution, were pessimistic about human tendency for bad behavior, and designed a government that would limit the damage a bad man could do, even if it meant limiting the good anyone could do. This is essentially a conservative position. Leftists tend to want to reverse this formula, being optimistic about people’s behavior.

  15. “Libertarians, as best I can make out, tend to look at people as governed by reason.”

    Makes sense to me. No one is governed by perfect reason, but people who are not generally governed by reason fall into one of two categories: children and lunatics. The rest are governed by reason well enough to get by, at least in managing their own affairs, where the incentives to do well are strongest. People who can be trusted to manage the affairs of strangers, where the incentives to do well are comparatively weak, are much less common.

    “Ginny, as a rule of thumb, the weak form of big theories is likely to be closer to the truth. Libertarians tend to make the same mistake as Marxists in giving primacy to economic motives to explain behavior. No doubt it is one factor, but not the greatest.”

    Economic motives do play a big role in our choices. The problem with Marxists is that they were hopelessly confused as to what those economic motives were and how they induced people to organize their productive activities.

    “It’s tough to explain having children by economics. Even before college tuition, when one of my kids started ranking on me for driving a beat-up minivan, I told him “Well, it was either you or a BMW. Don’t make me regret my decision.” ”

    Children were a retirement plan, before Social Security forced us to pay into a new one. Now, children are a consumer good, borne by people who like raising children. Unfortunately, a child’s maturation now represents a depreciation of that consumer good, rather than the growth in the productivity of a captial investment, and many parents now tend to slow that process down as much as they can.

  16. Some people are capable of reason, some are not, a lot of people are capable of predatory and destructive behavior under some circumstances, a few people are always predatory and destructive, and predatory people are not necessarily irrational. Limited government organized along libertarian lines seems to be the best way to minimize the damage (on a societal or individual scale) that destructive people can do. I can live with that. I would be much more concerned with the rationality of my leaders and fellow citizens if I lived in a society organized along command lines.

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