In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf was faced with a terrible choice between two evils – to follow Saruman, or Sauron. To follow the former would be to follow a seemingly lesser evil, while to follow the latter would be to surrender to the certain death and destruction of all that is good. Either choice carried with it a dire consequence; which would be less costly? Locked away atop the tower Orthanc, these were, as most reasonable individuals might say, his only options, and yet Gandalf chose neither. He withheld and eventually threw himself off the pinnacle when there came his winged hope. From this one might learn a valuable lesson, and that lesson is this: to believe in something requires nothing short of our total surrender to it. What if Gandalf had agreed to support Saruman, seeing that he was, when compared with the Shadow of the East, the “Lesser of two evils?” What might have been the character arch for someone who was so wise, yet so foolish? So strong, yet so weak in faith?
Of course, the White Rider resisted even before he knew that help would come. His faith in and dedication to the good sustained him, and he did not concede. Coming back to our own world, it is precisely this spirit of concession on matters of import that brings about so awful a choice. Samantha Schroeder, in an article about Nazi foil Dietrich von Hildebrand, used the phrase gradual moral blindness to refer to the erosion of goodness, beauty, and truth through the constant appeasement of the subtle and not-so-subtle evil in everyday life. Schroeder brings to light a poignant quote from von Hildebrand that though is 94 years old, could yet have been said yesterday. He wrote in 1923 of his “uncanny feeling” that “growing numbers of people saw [the Nazi movement] as inevitable, even if they did not explicitly welcome it.” One compromise at a time, with this sort of brick-in-the-wall-ism, the morality of a society is shouted down and compromised away. Seeking a false civility, compromises are made when they should not be made, and are ignored or missed when they should be utilized.
Edmund Burke is credited with having said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Indeed, but it does not stop there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Thus it may be said that when good men do nothing, they are in fact doing something – to wit, they are silently consenting to that which they may not agree. Their inaction or their lack of speech is in itself an act or word of consent, and in their inaction they create an environment suitable for evil to triumph. All of us, every day, are either working for good or for ill, if not actively then passively.
Returning to von Hildebrand’s comment, it is telling to compare this sentiment with the modern political and cultural environment; so doing reveals a similar malaise in the present time. During the 2016 presidential election, polls repeatedly showed that the candidates of both major parties were historically disliked, yet these candidates received popular support. Recent Gallup results show that only 36 percent of Americans believe that their president is “honest and trustworthy.” Why? Because voters have settled for the “the lesser of two evils,” because they chose to vote “against so-and-so.”
Both sentiments betray a resignation to the inevitability of one option or the other despite the fact that neither are desired; or perhaps such equivocation allows the voter, in their mind, to recuse themselves of moral responsibility. This outlook is no different from that experienced by the German people in the 1920’s. Modern society has been dulled by its compulsion to be distracted and entertained, and with this dulling of the spirit comes a blunting of the moral imagination. As such, one now finds oneself in a Hegelian nightmare whereby history unfolds exactly as it will, and that man is simply along for the ride. No earnest attempt is made to swim upstream, because what would be the point?
The question thus becomes, do our elected officials represent the people? The common cry is that they do not, that we are, again, choosing the least of our evil options by voting against the candidate we claim to hate, rather than for the candidate we actually believe in, for there is no candidate that we believe in. We know that this candidate – whomever – is a bad choice, but what other choice is there? I wish to propose an antithesis.
What if those whom we elect into office are in fact honest reflections of the electorate? Perhaps Americans fail to see themselves as they truly are. It is plain to see that morality in the public square has been replaced by perversion and self-absorption of many sorts: the traditional family is in decline; self-absorption is on the rise; materialism determines the majority of our decisions; jobs are taken and careers begun not for the honor or necessity of the position so much as for the wealth and prestige they offer; investments are not made in things that last, but rather in things that are soon replaced by a newer version; narcissism is rampant at the expense of community involvement; disagreement is taken as hostility.
Is it any surprise that both candidates ran on platforms that together brought all of these trends under one collective umbrella? Both claimed to offer greater freedom, and both believed it, but both operated from a severely distorted understanding of the nature of freedom, which, unfortunately, is shared by the masses. Both parties promise exactly what the vast majority of the society wants to hear, because like our politicians, we no longer value morality, or virtue, or honor, or truth, but power. Storehouses are empty in heaven for lack of attention, and are empty on Earth for abundance of moth, rust, and thievery. Man has forgotten God, and the pseudo-knowledge that has replaced Him is vacuous and toxic to mind and soul alike.
It is popular among would-be political reformers to say that the people must hold their elected officials accountable but whence must such accountability originate? It must start where anything worthy or just starts, at the individual level, and from this level it must continually draw strength. An honorable general does not sanction an operation or maneuver in which he would not himself willingly participate, just as a benevolent ruler, either monarch or executive, does not institute laws or policies by which he would not himself abide. How, then, can society demand of an elected body a standard of moral and ethical behavior to which they, the electorate, do not adhere? Archbishop Charles Chaput, in his 2014 Erasmus Lecture, spoke similarly when he said:
“But the real reason faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young adults and teens is that—too often—it didn’t really matter to us. Not enough to shape our lives… A man can’t give what he doesn’t have. If we want to change the culture of a nation, we need to begin by taking a hard look at the thing we call our own faith. If we don’t radiate the love of God with passion and courage in the example of our daily lives, nobody else will—least of all the young people who see us most clearly and know us most intimately.”
Archbishop Chaput here is speaking about the failure to communicate the joy and necessity of one’s faith to the rising generation, but the reasoning behind this failure is easily applied to other situations. He concludes the passage above by saying,
“The theme of this essay is ‘strangers in a strange land.’ But the real problem in America today isn’t that we believers are foreigners. It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.”
We demand a different standard of behavior of those to whom we are socially and culturally akin. To borrow from Lewis, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” Consider but one of the more recent and public examples: at the last Republican National Convention, a once-candidate for the presidency stood before the crowd and implored those listening to vote according to their conscience. This message was met with a chorus of boos and derision. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
Let us take the time to consider that perhaps there is a connection between a morally deficient ruling class, and what we regularly chide as a morally deficient public square. Let us question honestly. We are all open to the same faults as those who receive our ire for their being imperfect. Let us consider re-examining ourselves, with humility and grace.