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Religion & Liberty: Volume 31, Number 2

Eugene McCarthy, St. Damien of Molokai, and the limits of politics

    Former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., ran for president four times, but his most memorable campaign was in 1968, where a strong insurgent showing led to the political downfall of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. McCarthy, in his first run, challenged LBJ as a peace candidate in the first-in-the-nation primary of New Hampshire, garnering a shockingly high 42% of the vote against the sitting president of his own party. President Johnson won but did not even reach 50% support from the voters. Politically eviscerated by Vietnam and the growing unrest at home, Johnson withdrew from the race a few weeks later, in a televised speech in March 1968. 

    In many ways, the late 1960s was the high tide of American liberalism. With the Great Society recently implemented and Johnson’s “guns-and-butter” policies in full swing, there was a belief that the nation could wage war during a U.S.-Soviet arms race while spending prodigiously on social engineering. Optimism in state power and bureaucratic expertise morphed into what Amity Shlaes called “an almost mystical belief in the infinite potentials of American society.”

    McCarthy, a devout Roman Catholic, was liberal on many issues, but even his entrance into the race as a peace candidate was a testament to the limits of politics, or that the government couldn’t solve everything. His thinking would evolve even more with time, as he withdrew deeper into philosophical pursuits and his love for poetry. He even jolted his own party in 1980, endorsing Ronald Reagan. It was far from the first or last time. Russell Kirk, who supported one of McCarthy’s more obscure runs for the presidency in 1976, once said he had a “poet’s attachment to the truth.” 

    McCarthy was known for his wit and humor, but there was tinge of brooding when he made statements like this one: “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important.”

    In McCarthy’s book No-Fault Politics, editor Keith Burris introduced him as "a Catholic committed to social justice but a skeptic about reform, about do-gooders, about the power of the state and the competence of government, and about the liberal reliance upon material cures for social problems." 

    Despite McCarthy’s glamorized quest for the presidency in 1968 and its infamous campaign slogan, “Clean for Gene,” he was mistakenly memorialized on screen as “Joseph McCarthy” at the 2008 Democrat National Convention, confusing him with the former Republican senator from Wisconsin who had already been dead for more than 50 years. 

    That itself is a lesson on the limits of politics, as is much of McCarthy’s political trajectory. Seemingly, McCarthy’s stature and example as a prolific voice of conscience had too little staying power within his own party to be remembered by his own name. At first a deep thinker, and an oft-times forgotten footnote, he was increasingly disillusioned by the direction of politics and what it could solve. It’s a disillusionment we should all feel, as politics and governmental power gets elevated into spheres today where it never belonged. 

    Right now, one can actually find a striking contrast to the political shallowness and selfishness in Congress on the grounds of Capitol Hill. National Statuary Hall, adjacent to the Rotunda, houses two figures from each state. One of the figures representing Hawaii is the Belgian native Damien De Veuster, more popularly known as Fr. Damien of Molokai. Damien gave his life serving the undesirable lepers quarantined on the island of Molokai in the nineteenth century. Damien eventually contracted the debilitating disease that disfigured and killed him in 1889. 

    Damien played an important role in my own turn away from the lure of politics. When I worked on Capitol Hill, near tears amidst a miserable day, I was pacing the halls and stumbled upon the bronze statue of Fr. Damien. I recognized Damien immediately, because I had lived in Hawaii for a little over three years. I knew all about his life and story of sacrifice. The statue in Washington is essentially identical to the statue at the state Capitol building in Honolulu, which is frequently adorned with flower leis. Damien, who was 49 years old when he died, is depicted as looking much older, his body ravaged by leprosy. 

    Damien provides a contrast of competing servants, some oriented towards the things of this world and others oriented toward the next. He reveals a different path. That encounter helped to quicken my enrollment in seminary and away from the political center of Washington, D.C. 

    Damien’s legacy offers another contrast related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a member of the clergy, he’s the opposite of our modern social distancer. He cleaned, helped bathe, and meticulously took care of the lepers under his charge, often not taking the precautions advised by health experts and church officials. 

    This kind of service and sacrifice to the afflicted towers over the culture of fear still persisting in a post-vaccine America. We see it incessantly through social media viral videos and in many of our own firsthand experiences. Fear has caused some to beg for ever-more restrictive directives from federal and state governments on COVID-19. 

    Fear can at times be an important leveling device. But fear, too, comes from a lack a faith. This is a phenomenon that is particularly visible during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s unraveling society in new ways – where the fearful empower the state to fill the void of uncertainty. For many of a secular or even a modern mind, a fear of death trumps everything else. 

    Given that truth, one of the biggest mistakes many churches have made during COVID-19 is not offering an alternative to this powerful narrative of fear that has swallowed up so much of our culture, allowing us to see the folly of centralized power and directives. We all know the Church by definition limits the state, and it should not serve as its handmaiden. The many missed opportunities by the Church to speak to those consumed by fear not only harmed the Church’s witness, but it diluted the paths to freedom beyond the material world. One of the greatest characteristics of politics is that it provides so many lessons beyond politics. 

    Turning back to McCarthy, whether or not one agreed with his peace campaign, he did offer a model of courage to say something was amiss. He restored many people’s hope in institutions and the vital significance of a voice of conscience against herd-minded state action. 

    The enduring lesson is that all of us have to do a better job of collectively recovering a courageous voice of conscience, if we desire to remind people of the proper limits of government. It’s vitally important that we do so, or our disordered political world will continue to spill over and consume the deeper truths – truths which, while seemingly hidden away, are desperate to be recovered.

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    Ray Nothstine is editor of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina