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Commentary: If you want to change the world, do it yourselves

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2012 - John C. Danforth is an Episcopal priest and a Republican, who served as Missouri  attorney general,  U.S. senator and ambassador to the United Nations. He is a Beacon contributor. The article is his graduation speech at Westminster College this past weekend.

Westminster has played such an important part in national and world events that it’s an honor to be your speaker. Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech was the most momentous address of the 20th century, and your alumni have performed distinguished public service. Two good friends come to my mind: Stephen Brauer, who was our ambassador to Belgium and Alfred Sikes, my colleague in state government, who chaired the Federal Communications Commission.

I hope many of you will follow their good examples of public service. With our politics polarized and our rhetoric angry and extreme, the nation, indeed the world, needs you.

Since much of my life has been spent trying to influence public policy, my one point today may seem odd, considering its source. My one point is this. If you want to change the world, do it yourselves. Don’t leave it to government.

The public good depends at least as much on how you live your lives than on any policy governments adopt or any laws legislatures enact. I don’t mean that issues don’t matter or that policies don’t count.

Big political questions are before America: How much government is too much?  When should we commit our military to conflict? But politics isn’t as important in the real lives of real people as politicians suppose.

When I was in the Senate, it was a humbling and healthy experience to return home and learn that legislation I had thought earth shaking had escaped the notice of my constituents. Self importance about our politics is worse than unrealistic. It makes us dogmatic, self-righteous and locked into our positions.

Certainty that our ideas are right yields intransigence. Compromise becomes impossible, and politics, which is the art of compromise, fails. That’s where we are in America today. It’s called “gridlock.”

I think we should take politics a bit more lightly than we do today, and that we should take our responsibility to be good people much more seriously. How we live our lives is more important than the policies we advocate.

America’s founders understood this. They saw personal conduct as the condition precedent of sound government. They called it “virtue.”

In his Farewell Address, George Washington said, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

James Madison, the author of the Constitution, thought deeply about how to structure government. Yet, even to Madison, government was secondary to personal conduct. He said, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a [mirage].” If this is so, even with regard to the U.S. Constitution, it is more so with regard to any position on any current issue.

But the primacy of virtue in the minds of our founders has yielded to the primacy of government in our minds today. Across the political spectrum we ask government to set moral standards.

On gay marriage, liberals and conservatives have one thing in common. Each side asks legislators to define what marriage means. Not content that government confine itself to specifics such as the legal status of property rights and inheritance, they want legislatures to do the work of religion and describe the  personal relationship that is marriage.

A minister friend once told me that he had never attended a clergy conference that didn’t end with a resolution to write letters to Congress. Fine, but writing letters is too easy. It doesn’t fulfill religion’s duty either to God or to humanity. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the great Protestant martyr of Nazi Germany had a term for making broad theological principles more important than personal responsibility. He called it “cheap grace.”

In the same vein, British political philosopher Danny Kruger speaks of the ascendancy of politics over personal responsibility. He thinks that taking stands on political issues such as ecology and human rights amounts to telling other people, in government or business, what they should be doing. At the same time, we insist that our private lives are our own business and we should be free to do whatever we please, especially when it comes to sexuality. For Kruger, “A moral code [of political advocacy with no rules of personal conduct] is a remarkably easy one to abide by.”

In a recent newspaper column, Peggy Noonan went a step further than Kruger. She argued that taking political positions can be a cover for truly abhorrent personal behavior. Her topic was the rash of sexual slurs about women who have attained leadership in politics and business. She relates this to the general coarsening of public discourse, especially on the internet. Noonan singles out for particular scorn men who seem to believe that their political opinions on issues such as abortion give them license to use sexist language. But taking political positions can never excuse personal misconduct, and enacting policies cannot make up for an absence of virtue.

Congressional hearings, then tough new laws always follow scandals in government or business. Politicians trumpet the new laws. They brag that, due to their work, “this can never happen again.” We are supposed to feel protected. But it does happen again, because the problem isn’t inadequate laws, it’s people whose sole sense of responsibility is to themselves.

And because people are the problem, people must be the answer. Rules alone won’t do the job. We as individuals are the responsible parties. We need not wait for legislatures to act; we must act as though we are the legislatures, as though what we do in our own lives will set the standard for others. The great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said as much. He said that we must live as though our actions were the universal law to be followed by everybody.

Why, asked Peggy Noonan, do pundits feel they can get away with making slurs about women?  t’s because of the coarsening of the culture. Others are doing it, so I should too. The same could be said about any conduct, any slur, any obscenity. It’s thought to be OK, because it’s commonplace. But we create our culture, and we can change our culture by the way we act.

There’s a fascinating and very disturbing book by Christopher Browning titled "Ordinary Men." It’s about a reserve police battalion of 500 Germans who, during Hitler’s reign had the job of ridding Poland of Jews. They did their work with rifles, leading women, children and those men too infirm to work into the woods, forcing them to lie prone, and shooting them in the base of the skull. One by one, these 500 ordinary policemen murdered 38,000 Jews.

The book asks why. It wasn’t that they were acting under orders. They could have avoided it without penalty. Just before they began their first day of shooting, their commanding officer told them that any policemen who didn’t have the stomach for it would be excused, and that remained the standing offer for the next two years. Only about a dozen policemen stepped out that first day, and only about 15-20 percent declined to participate as the slaughter proceeded.  Those who declined were not punished.

Policemen who did the shooting were repulsed by their work, but did it anyway. Here’s why. Their fellow policemen were doing it, and they didn’t want to be different. It proves Kant’s point. We are universal lawgivers. What we do becomes the standard for others.

Libertarians would say that we should do whatever we like, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But the way we act does affect others even when we seem to be acting alone. This was the point Adam Smith made in "The Wealth of Nations." He believed that the collective effect of individuals acting solely out of self-interest had the unintended consequence of benefiting society as a whole. He called this collective self-interest “an invisible hand.”

But Adam Smith did not account for another side of humanity—altruism. He did not explain how mutual altruism, as opposed to self-interest, benefits society.  This became the work of games theorists 200 years later. They demonstrated that good acts by one person produce reciprocal good acts by another. Individual virtue leads to public virtue.

Members of the Class of 2012, the most hackneyed of commencement addresses urges graduates to go forth and change the world. That’s precisely what I am doing this afternoon. I hope some of you go into politics. Politics is worth doing, and it’s worth doing well. But be realistic about politics. Keep it in its proper place. It’s no substitute for personal responsibility. More important than any election you might win or any office you might hold will be the way you live your lives. You don’t have to be in politics to change the world. You just have to be good people.

Our founders spoke of the importance of virtue. I have not tried to define it for you. You know what virtue means because you know the difference between right and wrong. You know about honesty, faithfulness and patriotism. You know how to stand against cruelty and coarseness, and how to care for others, especially those less fortunate than you. In sum, you know how to be a model for others to follow. What remains is to live that way.

Don’t be content with writing letters asking politicians to change the world. Change it yourselves. You need no more preparation.  Start today.

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