Senator Mike Lee is a man to listen to. Congress, and some Republican senators in particular, are not the most popular people in America today, but suspend your judgment for just a moment. Consider Lee’s indictment — of American politics and even conservatism — and his vision forward. In reflection, he looks toward solutions.
At this year’s Values Voter Summit, held during the final days of the shutdown in the nation’s capital, the junior senator from Utah cautioned about something that we had been watching in the media over the last weeks in earnest, but that does seem to be a permanent, chronic condition. “Conservatives,” he said, “often fall into a trap — defining ourselves by what we are against: big government, debt, higher taxes and regulations, Obamacare. But we haven’t invested nearly as much time and energy in communicating what we conservatives are for. I’m talking about more than simply the policies we advocate. Conservatism is not about the bills we want to pass, but the nation we want to be.”
It’s worth noting that strategic misfires are sometimes born of true conviction. Much of what we hear on MSNBC these days consists of assuming that Senator Ted Cruz, for example, was simply trying to burnish his presidential-primary credentials by talking down Obamacare and being willing to tolerate a shutdown. But his intention was to address existential threats born out of fundamental, even anthropological, questions about who we are and where we are going. It’s hard for a minority in Washington to be heard raising such questions in a time when incomprehensible comprehensive legislation and judicial edicts are much more common than Lincoln-Douglas–style debates.
Lee addressed this problem in his speech: “Too often in this town we stop thinking about the things that matter most. We get so caught up in the thick of things that we not only stop thinking big — we often stop thinking at all. Which leads to other things — like $17 trillion debt, widespread dysfunction, and much more.”
It’s not just a Washington problem, is it? We get set in our ways and stop realizing our lives can be different, better, about something more than the coming — or missed — deadline. Further, we can help others: out of poverty, out of depression, out of feeling alone in the world, as the world seems to pass them by. It could be a neighbor, a stranger, a member of our family. While we tend to be quite comfortable staying on our side of the aisle (or our side of the tracks, as the case may be) and spend time blaming, spinning, and arguing, there is progress that can be made if we consider together who we are and who we ought to be.
In his speech, Lee talked about driving with his teenage sons, hearing the words of a song, and quickly realizing that they were hardly good for the soul. When he pointed this out, one of his sons said: “Dad, it’s not bad if you don’t think about it.”
And so it is. This is where we are: unthinkably not thinking.
Seven months into the papacy of Pope Francis, the media seem much more interested in figuring out what political label he falls under, rather than actually listening to what he says. But what he says, whether it be in his many tweets, his morning homilies, or other encounters, is: Be who you say you are. And you can’t be who you say you are if you don’t know who you are. You can’t help your brother if you’re completely indifferent to him, if you don’t even notice him, never mind if you fail to weep for his pain. That’s not about “feel your pain” rhetoric, but about suffering with those who suffer, because we are members of the human family.
In remarks in an aptly named “Room of Renunciation” in Assisi earlier this month, Pope Francis advised: “For everyone, even for our society that is showing signs of fatigue, if we want to save ourselves from sinking, it is necessary to follow the path of poverty. That does not mean misery — this idea should be refuted — it means knowing how to share, how to be more in solidarity with those in need, to entrust oneself more to God and less to our human efforts.
Francis addresses this same issue in 140 characters or less: “True charity requires courage: Let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need.”
You can express it in tweets, but getting it done requires a deeper engagement than our political and media attention spans often tolerate. Lee explained what it is we need to consider as we move forward in debates about the economy, health care, immigration, religious liberty, and the very future of America: “The alternative to big government is not small government. The alternative to big government is a thriving, flourishing nation of cooperative communities — where your success depends on your service. It’s a free-enterprise economy where everyone works for everyone else, competing to see who can figure out the best way to help the most people. And it’s a voluntary civil society, where free individuals come together to meet each other’s needs, fill in the gaps, and make sure no one gets left behind.”
Lee talked about helping every American family, in particular, by revolutionizing the tax code, but he further emphasized: “our ideals demand we identify even more with those Americans still on the bottom rungs, where the climbing is harder, dangerous, and lonely.” In freedom is duty, a duty that encourages and challenges and loves. Today’s challenges require human encounter that no government or politician can lead. It involves an integrity deeper than any ideology and a commitment well beyond any news or campaign cycle.