This political season many of my faith-driven friends have declared their reluctance to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” assuming that, in doing so, they would be endorsing evil.
Yet, in every election, we must choose the lesser of two evils – or, more precisely, between two human beings who, like all of us, are sinners. Only the flawed run for office – and only we, the flawed, elect them. Indeed, everything that is done on this earth, for good or for ill, is done by the flawed.
That we are all hardwired to sin is not necessarily terrible. In relegating unstained virtue to second place, in relying on the gospel of Machiavelli more than on the Gospel of Mark, our sins can carry us to positions of power. I’m not talking about the crimes that the truly evil use to gain power. Rather, I mean the lesser sins of self-promotion, egotism, and pride that fuel political ambition in democracies and have been quite openly displayed in our current election.
The best of those carried to power by such sins achieve a spiritual epiphany as they realize, either on the road to Damascus or the road to Washington, the magnitude of their responsibilities. Having gotten authority, they use it virtuously. Sometimes, the sinner can become a saint. St. Thomas Becket, the most famous example of this in political history, literally did so.
Unfortunately, saints are a rarity. Some who achieve through sin simply get more adept at sinning. Instead of seeing themselves as called upon to do good, they believe that whatever advances them is good. They confer sainthood upon themselves. They feel entitled to power and superior to lesser folk.
Unfortunately, the human heart can’t be popped open like a pocket watch and its inner workings examined. We have to base our judgment upon externalities – on what a candidate says and on what they have done. We must examine the extent to which each candidate acknowledges and regrets having done wrong, or denies wrongdoing while continuing to do wrong.
One candidate has spent her adult life as a politician or as the helpmate of a politician. Her only significant earnings outside of politics were from a land development swindle and a miraculously successful venture into cattle futures. Having left the White House “broke,” she now possesses, with her husband, over $100 million and controls a $2 billion dollar foundation that fuels a political machine under the guise of charity. She is currently under investigation by the FBI for taking cash in return for favors she dispensed while Secretary of State.
With the help of a compliant media and Justice Department, she has evaded responsibility for using a private email server over which classified information was transmitted and whose purpose, it is increasingly obvious, was to conceal influence-peddling. She lies about so many things that one often has to gasp at her brazenness. Who cannot marvel at her claiming to have valiantly run for cover under sniper fire at an airfield in Bosnia, when video shows her and Chelsea accepting flowers from a little girl on the tarmac?
Less bizarrely, she has claimed to have worked for a variety of victim groups, but can’t mention any specific accomplishment achieved in those efforts. She lies, lies about her lies, and lies about lying about her lies. She is a mighty tornado of lies. For this, she offers no apologies.
While Clinton was born to a prosperous family, Donald Trump was born with, to use one of his catchphrases, a “yuge” silver spoon in his mouth. His father gave him $1 million to launch a real estate business. Trump turned that silver spoon into a full service for twelve, building a real estate empire. It wasn’t an unbroken path to success.
When the real estate market crumbled, he took a billion-dollar loss. Rather than curl up in a fetal position, he used tax laws designed to help businesses survive financial disasters and made a series of wise investments to regain his success. He is proud of his achievements. He displays a boyish desire to shout “Look at me!” with every building he stamps with his name.
The ugly side of his boastfulness was displayed when an old tape of a private conversation with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink TV interviewer was released. Trump bragged that his celebrity brought women to him who didn’t mind being groped. This is an obvious observation on human nature – movie stars, sports heroes, presidents born in Arkansas, etc. are notorious for attracting groupies – but it is ungentlemanly to proclaim it so vulgarly.
Trump’s apology for his words was dismissed by critics, who declared him guilty of sexual assault. They ignored his saying the women in question “let” celebrities grope them while forgetting Clinton’s attacks upon the victims of her husband’s non-consensual sex crimes.
As we contemplate these candidates’ failings, we should acknowledge that, if we have sinned less, the credit lies not entirely in our virtue. In his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray considers the lives of deceased villagers: “Some mute, inglorious Milton here may lie … Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.” Were it not for lack of opportunity, Gray suggests, in that graveyard might sleep a poet whose talent equaled Milton’s, or another whose chill heart would yield a politician as violent as Cromwell.
As we examine the flaws of today’s candidates, we should consider whether we may have failed to realize our full potential for sin, at least in part, because, unlike them, we’ve been protected by our lack of opportunity.
So let us weight the sins – and the virtues – of each candidate. On Tuesday, let us not cast stones, but ballots.
(Laurie’s husband, Ed Morrow, collaborated with her in writing this column.)