Finding God Even in Politics: An Interview with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Fr. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, author of more than 10 books, and editor-at-large for America Magazine. His latest books are Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Seven Last Words and a novel called The Abbey. He sat down with FPR’s editor-in-chief, Ben St. Clair, to talk about Jesuit spirituality and its place in politics.

As a religious figure, and as a Jesuit, do you feel that you have a role — or a duty, even — to comment on political life?

I try to stay as far away from political commentary as possible. America magazine is supposed to be non-partisan; priests are supposed to be non-partisan; the Church is supposed to be non-partisan. However, I also think it’s important to proclaim the Gospel, and sometimes the Gospel message has political implications. So if you say that you need to care for the poor and the marginalized, and one party’s doing that and one party is not, then so be it. Sometimes what one says has political implications, but that’s not why I say it.

So how should religious figures — in the Catholic Church or any other religion — interact with politicians and in public debates?

First of all, by not being partisan. Second of all, by not telling people who to vote for. Third of all, by respecting their consciences. Fourth, helping to form their consciences rather than dictate to them. And fifth, with charity and humility. It’s incumbent upon Catholic leaders also to talk about social issues but also to do so with a stance of humility, so that they don’t come across either as know-it-alls or as willfully ignorant of the matter at hand.

Do you think there’s a duty to speak out when they see something wrong?

Yeah, there’s definitely a duty to speak out — even in political matters. The great issues of our day are often political issues of the day, and the Church needs to be, and has always been, an active participant in the public square. That’s part of our role. The boundary is advocating explicitly for one political party or another, or telling people what candidate to vote for. In Catholic theology, one’s conscience is primary, and you can’t dictate to someone who to vote for. You just can’t. And also there’s a practical reason: We lose our tax-exempt status if we do.

Very true [laughs]. What are the biggest lessons politicians can learn from St. Ignatius or Jesuit spirituality, more generally?

The most important one is giving people the benefit of the doubt. That’s the way [St. Ignatius] starts his famous manual on prayer, The Spiritual Exercises, and that’s usually not done in the political sphere. There are all these ad hominem attacks on individuals, which poison the political culture, and as we see today, has created this culture of division.

Second, a little more strategically, St. Ignatius has this expression: “To go in their door and come out your door.” In other words, if you’re trying to convince someone of something, you meet them where they are and offer them examples and invitations to understand things in a way they can understand — and then gradually try to show them the logic of your argument, rather than hitting them over the head with something.

Do you see that happening in politics, or has it ever happened in politics in your experience?

When I was growing up in the ‘70s, there was more of an appeal to logic than there was to emotion. Our political discourse today has been so coarsened that it’s all about emotion and anger and fear. Perhaps that’s always been the case, but I just see it much more these days. I really lament the current state of political discourse in this country. It’s so polarized, and that’s unnecessary.

Everyone points to the example of Ronald Reagan having a drink with [then Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill after the day’s over. I think that’s a really important image. Or the picture that I saw recently of George W. Bush hugging Hillary Clinton at Nancy Reagan’s funeral. There are ways of debating people without demonizing them. Theoretically, we’re all on the same team — we’re all in this for the good of the country.

What do you think about the way God is evoked in political discussions or in political speeches?

God is usually evoked in a very shallow and thin way because candidates know that while they have to appeal to religious believers, they don’t want to alienate the non-religious or non-believers. So God is usually appealed to in very superficial ways, unless they’re trying to throw red meat to religious believers, and then they’ll trot out their beliefs about God.

Sometimes you’ll get a politician who will sit down and speak thoughtfully about his spiritual beliefs. President Obama has done this, but that was only when he was in office — as I recall. But I think he’s very articulate about what he believes. I’ve heard Hillary Clinton speak about her beliefs in an articulate way. But most of the time on the campaign trail, it’s used as something as a response to polling results.

Yeah, whatever’s going to get the most interest.

Interestingly, [Sen.] Bernie Sanders — who I respect very much — talks very little about his Judaism, perhaps because he thinks that that might turn off a section of voters. And it probably would.

Unfortunately, yeah. If we should look for God in all things like Ignatius spoke about, how can the general public and elected officials best find God in politics?

It’s sometimes hard for the general public to find God in politics because it seems so venal and so dependent on money. I was reading the other day this rather famous comment that no politicians enters the political world to raise money but once elected, he or she finds that that’s what he or she is doing most of the time. So a good deal of it has to deal with money, which I think is dispiriting for a lot of people.

By the same token, it is still a public service, and I still think that you can find God in the desire to help the common good — that’s an essential Catholic belief, the common good. It is a noble profession, but I think people have just been so turned off by the decisiveness, the intransigence, and also the influence of money.

For me, it’s getting harder and harder to find God there. I have to say — without getting too political — I really was very discouraged by [Sen.] Mitch McConnell’s comment at the beginning of President Obama’s term where he said, in essence, “we’re going to try to make sure that Obama gets nothing done.” I thought that was one of the most discouraging and selfish comments I’ve ever heard in my entire life. To put the good of the Party ahead of the country was just astonishing to me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The Jesuits use the phrase “riches to honors to pride” to describe how people slip into sinful behavior. Do you think “politics” belongs in that progression?

[Laughs] Yeah, of course. Classically, it’s riches as in financial wealth, which leads to honors in the social sphere, which leads to pride on the personal level. But riches can also be power, and that power can lead to honors — everyone gets honored as they move up the political ladder — and that certainly leads to pride. You see so many of the examples of politicians who find themselves embroiled in scandals where they feel that they’re above the law as a result of pride. They feel that they can do whatever they want. In terms of pride, all you need to do is look at some of the comments that are coming from our politicians to get examples of the worst kind of pride — very little humility goes along with some of these politicians. Given that it is a game that generally rewards power, I’m sure it’s very difficult not to get sucked up into it.

Are you a “House of Cards” fan?

No — I don’t have Netflix. I’d love to see it though. But I’m a “Veep” fan. That character—for her it’s all about pride, whether or not the president has nodded at her. You can see that it’s kind of this naked ambition.

At its best, politics is a public service and a noble profession. At its worst, it’s a kind of mask for a desire for power.

Politicians like to talk about freedom — Republicans especially — when it comes to individual freedom and liberty. But St. Ignatius also talked about freedom. Can you talk a little about what St. Ignatius meant by freedom and our understanding of freedom today, as espoused by different politicians, is along the same lines?

Ignatius’ idea of freedom is the freedom to do whatever you want to do, basically. His idea of freedom is a personal freedom from what he called “disordered attachments,” anything that would keep us from responding to God’s will in our life or God’s voice in our life, more specifically. The idea would be that if you have something that really is preventing you from becoming a more loving person, you need to get rid of it. For example, if I have a disordered attachment to my health and you’re in the hospital — God forbid — and I say, “I’m not going to visit him because I might get sick,” that’s a disordered attachment, because it’s not letting me do a good thing. That is different from the American concept of freedom, which is basically “I’m free to visit him in the hospital or not. No one’s forcing me to go.” That’s a different kind of freedom. One is a personal freedom, and the other freedom has to do with God.

You don’t think Ignatius had any role of government in mind when he was talking about freedom?

No. Although he did have a lot of people who came to him for counseling who were in the political world — royalty and princes and kings and people like that. But he was more concerned with the freedom to respond to God’s voice, which is a slightly different tag on the word “freedom.”

That’s interesting. So going back a little way: In one of your early books In Good Company, you tell a story about how you facilitated a community meeting about how to decorate the house chapel. You came to a decision pretty quickly, but the novice director was disappointed that not everyone talked, and that wasn’t the reaction you were expecting from him. You conclude the story by saying, “And while I recognize the value of discussion, I thought action was important, too. I wondered if the novitiate could learn something from corporate America.” First, what did you mean by this, and has this idea evolved since you wrote the book almost 15 years ago?

[Laughs] I probably wouldn’t say it that way because I’d probably get into trouble by saying it that way today. That’s a kind of blunt criticism of the way we did things in the novitiate. Basically, my novice director’s point — which I take today — was that everyone needs to be able to feel like they’ve contributed to the discussion. Whereas at [General Electric] what we needed to do was get to a decision, and if people didn’t contribute to the discussion, that was their fault. If you didn’t speak up, then who’s to blame? But in the novitiate, it was felt that I had kind of bulldozed that decision through, treating it like a GE meeting. Nonetheless, my point was that coming to quick decisions is sometimes not a bad thing, and being decisive is sometimes not a bad thing. Funny enough, I think I’ve seen enough examples of quick decisions of the Jesuits where they could have listened to more people to know that my novice director was probably right. So it took me a while to admit that I guess.

Do you think we can apply that kind of thinking to political discussions and debates?

Yes, I do, because there’s a tendency to just let the loudest person in the room dominate, rather than being thoughtful. Social media has something to do with that, unfortunately. As someone who participates a lot in social media, I see a lot of the benefits, but on Twitter for example, it’s the loudest voices, the most obstreperous and the most violent voices that take over. Sometimes that’s the case on Facebook, too. Rather than allowing people to have a peaceful space to interact with one another and exchange ideas, we get people demonizing people and making outlandish assertions, trying to disqualify people from even speaking. That is something that does not happen in the Jesuits. You could have a community meeting, and even if there’s someone in the community who maybe people think is crazy, he’s still allowed to speak and people do listen to him. I appreciate that about the Jesuits.

How can we bring public discourse back to that interactions?

By modeling it. The best way to do it is to model it. And the media has a lot to do with it. The media, of which I’m a member, goes for controversy — that’s what sells. I saw a reprehensible quote by Les Moonves, who’s the president of CBS, who said that he didn’t care if Trump was bad for America as long as he was good for CBS. That was unbelievable. I noticed it on a lot of the talk shows. It’s basically the loudest voices, and that’s great drama, but all that does is get people angrier. Versus — I saw a really interesting clip of President Obama the other day responding to a heckler, and he was just basically saying, “Let him talk, let him talk. That’s okay.” He was very calm with him. There’s a way of treating people with dignity even if they disagree, which I think is being lost.

Ad hominem is a really big concern for me — attacking the person rather than saying, “Let me tell you why I disagree with what you say.” You say to the person: “Well, you’re a jerk” or “you’re anti-American” or “you’re a loser” or “you’re a bad Catholic” or “you’re not even worth listening to.” It’s terrible, and there’s nowhere to go from that.

In terms of philosophy, it’s the worst argument, ad hominem. We learned all these categories in logic about bad arguments — what’s a bad argument — so one of them is post hoc ergo propter hoc (“After this, therefore because of this”). So for example, I sneezed and then it rains, so it must have rained because I sneezed. Terrible argument. And then the other bad argument is ad hominem: Someone might say, “I think A equals B.” And the response is, “Well, that’s wrong because you’re a jerk.” It’s terrible, and that seems to be what dominates our political discourse, so I think we have to move away from that.

I’d like to end on a lighter note.

Yeah, please.

Do you have a Jesuit joke related to politics?

[Laughs] Let’s see. Yeah here’s a political joke.

So the Pope lands in New York a few months ago for his visit, and he’s picked up by a driver in a limousine at JFK. They’re speeding down the highway, and the driver has chest pains and he says, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” So the Pope says, “Well let me drive to the hospital.” He’s speeding down the highway, and this police cruiser pulls him over. He looks in the window at the Pope, he looks in the back seat at the other guy, and then goes back to his car and calls his dispatcher, and he says, “Listen. I got a problem. I just pulled over someone really important.”

The dispatcher says, “Who? Is it the mayor?”

And he goes, “No more important.”

And the dispatcher goes, “Is it the governor?”

He goes, “No, more important.”

He says, “Is it the president?”

“No more important.”

“Who could be more important than the president?”

And the guy goes, “Well, I don’t know, but his driver is the Pope.”

[Laughs] That’s great. Thanks for talking.

My pleasure.