Virtue in Politics

June 22, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Newsweek recently did a cover story on virtuecrats, on the attention being given to those who call for morality in public life. It has now become trendy to voice the moralism that Jimmy Carter was mocked for. It is about time.

I am constantly astonished by learned people who cannot absorb this basic truth: The separation of church and state has nothing to do with any separation of religion from politics. Every religious person must, to the extent that religious values are real and important, see politics in terms of religion. What are war, poverty, justice and crime but moral issues -- and how can a religious person separate religion from morality?

One public person who constantly has put politics in terms of religion is Jimmy Carter's friend and supporter, Andrew Young. He knew that religion had something to do with Jimmy Carter's response to the Black Caucus in Congress when it was screening presidential candidates before the 1976 election.

Other candidates were asked how many blacks they had on their staff. None had more than one. The most ''liberal'' candidate had none. When Mr. Carter was asked how many he had, he answered, ''I don't know.'' But a staffer accompanying him supplied the answer -- 27. This was not because of mere political calculation. Mr. Carter knew that one of the leading moral issues of the time had been raised by Martin Luther King -- the question of racial justice. How could a Southern politician address that question without the help of African Americans on his staff?

Such things were obvious to Mr. Carter and to Mr. Young. That is what makes Mr. Young's new book, ''A Way Out of No Way,'' (Thomas Nelson Publishers) so refreshing. Some of us have been waiting years for his autobiography. Now, when it comes, he presents it as his ''spiritual memoirs.'' An ordained minister, he has treated each aspect of his life as part of a spiritual vocation. If political life is not that, why should a minister be taking part in it at all?

As a follower of King, Andrew Young treated opponents of the civil-rights movement as God's children, each with dignity. Although a jailer called him nigger, he always addressed the man as ''Mr. Jones'' and asked about his family, his children. Soon the jailer was treating him with a reciprocal respect.

Being respectful of others does not mean being their patsy. Mr. Young likes to quote from a sermon delivered at his ordination. A Rev. Homer McEwen advised the newly ordained: ''Preach with your bags packed, for if you're ever fortunate enough to be used by the Spirit to share the full Gospel, you will probably be run out of town.''

Andrew Young has been run out of his share of towns -- including New York, where he had been the U.N. ambassador. But he usually gets invited back.

Unlike the Kennedys, whose motto is supposed to be, ''Don't get mad, get even,'' Mr. Young's motto is, ''Don't get mad, period.'' He tells how his father used to shadowbox with him in his youth: ''As long as I was controlled and disciplined in my approach, he would encourage and congratulate me. Whenever I began to get frustrated and swing wildly, he would tap me lightly but persistently on the cheek and say, 'That's one knockout, two knockouts, three knockouts. How many times are you going to get knocked out before you learn to control yourself and think?' ''

It was a lesson Mr. Young put to good use as a negotiator for King and as a statesman. If anyone wants to see the connection between politics and religion, he or she does not need to go to the Johnny-come-lately ''virtuecrats.'' One can consult the words this veteran from the most important incursion of morality into our politics, the civil-rights movement.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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