There is no test of character quite like running for public office. For in any political race of consequence, there always comes that moment of truth when the candidate must decide just how far he will go to curry favor with the voters. How much principle, or just simple dignity, is he willing to sacrifice?
That's the moment aficionados of moral drama look for. It reveals so much. About character, about the awful wanting to win, about the person's moral priorities versus the candidate's sheer ambition.
In the quadrennial passion that is an American presidential election, there will always be those who conceive of their candidate as perfect in every way. Listen to the messianic nominating speeches at national conventions. Hear the roar of the adoring crowd. Remember the wave of Obamamania that swept the country earlier this year? People get swept away.
It's natural enough. There is something in the human condition that wants to worship something better than ourselves, that demands The Hero, and if there isn't one available, we'll invent one. We can see a Sir Galahad in a ward-heeler.
In our calmer moments, we know it is unrealistic to look for saints in politics, which is very much of this world. ("One always picks the easy fight/ One praises fools, one smothers light/ One shifts from left to right/ Politics, the art of the possible." -"Evita") Compromise is at the calculating heart of politics, and needs to be.
But it is also possible to compromise overmuch. The aspiring politician is always in danger of losing his way in that treacherous place where ambition and morality collide. At a certain moment, principle may be sacrificed, integrity lost. And such moments tend to recur in a pressure-filled presidential contest.
Barack Obama passed such a test earlier in this campaign. With style and grace. That's when some embarrassing videos of his long-time pastor and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced. They were full of racist nonsense: AIDS is a government plot to destroy the black race, God Damn America, and so tiringly on. It was a test: How was Barack Obama, the Reverend's loyal congregant of 20 years, going to react?
Sen. Obama rose to the occasion, or rather above it. He deplored what his preacher had said, but he would not turn his back on the man who had brought him into the church, officiated at his wedding, and baptized his children. He might hate the sin, but he would love the sinner. Good Christian doctrine all around. He would not disown his church or his pastor, any more than he would his family. As he put it in a speech that soon became known as The Speech:
"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me."
Well and loyally said.
But we are not tested just once. It wasn't long before another demagogue in a clerical collar, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, showed up at Barack Obama's church to deliver his own rant. This time it was an ugly, jeering attack on Hillary Clinton as the embodiment of white entitlement. How the guest speaker strutted and fretted his brief hour on the stage, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, appealing to the basest prejudices of his listeners, stoking their anger, stroking their hatreds like a virtuoso. This from a priest. In a church.
That must have been the breaking point. Barack Obama's political career had prospered mightily by his association with his church. It gave him a power base in the African American community. But by now his church membership had become not a political asset but an ever growing liability. He announced he was leaving the church.
So much for his not abandoning his church, his family, his community. His classic speech back in the spring had become inoperative. The political cost of sticking by his earlier eloquence had become too high. It was time to cut his losses. Politics happens.
I can understand the senator's temptation. I think of not just the partisan gibberish I've heard from the pulpit of my own temple over the years, but the moral affronts. (Three Cheers for Abortion!) What contempt for what I'd always understood to be of the essence of Jewish teaching - Choose Life.
So, yes, I can understand how tempting it would be to walk away, give up, find a new congregation. Then I think of what a sage named Hillel said long ago: Do not separate yourself from the community. Resist the temptation. Stay and fight. Bear witness. Take your stand within the community, not apart from it. What good is a cloistered virtue that shrinks from any challenge? A uniformity of belief may be comfortable, without challenge or risk, but it's also debilitating. Belief unquestioned does not grow; it atrophies. So I choose to stay. Of course I'm not a politician, and Barack Obama has a lot more to lose by staying with his church.
This was but one early test of the candidate's principles, one more moment of truth in a long campaign that will surely be full of them. Others will arise. Such is politics. Such is life.