Volume 11: When human nature and Mother Nature collide

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The First Citizen

Modesty is required for a president to become a moral leader

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  • Key Takeaways
  • Recognize that the nation is moving quickly toward a far more pluralistic future
  • Cultivate public trust in the Constitution on the part of all the citizens
  • Work with Congress to draft, enact, and implement legislation for the good of the nation as a whole
  • Model the civic virtues of collaboration and compromise
  • Understand that political modesty matters
  • Use the presidency as a way of teaching us the limits of what politics can achieve

By Nichole M. Flores and Charles Mathewes

President Donald Trump took office in a situation of extraordinarily heightened expectations and anxieties about who we are. In his inaugural address—his first words as president—he doubled down on his campaign rhetoric, proclaiming a policy of “America First.” Yet rather than uniting the nation, his first weeks in office seem to have deepened polarization and anxiety. How he responds to those expectations and anxieties will set the tone for his term of office.

“[Trump] will need to learn a trait that he seems to reject: modesty.”

How, then, should this particular “First Citizen” rightly engage, and successfully embrace, our national gift of pluralism? Given this context, and given the several roles of the presidency, we think there are three dimensions in particular in which the president can and must act—legal, political, and moral. Across all three, he will need to learn a trait that he seems to reject: modesty.

Past as prologue

The president of the United States is the only person elected by the entire United States. Because of this, from its beginnings the presidency has had a unique function as representative of the entire nation. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces, and chief executor of the laws; but he is also in a way the First Citizen of the nation as well, representing all of us in that role, embodying the determinate will of the American people as they constitute a political community.

“Each president thus is simultaneously referee and player in the game of American civic life.”

As First Citizen, the president represents both the governing structures of the state and the civic energies of the citizens empowered and organized within the purview of the state. Thus the president simultaneously enacts a tolerant supervision of our diversity, and participates in the citizenry’s expressions of that diversity. Each president thus is simultaneously referee and player in the game of American civic life. It is, unsurprisingly, a tricky role. So far, Trump seems more focused on the unum rather than the pluribus.

The history of the presidency witnesses to the multiple obligations of engaging differences in a democratic and pluralistic public, and the perils that perhaps inevitably accompany good- faith attempts to fulfill those obligations. From the beginning, this is especially visible with regard to religious pluralism.

Statue of George Washington

Beginning with George Washington, presidents have engaged with the differences in our democratic and pluralistic society, especially in regards to religion.

“The great majority of Americans still expect the nation to be godly and yet tolerant, composed of particularities yet inclusive to all.”

This apparently paradoxical conviction is not unique to presidents; in a poll conducted at the turn of the millennium, of those—the significant majority of Americans—who wanted religion to have a more influential role in the nation, 76 percent of them said they didn’t care which religion it was. While the past 16 years have seen significant changes on this front, the great majority of Americans still expect the nation to be godly and yet tolerant, composed of particularities yet inclusive of all, open to individualists and yet more than the sum of our solitudes. And the presidency is an office in which all these vectors cross; due in no small part to the institutional peculiarities and historical precedents of the office, presidents embody a civically and even existentially “representative” role at the same time that they enact their official institutional duties as political executive.

Group of people of differing ethnicities

Donald Trump's encouragement of White Christian nationalism does not fit with reality as the United States is becoming increasingly diverse.

This dual role has always been a tricky one. In coming years, it will get trickier still. Trump’s frank encouragement of a kind of White Christian nationalism does not portend well in this regard. For the character of the United States is moving toward a more polychromatic diversity than we have heretofore known, and the nation seems to be making a more serious effort at facing that diversity than we have heretofore attempted. The past few decades’ movements for equality across lines of ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality mean that people across these differences will come into ever closer and more intimate contact. These encounters will influence every aspect of American life, touching what is most personal and what is most public about our lives. Many of the working-class white voters who supported Trump explicitly acknowledge that growing cultural diversity has driven their anxiety about America.

“Trump will not be able to make America White Again.”

Whether he intends to or not, Trump will not be able to make America White Again. The sheer demographic facts of birthrates and immigration (and the long-term effects of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965) mean that the nation will soon have no single dominant demographic bloc, with everyone else relegated to the margins. The music we listen to, the books we read, the movies we watch, even the very food we eat has become wildly pluralistic, and will become more so still. America is becoming a synecdoche of the globe’s plurality itself; and for the foreseeable future, the pluralism that we seek to foster and forge into a nation will be getting more and more plural still. Trump may again be able to assemble a majority of electoral votes from his predominantly white base. But the nation itself is moving quickly toward a far more pluralistic future.

This is true for religious differences as much as any other kind of difference. We face not a more secular future, but a more religiously diverse one. Many individuals’ most fundamental faith and value commitments will have to sit alongside others’ convictions, and those different convictions will not immediately and unquestioningly resonate with, reaffirm, and reinforce one another, but instead patently contest and challenge them.

This has provoked a range of powerful emotions about our current situation as regards diversity, both religious diversity and racial diversity, and many of them are quite toxic— including, we are sad to say, some from the president himself. Furthermore, this turbulence has happened amid multiple geopolitical crises abroad and a terrible economic crisis at home. Given global and domestic economic and political turmoil, many Americans feel fear and insecurity from threats from people different from themselves—people of other racial or ethnic groups who receive what seem to some to be illicit governmental aid, immigrants coming to “take our jobs,” refugees “sucking up” our social services and harboring foreign terrorists seeking our destruction.

Unum and pluribus under law

Trump can demonstrate his commitment to legal pluralism by faithfully executing his duties “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” As relates to pluralism, this is an especially charged issue in matters relating to the “religion clause” of the First Amendment. While much of the 20th Century saw a certain common legal understanding as regards religious liberty, the past several decades have seen the collapse of that consensus. There have been dramatic jurisprudential decisions, such as Employment Division v. Smith and the rash of recent cases regarding religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act, and other issues related to sexuality and marriage. (Trump’s own declared intention to enact a nationwide “Religious Freedom” act will likely simply exacerbate these conflicts.) Furthermore, changing demographics and cultural norms will likely encourage more such cases to be brought. In this context, the president must walk a very fine line, balancing genuine regard for constitutional concerns about equality with equally important constitutional concerns about civic respect and the necessity to preserve citizens’ liberty against the ever-tempting intrusions of government.

Detail of the Seal of the United States

One of the mottos of the United States is "E Pluribus Unum," which translates to "out of many, one."

Partisans on both sides will inevitably wish to frame debates in frankly apocalyptic terms, following Theodore Roosevelt in proclaiming that “we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!” And we recognize that a president is inevitably a partisan. But he need not be a partisan all the time. The office of the president is a constitutional office before it is a partisan one.

Trump’s avowed inaugural slogan, “America First,” does provide an opportunity to cultivate public trust in the Constitution on the part of all the citizens, and ensure a basic civic respect for differences as embodied in that document. They can help curate the polity’s legal infrastructure to enable the fullest inclusion of voices, while not hiding or denying the political legitimacy of deep disagreements. That is to say, the president need not affirm that opponents’ concerns are right, but simply that there must be a way of taking on good faith the different commitments of people as genuinely their own, and worthy of consideration for ourselves.

Coordinating political pluralism

The second aspect of the president’s duties is to be the chief political coordinator of the nation. That is, the president also must be seen to try to work with Congress to draft, enact, and implement legislation for the good of the nation as a whole.

President Trump addressing Congress

Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and the president must be seen as trying to work with Congress to draft, enact, and implement legislation.

After years of legislative gridlock, we now have Republican control of both houses of Congress, and a president whose own political views are flexible and unorthodox. That provides an opportunity not just for direct legislative achievement, but also for indirect lessons to the nation as a whole about the nature and logic of political practice and civic etiquette. What do we mean here? Most basically we mean that a president’s exhibited political skills—of attentive listening, seeking common ground, creative compromise, finding temporary alliances, and promoting partial agreements which eventuate in semisuccess—can exhibit to the rest of the citizenry how explicit legislative politics, and collaboration across political and philosophical differences, should work. Furthermore, they show us how, and how not, to value politics. Trump’s capacities in this regard have not been visible; perhaps in coming months and years, he will grow more able to display them, or simply develop them while in office. But he must first be willing to learn them.

In most circumstances, we expect a certain set of generic interpersonal skills when trying to pass legislation: showing respect, recognizing and respecting difference, practicing decorum, evidencing and assuming good will. These are explicitly political skills, as well. A president’s modeling of how to deal with differences and disagreement, while also recognizing the possibilities of agreement, whether partial or complete, teaches the nation about the possibilities of alliance across differences. On the one hand, this underscores how what we are dealing with is a merely political matter—not about ultimate union on all things, especially the nonpolitical “private” rights of individuals, which can differ; but on the other hand, if we can find ways of coordinating action across fundamental differences, it will be practically a good thing and theoretically a useful way of reminding ourselves that the explicitly “political” realm (defined in multiple ways) need not exhaust, in this life at least, the entirety of our beings. Trump likes to think of himself as a consummate deal-maker; perhaps he can leverage what he actually has of those business skills into the kind of collaboration, bargaining, and compromise on which political life depends, and without which it dies.

“The recognition of political modesty matters.”

Trump’s style, so far, has been to lead with bold, declarative goals, without appearing to acknowledge or even tolerate dissent. Yet as spring turns to summer, and summer to fall, he will likely find it harder to do it his way, all of the time. Even more than in the 18th Century, the recognition of political modesty matters. We live in a world where the state is easily tempted by delusions of absoluteness. America fought wars in the 20th Century against a number of states that claimed such absoluteness. It is good for us to remember that the U.S. was designed precisely not to be such a state. And the presidency should have, as a part of its duties, a continuous obligation to remind us that our own temptations toward confusing the U.S. with metaphysical perfection is one of our most permanent and profound perils.

In this way the president’s very political gamesmanship, and legislative wheeling and dealing, will both accomplish tactical political goals while also strategically affirming the nonultimacy of those goals. By achieving the kind of partial goods that politics can offer, it will also acknowledge—and honor by ignoring—the kind of ultimate goods that it cannot.

Moral leadership and diversity

The president performs and thereby displays a certain set of “habits of the heart” that serve an exemplary function for the rest of the citizenry in all dimensions of their lives. The founders knew the United States would never work unless the citizenry learned to be citizens, to be political. They knew this was a hard task in their own times, and it seems they suspected that it would only get more difficult in times to come. What makes this so hard are the distinct and diverse private moral training grounds that inform our citizenship—that is, civic virtue. The founders sought all possible aid for the formation of such citizens from the different spheres of “civil society,” preeminently the family and local communities, but also religious associations, education, commerce, and beyond.

It is no denigration of any of these other schoolhouses of civic virtue to note that the office of the president is yet one more lecture hall in which the dramatic and unprecedented story of what it means to become an American citizen is repeatedly, perpetually, played out. In this regard, as we have seen, the presidency is a way of teaching us the limits of what politics can achieve—a decent modesty, a sage humility. And that is institutionally the primary aim of the office: It was designed precisely to stymie efforts at re-creating royalty. We have a “president” because it was the least royal way to think about an executive power; and it was for this reason that Washington demanded that his only title be “Mr. President.”

“The lack of modesty for which [Trump] is proud makes many wonder whether he can cultivate the modesty that is necessary to be a moral leader.”

That is why, perhaps, so many of Trump’s critics, liberals and conservatives alike, fear his authoritarian tendencies. The lack of modesty for which he is proud makes many wonder whether he can cultivate the modesty that is necessary to be a moral leader. We would be sadly deluded if we did not recognize the exemplary character of the president’s office, the way he not only represents us as citizens but inescapably become invested with more extrapolitical hopes and fears. After all, presidents not only occupy the Oval Office; they live in the White House, and as such the way they inhabit their whole lives becomes a classroom in which they “teach” the rest of us, for good and for ill, by their good examples as well as their bad, what it means to be American.

In this register, the president has a slightly different lesson to teach us than the several enunciated above, lessons about the necessary, although difficult to accept, limitations of public political life in our liberal-democratic republic. Here the president also shows us how life in such a gloriously polychromatic, occasionally cacophonous, pluralistic nation such as our own can be an enormously enriching experience for us as creatures who are more, far more, than merely political animals. Here the president can exhibit the dispositions or virtues that enable us to take fullest advantage of the tremendous blessings of our unprecedentedly diverse society.

Past Presidents in the Oval Office

Past presidents have led through their modesty, not their bravado.

Given Trump’s entire ethos, our modest suggestion of moral modesty may seem most naïve of all. That said, in the past presidents have led through their modesty, not their brio. That requires an attitude of eagerness to learn from one another, to genuinely learn from our differences, to seek great wisdom, in a way that may infect our interior individuality, our personal private faith (thus showing the complicated affiliations between public and private). Here the president can serve to show how engagement not just in public life but in the increasingly inescapably and gloriously pluralistic character of all American life, public and private, can enrich us not just as citizens, but as human beings.

“The president is a moral exemplar with an impact far beyond the merely political.”

Trump’s critiques of political correctness erupt into a society increasingly characterized by polarization and political “sorting.” But as we have seen, those skills remain indispensable to the effective exercise of executive power in this cacophonously diverse political society. And they are also indispensable, and invaluable, in our civil society as well. For example, as racial tensions simmer in many US communities, conversations about these tensions falter when participants are either unwilling or unable to engage interlocutors with different formative racial experiences. For citizens engaged in these conversations, a president who models these habits of engagement, and who values and cultivates long-term relationships across racial lines, and who listens nondefensively to others’ concerns, fears, and grievances, as well as their hopes: such a president can set the tone for more productive public and private conversations on this issue. And what is true of racial matters—a topic more neuralgic in America than perhaps any other—will be more true still for matters of gender, or sexuality, or ethnic, or religious difference. In this way, the president is not just a political figure; he is a moral exemplar with an impact far beyond the merely political. Skillful engagement across difference can transform it from a threat to an opportunity.

Indeed, diversity is one of America’s many gifts. E pluribus unum, the national motto declares; perhaps now we are beginning to realize that aspiration in a new way. We truly know now, and increasingly act on that knowledge, that the unum is enormously enriched by the pluribus. We’re also beginning to realize how difficult it can be, genuinely to try to realize it. While social and political differences have been the source of fear and strife for many Americans in our time, we recognize the power and potential of this diversity to fuel the American polity in the 21st Century. Americans call on the president to lead us in this regard, to be a First Citizen who leads the campaign to harness this potential. Perhaps because his start has been so focused on the unum, Trump now has a genuine chance to chart a new course, by emphasizing that he also understands the pluribus

About the Authors

Nichole M. Flores is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. Her research emphasizes the contributions of Catholic theologies to notions of justice, affections, and aesthetics as they relate to the common good within plural sociopolitical contexts. She writes and teaches about issues of migration, labor, consumption, race and ethnicity, gender, and family. Flores has published in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics and is a contributing author for America: The Jesuit Review of Faith and Culture. In 2015, the Catholic Theological Society of America honored her with the Catherine Mowry LaCugna Award for best academic essay in theology by a new scholar. Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he teaches comparative religious ethics, religion, society, politics, and Christian thought. Among other works, he is the author of A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge University Press) and The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times (Eerdmans). He has been editor of The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and he was chair of the committee on the future of Christian ethics for the Society of Christian Ethics. He currently serves on the House of Bishops theology committee of the Episcopal Church.

Previous essay: Living in the Anthropocene

Next essay: The bioethical approach

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