In 1532 Sir Thomas More resigned his position as High Chancellor of England. He resigned because he knew that King Henry would soon ask for his help in securing an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Thomas More could not in good conscience help Henry in this endeavor. Thomas More had the unfortunate habit of nurturing convictions and sticking to them, even to the death.
At first blush, the story of Thomas More seems to have little to do with the current sad state of American Politics. To be sure the times have changed much since sixteenth century Britain, not to mention that we live in a Democratic Republic rather than a monarchy. But there is much to be learned from Thomas More, his difficult moral predicament and the way in which he navigated it.
Shortly after More stepped down from office Henry pushed to have all men of rank sign an oath of supremacy of the crown in relationship to the papal state. More, who had always been a staunch defender of the pope’s authority in all spiritual matters, refused to sign. It is difficult in our present state to understand what a buzz More’s refusal sparked across England. In the 1966 drama A Man for All Seasons, a film which details More’s public break with Henry VIII, Chancellor Cromwell famously describes his silence as “Roaring up and down England.”
What is interesting is that Thomas More was the last man you would expect to be a boat rocker. He was a loyal public servant and one of King Henry only intimate friends. He conducted his affairs with such scruples that the three false accusations which were brought against More after his fall from grace weren’t even believed by his harshest critics. Henry VIII was a bull of a man, violent tempered, a womanizer, unscrupulous (he trumped up charges against his wife Anne-Boleyn and had her beheaded). Not to mention that he was in the process of wrestling power away from the Roman Catholic Church, a body that Thomas loved and revered. Yet Thomas served him with faithfulness and honor.
As Christians, or simply as level headed citizens who value honesty, gentility and fair play, it seems that regardless of the outcome of November’s election our nation will be led by an individual whose personal character, integrity, honesty and past history are far from exemplary. Donald Trump has built his campaign on declarations which would have derailed most any candidate in the modern era, and has a long and storied history of treatment of women ranging from the wildly inappropriate to the criminal. Hillary Clinton, while a much more polished and experienced public servant, has barely been able to outline a detailed system of policy, so glaring are the questions about her handling of classified documents, misuse of funds by Clinton-run foundations, and her handling of the events surrounding the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
If there is one good thing that has come from the current election cycle it is that America is being forced to rethink what exactly it means to be a voter. Debates have raged, not only on the candidates themselves, but on a number of philosophical questions as well. Is it wise to vote for a 3rd party candidate who you prefer but who has a prohibitively low chance of winning? Is it good to sit out an election when you are morally opposed to the viewpoints of each of the candidates, or should one vote for the ‘lesser of two evils’? How important is a candidate’s personal character to their ability to be a good leader?
Everyone has some sort of opinion on these questions, some hold these opinions quite strongly, but one truism which affords nearly universal affirmation is to ‘always vote your conscience’. On the surface, voting one’s conscience seems to be so self-evidently sensible that to argue against it would be a waste of time. “I like Trump’s ideas on foreign trade,” someone might say, “but I can’t in good conscience vote for someone who treats women so poorly.”
“I think Hillary has a really good handle on foreign policy, but my conscience won’t let me vote for someone who is pro-choice.” Who can argue? One of the core beliefs of our culture is that a person’s conscience, their moral compass, is sacrosanct. Facts can be debated, beliefs can be questioned, but you should never go against your conscience.
But there is something slightly off when this kind of thinking is brought into the political realm. You, individually, do not get to choose the next president or senator or answer to a state question. The democratic process is inherently collective, one whereby not only are questions answered; they are also asked, debated, modified and eventually decided or scrapped altogether.
This brings us to why, exactly, the human conscience cannot be relied upon solely to make political choices. If you value almost all the services that Planned Parenthood offers, but you can’t get past the fact that they provide abortions, you can choose to support a charity that does the things you value but doesn’t perform abortions, or you can start your own. If you like Folgers coffee, but only drink coffee that is responsibly sourced, you can find a fair trade brand that you like almost as much. But what can you do with a vote? You can either use it or not use it… period, end of story. You are not given the power to choose the next president, nor are you held accountable for the outcome of the election. Voting is not, nor should it be, a moral decision, it is an intellectual one. Simply put, if your brain isn’t in the driver’s seat when it comes to your voting decisions you are thinking about voting wrongly.
This is what Thomas More understood, and one of the reasons he is so imminently respectable as a statesman. Near the end of A Man for All Seasons Thomas is having a conversation with his Daughter Meg asking her to obtain a copy of the oath of supremacy, “Pay attention to the words Meg,” He says.
She replies with a common sense objection, “What will it matter what the words are? We know what they will mean.
“Listen, Meg,” he replies, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”
What Thomas More understood, and what American Christians need to discover, is that it is a person’s life that makes them good; it is a person’s obedience upon which they are judged; but it is with our minds that we change political culture. If you don’t like a candidate as a person, fine, you are in good company, but please, in all the chaos and distractions use your mind to ask the question, ‘what kind of leader will this candidate become?’
If nothing else you will be asking a very different set of questions than the ones that got America into its current mess. And what then? Then get used to being exactly the kind of odd-ball our nation so desperately needs.
— Andrew R.
Photo By Johannes Otto Först (cropped by Marcel Douwe Dekker and this site’s editor) – Image:Justitia auf Gericht 2006-02-05 (2).JPG, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3081473