Cory Booker, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, who declared his intention to run for president last week, gave an interview on Monday morning with CBS. One particular remark caught my attention. “We don’t need a president that’s going to put down people or divide people,” he said. “This is really one of those times in American history I think we need a revival of civic grace and bringing people together. And that’s going to be one of the major themes of my campaign.”
Civic grace. It is not clear what Booker meant by that specifically, or whether it is tied to his preceding sentence condemning divisiveness. Nevertheless, grace is an interesting concept.
On matters of Christianity, I often turn to my friend Peter Wehner. Sure enough, last year, he wrote on the topic of grace as it is used in the religious context:
“It is the unmerited favour of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational. Grace defies reason and logic, as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.
“There’s a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and the unheralded, rule followers and rule breakers.
“If you find yourself in the company of people whose hearts have been captured by grace, count yourself lucky. They love us despite our messy lives, stay connected to us through our struggles, always holding out the hope of redemption.”
Quoting a colleague, Jonathan Rauch, Wehner concludes that grace can be understood as “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy — all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned”.
What does that mean in the political context? It can refer to the practice of politics or the content, or both.
Grace — or graciousness, if you prefer — can be meant as a guide to the practitioners of politics. This can mean assuming the best motives among your opponents, extending courtesies not required by laws or rules, and evidencing humility. It entails recognition that your political opponent is not your enemy to be vanquished, but rather someone in the future with whom you can work and form an alliance, even on a single issue. As Christopher Coons, the Delaware senator, who speaks eloquently on the subject of faith, said last year, his faith prompts him to recognise that “even folks with whom I disagree on so many other issues, can end up being allies in fighting for the rule of law, in fighting not just for tolerance, but for inclusion, and for the open-hearted, open-spirited America that we all know we are meant to belong to”.
Grace in a political context can also infuse the substance of policy. Whether it was abolition or the civil rights movement, or the response to inhumane treatment of children at the border or, for many, the environment, grace can be the jumping-off point for policies that focus attention and resources on the most needy among us, take human rights seriously as integral to our foreign policy and seek, however imperfectly, to fulfil the country’s founding creed. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”)
Religion does not provide answers to the specific policy issues we face — for example, how high a top marginal tax rate should we have? How do we construct a healthcare system that protects the vulnerable? But it can help politics to appeal to the better angels of our nature and to eschew the politics of self-enrichment, plunder and racial animosity. It can remind us that government service means service to others, especially those who cannot fend for themselves. It would suggest some higher purpose than partisanship.
“We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil,” wrote the late senator John McCain in his farewell letter. “We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world ... We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
If that’s the spirit Booker aspires to express — or even if he aspires simply to rekindle graciousness in the practice of politics — that would be a good thing. The country is hungry for inspiration and uplift, finding itself emotionally exhausted from Donald Trump’s angry, deceitful, cruel and chaotic brand of politics.
Whether Booker is the right messenger to deliver a more inspirational message is for Democratic primary voters to decide; the message, however, we find compelling.
• Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post