The Preacher and the Pragmatist


Margaret Marron writes mystery novels set in eastern North Carolina.  Her heroine is a lawyer turned judge.  Deborah Knott is a bootlegger’s daughter, the youngest and only girl in a family of boys.  Deborah is the name of one of the few female judges in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In becoming a judge, Deborah was Judge Knott.  Nice pun.

These novels are not great fiction, but they are engaging and full of Southern character.  Faced with a difficult choice, Deborah Knott always hears from her own version of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  She calls these two inner voices the preacher and the pragmatist. I can relate to that.  The preacher is my inner theologian, the pragmatist my inner economist.

I am supposed to be strictly nonpartisan in my role as Co-president on the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, but I can do that and still vote in primaries, because South Carolina has open primaries, and I don’t always choose the same one. It was an easy choice of February 29th, the historic presidential primary in South Carolina that saved the candidacy of Joe Biden. That is, it was easy to choose to vote in the Democratic primary, because there was no Republican primary.  Come June, the Republican primary will be the interesting one. But which of the seven surviving presidential candidates to vote for?  The preacher and the theologian told me to vote for the one I thought would make the best president.  I knew the answer to that one, the choice of my oldest daughter and a dear friend f mine about my daughter’s age.  Elizabeth Warren.  Smart, competent, funny, experienced, energetic, not too far left. The preacher’s choice.  But in a crucial year, was she electable?—a pragmatist’s word if ever I heard one.

In 2020, who was the pragmatic choice?  I vacillated.  The ideal candidate is both a good campaigner and has the relevant skills, values and experience for the presidency. Each candidate had weaknesses. Joe Biden was not campaigning or polling well.  Sanders was too far left to win, Bloomberg was not an effective campaigner.  I thought that Mayor Pete’s youth, inexperience, and sexual orientation could be liabilities.  Klobuchar was appealing but not very inspiring. I finally settled on Tom Steyer, who debated well, had decent poll numbers, and came closest to my views on the issues.  He’s something of a pragmatist too. But so is the Democratic party, and Joe Biden was the pragmatic choice of the voters of South Carolina and is likely to ultimately be the choice of the Democratic party. A field of more than 20 candidates had systematically weeded out women, people of color, billionaires, a self-avowed socialist, and the lone LGBTQ candidate in favor of the safe choice. In politics, pragmatism means living by the maxim that the best is often the enemy of the good, or the good enough.  That’s an economist’s way of thinking.  Economist Kenneth Boulding always liked to point to the contrast between economic man and heroic man—the knight on the white horse fighting for truth, justice and the American Way, and the practical person on a plodding donkey—which happens to be the symbol of the Democratic party.

Pragmatism is about how we make collective choices.  In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled Moral Man and Immoral Society.   He wrote that each of us may listen to the preacher on our shoulder as an individual,  but get us together in a situation of collective decision making—otherwise known as democracy—and we tend to sink toward the lowest common denominator.  Pragmatists all, we take what we can get and settle for less than we want.

Back in my working days I wrote textbooks with my dean and fellow economist, Ryan Amacher.  One day we got an ad flyer from our book on Principles of Economics with the clever title, Don’t Compromise Your Principles!  Ryan laughed. He said, I’m a dean, compromising my principles is what I do for a living.

So, preacher on my shoulder, what principles did I compromise?  The core of my faith tradition lies in the seven principles.  I compromised on the first,  respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The third, acceptance of one another and by implication, inclusiveness. The fifth, use of the democratic process, which I was unwilling to trust.

Our children have seen only one person of color as president.  Never a woman. The safe choice in uncertain times, means putting off for four more years the chance for a woman or another person of color or even both. By compromising, I helped to postpone the day when we will be truly inclusive at least as far as gender is concerned.  Obama proved that a person of color could be elected and served with dignity and honor. It calls to memory the fact that black men got the vote in 1868 while women of all races had to wait another 52 years. Let us hope that the same will not be true for a woman president.

Our foremothers fought for seventy-two long years for the right and privilege of voting.  All but one of the signers of the 1848 Declaration of Women’s Rights were dead in 1920, 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Susan B. Anthony was too ill to get to the polls.

There was a deep division in the suffrage movement between focusing on the right to vote and a broader Equal Rights Amendment.  The prevailing pragmatists settled for the right to vote, figuring they could use the vote to make the other changes in divorce laws, child labor laws, access to health care, protection from domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, fair labor standards.  100 years later ERA is still unratified.

Pragmatism gets you half a loaf.  It keeps you from starving, but we can do better.  Sometimes we need to listen to the preacher on the other shoulder.


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