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 Old Testament.  In becoming a judge, Deborah was Judge Knott.  Nice pun.

These novels are not great literary fiction, but they are engaging and full of Southern character.  Faced with a difficult choice, Deborah Knott has 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. Both have something to say when it comes to making both individual and 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.  And if we aren’t good negotiators, maybe even less that we could have achieved if we had been a little more stubborn, or a little more patient.

Most of us have some firm principles that we are unwilling to compromise.  For the League of Women Voters, for example, the one no-compromise principle is nonpartisanship. It is vital to the credibility of the League in its advocacy and voter service work.

The League was born out of the struggle for women’s right to vote. Our foremothers fought for seventy-two long years for the right and privilege of voting.  All but one of the 100 signers of the 1848 Declaration of Women’s Rights were dead in 1920, and the survivor was too ill to get to the polls. But there is another part of that story that is often overlooked, a compromise that still reverberates with us today.. 

There was a deep division between the suffragists fighting for the right to vote and the National Women’s Party insisting on a broader Equal Rights Amendment that would cover the many forms of discrimination against women solely on account of their sex.  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.  The ERA was introduced in the still male-dominated Congress but never made much headway. Legislators argued that they had given women the vote and what else did they want?

Finally, in 1972 at the height of the women’s movement, Congress passed the ERA and sent it to the states for ratification with a time limit of seven years, later extended to ten. (Most amendments have no time limits.) Thirty-five of the necessary 38 states ratified fairly promptly,  but only in 2019 did Virginia become the 38th, long past the deadline.  ERA is still unratified.  On the other hand, if the preachers, the idealists, the perfectionists had insisted on the ERA, might women have found ourselves with neither?  Who was right—the preacher, or the pragmatists?

Politics is about principles like justice and honesty and responsibility,  but it is also about the art of compromise, and figuring out what can garner enough support to make it into law and policy and what can’t.  That tension is evident in the federal government even at this writing with the infrastructure bill, the voting rights bill, and the proposed bill dealing with human services.  Other aspects of life have the same tension.  Between justice and mercy.   Between patience and action, present and future, bridging and belonging, aggression and affiliation. Or my favorite, which I quote often from E.B. White, between enjoying the world and improving the world.

We need both the voice of the preacher who reminds us of what is right and the words of the pragmatist who tells us what works, what can be done now, how far we can push the envelope.  May they guide our personal lives, our common life, and our politics so that we accomplish the possible in the moment while still holding fast of a shared vision of how we would like our world to be.

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