There is a common phrase in American democracy asserting that “All politics is local.” It’s most often attributed to Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the masterful Massachusetts Democratic Congressman who, from 1977 to 1987, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Those four words are a cautionary tale to any politician who, caught up in high-flown ideals or the high status of office, forgets to take care of his or her constituents. In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic learned this to his chagrin. After a January blizzard dumped 35 inches of snow in a two-day period, he failed to clear the city’s streets and keep the elevated trains operating in all neighborhoods. The result: Bilandic was voted out of office a month later.
The same is true for belief: “All faith is local.”
As with politics, the believer has to have ideals. That means working — on a citywide and statewide and national and international level — for moral policies and programs that benefit everyone, particularly those on the margins of society. It’s important to be an activist for peace and justice by voting in a sober, thoughtful way and by taking part in the political dialogue by communicating with public officials and demonstrating in the streets and in other ways for right causes.
Yet, the reality is that, as an individual, I have very little impact on public officials. It’s true that, if I put my citizen’s shoulder behind some particular policy and enough other citizens do the same, change can happen. But the result may be different if there are a lot of citizens on the other side also pushing. Beyond that, there are so many details of government, so many layers of decision, that my single citizen’s voice has a hard time being heard on very many.
In contrast, I have a great impact on the people with whom I come in contact each day. Here is where it’s easy to see how all faith is local.
If I’m snotty and insensitive to my wife, I can really sour her day. I’m not living out my Christian faith, and she pays the price.
I’m not being a very good Christian on the basketball court if I bully the other players and cheat on the out-of-bounds calls. This taints the experience for everyone, even the guys on my team.
I know of a father, who was in a supermarket one day with his two children, a boy about 11 and a girl about 8. They were checking out, and the cashier handed change to the father. He glanced at it and said, “Oh, I think you gave me too much.” The cashier looked, and, sure enough, she’d given him an extra five-dollar bill.
It was a simple thing, but it made that cashier’s day better, if only that she didn’t come up short at the end of her shift. Also, think of those kids. They watched closely as their dad held the change out to the cashier and looked up at him as she took out that five-dollar bill.
More than thirty years ago, when my wife and I were first dating, we went to a talk that Father Dan Berrigan gave at Northwestern University. During the question-and-answer part at the end, someone stood up and asked what he should do to stop the bad policies of newly elected President Ronald Reagan.
Berrigan, of course, had become an international hero for protesting the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War and then going to prison for his beliefs. And he told the questioner that it was important to do what he could to influence public officials.
But he also said that it was more important to live out his Christian beliefs in his daily life — to live racial justice, to care in simple everyday ways for the environment, to be just in a world that often isn’t just, to be honest despite the corruption of others.
That was good advice back then, and it’s still good advice today.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the April, 2017 issue of Voices of Hope, published by the Society of Helpers.