Loyalty oafs

Culture | Another virtue becomes hard to find

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

Now that Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords has handed the U.S. Senate over to the Democrats by quitting the Republican Party, maybe President Bush should do the same thing.

By quitting the GOP and registering as a Democrat, he would not only regain control of the Senate, he would cut out Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Hillary Rodham Clinton from running against him in his re-election bid (since sitting presidents are almost never denied their party's nomination). He could also take over the Democrats' fund-raising machine (since presidents assume leadership over party affairs). Switching parties need not mean changing his ideology. Hard-core conservatives, who care little about party affiliation, would still support him. Plus, by running as a Democrat, he would pick up the support of those who vote for anyone as long as he is a Democrat.

Joking aside, journalists know the reason why Mr. Bush would not do this: He values loyalty. Just as the press is praising Mr. Jeffords for deserting his party, they are portraying Mr. Bush's insistence on loyalty on the part of his staff as if it were a fault.

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Loyalty used to be considered a great virtue, but in today's culture, it sounds as quaint and old-fashioned as "chastity" and "honor." Loyalty to your job is harder to take seriously in an age of layoffs and corporate headhunters. Sports used to prize team loyalty, before the advent of free agency.

Modern readers of old Civil War narratives find it puzzling to read about the way Southern military officers agonized over their conflicted loyalties: Should their allegiance be to their nation or to their state? With today's mobility has come a loss of regional identity and families scattered across the nation's interstate highway system. Loyalty to one's home, to a sense of place, has become nearly unthinkable.

Even loyalty to one's country has become problematic. Conservatives used to be reliably patriotic, but many have become so hostile to their government that their hostility overflows against America itself. FBI agent Robert Hanssen was a conservative, church-going family man, at least in his public persona. But in becoming a spy for the Soviet Union, he betrayed not only his country but his family, his workplace, and his fellow spies, giving the names of three of them to the KGB and sending them to their deaths. Treason was always right up there with murder as a capital crime, but many people consider the death penalty too harsh for Mr. Hanssen.

In Dante's Divine Comedy, the betrayal of loyalty was punished in the very lowest circle of hell. Here one can find those who betrayed their friends and benefactors: Brutus, who stabbed his good friend Caesar in the back, Judas, who betrayed his Lord with a kiss, and Satan himself, who rebelled against his Creator, all of whom are frozen in the ice of their cold, cold hearts.

Another kind of loyalty that has gone by the boards is loyalty to religion. Though people in other parts of the world die for their faith, in America people often flit from one religion to another. Denominational loyalty is in short supply, as potential members shop for churches that fit their needs, jumping from one theology to another, with little attachment to specific beliefs or practices.

A new phenomenon, the next step, is for church-shoppers to go from church to church for different services, like browsing in a shopping mall. Christian consumers are going to one church for a Bible study, another for a worship service, yet another when an even better worship service is advertised in the paper, another church for Vacation Bible School, another for a prayer group. They find themselves always welcome, but free of the need to commit themselves to one community of faith, with its messy entanglements, authorities, and discipline.

Loyalty, of course, can go too far. It is no virtue to belong to a church or to a political party one does not believe in. Ministers who stay in a church after they stop believing in what it teaches are the source of most liberal theology: Instead of honestly leaving the church, they try to change its teachings to fit their lack of belief.

Mr. Jeffords was always a liberal Democrat in Republican clothing-he was certainly right to leave the party whose ideology he did not believe in. But if he disliked the conservatism of the Republican Party, why didn't he leave under Ronald Reagan? His perfidy came in his timing, taking advantage of the 50-50 split in the Senate to turn the institution over to his party's enemies, and thus, like Brutus in Dante's lowest level, stabbing his leader in the back.


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