E.J. Dionne: When justice meets vanity
To steady ourselves amidst the clamor of competing certainties about the meaning of Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, let us pause for a daily Scripture reading.
The first is from the opening verses of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Next, the book of Amos: "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream."
And the third, from the Gospel of Matthew: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you."
If you doubt the relevance of Scripture to our times, consider the contrast on Monday between what Donald Trump was up to and what Bernie Sanders did.
Trump gave a speech that evening in Dallas. If it had been part of a film called "The Donald, the Movie," its soundtrack would have demanded the inclusion of Carly Simon's old song "You're So Vain." Really, the guy cannot stop talking about himself: about how great he is, about how much money he made from his TV contract, about who he knows, about his leads in the polls and (did I mention this?) about how great he is.
"I have tremendous energy," Trump said. "Tremendous. To a point where it's almost ridiculous when you think about it."
Ridiculous is the right word here.
And it was genuinely helpful to the citizens of our republic to learn this: "Did you see in my certified financial statement what I made with 'The Apprentice'? ... I made $213 million. Can you believe it? From a television show."
Unfortunately, I believe it.
Cutting all the sentences that include the word "I" from a Trump speech would be like reducing "War and Peace" to a newspaper column or even a tweet.
And then there was Sanders, earlier in the day at Liberty University, the conservative establishment founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Kudos, by the way, to Liberty for having Sanders there in the first place and for the polite response he got from its generally conservative student body.
As Sanders made clear at the outset of his speech, most of the crowd almost certainly disagreed with his views on abortion and gay marriage. But he had this very strange idea "that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse." And perhaps he had The Donald in mind when he added: "There is too much making fun of each other."
He invoked Amos and Matthew to bolster the core argument of his campaign, that "there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little." Identifying with his audience, Sanders insisted that "all of us believe in family values," but he took those words in an interesting direction. "I want you to think, whether you believe it is a family value, that the United States of America is the only — only — major country on earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave."
Sanders did not pretend to be the first to turn to Scripture to make the case for a fairer economy. Hillary Clinton, an observant Methodist, has spoken for decades about the link between her faith and her commitment to social justice, about the responsibility to lift up those with "the greatest need and the fewest resources."
For his part, Sanders did something progressives will do often in the coming days: He cited Pope Francis, including the pontiff's denunciation of "the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."
It's quite unlikely that Liberty University will become part of Sanders' base. But that wasn't his point. This week, it fell to a man who has described himself as "proud to be Jewish" but "not particularly religious" to remind people more devout than he that those who take their faith seriously need to think about it in relation to the largest questions of justice and to how we organize ourselves as a society. It cannot be confined to a narrow list of hot-button matters on which we are so divided.
Perhaps the stark contrast between one politician who gave a speech about our obligations to others and one who spoke so lovingly about himself might encourage Republicans to hit the pause button and ponder where their campaign is leading. You don't have to be religious to share the view of the Book of Proverbs that "with humility comes wisdom." Self-worship is a form of idolatry, too.
E.J. Dionne's email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.