Any student at the University of Dallas who is a member of Constantin College will be familiar with the politics department. Housed on the second floor of Braniff, students will find some of UD’s brightest professors passing on the insights and knowledge of some of history’s greatest political philosophers to students. From Aristotle and St. Augustine, to Alexis De Tocqueville and Thomas Jefferson, one will encounter the titans who shaped how we view politics today, both as Americans and as Catholics.
One will also find opportunities to experience politics in a different way, by setting down the books and undertaking internships. Whether it be in a local representative’s office or in the capital building of the nation, the politics department frequently presents UD students with chances to leave the UD bubble and experience politics for what it really is.
Or so that’s how it may seem. On the surface, taking the metro everyday to work in Washington DC for a senator and debating “The City of God” may seem like distant, if not entirely separate worlds. But as I discovered this past week, the ideas of the politics major core and the realities of political life are in fact not only more closely connected, but in some cases, inseparable.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a part of the First Liberty Fellowship, which was hosted by a think tank called the Center for Culture, Religion and Democracy and held in Washington. Over the course of several days, I, along with multiple other students from various universities were given a tour of the city’s monuments and got to hear lectures on a variety of topics. Though the speakers had many different lessons for us to learn, the talks all had the same underlying theme: that success in real world politics and a secure understanding of the classical and Christian political tradition go hand in hand.
One talk by Dr. Ryan Anderson, who has taught courses on natural law theory and its political application at UD, spoke on the impact that think tanks have on legislation in Congress. Working at one of these institutions requires one to have many skills, including the ability to conduct excellent research, articulate ideas clearly, and work out how to apply them into passable law. These abilities are quickly learned by UD students who strive for excellence; being diligent with detail and formulating well thought out ideas are not exceptions to the rule in most classes, but rather are considered expectations if one is to do well, and think tanks are no different.
But besides encouraging students to be thorough in their work, the lectures also stressed keeping a solid foundation of principles when conducting their political life. One lecture spoke on running for office as a traditional Christian. It provided guidelines for navigating the often dark and dirty world that is politics, yet while being a source of light to illuminate the darkness with the message of the Gospel. Another talk stressed that Christians in the political sphere must keep the Word close to them at all times — daily prayer, Scripture reading and Christian fellowship are essential to remaining loyal to Christ while engaging in politics.
The conference itself was structured around these ideas. For example, almost every day there was time set aside for group prayer, using the morning prayers or compline from the Book of Common Prayer, a text used to some degree by all of the major Christian traditions.
The main point of the conference was clear: one can be grounded in the timeless principles of the Western political tradition and also be involved in real world politics. The writings of the UD Politics Core are remembered today for a reason; they spoke to the fundamental insights of man and his desire for political community. Yet these ideas can’t just remain in books. They have to be applied practically if their true power is to be utilized. These two concepts are inseparable; if one has principles without power, his ideas will be ineffective and help no one. If he has power without principles, he will quickly devolve into corruption and a host of other despicable vices.
I encountered these truths first hand while living in Washington this past summer while working an internship. The Aristotelian idea of the “friendship of utility” is very real — I met many interns only to be quickly disappointed when they were only interested in what I could do for them — asking who I worked for, how much money I made, etc.
But there was a hidden blessing in this. The conservative Christians of the city figure out who their friends are very quickly, and soon you begin to see them everywhere. The District of Columbia is a small city, so you will often run into them on the metro or on the streets. You all go to the same lectures, read the same books, and then go to the same bars to discuss said books. Real friendships, based on a love of Christ and love of man, are formed. In a way, the capital becomes a UD away from UD, a place where you can cultivate virtue despite the chaos that’s outside.
There is temptation in every job you work and every decision you make. But as I learned from these experiences, the education of ideas at UD can easily serve you in all modes of life, including those in the realm of politics. It can be daunting, but we must be ready to face these challenges head on, and to trust in our principles no matter what we are called to do.