11/08/2013 12:18 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Pox on Purity

In political advocacy, as in statecraft, purity is a luxury an effective practitioner cannot afford.

The Tea Party's aggressive push for ideological purity has yielded a GOP at war with itself and incapable of governing. Destructive stunts like the $24 billion federal shutdown championed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have strengthened Democrats' chances of retaining control of the Senate, while primary challenges to Republican incumbents from the right in red states promise an influx of new bomb throwers in the upper chamber come 2015. This will accelerate the GOP's decline as a national party.

The LGBT left often pursues its own ideological purity, as if right-mindedness were self-implementing, and as if punishing imperfect allies magically produced better and winning candidates. Advancing policy goals in a diverse society requires overcoming differences. The "easy gets" are already with us; we need imagination and perseverance, not rage nor a sense of inevitability.

Some on the left insist that there should be no government secrets. They are living in Never-Never Land. The foreign governments condemning American surveillance are merely envious. (Espionage, after all, is a French word.) There is a big difference between combating excessive secrecy and abolishing secrecy altogether. With a need for some secrecy in a dangerous world, declassification cannot be decided by an Edward Snowden. Absolute opposition to any and all secrecy relegates advocates to the margins.

Anti-war activists in their purity often ignore the prophet Jeremiah's "Men cry 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." Barack Obama takes a more pragmatic view, as shown in October 2002 when he said, "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." As president, he has been rather hawkish. His recent threat to attack Syria, which I criticized, led to a diplomatic opening and the supervised destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, now underway. The drone strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud on November 1 was a blunt answer to Dick Cheney's sniping claim that "our adversaries out there no longer fear us." To be sure, dead adversaries no longer fear anything.

The pacifists will decry the president's comment, reported by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in their new book, Double Down, "I'm really good at killing people." But Obama did not campaign for his Nobel Peace Prize as Jimmy Carter did. And he has shown flexibility that George W. Bush did not. He has ended, prevented, and limited wars whereas his 2008 opponent, John McCain, was bullish on new invasions. Obama has the same cool temperament that served President Kennedy well during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when one wrong move could have incinerated the world. Obama is no Dennis Kucinich, but has proved a sober and resolute Commander in Chief.

His Former Holiness Benedict XVI was bent on enforcing doctrinal purity within the Catholic Church even as its membership in the West shrank and his bishops' scolding letters were read to increasingly empty pews. The bishops' refusal to respect church-state separation, as seen in their relentless efforts to make the civil law conform to Catholic doctrine on abortion and homosexuality, implies a different America than the one they inhabit. They appear convinced that an American theocracy would somehow be cut to their measure despite their minority status.

But Benedict is retired. Last week, the Roman church under Pope Francis did something almost unheard of: it sought the opinions of the laity. Instead of offering another lecture, the leader of a 2000-year-old organization that claims a divine mandate is choosing consultation.

If Francis can deal with the fact that his followers are not sheep but humans able to think for themselves, those with no hereditary hotline to heaven can learn from his humility. None of us has all the answers.

This piece appeared in Bay Windows and Metro Weekly.