Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) made national headlines last week when he flipped from opposing to supporting same-sex marriage. I found the whole thing disheartening—and not because of Portman’s new position; people of good will and heart come down on both sides of that controversy. No, it was the how and why of Portman’s switch that bummed me out. Indeed, I see the episode as a metaphor for the growing subservience of principle in our society to rule by emotion.
Portman’s former opposition to SSM, he writes, was “rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” That would seem to be a very strong principle. But then, his son came out and that necessitated a change of thinking:
I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.
To put it another way: When Portman’s principles came into conflict with profound personal interests, he decided to change his principles.
Who among us have not, at least occasionally, molded our principles to fit the parameters of what we want or allowed them to become elastic to keep from hurting the feelings of others for whom we deeply care? And to be fair, periodically measuring our principles against our life’s experiences is necessary to ensure that our moralities aren’t actually masked legalisms devoid of empathy and mercy.
But surely, living a principled life has to go deeper than “how I feel,” or “what’s in it for me.” If we all “tailor our consciences to fit this year’s fashions,” as playwright Lillian Hellman once put it, our lives will become like flotsam and jetsam driven by the winds of emotion and currents of expediency.
And yet, all is not lost. Think about the people who are the most admired. They tend to be those who stayed true to their principles no matter the personal consequences.
Hellman’s legendary refusal to “name names” in the entertainment industry comes to mind. It led to her blacklisting. Things got so bad, she said, that for a time she worked at Macy’s under an assumed name. I am not a fan of her politics, but I certainly admire her grit.
At the height of communist Romania’s religious repression, Orthodox priest Fr. George Calciu lived the principles of his faith by openly preaching the risen Christ in his famous Lenten “Seven Homilies to the Youth.” This despite knowing it would lead to his imprisonment and torture. Mohammad Ali entered the pantheon of the greats, not just for his athletic prowess, but in large part because he refused induction into the armed forces during Vietnam, a decision that cost him what would have otherwise been the best years of his career. The list could go on and on.
More prosaically, we all know people who quietly live out their principles at great personal sacrifice: My friend Tom Lorentzen is a good example. As a political appointee in both the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations, Tom was on a good career track with a happy life in Washington. Then his mother was stricken with terminal kidney disease.
He faced a dilemma. Tom promised his dad, who died young, that he would always do the best for his mother. He could have moved her to D.C. and continued with his own life—and that would have been a respectable decision. But he knew she would hate leaving her friends and the familiarity of her California home at the sunset of her life.
So Tom made the painful—but what he considered the most principled—choice: He abandoned his career and moved home. It is a decision he never regretted. As he told me several years ago in an interview for one of my books:
As my mother was placed in the crypt next to my dad, I looked up at where he was and my mom now was and I felt the type of peace that I will never feel again in my life. I was so grateful that I was able to do what I did. I was grateful for good parents, and a good life.Those days changed me forever.
So there’s an irony here. Leaders who adhere to their principles, despite great personal cost, often end up admired, and if not, then at least enjoy the quiet satisfaction that comes with integrity. People who live by their principles—even when it hurts like fire—often find themselves fulfilled in a way that those who simply aim to be on the right side of the day’s fashions don’t.
But contented outcomes are not the point. Doing the right and principled thing, rather than taking the emotionally expedient course, is what really matters. For as Lau Tzu wrote: “Expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder.”