I remember getting in the middle of an argument between two seminary professors. Their argument revolved around the composer Richard Wagner. For all those who might be reading this that are not into the world of Opera, I will have to explain.
Wagner was one of the greatest composers of Opera in history. He wrote truly moving music about redemption through love. But he was also a bigot, a racist, an adulterer (with his best friend’s wife!); and if that was not bad enough, he was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer!
One of the professors made this statement about a famous piece from Wagner’s opera “The Valkyries” called “The Ride of the Valkyries”. You may have heard it if you saw the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’. It accompanied the strafing and napalming of the Vietnamese. The professor made the statement, “Can’t you hear the evil in the music?” The other professor was highly indignant, saying, “That music is beautiful, there is no evil in music. The beautiful revealed God who is the all beautiful.”
Bad people can create good things, strange as it may seem, he concluded.
Fr. Owen Lee, a classics professor and Opera enthusiast, gave a talk at the Met Opera during an intermission one day. He quoted a number of horrible things that Wagner said about a certain group of people. All of us assumed it was about the Jews, but Fr. Lee revealed that all the vile things were being said about Catholic Priests whom Wagner hated. Fr. Lee then commented that he obviously disagreed with Wagner about priests, but that he still thought his music was sublime.
The opposite position can likewise honorably be held. Even today in Israel, the music of Wagner is forbidden and if any orchestra even does an encore by Wagner, the audience just walks out.
He still is very controversial and one can legitimately boycott his music. But it is still beautiful! Bad people can still create beauty, but their actions are still reprehensible.
Today we just throw out people’s accomplishments because, in their personal lives, they left much to be desired. The issue is still with us.
When we switch to politics, we see the quagmire that this question leads us to. Now I must interrupt this article and say quite clearly that I am not trying to influence your choice in the upcoming elections. What I have to say is a question that faces us at all times.
Some people assess the candidates on their moral lives. Are they divorced? Are they honest? Do they show that compassion is a very important ingredient? Are they respectful? How do they manage their family?
Are they crooked?
Then they look at their policies, whether or not they agree with them and wondering if they will bring the country forward economically and in terms of world leadership.
Others say that the moral lives of the candidates are their own private concerns and in no way have a bearing on their vote. Rather, they ask if the policies they will implement are agreeable and if the candidate can be reliable in his campaign promises.
In other words, one may vote even for a morally bad person if the policies of the one who is morally better are believed to be detrimental to the people and country. In essence, the question that Wagner posed: Can a bad person be a good leader?
Everyone must answer this question personally and individually. The facts of history will testify that even bad people can do good things. We must weigh carefully whether the good done is greater than the harm caused by their bad example. Leaders, for better or worse, must also be role models for the country and especially for the young.
Ideally, a candidate will be someone who is a decent and morally upright person who has good ideas, but also the humility to know when they are wrong.
What is important for us is that each of us be well informed about the issues, and also both firm in our convictions while remaining open to new ideas. One thing I am sure of: an election is a test of the maturity and
wisdom of the electorate.