President Obama takes executive action on immigration, and some Congressional leaders promise to do whatever it takes to stop him. Amendment 1 removes the judicial impediment to abortion regulations, and some pro-life state legislators may want to make up for “lost time” in regulating abortion. As I considered the two situations, a word seldom used anymore kept coming to mind.
That word is prudence. It is known as one of the four cardinal virtues. And it is virtue particularly needed at a time when the vast majority of Americans distrust their government and politicians. Without prudence, that distrust will only grow, and without trust, our government cannot function well.
Prudence was defined by Noah Webster in his famous 1828 dictionary as follows:
“Prudence implies caution in deliberating and consulting on the most suitable means to accomplish valuable purposes, and the exercise of sagacity in discerning and selecting them. Prudence differs from wisdom in this, that prudence . . . is exercised more in foreseeing and avoiding evil, than in devising and executing that which is good . . . .”
Or, as Webster summed it up in the last sentence of his definition: “Prudence is principally in reference to actions to be done, and due means, order, season and method of doing or not doing.”
In the case of immigration, prudence is certainly needed. Our immigration “situation” is a mess. There are legal, constitutional, philosophical, theological, and practical issues to be considered. The impact of any policy will be great and far reaching. If a pebble thrown in a lake causes ripples vastly disproportionate to its circumference, then action on immigration is by comparison a boulder thrown into a pond.
That the President thinks he knows what is right and is willing to do it even if it is contrary to his previously expressed understanding of his limited constitutional authority is clear evidence that he lacks prudence.
That some Republicans, in an exercise of bravado and playing to their base, start saying they will do whatever it takes to stop him could lead to counterproductive actions and more government distrust if prudence is not exercised.
In saying that, I don’t mean that nothing should be done on immigration or that unconstitutional exercises of authority should go unchecked. But prudence dictates that there be serious deliberation and consultation in order to determine the “due means, order, season and method” of approaching an unavoidable issue and reigning in the president.
And in Nashville prudence should dictate how pro-life legislators proceed after the passage of Amendment 1.
Public polls and campaign internal polls showed that well over 60% of Tennesseans believed a woman should be fully informed prior to an abortion, have time to consider that information absent life-threatening exigent circumstances, and know that the clinic she went to was licensed and inspected by the state health department. So, the prudent legislator would ask, “If that’s true, then why did the amendment only pass with only 53% of the vote?”
Having been intimately involved in the campaign, I can give you my opinion. The ten percentage point difference was a reflection of people’s distrust of their government and politicians and their application of that distrust to specter raised by opponents that the legislature would go “too far” in regulating abortion, beyond what they were ready to accept.
In that atmosphere of distrust and fear of government interference, prudence might consider how the cause of life can best be advanced over the long haul, not just in the short run. Whether prudence or being seen by others as the most pro-life legislator will win the day remains to be seen.
Prudence is in short supply in politics these days. And perhaps it’s because politicians cast prudence aside to placate the frustration of voters with gridlock. But as an old legislative colleague of mine used to say, “Sometimes you can get there faster by going slower.” Advice some of our current politicians would do well to heed.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.