The basic facts are these. St. Thomas More, born in London in 1478, was a devout Catholic, and also one of the most incisive legal minds of his day. Upon entering the service of King Henry VIII, he made clear that he believed the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be valid and thus not annullable. Initially, Henry claimed to respect More’s views, but over time his resolve to re-marry hardened. Knowing that the pope would not sanction his second marriage, the king named himself the head of the Church in England, and demanded an oath to that effect from public officials and their families. More refused to take the oath, but attempted to preserve his life by retiring and maintaining his silence. It didn’t work. He was beheaded in 1535.
Through months of imprisonment in the Tower of London, More refused to open his mind to his interrogators, insisting simply that his refusal was “a matter of conscience.” Most of his loved ones took Henry’s oath, and he made no effort to dissuade them. We are left to speculate on the private reflections that led More to believe that, at least for him personally, it was necessary to die rather than violate his conscience. What is clear is that More was deeply dedicated both to his faith and to the good of the realm. With his final words he declared himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Interesting parallels can be drawn between More’s situation and that of conservatives contemplating the impending nomination of Donald Trump. As in More’s time, a decadent and egomaniacal politician presses us to choose between valued principles and longstanding party allegiances. It’s a difficult decision, especially given the likelihood that a party rupture will deliver the presidency to Hillary Clinton. Some of Trump’s detractors have been fairly bruising in their judgment of (even reluctant) Trump supporters, but the invective in the other direction has also been badly overwrought, as #NeverTrump conservatives are accused of being sanctimonious, naïve, self-righteous, or simply foolish. Comparing one’s own position to that of a saint is always perilous, but it’s still worth noting that More’s contemporaries (including some valued friends) seem to have made similar judgments about him.
I would submit that the decision to support Trump, or not, should be seen as a matter of conscience. This is not to say that the broader political circumstances have no relevance (they do), or that sincere conservatives cannot choose wrongly (they can). It is to say that our present situation calls for serious moral deliberation, as tensions are introduced between cherished principles and goals that we were previously able to pursue simultaneously. At such times, friends may find their paths diverging for reasons that needn’t necessarily discredit either party. Thomas More likely felt that his public visibility, his legal expertise, his previously stated views, and his relationship to Henry put him in a position that was rather different from that of his family and friends. Conscience is by its nature personal, reflecting the significant fact that individual decisions are made within the context of a richly nuanced interpersonal and moral life.
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