Leave it to our nation’s first and only Catholic president to strike the right balance between politics and the arts. 

John F. Kennedy would say, “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” 

Blending politics and religion is even trickier. 

Consider the complicated tale of the lifelong Californian who attended a parochial high school and entered a Jesuit novice house with designs of becoming a Catholic priest — only to join the family business and following his father into the governor’s mansion.

What a wild ride life has been for Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., the curves of which he could never have imagined in 1955 when he graduated from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco and went on to attend Sacred Heart Novitiate in Los Gatos with the intent of entering the priesthood. 

Even as Brown progressed along in his formal education at Santa Clara University, U.C. Berkeley, and Yale Law School, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would abandon the practice of law and enter politics  — the domain of his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., who served as governor of the Golden State from 1959 to 1967.

And even when the younger Brown entered politics in 1969 by being elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, he could not have predicted that he would one day carve his name into history books as both the youngest and oldest person ever elected governor of California and hold that office for a staggering 16 years.

With the 80-year-old about to end his final term, and likely never to seek elective office again, a lot has been said — and a good amount still remains to be said — about how Brown helped shape the world of politics, both in his home state and nationally, and how politics shaped him.

Less has been said, and still needs saying, about how Catholicism and his early flirtations with joining the clergy influenced his worldview and steered his politics. Or didn’t. 

And this is where things get tricky. Most Americans understand that the Founding Fathers — at least one of whom inspired a Broadway hit — were “spot on” in separating church and state.

Before long, Democratic elected officials who were Catholic were being pressured by Church leaders to adhere to a pro-life position on abortion. Many refused. 

That included Brown, who has always been pro-choice and who would never have been allowed to progress in the state Democratic Party if that were not the case.   

At the same time, Americans also expect their leaders to have values, and they don’t care where those values come from. A good chunk of voters believe in God and go to church, and they connect with those who do likewise. Hence, we’ve had decades of politicians quoting Scripture and posing for photos leaving church with Bible in hand.

You can see how — when it comes to religion — our political leaders would get confused about what voters want from those who represent them.

That’s why it is so crucial that those leaders have a a rock-solid moral core that they refuse to give up or negotiate away, even if it alienates supporters, cost them votes, or ends their political careers.

Brown may have had that rock-solid moral core in his first go-around as California governor, which lasted from 1975 to 1983. As has been noted by many observers of California politics, the first Brown gubernatorial tenure was youthful and idealistic — almost to the point of being naive about how politics worked.   

Not so with Jerry 2.0, the gubernatorial mulligan that Brown took when he was, at 72, elected to what was essentially his third term in 2010, and re-elected four years later. By the time this more pragmatic chapter had begun, he had re-entered politics as mayor of Oakland (1999-2007) and California attorney general (2007-2011).

While still vehemently pro-choice on abortion, Brown had also by then begun to veer left on issues like the environment, gay rights and climate change while also moving to the right on curbing street crime and illegal immigration.
It’s true that Brown established nation-leading targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand the use of solar energy, and that he may now be poised to commute hundreds of death row inmates in his final days in office. But it’s also true that Brown sent the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border and vetoed the Trust Act, a bill that would have limited the ability of local and state police officers to cooperate with federal immigration agents.
Brown said he wanted to preserve the “discretion” of local officials who wanted to work with federal immigration authorities. He would eventually sign similar legislation that gave local governments more latitude to work with federal immigration officials. And by then, his old line of argument about preserving local discretion had been picked up by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in challenging California’s so-called sanctuary state law. 

Today, this back-and-forth between left and right has helped solidify Brown’s reputation as a moderate in a Democratic Party that is sprinting to the far left. 

In politics, flexibility and a willing to compromise are not bad things. Still, there has to be a line as to what one is willing to barter away. 

Brown crossed that line when, in 2015, he signed into law a measure that permits physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. The euthanasia law  — whose constitutionality recently came under fire by a superior court judge — made California one of only seven states, along with the District of Columbia, to create legal protections for assisted suicide. 

In the three years since Brown signed the law, hundreds of Californians have seized upon it to end their lives. 

When he describes himself, Brown uses one word more than any other: “enlightened.” He really does often see himself as the smartest person in the room. 

Indeed, one would expect that someone who had such enormous educational advantages — from the Jesuits to Yale Law School — and went on to gather valuable experiences, from working with Mother Teresa to running for president, would emerge from all that with a good amount of wisdom.  

Yet, sometimes Brown just seems adrift, as if he has lost his moral center and he is making up, as he goes along, major pieces of policy that impact millions of people in ways that may do more harm than good — all in service of ambition and the pursuit of power. 

There are words to describe this kind of approach to politics. But “enlightened” is not one of them.

Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.” 

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