The Three Presidential Primaries There’s ‘More Obama.’ Then there’s ‘Less Obama,’ which is being overshadowed by ‘Trump.’

There are not two presidential primary contests going on but three: “More Obama,” “Less Obama,” and “Trump.”

Something big is going on among the “More Obama” people: It is getting impossible to believe their race will remain confined to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both will be as similar as they need to be in terms of policy and approach. Their real contest is over trustworthiness, integrity, heart. In 2008 I wrote in this space that Barack Obama may lie to you and John McCain may, but Hillary will. I quoted William Greider, who observed in the venerable left-liberal magazine the Nation that the Clintons are “high-minded” on the surface but “smarmily duplicitous underneath.”

Donald Trump billboard in the United Arab Emirates

Donald Trump on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

That perception has always been alive on the left—it’s what took down the Clinton machine in ’08—and is newly alive now. Mr. Sanders just pulled ahead in New Hampshire for the first time, 44% to 37%, according to a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll. He is speaking to massive crowds. Monday night in Los Angeles he pulled 27,500 people—roughly five times as large as any crowd Mrs. Clinton has drawn this cycle, according to the Washington Post. He was introduced by comedian Sarah Silverman, an antic rallying force for Obama in ’08. She told the crowd: “Bernie always seems to be on the right side of history.” Meanwhile Mrs. Clinton’s staffers send memos to supporters telling them to keep calm and repeat certain talking points.

There is no joy or brio, no wild, glass-breaking energy, in this endeavor. It is taking on the stale air of the bunker. When you mention to Democrats that Nixon never burned the tapes but Hillary surely burned that server, they nod, smile or half-wince. No one grows defensive for her. It does not seem possible that more candidates, big ones, won’t get in.
U.S. real-estate magnate Donald Trump is seen playing golf on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. ENLARGE
U.S. real-estate magnate Donald Trump is seen playing golf on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“Less Obama” is the Republicans, who’ll overturn this and roll back that. It is a deep field, the most impressive since 1980—accomplished big-state governors, senators, others. They operate under the normal rules of political comportment. Many are talking about serious issues but they are still and for the immediate future overshadowed by “Trump.”

I have said that his great power, the source of his confidence, is that he has nothing to lose. If he doesn’t become president, he’s still Donald Trump, only more famous, more everything. I was sharply corrected this week by a New Yorker who has done business with Mr. Trump. “You don’t get it,” he said. He raised a knife and moved his finger along the blade: “He is walking the edge of the knife, and if he gets to the end he is president. He can lose the presidency. He does have something to lose.” Mr. Trump is serious and doing his best under the belief he can win, the businessman said. (No, he is not a Trump supporter.)

Others have written of Mr. Trump’s appeal, as have I. When citizens are consistently offended by Washington, by both parties’ leadership, they become contemptuous. They see Mr. Trump’s contempt and identify. What the American establishment has given us the past 20 years is sex scandals, money scandals, two unwon wars, an economic collapse, an inadequate recovery, and borders we no longer even pretend to control. They think: What will you give us next, the plague?

In circumstances like this a swaggering, charismatic rich man who shares and speaks the public’s indignation—and shows a bit of its raucousness and humor, too—will find fertile soil. Especially if he’s famous in a country that worships fame, successful in a nation that honors success, and rough around the edges, like an American. When his critics say he’s a freak show you know his supporters are thinking: “The world’s a freak show, Putin’s a freak show, he’ll fit in.” Nothing has captured this like a brilliant Washington Free Beacon satire of how President Trump would react on Twitter to an Iranian decision, in 2017, to kick out inspectors and test missiles:

“Very disappointed in @khamenei_ir, a liar and disrespectful man. Trump is his worst nightmare.” Soon after: “I will be on @oreilly factor tonight on @FoxNews.” Deeper into the crisis: “Have you seen @khamenei_ir’s wife? Neither have I, he is a pig who makes her dress like a ninja.” He instructs the ayatollah to check his direct messages. He tweets: “America will not bow to degenerate slob like @khamenei_ir, beard like low class tramp full of greasy rice every time we Skype!” He tweets a new poll showing his approval rating at an all-time high. He sends Khameini a taunting Toby Keith lyric: “And the eagle will fly / Man, it’s gonna be hell / When you hear Mother Freedom / Start ringin’ her bell.”

Vice President Bruce Jenner calmly tweets: “Iranian nuclear test is a threat to world peace and our allies in the region. America will respond.” Mr. Trump: “@khamenei_ir called me after my landslide election and begged for money. Tehran is an ugly city I’ll never build a hotel there.” The Associated Press sends breaking news: The Supreme Leader of Iran has issued an apology and agreed to disarm. Mr. Trump notes he’ll be on CNN with Don Lemon. His final tweet: “The Ayatollah is a pathetic negotiator and his English is very bad. Guess he didn’t go to Wharton. No match for Trump.”

I thought of a Trump supporter I know. If she read it she’d cheer.

Should he be thrown from the party, ejected by its elders, whoever they are? After all he’s not really a Republican, his views are heterodox, he won’t vow to support the party nominee in 2016, he’s only a celebrity. But the party elites don’t have the power they once had. They’ve been undone by a generation of bad leadership. They’re afraid: A monster just came out of a swamp and is lurching their way. Journalistic elites have damned Mr. Trump, to no effect except incendiary comment threads. Once they were the cops on the ideological beat; they ran that into the ground during the Bush years, using too many nightsticks.

The harder people come down on Trump, the more his supporters believe he’s the only honest one. “Entwined, entrenched interests hate him: Then I’m for him!”

Republican leaders will be patient because there’s no other choice. They can’t take him down, and even if they could they’d be damned by his embittered supporters, and Trump would run third-party. He will rise or fall depending on how he acts and speaks, what oppo comes his way, and how he responds. He has a history of falling off the edge of the knife. He will change tack or get out depending on whether he comes to believe he is hurting his brand. Republicans should argue with him on policy, take on his positions, hit him hard, often and above the belt.

I don’t know what happens with Mr. Trump, but Trumpism? That’s here now—outlandish candidates backed by indignant, enraptured people who’ve lost their judgment. Congratulations to the leaders of both parties: The past 20 years you’ve taken us far. We’re entering Weimar, baby. The swamp figure is up from the depths.

Fireworks at the Republican Debate Trump failed to dominate, and Fiorina belongs in the top tier.

Since the performance of political debaters is mercilessly and repeatedly analyzed by reporters and pundits, it would be fair and delightful if someday they critiqued us back. “Jeb, I didn’t really think that second question was aptly phrased, did you?” “No, Scott, I didn’t. And the anchor’s ad lib had the rhythm of wit without the content, which is why it didn’t land.” “Soon we’ll hear from the columnists, who’ll be out to shoot the wounded. Hope they don’t injure themselves reaching for their little metaphors.”

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina

I watched the pregame with these questions:

Who will The Donald be? If he attempts a statesmanlike bearing will his numbers plummet? Does he know how much his people rely on him not to become domesticated? Will John Kasich start to break through in his home state? Who will Jeb be? Will he come awake? Will he look like a pleasant, bespectacled man who’s actually thinking about dinner? Will he radiate the heaviness of the man who knows too well what can’t be done? Because there’s not much market for that.

Also I wondered, as I contemplated the idea of a long row of guys in ties, who my eye would go to. Your eye knows more than you do, it’s drawn for reasons you don’t understand. Part of the mystery of politics is connected to a mystery of show business. Mike Nichols once told me the biggest stars don’t have perfect faces, but rather they’re interestingly imperfect. Stars are stars because you can’t take your eyes from them and don’t know exactly why. So who would we be drawn to look at? Who would we be hearing?

I have been saying the early, back-of-the-pack debate might turn out to be the place to be—low expectations, more airtime, a less intense atmosphere. Interesting things might happen. Also somewhere deep, deep down, where Republicans are sweet, some sympathetic rooting for the underdogs might occur. But it was tight, somber. You could hear the questions and answers echo in the empty hall, which gave it a lonely sound, like a one-camera debate in the early days of democracy in Estonia.

The reliably on-point and interesting Carly Fiorina has been declared the overwhelming winner. That surprised me because I’ve seen her better, including this past weekend at the Koch donors seminars in California, where to some she was a revelation. This is a strong, gutsy woman. The evening was a reminder that the debates are important: Those not preoccupied with politics were seeing her for the first time. Next time she will belong in the top tier.

It’s still unclear why George Pataki and Jim Gilmore are there, and in a time of sustained national crisis their need is not endearing. Lindsey Graham is supposed to have entered to be the voice of a burly, interventionist foreign policy in the age of Rand Paul. But it’s not looking like the age of Rand Paul, and everyone’s already being pretty burly. I don’t understand his purpose.

As to the main event: Wow. I’ve never seen a political debate come in so sparky. From the first minute it was hot as a pistol, with an electric crowd and highly pointed, even adversarial questions.

There are two headlines.

The first is that when Donald Trump was put on the spot on whether he would pledge not to launch a third-party campaign, it marked a break point in the Trump saga. It made it official: Mr. Trump sees himself as operating both within and without the party, and within it only at the moment. A political operative emailed me: “He just gave [a rude gesture] to the RNC.” He did. Mr. Trump’s fiery clash with Megyn Kelly, after she challenged him on crude things he has said about women, did not work in his favor. He was boorish and ungentlemanly. Yes, I know that sounds quaint. The things he was accused of saying, which he didn’t deny, were ugly. However, the moment yielded probably the most memorable line of the evening: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

Marco Rubio was fresh, crisp and poised. Hillary Clinton, he said, won’t be able to lecture him on living paycheck to paycheck because “I was raised paycheck to paycheck.” He has successfully staked out the future as his theme—one that of course is underscored by his youth.

John Kasich spoke seriously and even soulfully on the mentally ill and drug-addicted in our prisons, and what must be done to help them. He was present and humorous. I thought him lovely on same-sex marriage: “God gives me unconditional love, I’m gonna give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.” It was clever of him to be gracious to Mr. Trump, who looked like he appreciated the break. I think Mr. Kasich broke through.

When Chris Christie and Rand Paul clashed on the issue of privacy and government surveillance, Mr. Paul accused Mr. Christie of taking President Obama’s side: “I know you gave him a big hug.” Mr. Christie was quick: “The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families” after 9/11. It was a fabulous cheap shot followed by excellent special pleading. Bravo for first-class fisticuffs.

Ted Cruz was fine. He didn’t dominate as he has on some stages, but he caused himself no trouble. He’ll get deadlier as the number of candidates winnows down.

Mike Huckabee is going hard and all in for Christians in Iowa.

Mr. Bush achieved adequacy. He received respectful and supportive applause whenever he said anything, but didn’t say anything especially well. He continues to be the front-runner as odd duck.

Jeb has a low pilot light. The other day in the Koch seminar he started his Q&A with Politico’s Mike Allen in a shrugging, sluggish way, as if he were surprised to be answering questions. He seems to me embarrassed by his ambition, as if for 40 years he’d understood himself to be the singular Bush but now here he is, running for president like everyone else. Mr. Cruz, who had spoken before Mr. Bush, stayed to listen. Have you ever seen the look a cat gets in the second before he moves on the mouse? That look of full, predatory concentration? That was the look Mr. Cruz had as he watched.

I just realized I haven’t mentioned Scott Walker. He did himself no harm. He’ll likely improve as the stage gets smaller too.

The second headline is that Mr. Trump wasn’t the person your eye stayed on. It went to him first. But as the evening progressed, the other candidates stole his drama and thunder with their own claims and arguments. “The strength of the field is overshadowing Trump,” wrote a Hill staffer. That was exactly it. I found other candidates as interesting—more so.

I really don’t know if fiery debates like Thursday evening’s will wind up building interest and excitement in the Republican field, or wearing and tearing it down. I don’t know if we’ll look back on this as the beginning of a making or a breaking. Maybe the former. Anyway, it was alive. I wonder if Hillary Clinton is wondering how she can look alive.

Don’t Mourn Atticus Finch A fictional hero turns out to be as complicated and flawed as the real ones.

When I pointed to him his palms slipped slightly, leaving greasy sweat streaks on the wall, and he hooked his thumbs in his belt. A strange small spasm shook him, as if he heard fingernails scrape slate, but as I gazed at him in wonder the tension slowly drained from his face. His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears.

“Hey, Boo,” I said.

“Mr. Arthur, honey,” said Atticus, gently correcting me. “Jean Louise, this is Mr. Arthur Radley. I believe he already knows you.”

If Atticus could blandly introduce me to Boo Radley at a time like this, well—that was Atticus.

—From “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Scout and Atticus in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Scout (Mary Badham) and Atticus (Gregory Peck) in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962).

I’ll never forget reading that scene as a child and how my eyes pooled with tears. They did again the other day when I reread the book. Boo, the pale hermit next door about whom the neighborhood children had spun gothic tales of derangement, was suddenly out from the shadows and revealed as a friend. And Atticus Finch, Jean Louise’s father, maintaining his composure on that dramatic evening and seeing to the small courtesies that, he knew, were part of the price we pay to continue civilization . . .

What a character Atticus was, a true American hero of the 20th century. He was strong but pacific, philosophical and gentle-natured. Still, on that summer day when mothers called their children in because a dog was walking erratically down the street it was Atticus who took a rifle, kneeled down, adjusted his eyeglasses and took down the rabid hound with one perfect shot.

I have a friend who’s honestly heartbroken at how Atticus is depicted in Harper Lee’s newly released novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” “I can’t bear to lose Atticus,” she emailed. “I’ll just cling to Gregory Peck and pay no attention to what the author is publishing. They just keep taking away my heroes.” Later she said of Harper Lee: “I’ll never forgive her.” I responded: “She was a young writer. She wrote a first, bad book. Then she wrote a great one. Forgive her.”

But I know how my friend felt. She herself was already launched on a great New York career when “Mockingbird” was published in 1960, and her heroes were those of her day, JFK and Dr. King. But they were human and imperfect. Atticus wasn’t real, so he promised to stay fixed in time and never disappoint.

I think part of his power as a figure of literature—as a figure of American life—is that he wasn’t only on the right side, he was on the right side in the right way. He was for my generation the perfect father figure: calm, reliable, full of integrity and always there—the kind of father anyone would want and few would have.

He was fictional. A writer made him up. Harper Lee made up Atticus Finch just as Tolstoy made up Anna Karenina and Dickens, Scrooge. They weren’t real but through the alchemy of art wound up being more real to us than the man next door.

Messy life, or at least messy publishing, has now famously intruded, and we have Ms. Lee’s first book since “Mockingbird,” which was set in the 1930s in a sleepy Alabama town. Although written before “Mockingbird,” “Go Set a Watchman” is set 20 years later, after Brown v. Board of Education. And as we know we meet a new Atticus, a racial segregationist. The Atticus of “Mockingbird” was a symbol of the future, a lawyer who believed in equality under the law and defended an innocent black man at considerable personal and reputational cost. This was a story that gave readers something to aspire to.

The new book shows an Atticus fighting the future, trying to hold on to something that is wicked and doomed and that puts him in league with the local white Citizens’ Council and its racist rants. When his daughter, Jean Louise—known in childhood (and in “Mockingbird”) as Scout—visits him from New York and sees him at one of their meetings, she is dumbfounded. “She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned. She felt sick.”

The bigotry in “Watchman” is drawn broadly. The locals speak not only racial slurs but slurs against Catholics and Jews. But it is not without meaning that all of the people quoted speaking this way are portrayed by Ms. Lee as fools—either ignorant and proud of it or unknowingly stupid and remediable.

I was unjust in my email to my friend when I called it a bad book, but it is a curious one. It shows the awkwardness, the stops and starts, of the young writer. The protagonist, Jean Louise, is the one we agree with: Segregation is evil and must stop. And yet as a character she is drawn unappealingly, always making long speeches and hurling accusations at those who love her and brought her up. Atticus, now in his 70s, holds views the reader will reject, yet he is patient, sincere—more human as a character than his daughter. Sometimes as I read I thought: What was Harper Lee up to?

At the end Jean Louise realizes that her anger in part arises from moral displacement. All her life her father had been a person of unquestioned rectitude, and her admiration was such that she never quite developed an independent conscience of her own. Faced with a quandary she’d ask “What would Atticus do?” Now in the America of the 1950s, she would no longer be able to outsource her sense of right and wrong. She would have to grow up. And so, the book implies, would America.

So is the old Atticus gone? Are we bereft of a national hero? No.

If every time “To Kill a Mockingbird” plays on TV and a child sees it, or a child is moved by the book, someone helpfully points out that “Atticus was a racist,” it would be sad. Children’s hearts shouldn’t be made heavy. Reality will assault them sooner or later, but it’s good when you’re young to be inspired by dreams. They make you strong.

In any case it seems to me the South has produced some new heroes recently, and they’re not made-up but real ones. The relatives who forgave the killer in Charleston and who wept as they told the suspect they were praying for his soul, and who meant it—you don’t get any better and braver than that. And the people who, after witnessing that moment, took the Confederate battle flag from public grounds . . .

Atticus never lived and can never die, and if you want to visit him you can pick up a book. America is an interesting place and we don’t have to look to fiction to be inspired.

The 2016 Contest Begins to Take Shape Hillary tries pointillism, while the GOP contends with an embarrassment of riches.

The weekend will be dominated by back-and-forth on the Iran deal. The administration will argue that some agreement was necessary and this was the best that could be got. They will continue their almost childlike insistence that it proves President Obama is either Ronald Reagan (he negotiates with foes) or Richard Nixon (he reaches out to adversaries).

There will be plenty of serious criticism of the deal, accompanied by a generalized sense that the U.S. probably got taken—because Mr. Obama always wants it too much. As with the opening to Cuba, Mr. Obama put his face on it too early, put his name on it too hard, talked about it too much in public, let his aides give background interviews saying this is a crucial effort, a historic gambit, part of the president’s visionary legacy. The adversary sees this, the need and the want—they watch the news too!—and proceeds accordingly.

Mr. Obama is an odd one in that when there are rivals close by, in Congress for instance, with whom he could negotiate deals, he disses them in public, attacks their motives, yanks them around with executive orders, crushes them when possible. But when negotiating with actual tyrants he signals deference, hunger. I leave it to others to explain what it means when a man is bullying toward essentially good people and supplicating toward bad ones. But the sense is he always wants it too much and is consequently a poor negotiator, and this will have some impact on U.S. and world reaction.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a Harley-Davidson dealership

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a Harley-Davidson dealership

Hillary Clinton has given her tentative support. The day before the deal was announced she gave a big economic speech, at the New School in New York.

I wanted to think along with it, but Mrs. Clinton doesn’t give you much to think to. She offers policy clumps wrapped in general sentiments. There was policy jargon—“consumer economy,” “quality, affordable child care,” “paid family leave,” “our fiscal outlook is sustainable.” In the tired rhetoric department there were “currents of change” and getting “our country moving.” There were a few fleeting shots at Republican candidates, which provided the speech with a kind of leavening cynicism.

She seemed at times to knock Mr. Obama, or at least distance herself from him. Wall Streeters who tanked the economy in the late 2000s got off with “limited consequences—or none at all.” Who’s been in charge since 2008? She made two references to rising health-care costs. I thought we took care of that.

There was a thought worthy of unpacking, which had to do with the “short-termism” that dominates CEOs’ thinking; they are enslaved to a “quarterly capitalism” that leaves them focused on the share price and the next earnings report at the expense of longer-term investment. This is true: They’re all squeezing too tight and missing the big picture because in the general rush of demands they can’t afford to see it. I’m not sure what a president can do about it, but it’s not bad to talk about such things.

Along the way she smuggled in a campaign theme: “I want to have principled and pragmatic and progressive policies.” I suspect we’ll be hearing more of the three P’s.

There was a nice thought nicely expressed: At its best, “public service is planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit.” That was pretty.

It was a pointillist policy-dot speech meant to add up to a portrait of meaning. The meaning was clear: More progressivism, please. Also: There’s little substantial difference between Bernie Sanders and me other than that Goldman Sachs likes me, which only proves my range. The left doesn’t have to bolt away.

A concern for her campaign has to be Mrs. Clinton’s robotic delivery, as if she’s never there in the moment but distanced from herself. As if she’s thinking: I don’t fully believe this, but more important, do I seem to believe it? She seems to be overcoached by people who keep telling her to be natural. But why would someone in public life for more than 30 years need to be instructed in naturalness? I don’t understand her discomfort and wonder what it suggests or portends. You can argue she’s a strong leader; she may be the next president, she may be the acknowledged head of her party, but she is a poor campaigner—a poor giver of interviews and speeches, which is now most of what campaigning is. At the end of the day this will mean something.

Meanwhile, Scott Walker announced in Waukesha, Wis. There is still something fresh and awake about him. He’s not all dinged up and slump-shouldered, even though he’s been a target for so long. His subliminal message—actually, it’s liminal—has two parts: I wasn’t born into it, I’m normal like you—but I’ve achieved a great deal, maintained my seriousness, and been a brave governor.

He made his announcement in the increasingly popular casual manner, in shirt sleeves with an open collar and casual slacks. They’re all trying to express intimacy by removing barriers—podiums, teleprompters. But that’s superficial. You can make a connection in a suit behind a podium if you sound as if you’re thinking and speaking honestly and with depth. All this physical symbolism has gotten carried away. John Kasich is next. I’m hoping he won’t announce in a T-shirt and underpants.

What is most interesting about Mr. Walker is that he has remained in the top tier, often in the top three, while being less in the public eye recently than other candidates. His years as embattled Wisconsin governor have given him a hold on the Republican imagination. As he spoke I thought: He’s from the Republican wing of the Republican Party—blunt, direct, unadorned, Midwestern. His message was workmanlike: “I know how to fight and win.” He is a reform conservative, believes in federalism, is hard-line on foreign policy: Mr. Obama says climate change is the greatest threat to future generations, but “the greatest threat to future generations is radical Islamic terrorism.” Vladimir Putin, like Lenin, probes his adversaries with bayonets: “If you encounter mush, push; if you encounter steel, stop.” Mr. Walker will run hard on his Wisconsin record: “We lowered taxes by $2 billion. In fact we lowered taxes on individuals, employers and property. In fact, property taxes are lower today than they were four years ago. . . . How many governors can say that?”

All this will make him highly competitive for the nomination. Is it suited to the mood of the nation in the general election?

Mr. Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, soon John Kasich: They are going to be flooding the hustings very soon, and they’re going to hit Republicans on the ground as an embarrassment of riches—interesting, accomplished figures, all with a case to make. They’ll have the money to last because they pretty much all have rich backers. It is going to be hard for Republicans to make up their minds. This primary is going to go longer and end later than anyone knows.

The High Court’s Disunited State As five justices declare a right to same-sex marriage, the other four dissent vigorously and ominously.

Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling against school segregation, was decided in a unanimous vote, 9-0. The court understood that in decisions that mandate significant societal and cultural change, and that will garner significant opposition, the fact of unanimity is in itself a kind of final argument.

In Loving v. Virginia, in 1967, the high court struck down prohibitions on mixed-race marriages. That too was decided unanimously.

Unanimous decisions tend to quell dissent; they confer an air of inarguable legitimacy, even inevitability. Whatever your own views, you as a citizen must acknowledge that nine lawyers, presumably skilled interpreters of the Constitution who hold different judicial and political philosophies, were able to agree on the charged issue at hand. Unanimous decisions rob opponents of arguments.

High Court DissentLandmark decisions based on narrow splits reflect a continuing breach.

Not fully acknowledged in the past days of celebration on one side, and profound reservation on the other, is that the court in Obergefell v. Hodges was split 5-4 on same-sex marriage, and that the dissenting opinions were truly remarkable. They were fiery and in some cases colorful, but they also showed a court divided on the essentials of the Constitution. Most strikingly, some of them included ominous warnings.

Chief Justice John Roberts scored what he sees as the court’s grandiosity and overreach.

The petitioners in the case had “strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness” that same-sex couples should be allowed to “affirm their love and commitment” through marriage. In the past six years voters or legislators in 11 states and the District of Columbia had revised their laws to allow marriage between two people of the same sex. The highest courts in five states “decreed the same result.” Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved “considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view.”

But the high court has stopped that “vibrant debate.” The majority has “enacted their own vision of marriage.” In effect they are “stealing this issue from the people,” which will make “a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”

“The Constitution itself says nothing about marriage,” the chief justice observed, so that states are “free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.” The majority has taken an “extraordinary step” in ordering every state to license and recognize same-sex marriage. The court’s decision is “an act of will, not legal judgment.” It “omits even a pretense of humility,” instead moving on a desire “to remake society” according to what it calls “new insights.”

“The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to,” the chief justice argues. “The Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

That grandiosity endangers the Court’s very legitimacy, which rests on public respect that “flows from the perception—and the reality—that we exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases according to the Constitution and the law.”

The Obergefell Court is “anything but humble or restrained. Over and over, the majority exalts the role of the judiciary in delivering social change.” They act as if “it is the courts, not the people, who are responsible for making ‘new dimensions of freedom . . . apparent to new generations.’ . . . Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role.”

And the decision raises serious questions about religious liberty. Every state that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically has, “out of respect for sincere religious conviction,” included accommodations for religious practice. There are none in this decision. The majority “graciously suggests” that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. “The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

Finally, and “most discouraging,” the majority felt “compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate.” “Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history”—including the tens of millions who voted to reaffirm their state’s enduring definition of marriage—are depicted as having disparaged and inflicted “ ‘dignitary wounds’ upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. These apparent assaults on the character of fair-minded people will have an effect, in society and in court.”

Justice Antonin Scalia put his criticism in populist terms. His message seemed a warning to the court. “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers of the Supreme Court. . . . A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”

Those lawyers are “select, patrician, highly unrepresentative.” All studied law at Harvard or Yale, four are natives of New York City, eight grew up on the East or West coast, “only one hails from the vast expanse in-between.” Not a single Southwesterner, nor a genuine Westerner, not even a Protestant. The “unrepresentative character” of the court would mean nothing if its members were “functioning as judges.” But in this case they are not. This “judicial putsch,” Justice Scalia writes, is the product of “hubris”—“sometimes defined as o’erweening pride; and pride, we know, goeth before a fall.”

Justice Clarence Thomas composed a ringing aria on the subject of dignity. The majority, he says, believe they are advancing the “dignity” of same-sex couples in their decision, but they don’t understand what dignity is or where it comes from. Dignity is “innate”; the government is “incapable of bestowing” it. “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”

If the government cannot bestow dignity, “it cannot take it away.”

Justice Samuel Alito warned the decision “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” The majority compared the traditional definition of marriage to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women: “The implication of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

Thus “by imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds.”

You can hardly get more ominous, more full of warning, than these opinions, which should be read in full.

Two Miracles in Charleston A stunning demonstration of Christian faith helps resolve a bitter decades-long argument.

I know there’s a lot going on, but I think we witnessed two miracles this week, and public miracles are pretty rare and must be named. These two especially should be noted and remembered because they suggest a way out of the ongoing morass.

The first miracle is now nationally famous. It is that scene of amazing, other-worldy forgiveness shown at the bail hearing for the Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect. You have heard what the victims’ relatives said, but it should be underscored that their words were spontaneous, unscripted, and flowed like water pouring from deep wells. Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, 70, was killed: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. . . . You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Alana Simmons, whose grandfather the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. was killed, told the New York Times she didn’t plan to speak at the hearing but found herself inspired by Ms. Collier. “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions,” she said. “And that is what we want to get out to the world.”

Rally to ban the confederate flag

A rally at the South Carolina State House in Columbia calls for the confederate flags removal on June 23.

Those of us lucky to watch live, who didn’t know what was coming, got to experience the full force of the event. To me most moving was what Bethane Middleton-Brown said of her murdered sister: “She taught me that we are the family love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.”

That was the first miracle, the amazing grace that pierced the hearers’ hearts—in America, in 2015, at an alleged murderer’s bail hearing in a plain, homely courtroom. Christian churches and their believers are used to being patronized or mocked as silly, ignorant or hypocritical. They often don’t mind, often laugh along with the joke. But these were public statements that laid out the essence of Christianity, unedited and undiluted, and you couldn’t laugh or scoff. You could only feel awe and ask yourself: “If I were that person in those circumstances, would I be great too?”

Within days, something else wholly unexpected happened. A tough old knot became untied. Something people had been fighting about for a long time was suddenly about to be resolved. The murders at the church, and what was said by the relatives of the dead, prompted the rejection of the Confederate battle flag in gentle, kindly, heartfelt words.

The tableau at the South Carolina Capitol surrounding Gov. Nikki Haley was itself moving—both parties, all colors, the Indian-American governor flanked by the African-American U.S. senator, Tim Scott.

Ms. Haley said that immediately after the shootings, “we were hurt and broken and we needed to heal.” South Carolinians began “not by talking about issues that divide us, but by holding vigils, by hugging neighbors, by honoring those we lost and by falling to our knees in prayer.” She spoke of the victims’ relatives: “Their expression of faith and forgiveness took our breath away.”

“On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history,” she acknowledged. “We all know that. Many of us have seen it in our own lives—in the lives of our parents and our grandparents. We don’t need reminders.” She turned to the subject of the banner that flies on the statehouse grounds. “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble—traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry.” But “for many others . . . the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” The state can “survive” as home to both viewpoints: “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here. We respect freedom of expression, and that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way.”

“But the statehouse is different and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way. . . . Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.”

And that was that. Within 48 hours the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, ordered the flag removed from the statehouse grounds there, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker said his state’s flag, which incorporates the Confederate design, should be altered. Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said they’d do away with vanity license plates that include the banner.

It hardly needs be said American politics doesn’t usually work like this. Our political culture tends to be mean-spirited, shouty, full of moral posing and pointed fingers. In this case, everyone seemed to be laying down arms. This was a miracle not of “justice” but of “mercy.” Justice can be argued about forever, but mercy is just what it is, as the people who spoke at the bail hearing know.

It’s hard to imagine the Confederate battle flag is going to be given prominence on statehouse grounds in the future. Something big changed in this old argument, and it won’t change back.

When I first watched the hearing, I hoped the mourning people of South Carolina would not have political debates forced on them while their throats were full of tears. But as Ms. Haley implied, they went forward on their own, as Southerners and South Carolinians, and made the decision while their throats were full of tears.

This was the South talking to the South.

And it was Christians talking to Christians about what Christianity is.

In Christianity Today, writer Michael Wear, who headed President Obama’s faith outreach efforts in the 2012 campaign, had a strong piece with a strong headline: “Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness.” Mr. Wear bluntly rejected recent essays arguing that the relatives who spoke at the bail hearing were acting out the traditions or survival mechanisms of their race. That, he argued, is an elitist, racist view. The “confounding forgiveness” given voice at the bail hearing, the “radical love” contained in the statements, was not cultural, sociological or political, it was theological. It was about Jesus Christ. “They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.” Black people, he added, have “equal access to Jesus,” and the survivors could forgive “because they believe that fateful night in the upper room of Mother Emanuel was not the end of their loved ones’ stories.” They believed the dead are as they were, “in the Kingdom of God, beloved by him, their greatest longings realized.” He asked: “What other American community today displays less shame, less reservation, less self-awareness about proclaiming the Christian faith?”

That is exactly what I thought as I watched the hearing.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee, if they know it, have some new nominees: the relatives of the dead who offered the mercy that relaxed the hands of those who’d been holding, too tight, to a flag.

Everyone thinks progress depends on indignation, accusation, aggression, demonstration, marching. But we just saw anger lose to love. It’s a huge moment.

A Bow to Charleston

A Northerner bows, deeply, to the South:

I have never seen anything like what I saw on television this afternoon. Did you hear the statements made at the bond hearing of the alleged Charleston, S.C., shooter?

Nine beautiful people slaughtered Wednesday night during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and their relatives were invited to make a statement today in court. Did you hear what they said?

They spoke of mercy. They offered forgiveness. They invited the suspect, who was linked in by video from jail, to please look for God.

There was no rage, no accusation—just broken hearts undefended and presented for the world to see. They sobbed as they spoke.

“I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” said the daughter of Ethel Lance, killed in the shooting. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.” She asked that God have mercy on the shooter’s soul. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you. And I forgive you.”

A family member of Anthony Thompson said he forgave the shooter. “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent . . . confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that He can change it—can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you will be OK. Do that and you will be better.”

The mother of Tywanza Sanders, also killed, told the shooter: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. . . . Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”

The granddaughter of Daniel Simmons Sr., also killed Wednesday, said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So, hate won’t win. . . . I just want to thank the courts for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”

As I watched I felt I was witnessing something miraculous. I think I did. It was people looking into the eyes of evil, into the eyes of the sick and ignorant shooter who’d blasted a hole in their families, and explaining to him with the utmost forbearance that there is a better way.

What a country that makes such people. Do you ever despair about America? If they are America we are going to be just fine.

Afterward, outside the courtroom, people gathered and sang gospel hymns.

*   *   *

I just have to say what a people the people of Charleston are. They are doing something right, something beautiful, to be who they’ve been the past few days.

From the beginning they handled the tragedy with such heart and love. They handled it like a community, a real, alive one that people live within connected to each other.

From Thursday morning when news first spread everyone I saw on TV, from the mayor, Joseph Riley, to those who spoke for the church, to the police spokesmen, to the governor, Nikki Haley—they were all so dignified and genuinely grieving, and not the pseudo-grief we always see when something bad happens and the leader says our prayers are with the victims. Haley had to stop speaking for a few moments, so moved was she when she made her first statement. Riley said today, of the shooter, “This hateful person came to this community with this crazy idea that he would be able to divide us, but all he did was make us more united and love each other even more.” I read that quote Friday afternoon in the Journal, in Valerie Bauerlein’s story, and I thought: Riley isn’t just talking, he is telling the truth.

Charleston deserves something, a bow. So too do the beautiful people who go to Wednesday night Bible study in America in 2015. They are the people who are saving America every day, completely unheralded, and we can hardly afford to lose them.

There’s only one thing Charleston doesn’t deserve. People apart from the trauma, far away, have already begun to bring their political agenda items to the tragedy and make sure they are debated. Because this is the right time for a political debate, right?

Here’s an idea: Why don’t you leave the grieving alone right now? Why don’t you not impose your agenda items on them? Why don’t you not force them to debate while they have tears in their throats?

Don’t politicize their pain. Don’t turn this into a debate on a flag or guns. Don’t use it to make your points and wave your finger from your high horse.

These people are doing it right without you.

They are loving each other and helping each other. Let them grieve in peace. And respect them as what they are, heroic.

Hillary Will Glide Above It All The Democrats can enforce party discipline. The Republican contest will be a free-for-all.

Some observations on the announcements of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, and on a looming problem for the Republican Party.

Mrs. Clinton’s announcement, last Saturday on Roosevelt Island, was first of all a concession that her April announcement, in a pretty, content-free video, didn’t quite do the job. As a speech it was largely anodyne, did the candidate no harm and probably a little good. The crowd of some 5,000 was small for a June morning in deep-blue New York. The speech quickly took on a State of the Union laundry-list quality, as if her campaign calculated the recitation of policy proposals would yield an impression of substantive depth.

Her awkwardness—the sense of always being one beat off in her words and gestures; her habit, when she comes out to applause, of bowing forward and applauding back—seems to me a kind of public shyness and is almost endearing. Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to enjoy crowds, which is odd since she’s in the crowds business. She is not an extrovert in the same way as her husband, and there was a moment after the speech, when the family gathered on the stage, when Bill started to bring up his arm in a dynamic pointing movement and then suddenly let it flop back down, as if he remembered he wasn’t supposed to dominate the shot.

Queen Hillary at the joustWhen it was over I thought how odd it is, when the nation has never been so preoccupied with politics, that Mrs. Clinton, the president she seeks to replace, and one of her main Republican opponents show so little joy in the fleshy part of politics—the politicking, the sheer personal interplay. Mr. Obama is good on the stump, and Mrs. Clinton and Jeb Bush are not especially. But all operate at a certain remove.

Mr. Bush in his announcement had to make it new so that people would give him a second look. After the generally poor impression of the past few months, expectations were low. He exceeded them. He wished the production to have a Latin/New America flair that showed the vibrancy of America’s big ethnic and racial mix. It did. Those donors who were getting anxious about their investment probably came away calmed.

The Bushes associate the showbiz of politics with shallowness and insincerity. Jeb should get over this. It’s part of the fun of politics, as Chris Christie and Ted Cruz know. Sometimes when Mr. Bush delivers a good line he looks around at the end as if he’s thinking, “I hope you don’t mind, I had to do a good line.” That’s a kind of public shyness and awkwardness, too.

Mr. Bush always seems embarrassed at his ambition, embarrassed you’d think he wants power. This is an odd quality in one who wants power.

He often says voters want to see what’s in his heart. I’m not sure that’s true; it strikes me as old playbook. Republican voters have gotten cooler over the years; they want to know what’s in your head. I could imagine a skeptical but open-minded Democrat, however, coming away impressed.

Meanwhile the Republican establishment, such as it is, should be thinking hard on this:

Mrs. Clinton is almost certainly about to glide to her party’s nomination. There will be a few bumps. She will occasionally be pressed and challenged on various questions. There will be back and forth. But her Democratic opponents will not attack her character, her history, her financial decisions, her scandals. They will not go at her personally. She will emerge dinged but not damaged. No one will ravage the queen.

The Republican primary, on the other hand, will be all hell bursting loose. The candidates will spend the next year tearing each other apart on everything and anything. Super PACs are furiously raising money, some of which will be used to take down and slam GOP opponents in negative ads and videos.

At least a few of them will do what Newt Gingrich so effectively did to Mitt Romney in South Carolina in 2012. Mr. Gingrich hit hard on Mr. Romney’s investment firm, Bain Capital, and his tax returns. He painted Mr. Romney as a cold, rapacious capitalist who’ll close your factory and take your jobs. Mr. Gingrich described Mr. Romney’s line of work as “rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company.” Mr. Romney’s South Carolina numbers began to sink in the last days of the campaign. Mr. Gingrich enjoyed a surprise win.

The Obama re-election campaign was of course watching the fun, and went on to kill Mr. Romney with Mr. Gingrich’s themes. They’d likely have done it anyway but the attacks were given added legitimacy by GOP provenance.

The Democrats have an enforcement mechanism to keep all their candidates in line. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley know without being told that the party will kill them if they tear apart the assumed nominee. Their careers will be over if they go at her personally.

A GOP opposition-research veteran said of the Democrats’ enforcement mechanism, “As an upstairs-downstairs party, the upstairs is a fairly concentrated place. The Democrats as the ‘in’ party—the party of Silicon Valley and academia—has interlocking pools of money, brains and talent.” When they turn on you, it is like facing “the Death Star.” And “on top of that, you have the Clintonian tropism toward score settling and vengeance. What you have in the end is discipline.”

The Republicans? “They stand to beat the hell out of each other for months to come.” The GOP is not concentrated but spread out, geographically and culturally—“everything from establishment types to evangelicals to hedge-fund gods and farmers.” Candidates reflect diverse denominations: “It’s a party of dissenters” and operatives who have no motive to avoid hurting another group’s favorite.

Half a dozen candidates are clustered near the top, so the fight this year will be fierce. The Republicans have no old-style enforcers—no establishment figures everyone is afraid of crossing. Republicans are by nature entrepreneurs—they’ll do a lot not to lose market share.

So Republicans this cycle will likely go after each other in a personal, rough way, bloody each other, and damage the eventual nominee, while Mrs. Clinton will glide along relatively untouched. Democrats will watch the fisticuffs, determine what line of attack worked best on the GOP nominee, and mine it deeper in the general election.

Is the GOP thinking about setting 2016 ground rules? Is it thinking about penalties—publicly warning candidates that if they go at contenders on anything but the issues they’ll face the wrath of the party? Is there any way to put teeth in such a threat?

Here it should be noted that Republicans often speak of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” He didn’t mean don’t attack them. He himself tried to take out a sitting Republican president and went at Gerald Ford hammer and tongs—on the issues. It was never personal, and it had nothing to do with “oppo.” It was about great questions, not small people. That’s not only how to win, it’s how to win with meaning.

Scenes From a Young Papacy What kind of a pope is Francis? Charismatic, enigmatic, mysterious—it’s complicated.

Rome

It is the big Wednesday general audience of the pope in St. Peter’s Square. Forty thousand people or more are here, pilgrims and tourists spilling through the square past the fountain, some holding flags, still more holding umbrellas against what is already, at 10 a.m., a punishing Roman sun. Papal chamberlains in white tie and tails; rows of bishops, cardinals and abbots; the Swiss Guard in their yellow, red and blue uniforms, halberds held sternly in white-gloved hands—the church, as always, knows how to put on a show.

When Francis comes out there are cheers, calls of “Papa!” and applause. John Paul II at the end, in his illness, looked different from his pictures, and Benedict XVI seemed taller and sweeter than what you’d seen, but Francis is exactly the Francis you anticipated, the big smiling man in eyeglasses and white cassock.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

He is driven in an open jeep through the crowd, and you can tell where he is from the direction of the roar.

The reading is from the Gospel of St. Mark. A priest, Father Roger Landry, offered spontaneous translation for our row, and soon other rows were leaning in. “My little girl is at the point of death,” a man told Christ, who went to her and said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise,” and she rose and walked. Francis began his commentary with a merry “bongiorno,” which pleased the crowd, and then spoke on sickness, which he characterized as an “experience of fragility” that can come as “a real shock”: “In so many places the hospital is a privilege for the few” and the family is “the closest hospital.” He spoke of the “hidden heroism” of those who care for the sick, reminded them they are not alone, that they are accompanied by “kisses of God,” and asked all to “pray unceasingly” for the ill and their caretakers.

It was not like one of John Paul’s weekly audiences. Those were raucous affairs—the crowds sang and even danced; they cheered and rocked the hall with their chants. With Francis it is all surprisingly subdued, warm but bracing. As a cardinal told me, when Francis says mass it’s in Italian, not Latin; it is prayerful, but no time is wasted—“no frills. And he doesn’t sing.”

You sense he’s trying to conserve his energy.

What you find among the churchmen of Rome is what a mystery Francis still is after two years of his papacy. To put it less dramatically, they’re still getting to know him and pondering different aspects of his nature, some of which seem contradictory. They love his charisma and respect and appreciate his popularity. He has a gift for intimacy but few intimate friends. He is “a complicated figure,” according to a priest who knows him.

Though ideological categories don’t fully apply, Francis’s political vision is usually described as more or less of the left, assuming a faith in the power of the state to help and protect the people. On piety and the great moral issues the modern church faces each day, he is a traditionalist, though a largely unheard one because the media do not find that part of the picture interesting.

He moves forward in the world wearing a big smile while observing, of the parable of the good Shepard who will leave 99 of his sheep to save just one, that now it is 99 of the sheep who are lost.

No one claims to know exactly how Francis thinks, or even who his closest advisers are. He is said to keep his thinking and his plans largely to himself. An observer said, of his discretion, “The left hand doesn’t know what right hand is doing.” He is, famously and toward the world, the pope of the open embrace, but he is not convivial like John Paul, who made it a point to fill his lunch and dinner tables with thinkers and old friends. Francis is happy to eat alone or with a few regulars. He is somewhat austere. He is, like John Paul, a great showman, but he is not seen, as John Paul was, as a great intellect.

When he speaks on theological things—the meaning of the gospel, the mission of the church—he is universally known to be drawing from a deep theological well of study, contemplation and experience. When he talks about politics it’s more like he is probing a tooth that hurts. When he pops off, and he likes to pop off, he causes the church he loves discomfort.

Most recently it was his jocular comment that just because you’re faithful to church teaching on contraceptives doesn’t mean you have to breed “like rabbits.” That went over big with the more or less secular but not with the more or less Catholic. It wounded parents of big families, who are criticized more than enough by the world and would hope at least for respect from the church whose teachings they love and obey. One cardinal called it a disaster. But something came of it. A mother of a large brood wrote to Francis to tell him: “I have many children and I want you to know I wasn’t the rabbit—it was my husband.” The pope roared.

It is often said of Pope Francis that he has the power of immediate empathy, that when you are talking to him, as they often say of gifted American politicians, you feel like you are the only person in the room. I asked a priest if that meant Francis had the talents of a modern politician. No, he said, and here is why: “This is not an attempt to manipulate for selfish or self furthering gains. He is acting spontaneously to show you how the love of Christ feels. When he hugs the diseased man, that is to show Christ’s love. When he stops to hug the little boy who is sick, it is Christ’s love.” Francis, he said, “is depicting the joy of Christian feeling.”

About the encyclical on the environment, due next week, one gets the impression from church leaders that global-warming skeptics will not be pleased. They are quick to say the other side won’t fully love it either. The pope will note at length the previous environmental writings of John Paul and Benedict, the latter actually known for a time as “the green pope.” The Vatican feels the science of climate change is settled. It wants to be in the conversation, it wants to speak on an issue that has great meaning for the young, and as a cardinal said, “The church got it wrong with Galileo and it doesn’t want to get it wrong again.” Also the European elite is all in on climate change and the Vatican is in Europe. The Church fears being tagged as antiscience and antifact.

But is the science of climate change settled? And can a church that made a mistake with Galileo 400 years ago make another mistake by trying desperately not to repeat the earlier one?

Choosing a Path in the World Ahead A strategic thinker considers three different futures for America.

Presidential candidates have begun to nibble around the edges of the most important question of 2016, which is what approach we should take toward the world in the 21st century. This of course is not only an international-affairs question. Foreign-policy decisions bring domestic repercussions and effects. Sometimes they are dramatic and sometimes long-lasting.

The political scientist and global risk strategist Ian Bremmer, a foreign-affairs columnist at Time, has written a book asking Americans themselves to decide what our policy should be, and offering what he sees as three central options.

“America,” he writes, “will remain the world’s only superpower for the foreseeable future. But what sort of superpower should it be? What role should America play in the world? What role do you want America to play?”

Whither Uncle Sam?The world is in flux, its tectonic plates shifting: Old settlements and dispensations are falling away, new ones are having rough births. No one knows what comes next. No American consensus has emerged. President Obama himself has never chosen or declared a foreign-policy vision, which has made nothing better and some things worse.

The worst choice now, says Mr. Bremmer, is to refuse to choose. We can’t just continue improvising—that has become dangerously confusing to our allies, our rivals and ourselves.

So what way do we want to go?

Mr. Bremmer calls the first option “Independent America.” We can’t be the world’s policeman; we’re not Superman. We must “declare independence from the need to solve other people’s problems and . . . finally realize our country’s enormous untapped potential by focusing our attentions at home.” We spend too much on the military, which not only adds to our debt but guarantees our weapons will be used: “Policymakers will find uses for them to justify their expense,” which will “implicate us in crises that are none of our business.”

In this view, our national-security bureaucracy threatens our own freedoms and strains relations with allies. The hidden costs of war include individual anguish, cultural stress and a demand for secrecy that “poisons American democracy.” Drones seem neat and effective, but their use is dangerous: “Our actions in the Middle East and South Asia make us more vulnerable at home, by persuading a new generation of Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others that it’s better to attack Americans who aren’t wearing state-of-the-art body armor.” Not every country wants democracy. “For all the damage a foolish foreign policy inflicts on US interests abroad, the greatest damage is done in the United States.” It follows that we must reorient our thinking: “It is not power that makes America exceptional. It is freedom.”

Is “Independent America” a pleasant term for isolationism? That charge, Mr. Bremmer argues, “is not meant to shed light but to close conversation”—to dismiss “every legitimate reservation that ordinary Americans have” about U.S. foreign-policy excesses and miscalculations. The best way to promote our values around the world is by “perfecting democracy at home.” Among the priorities: protect the U.S. from a terrorist attack “that might push America permanently off course,” protect our borders and infrastructure, clean up and invest in public education, put more money back in taxpayers’ pockets. Stronger at home will mean stronger in the world, which will note our renewal.

The second choice, according to Mr. Bremmer, is “Moneyball America.” The job of U.S. foreign policy is to make the U.S. safer and more prosperous, full stop. Some things must be done in the world, and “it’s in America’s interest for Americans to do them.” But we are not Hercules, and our resources are finite. We must focus our attentions “where they are best able to promise U.S. national security and economic opportunity.”

We should lead international efforts against terrorism, join coalitions of the willing, build partnerships—“Never walk alone”—do more with less, keep our eye on the bottom line. Our military should be state-of-the-art, but we should look to make the arms race into a trade race. Look to America’s value, not its values. There is no bias toward projecting strength; the U.S. should get over its obsession with looking weak. “Those who make American foreign policy and those who implement it must be guided by both discretion and humility.”

At the end of the day, Mr. Bremmer says of the world, “everyone . . . is playing Moneyball.”

The third choice he calls “Indispensable America.” This involves a burly, all-in commitment to international leadership. It has practical and idealistic aspects; it is a long-term project but one consonant with our greatness as a nation. “America can never establish lasting security and prosperity in the interconnected modern world until we have helped others win their freedom.” We are called to “promote and protect” American values globally. “No one else will fill this breach.” We are the world’s only indispensable nation because only we have the means and will to stabilize international politics and the world economy. America is exceptional, and its work is not finished. “America must now think bigger and in more ambitious terms” than ever before. “We must build an entirely new foreign policy” based on the insight that in a globalized world “we can’t succeed unless others succeed too.” Get over ideas like peacetime and wartime: “We live in a world of permanent tension.” We can’t solve every problem, “but this does not excuse us from the responsibility to solve the ones we can.” As to cost, “the United States can pay its debts by simply printing more money.” At the end of the day the dollar will still be the world’s reserve currency—still the safest port in the world economic storm.

As I read, I found myself wondering how a politician would react. I think he’d find it all both too abstract and too concrete. He would want one from column A (independence of action and a shown concern for the home front), one from column B (of course safety and prosperity are paramount) and one from column C (a known willingness to use unquestioned military power can be a handy thing in the world).

Politicians hate to speak about their vision of America’s immediate place and role in the world for several reasons. They have risen in the ad hoc, provisional, moment-to-moment world of daily politics. That life teaches you long-term plans don’t have to be part of your long-term plan. In foreign policy especially, declaring a clear stand wins you committed enemies and tentative friends. Best to dummy up and speak in generalities.

But at a certain point all the candidates for president, even Hillary Clinton, will have to give a sense of what’s in their heads. They hope to guide U.S. foreign policy for the next eight years. It isn’t asking too much that they speak about where we are and where we ought to be going.

Mr. Bremmer gave his choice at the end of the book. It seemed to me surprising from one who appears to have thrived in the heart of the foreign-policy establishment. He felt the tug of each course but in the end came down for Independent America, and for interesting reasons. Candidates especially could get the book and find out what they are.