Resisting the demagogue

George Weigel

You’ve got to have a good memory for mid-Sixties pop music to remember the Seekers, an Aussie quartet that once vied for the top of the British charts with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (and did quite well here in the U.S., too). But this isn’t a pop culture quiz; it’s a reflection on our increasingly disturbing 2016 presidential election, with a little help from, yes, the Seekers.

Why? Because it struck me last week that their 1965 hit, “A World of Our Own,” written as a bit of Sixties romantic whimsy, might well serve as the theme song of the 2016 Trump campaign. For readers under sixty, here’s the refrain:

We’ll build a world of our own

            That no one else can share

            All our sorrows we’ll leave far behind us there.

            And I know you will find

            There’ll be peace of mind

            When we live in a world of our own.

The notion of America as a refuge from the world’s harsh realities has a long pedigree in our national cultural history. It took its most dangerous form in the 1930s, when isolationism so paralyzed American politics that Hitler almost won the world empire he sought. Today, that impulse to “build a world of our own” seems to be driving the Trump campaign, which is long on emotional appeals to making America great again, and very, very short on specific policies for achieving that goal. Yet Mr. Trump’s appeal to a narrow idea of American exceptionalism, married to an unblushing demagogy about “the other” that he deploys with a vulgarity that would have gotten a child’s mouth washed out with soap once upon a time, clearly appeals to voters who are mad as hell and determined not to take it any more.


Photo from wikicommons

To be sure, those voters include good people and there’s a lot to be angry about. The Great Recession has led to the Great Stagnation. Globalization has disproportionately clobbered working class people, and defenders of free markets have done too little to address their legitimate grievances. Racisms of various forms are back, polluting the public atmosphere in the most racially egalitarian country on the planet. Political correctness chokes off free speech and corrupts education. It’s scandalous that neither major party can address immigration policy with prudence and compassion. And that’s before we get to the fact that, thanks to Obama administration fecklessness, the next president is going to face the most dangerous world situation since 1947.

So by all means, fellow-Americans, be angry. But please don’t channel that anger into support for a candidate who is utterly unfit – by character, by wit, or by life experience – to lead America for the next four years.

Catholic affection for the United States has been based in large part on the story of the U.S. as a political community in which the sphere of common care and protection is an expanding one. We’ve been drifting away from that noble inclusiveness in recent decades, most lethally because of the abortion license. The toxic identity politics of the moment is also fragmenting the country, just as our popular culture has become so debased that it can no longer sustain an “us” that’s larger than a “me.” There’s plenty of blame to go around for this meltdown. But the point to be emphasized just now is that Donald Trump, far from offering a compelling remedy for American fragmentation, is exploiting it with a demagogic energy and a package of authoritarian prescriptions not seen since the heyday of Huey Long, fictionally immortalized in All The King’s Men.

There is nothing remotely Catholic about the Trump sensibility. There is nothing in Mr. Trump’s record or his current campaign to suggest that he gives a fig for the life issues, for religiously freedom in full, or for the constitutionalism that is America’s unique expression of Catholic social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. Rather than lifting us above anger to renewed common purpose, Mr. Trump is dragging our politics even deeper into the muck, impeding a serious conversation about freedom’s relationship to self-command – about greatness rooted in virtue.

There are alternative ways to register one’s discontent than by voting for Donald Trump. Serious Catholics will act on those alternatives.

COMING UP: Mother Mary: Modeling joy even in suffering

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Where would we be without our mothers? We wouldn’t be! Father Gregory Cleveland, OMV, shares a beautiful quote from Cardinal Mindszenty on the importance of motherhood: “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. . . . Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature: God joins force with mothers in performing this act of creation (Beholding Beauty, Pauline Books & Media, 2020, 106).  

The same principle applies in the spiritual life. Mary cooperated with God in such a unique way that without her we simply wouldn’t be the spiritual sons and daughters of the Father that he wants us to be. The Creator came into the world through her, enabling all of us to be reborn. On the Cross, Jesus gave everything to us, including his mother: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). She cares for us as her son’s own beloved disciple, extending to us her motherly love, and showing us the true model of Christian love. As we show our appreciation to our own mothers this Mother’s Day, Mary models for us the joys of motherhood that endure even the most difficult moments.  

Father Cleveland, the director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, helps us to reflect on Mary’s essential role as mother and model in his book Beholding Beauty: Mary and the Song of Songs. The book uses passages from the Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs, as a springboard to come to know Mary as in her deep love for God. The biblical book speaks of the love of Solomon and his beloved, referring allegorically to God’s love for his people. Rather than offering a Bible study, Cleveland connects the Song to the New Testament, offering a portrait of Mary as God’s beloved and how we can come closer to Jesus through her, imitating her spousal love of God. Each chapter offers practical examples and questions for reflection, making the book ideal for daily meditation.  

The book explains the unique privileges of Mary, while using them to invite us to share in them as well: “No human being ever received God’s love and grace as fully as did Mary, to the point of God becoming man in her. She conceived Christ in her heart and then in the womb. Mary, as spouse of the Holy Spirit, shows us our capacity to receive God and be entirely possessed by him. In receiving Christ, she was also empowered to completely give herself to him, spirit, soul, and body, in love as his mother. She became his partner in the work of salvation and was exalted to reign with him as Queen of heaven and earth” (2). Mary models the life of the disciple in giving oneself completely to God so that he becomes fully present in our lives and through us to others.  

Mary’s vocation of motherhood leads directly to her queenship in drawing others closer to her Son. Her motherhood is founded in her fiat, her “yes” to the will of God at the Annunciation. In her role as Queen Mother, she asks us to imitate her obedience when she says at the Wedding of Cana, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Fathe Cleveland explains the need for a daily obedience that will inconvenience us and even interrupt our lives: “Mary invites us to do whatever Jesus tells us. When we come to serve the Lord, we first listen to what Jesus is asking of us. . . . As servants of Christ and others, we are willing to be available and inconvenienced in offering people our practical and substantial help. We allow ourselves to be interrupted by people crossing our paths and overturning our plans with their claims and petitions” (153). Mothers know better than anyone else that love requires this willingness to stop everything to attend to others’ needs.  

Even after much sacrifice, however, we know that so often things do not turn out as we expect. Mary models the necessity of suffering in giving our lives to Christ and sacrificially loving others: “Just as Christ gave the blood of his heart to the last drop, so Mary completely gave of her heart, broken in compassion. Mary’s yes to God, her vocation to motherhood, her purpose in life, all seemed to be extinguished. She would naturally have cause for the deepest possible despair, and yet she was given supernatural hope. She abandoned herself to the Father’s will and trusted his plan. Her fiat was then realized in a completely new way and offered with Christ in those ignoble circumstances. We too are called to co-offer Christ’s sacrifice” (138). Mary’s suffering shows the full extent of her motherhood — not just bringing life forth but offering it to God. Giving birth is painful and the bringing forth of spiritual life, likewise, requires sacrifice. The Song of Songs shows how greatly God desires us and calls us to put him first, sacrificing other things to focus on him above all else. God asks us to trust in him even when things do not make sense or when we’ve been hurt by those we love.  

Overall, Beholding Beauty invites us to focus on the eternal a wedding feast of the lamb, to which God is calling us, a perfect union that Mary already models for us. Father Cleveland explains how Mary’s relationship with God serves as both a model and invitation for us: “Our encounter with Mary will always lead us to Jesus. She is one with Jesus in the desires of his heart. Her only desire is that we share the same life of heavenly beatitude that she enjoys. Mary is the queenly maiden of the Song of Songs .  . . We entrust our lives to her as our exceedingly beautiful queen, knowing that she will guide us to Christ our King” (229). In giving herself completely to God and loving him completely, Mary could serve as God’s mother and our spiritual mother as well. 

This Mother’s Day, let’s be grateful for our earthly mothers and also for our heavenly mother who teaches us how to love God and our family more fully.  

Featured image: The Annunciation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660