Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Confirmation Memories


I love finding these old photos from a seemingly simpler era. These two portray my Confirmation, 63 years ago today, September 22, 1957.

In the first photo, we are all in two lines (as we so often were in those days), wearing our confirmation gowns (red for boys, white for girls) and holding our all-important name cards. I guess I was looking directly at some family member holding a camera - all the while very attentively guarding my name card. Whatever its theological and spiritual significance, I experienced confirmation primarily as just another rite of passage. Indeed, some years later at my 8th grade Baccalaureate Mass, the priest referred to confirmation as "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age" (in contrast to our graduation which, he suggested, represented more of an actual accomplishment.) 

What was particularly important to me about confirmation was that I got to choose a name. I chose Michael for my confirmation name, because I was attracted by the bellicose militaristic image of Michael the Archangel in the prayer which we then regularly recited as part of the so-called “Leonine Prayers for Russia” recited after Low Mass. Because that was what I cared the most about, that is the part of the ceremony I best remember.

When my turn came to kneel before the Bishop on his faldstool in front of the High Altar, a priest took the card out of my hand and announced my confirmation name to the Bishop (in what I would later learn was the nominative case). The Bishop then addressed me (in what I would later learn was the vocative case): Michaele, Signo te signo crucis; et confirmo te chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. ("Michael, I sign you with the sign of the cross and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.")

The second photo shows the Bishop who pronounced those momentous words. He was a Dutch Augustinian, Peter Canisius van Lierde (1907-1995), who at that time held the office of "papal sacristan," a post he occupied for 40 years from 1951 through 1991. (A year later, as papal sacristan, he would be the one to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction - better known now as “Anointing of the Sick” - to Pope Pius XII, a service he would repeat again in 1963 for Pope Saint John XXIII.) Ordained a priest in 1931, he earned doctorates in both theology and philosophy, and then headed the Augustinian College of Santa Monica in Rome, where he sheltered various refugees, military officers, Jews, and anti-fascist politicians during the war.

(There is actually a YouTube video about him in late life, Pietro Canisio Van Lierde, which ,despite its Italian title, is almost entirely in French:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oudl5CUpzKA )

In September 1957, Bishop Van Lierde was visiting my Bronx, NY, parish of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine to consecrate the finally finished upper church and then celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee Mass on September 9 and 10 respectively. (The parish was staffed by Augustinian friars and its patron saint was a 13th-century Augustinian friar and the first Augustinian to be canonized. Their province patron was Saint Thomas of Villanova, on whose feast day I was confirmed.)  

At Mass earlier that day - unusually for that time, my Confirmation took place on a Sunday, so of course we all attended Mass earlier that morning - an older student said "Congratulations" to me. I remember I thanked her, although what about being confirmed quite warranted congratulations was not completely obvious either then or now, since it was, after all, "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age." More accurately, of course, for most of history Confirmation was something that happened to you when a bishop happened to be available. But, in 1950s New York, there were plenty of bishops and so Confirmations occurred regularly and thus appeared to be determined more by one's age (or grade-level in school).

As I recall, Confirmation seemed less of a big deal than the energy invested in it would seem to suggest. But it was part of a way of life sanctified by the building in which it occurred. It was that great gothic-towered parish  church, that dominated the neighborhood both physically and socially, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space, and that that taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. (Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, as we were then happily taught to say.) That was something I never forgot – both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Supreme Court and the Looming Struggle over Democracy

On February 13, 2016, on the day Justice Antonin Scalia died, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell famously said: "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president." On September 28, 2020, on the day Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, however, he hypocritically abandoned his newly contrived precedent and took the exact opposite position: "President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate." Needless to say, the difference between the two situations has nothing to do with the constitution or legal precedents, and everything to do with the Republican party's determination to grab for itself another Supreme Court seat.

Of course, the Constitution says nothing about such situations. It simply authorizes the president (presumably as long as he is president, i.e., until 12:00 noon on Inauguration Day) to "nominate" Justices, dependent on the "advice and consent" of the Senate (Article II, Section 2). In 2016, President Barack Obama, as he was surely entitled to do, nominated Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. The Senate, as it too was entitled to do, decided not to consent to his nomination. In 2017, the new president nominated someone else, who then received the requisite confirmation from the Senate.

That Supreme Court appointments carry such weight is an extremely unfortunate aspect of how our political system has evolved, a reflection of the excess power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself over time, a process that has made it, in David Kaplan's famous words, "the most dangerous branch." In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself famously pointed out the judicial over-reach in Roe v. Wade, arguing that "a less encompassing Roe, one that merely struck down the extreme Texas law and went no further on that day ... might have served to reduce rather than fuel controversy."

Maybe some future Congress will reassert the constitutional balance, but for that it would be unwise to hold one's breath in expectation. For now, we are stuck with an over-mighty Supreme Court and the distortions this causes in our politics - not least that the composition of the Court was a major motivator for many Trump voters in the 2016 election and may well become a major motivator for voters on both sides in the 2020 election.

The Supreme Court constitutes one part - a very consequential part - of the looming struggle over democracy. A president elected by a minority of Americans and a Senate elected by a minority of Americas, and their political party apparently determined at all costs to exclude the majority from political power, will probably proceed to seat on the Supreme Court some creature of the Federalist Society, who can be counted on to preserve, protect, and defend the capitalist oligarchy.

What would an alternative, majoritarian, agenda look like?

In the event such a movement were to acquire control of both the presidency and both houses of Congress, some basic steps to restore democratic legitimacy might include:

1. Abolishing the filibuster (itself a recent innovation, the abolition of which would be essential in order to accomplish almost anything else)

2. Immediately passing pandemic relief legislation and provisions to strengthen our weakened public health infrastructure

3. Restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act the Republican Court destroyed in 2006 in Shelby v. Holder, with additional adaptations to address more recent voter suppression efforts and new challenges from foreign interference

4. Expanding Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA to ensure universal health care coverage for all Americans

5. Finally passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform

6. Offering full statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico

7. Increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices  

8. Sending to the states a constitutional amendment establishing suitably staggered 15 year terms for Supreme Court Justices.

That should keep a new Congress and a new President busy for a while!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Il Venti Settembre

Not only Rome but any number of other Italian cities have a Via XX Settembre, a street named to commemorate the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy 150 years ago today, the event that ended more than a millennium of papal rule over Rome. In fact Rome had actually been proclaimed the capital of the new Italian kingdom in 1861, but at that time Emperor Napoleon III's French troops were still stationed there to keep Rome papal. With the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in the summer of 1870, however, those troops were recalled. That, followed by the precipitous French defeat, freed Italy to conquer Rome.

Apparently, King Victor Emmanuel II's government had been willing to leave the so-called "Leonine City" (much of which is today papal territory again as Vatican City) under the Pope's de facto control. But Pope Pius IX remained intransigent in his insistence on papal sovereignty over Rome. The Italians then marched across the papal frontier and besieged Rome. After a token - purely symbolic - resistance, during which the Italians famously breached the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia (where the Via XX Settembre now begins), the Pope surrendered the city. The unification of modern Italy was complete - territorially at least.

Neither Pope nor King benefited from the 59-year cold war between Church and State that ensued. Midwifed by Mussolini, the 1929 Lateran Treaty benefited both Pope and King, both the Church and the Italian State - something Pope Saint Paul VI in effect acknowledged when, on the 100th anniversary of the conquest, he celebrated il significato "provvidenziale" di quella perdita del potere temporale.

The "providential" significance of that loss of the temporal power! Providential.

An atavistic affection for a long-lost Christendom once institutionalized in the fiction of the "Holy Roman Empire" still survives in certain quarters, reflected in a surprisingly uncritical attachment, for example, to the anti-democratic (and increasingly secularist) European Union. For the most part, however, history has moved on. Paul VI was right in recognizing as "providential" the Church's liberation from the downward drag of temporal power. To be sure, the contemporary context creates its own problems for the Church's mission in the world. But the Church is more free now to carry out its mission effectively than it was when the Pope was saddled with the status of a European sovereign, ruling a principality in a severe state of decline and pointlessly standing in the way of his own citizens' political and social aspirations.

(Photo: Porta Pia 2012).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rage (The Book)

It's only been publicly available since Tuesday, but by then its contents were already familiar to us from countless pre-publication excerpts, interviews, and, of course, the now famous tapes. Those tapes in turn have given rise to some debate about what Woodward should or should not have done with them at the time, and whether it might have mattered in terms of people's responses to the pandemic. While not unimportant in itself, that debate  is also something of a distraction, both from the main argument of the book and from the important issues in this election. Bob Woodward is not running for President. Donald Trump is. His character and his handling of the presidency for the past four years are at issue in this election, not this book or the judgments of its author. While the author is not the candidate, his book is, however, a source of further information about the character of the candidate.

Trump books are proliferating, but Bob Woodward remains the establishment star when it comes to presidential journalism, a journalism that goes all the way back to the Watergate story which made him famous in the first place. Trump also cooperated personally with Woodward, with 17 interviews, both in the Oval office and over the telephone, the first of them just as the House was about to impeach the President and about three months before the pandemic took over the world. (He had not cooperated with Woodward on his 2018 book Fear: Trump in the White House.

The book's title too comes from the President himself - from a conversation which Woodward and Robert Costa had with Trump in March 2016. When Woodward referred "a lot of angst and rage and distress" in the Republican party, Trump said "I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have.". Few truer words have been uttered in the course of this presidency!

Since the book is already so familiar, there is no need to to repeat what we have all already heard. Much of the book is, in fact, a recapitulation of familiar history, especially as seen by and through the establishment figures who initially agreed to serve in the Trump Administration - the "guard rails" as the media have often referred to them, "guard rails" that were in the end ineffectual and are now largely gone in any case.  The story of General James Mattis is illustrative. Maybe Mattis was right to take the job of Secretary of Defense when Trump offered it to him. Or maybe not. Woodward recounts how, having been offered the post of Defense Secretary, he called his 94-year old mother, a World War II Army Intelligence veteran, who, he knew, hated Trump. “How can you work for that man?” she asked him. Maybe his mother was right! In the end, as we all know, Mattis finally felt he had to quit. Woodward quotes Mattis: “When I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.”

But, at this late stage in the story, we hardly need another book - even one by Bob Woodward - to tell us all this. Or to remind us of the failures of Trump's management style, what former Chief-of-Staff General Kelly called "Crazytown." Or of the President's barbarous assault on the international institutions and structures built up largely by the U.S. in the post-World War II era. Again, we already know all this.

What we did not know, at least not in detail, was how Trump truly reacted to the pandemic, and it is Woodward's singular contribution to have recorded in his interviews the President's real-time reaction to the crisis from its start. After detailing how Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield responded to the first revelations from China, Woodward introduces us to the President's own responses in his 8th interview (March 19, 2020). At this point it was clear to Woodward that Trump understood the severity of the situation.

“Part of it is the mystery,” Trump said. “Part of it’s the viciousness. You know when it attacks, it attacks the lungs. And I don’t know—when people get hit, when they get hit, and now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.” 

So it seems that all those people who endanger themselves and others by their refusal, for example, to wear masks out of fealty to their Dear Leader are expressing their fidelity to a presidential posture that contradicts what the President privately knew to be the case.

On February 7, Trump told Woodward about "the 'dynamite behind every door,' the unexpected explosion that could change everything." Woodward's account reinforces his conclusion "that the 'dynamite behind the door' was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan."

Based on the picture his account portrays, Woodward unsurprisingly concludes: "Trump is the wrong man for the job."

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

We Liked Ike


Tomorrow's Dedication of Washington DC's new memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (photo above from the official Eisenhower Memorial web page) had originally been planned for May 8, the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, an altogether fitting occasion to remember and celebrate the man who led the Allied invasion of Normandy and as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Western Europe successfully completed his mission with Germany's unconditional surrender. But then Covid-19 intervened and forced the event's postponement until now

As usual on such occasions, there has been the customary controversy about the design and appearance of the memorial, in this case particularly about the statue of Eisenhower as a boy.  As with all such monuments, there is also always the intriguing question what the person being honored might have thought of it. None of that is unimportant, but it is all less important than the fact that finally the 34th president is at long last receiving the honor that is surely his due.

My father, a member of the 'greatest generation," who happened to share a birthday (October 14) with General Eisenhower, served in the European theater in World War II. Then I in turn grew up in the glorious years of the Eisenhower presidency. It is hard to overstate what a difference the 1950s were from the decades of Depression and War which had preceded, how even people of very modest means, like my parents, experienced those years as a time of new opportunities and possibilities. Thus, when Senator John F. Kennedy was contemplating seeking the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956, his father wrote to Sargent Shriver: "you are going into an atmosphere where over 65 million persons are working and getting better pay than ever before….So you have an economic condition that is excellent; you can’t offer anything to anybody from laborer to capitalist that can persuade him that he can do better." [Quoted in Fredrik Logevall. JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century NY: Random House, 2020, p. 627.]

Of course, I had been spared both the Depression and the War and so took the amazing socio-economic progress of the 1950s for granted. To the extent that I paid attention to politics, my opinions were conventional. The topics I was most aware of and most interested in were foreign affairs, i.e., the Cold War, especially its periodic crises - Hungary and Suez in 1956, Lebanon in 1958, Kruschev's visit to the U.S. in 1959, and the U-2/Parish Summit Crisis in 1960 - and the space race, precipitated by Sputnik in 1957.

Through all of that, Eisenhower was a constant - a dignified, reassuring, encouraging presidential presence - comparable perhaps to Kaiser Franz Josef's symbolic resonance in pre-World War I Austria. Everything about the presidency seemed - and was - more dignified then. When there was a crisis in Hungary or Suez or wherever, the President addressed us on TV from the Oval Office, and the National Anthem was played at the end of his speech.

In the decades since Eisenhower, presidential scholars, notably my Princeton mentor Fred I. Greenstein, have retrieved his reputation and revealed his political skill, practical wisdom, and good sense, qualities that coexisted with the modesty and humility that made him successful both as a military and political leader and as a person empowered to represent and symbolize a nation. Eisenhower also set the Republican party on a course which it would have done better to remain on, instead of the misguided detours it has taken since the disastrous election of 1980. Thus, he famously said in 1954:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Stupid they may still be, but negligible they unfortunately no longer are!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

“The Odd Man Out Among the Virtues.”


Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.

The biblical author wrote that early in the 2nd century B.C., but his observations seem as pertinent today as then, his conclusions as true today as then. All of us, individually and collectively, surely have had our share of experience with wrath and anger, and have certainly seen their consequences. Being sinners, as we all are, we may also, in our own lives and in our own behavior, also have hugged wrath and anger all too tightly, to our own detriment and that of the world.

Wrath and anger certainly seem to be the primary descriptors of our public life as a nation, as we increasingly sort ourselves out into separate and mutually despising geographical and cultural communities, while the world’s seemingly intractable social and political problems and conflicts continue to challenge us. The scriptures we just heard do not directly address those challenges. They do, however, say something important about who God is, what kind of relationship God has chosen to have with us, and what kind of people we are being called by God to become through the personal and social choices we make.

The Gospel today focuses our attention squarely on forgiveness, which Alan Wolfe [Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, Norton, 2002] famously referred to as “the odd man out among the virtues.” The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks so insistently is not another word for being nice, for going along so we can all get along. Nor is it what our therapeutically oriented society would have us focus on – letting go of hurts and resentments, for our own good, to get on with life. That may be good advice. It may make life less stressful, which, to be sure, is all to the good. But the forgiveness of which Jesus speaks is something significantly more than that.

Peter’s question – Lord, if my brothers sins against me how often must I forgive? – is a very humanly framed question. It is not about forgiveness, as such, but about me. What is the minimum I must do to qualify as a good person? Jesus answers with a parable about God – about what God is like, how God acts, and what God’s actions mean for us, and what conclusions we need to draw from that for our own actions.

The debtor in the parable stands for each of us. His absurd attempt to make a deal and his ridiculous promise to pay his debt in full are absurd and ridiculous because they are so obviously impossible to fulfill and only show how hopeless the situation actually is. God obviously understands this. So he forgives the loan.

Sadly, however, the debtor servant seems to believe he somehow struck a deal, which is what humans do whenever they think they have somehow placated God on their own. This is not unlike the familiar arrogance of those who loudly shout about how they have earned their advantages all on their own, who think that they have pulled themselves up the ladder of life, whereas in reality they have grasped the hands of others and walked the path others have paved for them.

The parable tells us that God does not make deals. Indeed he disdains deals and deplores deal-makers. Since God does not want our sins to be a source of hostility between us, he reconciles us on his own. He forgives our sins, cancels our hopelessly unpayable debt, without any deals or deal-making. Forgiveness is free. And, moreover, it is freeing. It makes us free – free from a slave’s fearful machinations for an altogether new kind of relationship with one another. So now we too can forgive – and indeed have to forgive, just as God forgives us.

Sadly, the servant who was forgiven the large debt thought that it was his own cleverness that had hoodwinked the king. So he failed to experience the freeing effects of forgiveness in his own life – something that showed right away in his treatment of his fellow servant.

Being angry, remaining resentful, holding grudges, seeking revenge – all that is the most natural thing in the world. It is our alternative experience of something different – the new life we have received through God’s forgiveness – that makes it possible for us, as people who are conscious of having been first forgiven ourselves, to become agents of God’s reconciliation in our world.

And so, assembled here today (and every Sunday), we may be burdened by the weight of our debt and the fragility of the social bonds on which we depend for our survival in a hate-filled world. But, gathered together as one, as members of the Body of Christ, we feel the forgiving power that frees us for something so new and so different.

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 13, 2020.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

60 years Ago in Houston

It happened to be John F. Kennedy's 7th wedding anniversary, but it was also maybe the most important night (other perhaps than the First TV Debate) of the entire campaign. According to the classic chronicle, Theodore H. White's, The Making of the President 1960: "Originally the Kennedy strategy had been to wait, to hope that the [Catholicism] question could be addressed some time late in October, close to the election, when it could be most effectively dealt with. But decisions in a campaign are forced on one by timing of emotions over which no one has control. The prestige of the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had now, in early September, given respectable leadership to ancient fear and prejudice." (Peale was actually something of a surrogate for Billy Graham, who kept a relatively low profile, but was active behind the scenes, stirring Protestants to action against the threat a Catholic president presumably posed to the values of real - i.e., Protestant - America.) So Kennedy accepted an invitation from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to discuss his religion in Houston, TX, on September 12.  “We can win or lose the election right there in Houston on Monday night,” campaign staffer Ted Sorensen said to a friend as that momentous Monday approached. Indeed, renowned religion writer Kenneth Woodward is of the opinion that "without that powerful and historic speech, it is unlikely that he would have won the election."

The agreed format was for Kennedy to make an opening statement, then submit himself to whatever questions the assembled Protestants chose to ask. Thus, for example, when asked is he would accept direction from the Church in his public life,  he answered: “If my church attempted to influence me in a way which was improper or which affected adversely my responsibilities as a public servant, sworn to uphold the Constitution, then I would reply to them that this was an improper action on their part, that it was one to which I could not subscribe, that I was opposed to it, and that it would be an unfortunate breech—an interference with the American political system. I am confident there would be no such interference.”

The full text of Kennedy's famous opening statement is still worth reading, both for how it reflected the American religious situation at that time and for the clear contrast to that situation today - a situation very different from the one Kennedy confronted in 1960.

He began by listing some of what he considered "the real issues which should decide this campaign," thus attempting to relativize the importance of the religious issue and relegate it to the periphery of prejudice. He then stated his belief in an America "where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote ... and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Sixty years later, we have long passed both those thresholds. The rise of the religious right - has led to lots of clergy lecturing candidates on how to act and congregations on how to vote. At the same time, "religious liberty" is increasingly invoked but in a significantly sectarian way that is far from "indivisible." 

Of course, throughout American history - from the 19th-century Abolitionist movement to the 20th-century Civil Rights movement - clergy and other religiously motivated citizens have acted to influence our public life, fully acknowledging their religious inspiration. When successful, they have usually been able to relate their religious motivations to wider public concerns. That was true even of Prohibition - an example of a predominantly Protestant, religiously inspired, sectarian movement, which successfully connected with more broadly shared serious concerns about the social effects of alcohol abuse, and then failed when that consensus collapsed and other concerns acquired greater prominence. Prohibition then came to be experienced by many as culturally dis-unifying and socially burdensome, more like an anti-pluralist "Protestant Ascendancy" than something suited to American pluralist politics.

Obviously in the context of 1960, it was imperative for Kennedy to minimize such possibilities. And, while he surely could imagine the sorts of situations which he was assuring his Protestant audience would simply never happen in America, he could hardly have anticipated the ways in which American religion itself has changed, and has come to aspire to unprecedented political power, of the sort that Kennedy in his time might have associated more with the Catholic Integralism of Franco's Spain or de Valera's Ireland..

Yet a mere 20 years later, in 1980, the lobbying group Christian Voice issued its first "Biblical Scorecard" rating congressmen on their votes on selected issues. That same year, devout, Sunday-school teacher Jimmy Carter was called "anti-Christ" by evangelical Christians eager to elect a divorced-and-remarried, non-churchgoer as president in his place. Pollster Lou Harris estimated that the 61% of white Protestants who voted for Reagan were 2/3 of his margin of victory.

This religionization (if such a word exists) of American politics - the use of politics by religious groups to acquire political power over others - has significantly altered American politics, almost certainly for the worse. But it has also seriously damaged religion.

Thus Ronald F. Inglehart in "Giving Up on God: the Global Decline of Religion," Foreign Affairs (September.October 2020) has argued that, in addition to "rising levels of economic and technological development," politics also accounts for some of religion's decline in the U.S. Specifically he cites the contemporary Republican Party's adoption of controversial Christian positions on certain cultural issues in order to appeal to some religious voters, and suggests this has had the effect of pushing others, "especially those who are young and culturally liberal, away from religion." In particular, he claims that prominent religious leaders' "uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump" has led other religious figures "to fear that young people will desert their churches in droves, accelerating an ongoing trend." Indeed, Ingelhart argues, where "it once was generally assumed that religious beliefs shaped political views," now the opposite may increasingly be the case. Indeed, that latter phenomenon may be the most problematic legacy of the so-called "religious right," namely the increasing subordination of religion to politics and the pursuit of political power. 

Likewise, Bill McCormick in America (“Whether Trump or Biden wins, the church will keep losing. Where does that leave Christian voters?”has just recently asked the question from inside the tent, so to speak. 

"But as the country continues to secularize, Christians have to ask themselves: Has Christian engagement in politics been good for evangelization? If not, what kinds of political engagement are good for evangelization? What kinds draw people to Christ?" He worries that, for many, ”Christians’ political activity is the public face of Christianity. As the number of Americans attending religious services, identifying with religious bodies or even having religious friends continues to decline, the number of Americans who will know Christianity through its public engagement will increase. They will have to judge Christianity and Christ himself through those fruits."

Photo: JFK Addresses Greater Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Labor Day


Today is Labor Day, a holiday which in recent years has become associated more with end-of-summer celebrations than with its original and proper purpose of recognizing the dignity of labor and the importance of work for individuals, families, and society. Labor Day, however, always reminds me of John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York in whose Catholic Schools office I worked for several years. In his homily during a Labor Day Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in 1986, Cardinal O'Connor expressed his strong commitment to organized labor:

“So many of our freedoms in this country, so much of the building up of society, is precisely attributable to the union movement, a movement that I personally will defend despite the weakness of some of its members, despite the corruption with which we are all familiar that pervades all society, a movement that I personally will defend with my life.”

In that spirit, the Catholic Labor Network will be hosting its first annual live streamed Labor Day Mass today with Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, as the celebrant. When Kentucky legislators proposed anti-union “right to work” legislation in 2017, it was Bishop Stowe spoke out boldly in defense of Catholic Social Teaching on unions and worker justice. 

Indeed, as Kenneth Woodward has recalled, in the September issue of Commonweal, in the 20th century, American Catholics influenced politics primarily through two mediating structures in which they had come to play a dominant role - the Democratic party and the Labor Movement.

Much of the injustice and lack of opportunity which characterizes working class life in our country today can be traced directly to the decline of the Labor Movement and to its estrangement from the Democratic party since at least the 1970s

Photo: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York City, 1882.




Sunday, September 6, 2020

Brothers and Sisters Still


An article in last week’s NY Times Magazine addressed the increasingly common experience of those who find themselves at odds or in conflict with family or friends because of political disagreements about the direction of our country and the moral seriousness with which such disagreements are increasingly invested. As a nation are more divided and conflicted now than at any time in our history at least since our own Civil War.  Meanwhile we are separating ourselves from one another geographically and in virtually every other way, including our sources of news and information. Political parties used to disagree about policies, which would then be discussed, debated, and eventually even resolved by negotiation and compromise. Now, however, our ideological disagreements are more like mascots for a nation of competing teams whose main concern is just to hate and despise each other. So thoroughly divided are we that it has been observed that a person’s vote can reliably increasingly indicate “his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” [Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, 2018]

As the scriptures we just heard read to us this Sunday suggest, these are not entirely new problems. Conflict has always been a part of the human condition – at least since Cain killed Abel. But, thanks to our globalized consciousness and our modern media, we are increasingly conscious of living in a world torn apart by constant conflict. We are much more aware than perhaps people used to be of all the big macro-level conflicts that threaten the world’s security and stability. International, intra-national, and tribal disputes, along with social and political protests and the injustices that spark them in the first place dominate the headlines in our own country and around the world. And, in addition, there are, of course, all the ordinary conflicts we have always known about and had had to reckon with in our personal lives - the disputes that divide families, break-up marriages, terminate friendships, and constantly wreak havoc on communities both large and small.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously outlines a procedure for his disciples to deal with conflicts that occur within the community of the Church. Obsessed as we are in our society with ourselves and our so-called individual rights, typically what gets emphasized is settling the score and achieving something called “justice.” Of course, justice is important. We have only to look around our country today to see where the lack of justice has led us. The process Jesus outlines, however, is a process aimed at reconciliation. It reminds me of the process in canon law for dealing with problems in religious communities. A misbehaving member is warned and given a chance to change several times before the process ends in expulsion, because the goal is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community.

There is a wonderful example of that in Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century England, where Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey). In the final volume, Cadfael leaves his monastery on a personal mission of his own. But, at the end of the story, he returns and kneels before his Abbot, who responds simply: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”

Whatever we are or do – whether as an individual or as a community – the goal, as Cadfael’s Abbot obviously understood, must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now and forever in God’s kingdom.

Unfortunately, on this earth at least, not all problems are solvable, as we know all too well. We’re all heard the so-called “Serenity Prayer” - God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. In human terms, some problems just can’t be satisfactorily solved; some conflicts just can’t be peacefully reconciled; and it is an important part of practical human and political wisdom to know which is which and how best to deal with them.

Likewise, even in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is recognized that reconciliation may not always be possible. And so, in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is only after multiple efforts – individually, with small group, and finally with the whole community – that the effort is ended.

Even then, however, the story doesn’t quite end there. Jesus says: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. As much as possible, devout, observant Jews avoided contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them.

Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, there is, – coming from him – a certain nuance to that, because, of course, we are all aware of how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may be there because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided North African Church of the 4th century, St. Augustine (354-430), said of the heretical and schismatic Christians he opposed so vigorously: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)]. So it is hardly surprising that the Church has always recognized reconciling wanderers back to the mainstream of the Church as one of the Church’s constant concerns.

The apostles’ power to bind and to loose includes both the authority to separate offenders from the community and also to readmit them. When Saint Paul addressed this issue, he reminded the Christian community in Corinth, which had taken disciplinary action against an offender, that the offender’s eventual readmission remained the goal of the process [2 Corinthians 2:5-8].

As Pope Francis has reminded us, “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time” [Evangelii Gaudium 24].

So, again, whatever we are or do - as an individual, as a family, as a political or civic community, as a parish, as a Church – the goal (not always achievable, perhaps, but our goal nonetheless) must always be to bring us all back together.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 6, 2020.

[Photo: "Cadfael window," Shrewsbury Abbey]

Monday, August 31, 2020

Fatima (The Movie)


Religious films have been a move staple for decades. The story of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fátima in 1917 and its attendant miracles and controversies is a familiar one. Perhaps the best-known retelling was the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Now, director Marco Pontecorvo has given us Fatima, which is very different in style, even while covering a lot of the same ground.

The film retells the well-known story of Lúcia dos Santos, then a 10-year-old shepherd girl, and her two young cousins (now saints), Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who experienced six apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 - inspiring the faithful (whose faith will eventually be rewarded in October with the famous “Miracle of the Sun”) but also angering Portuguese officialdom. In the background, of course, is the terrible turmoil of that time. A military coup had overthrown the monarchy and made Portugal an anti-religious republic in 1910. Portugal had entered World War I on the side of the allies, and at the time when the movie is set. Lucia’s own brother is missing in action.

Paralleling those events, the movie is partially set in 1989, when a (fictional) skeptical Professor Nichols interviews the elderly Sister Lúcia  in her Carmelite convent in Coimbra. Over the course of the film, he interrogates her and challenges her testimony, to which Sister Lúcia answers directly (and sometimes somewhat teasingly). These discussions are the dramatic device for airing some of the theological and other questions the account of the apparitions present, even while the movie itself travels back and forth between the earlier events and Lúcia’s recollections.

As it was in 1917, so in 1989, the gap between believers and unbelievers remains unbridged. For the professor, "Not everything unexplainable is necessarily transcendent." For Sister Lúcia, "Faith begins at the edge of understanding."

The interplay between Sr. Lúcia and the professor seems to be an attempt to bring the story up-to-date, in terms of assessing what might be the long-term relevance of the apparitions. Full disclosure: I have visited Fátima and celebrated Mass in the glass-enclosed little chapel that marks the site where the tree once stood on which Our Lady appeared. Unlike Lourdes, however, where the message of mercy and healing for the sick and suffering stands out with comforting clarity, Fátima's impact has always seemed somewhat more ambivalent. On the one hand, there is the basic evangelical message to pray and do penance. On the other, there are the "secrets" and the apocalypticism they have attracted.

Since, of course, we already know the story, the film can seem ponderously lengthy and at times over-indulging in excessive artistry. Fortunately in terms of its length, it only portrays the first three apparitions (May, June, July), then the episode of the children's arrest in August, and then skips to the final "Miracle fo the Sun" apparition in October. For some reason, the film depicts the apparitions differently from how they  actually occurred according to the received accounts. This does the story no harm, but seems unnecessary. On the other hand, the three "secrets" revealed at the July apparition are well portrayed - and then left there, as Our Lady left them with Lúcia, to be appropriated more privately by the viewer. (The film follows the official Roman interpretation of the third "secret" and carefully avoids fanning any additional apocalypticism or contrary interpretations.)

The genteel, somewhat intellectual, back-and-forth between Sr. Lúcia and the professor is paralleled by the much more raw setting of wartime, anti-religious Portugal in 1917. It Illustrates the Republic's intense hostility to religion, while highlighting the peasant piety it was trying to eradicate (a piety intermixed with the petty hurtfulness of insular rural life). As usual in such stories, we witness the pathetic peasantry's desperation for a healing or some other favor to relieve their precarious condition. Also as usual in such portrayals, the authorities - civil and religious - come across unfavorably.

Since the larger story is so familiar already, perhaps what stands out most is all the apparently gratuitous suffering the apparitions seems to trigger in a poor, peasant community in the middle of a war, a community forced finally to fall back on the one singular resource of faith. As Lúcia's father tells her at one particularly poignant moment, "At times our special gifts can lead us to trouble."


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Prophets True and False

Sometime in the summer of 1975, I was  the library having coffee with a classmate. We were looking at the newspaper, and one of us noticed that the advertised “sermon topic” at a major NY synagogue that weekend was “The Theology of Jaws,” referring, of course, to Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster, then showing in all the major theaters. My friend asked whether the lines to get in the synagogue would be as long as those to get into the theaters! This year Jaws has enjoyed a certain revival because of the pandemic, with the obvious parallel between present-day public figures and the character of the person in public office in the movie, the Mayor, who fails to take proper precautions and downplays the danger to the public. In the film it is the police chief, who keeps trying to alert people to the danger and persuade the mayor to act accordingly. 

The prophetic truth-teller, who is ignored or even persecuted, is a familiar image. That was the role of Jeremiah, whose lament we just listened to in our first reading. Violence and outrage is my message, he said. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised that it got him derision and reproach all the day.

The reference to Jeremiah, reminds me of an academic conference I attended as a grad student sometime in the mid-1970s – again right about the time of the movie Jaws.  At question time, someone challenged one of the speakers whether he was sounding a bit too Jeremiah-like. The speaker responded with the reminder that, well, Jeremiah wasn’t just talking to hear his own voice, and that the problem he was warning about was real. Jeremiah wasn’t just talking to hear his own voice, but out of the greatest sense of urgency – like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones, he said. I grow weary holding it in.

Jeremiah stood out because sadly there were also false prophets in ancient Israel, who supported the rulers regardless, with disastrous long-term consequences. They remind me of Chesterton’s famous warning:  “When someone concludes that any stick is good enough to beat his foe with—that is when he picks up a boomerang.”

We are now nine weeks away from a General Election – actually less than that for those of us who will be voting early or by mail.  What would Jeremiah say to our society?

The biblical view of the world, which inspired Jeremiah and other prophetic truth-tellers, highlights the essential solidarity of the human race. It reminds us, for example, how in the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of all, an original gift to all, which no private claim can do away with. Thus, Pope Francis, when he spoke to Congress just five years ago, described “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good” as “the chief aim of all politics.”   Such solidarity is at the heart of a Catholic conception of life. It means more than just some vague feeling of caring about other people. “It is,” as Saint John Paul II said, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” [Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38.]

Election year inevitably focuses our attention on Washington. But we need not look so far to find challenges to solidarity and to our commitment to the common good. The pandemic we have been living through this year has certainly done that. It has both tested our sense of solidarity and, sadly, illustrated how fragile is our commitment to the common good. Medical science suggests, for example, that, if everyone wore a mask all the time, the spread of infection would be radically reduced, and we would be able to resume many of the normal activities this pandemic has so brutally interrupted. And yet how many people resist doing something so simple as wearing a mask all the time?

As Pope Francis has reminded us, “we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family.” [Message for 49th World Day of Prayer for Peace, January 1, 2016]

The example of Peter in today’s Gospel illustrates how easy it is to get it all wrong. The apostles, after all, were Jesus’s closest collaborators, those he had handpicked to be his Church’s first bishops. But, when it came to understanding what was most important for Jesus, they got it wrong – a warning for all of us, how easy it is to think not as God does.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 30, 2020.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Reaganland (The Book)

For 20 years, historian-journalist Rick Perlstein has been chronicling the rise to power of modern American "conservatism." He has been telling this story through several volumes: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), and now Reganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980 (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020).

Sometimes subtitles are just nice, but in this instance essential. Otherwise one might perhaps expect an account of the Reagan Administration. On the contrary, ti is actually a history of the Carter Administration - or, at least, the Carter years. Perlstein traces the takeover of the late 20th-century American conservative movement  and of the Republican party by those (among them religious Christian conservatives) who finally came to coalesce around the candidacy of Ronald Reagan and propelled him into the white House in 1980.

As one who lived through those years as an academic political scientist, I found it fascinating to be taken back to that time - so unlike our own in so many superficial ways, yet so similar in others. Reading this book right now - in the 2020 presidential election year - makes it seem uncannily prescient and as much about the present as about the past.

Perlstein begins his narrative in 1976, the year of the Ford-Reagan contest for the Republican nomination followed by the Ford-Carter contest. His description of how the conservative movement and the Republican party were perceived is a good reminder of how  problematic long-term predictions are in politics:

"The Times also said that 'political professionals of both major parties' believed the GOP was “closer to extinction than ever before in its 122-year history': they controlled only twelve governorships, and according to Ford’s pollster Robert Teeter, the loyalty of only 18 percent of Americans voters. Clearly, the Newspaper of Record concluded, 'if the Republican Party is to rebuild it must entrust its future to younger men.' And less conservative ones. John Rhodes, the House minority leader, was a disciple of conservative hero Barry Goldwater. His tiny caucus of 143 would face a wall of 292 Democrats when the 95th Congress convened in January. After the election, he rued that 'we give the impression of not caring, the worst possible image a political party can have'.” That, remember, was 1976!

One theme of the book is the unique candidacy and ultimately failed presidency of Jimmy Carter. “Only in 1976 can a claim that a candidate is honest, unselfish, hard-working and concerned about the country warrant the conclusion that he will be a great president.”  (How does that sound in 2020?). Perlstein provides a good account of how Carter's presidency, having begun with such apparent promise, quickly failed. Personal qualities aside, there is much in that familiar story that could have helped predict how the Trump presidency has faltered so dramatically.

Carter was a transitional figure, who abandoned a lot of what the New Deal Democratic coalition had been about and effectively paved the way for the neo-liberal turn in American politics that we associate with the transformation of the Reagan years. It was not for nothing that George Meaney called Carter “the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge.” It was, of course, Carter's abandonment of New Deal and Great Society liberalism that spurred Ted Kennedy's insurgent candidacy, which split the party and probably sealed his doom.

But the big story, as Perlstein tells it, was the rise of the right, in spite of its apparently poor prospects at the outset, a rise that reflected a cultural change that undermined faith in the older liberal consensus, but also was a consequence of effective conservative strategy and tactics. A familiar part of that story was "conservatism as an ideology for working people." But, along with that novel  notion, a very big part of that story was the successful alliance between the conservative political movement and a newly politically engaged - and angry - conservative Christian movement. Reagan himself, as Perlstein presents him, understood that the Republicans had to expand their identification beyond big business and that a key to that would be the so-called "social issues."

Those of us who were around at that time will remember, for example, the battle, which Perlstein recounts in considerable detail, about the ERA, whose opponents hysterically raised incredible possibilities for its opponents to fear - "just maybe, ERA would even let men marry men and women marry women."

Conventional wisdom when I was being schooled in politics was that Democrats were better at domestic policy while Republicans excelled in foreign affairs. It was Jimmy Carter's misfortune to be perceived as having made a mess of both. (perhaps another uncanny analogue to the present). One of the surprising revelations in Perlstein's book, however, is the impact of the Iranian hostage crisis, which, like most people around at the time, I assumed helped destroy Carter';s candidacy. Contrary to this bit of conventional wisdom, Perlstein argues that 17 percent of voters cited the crisis in Iran as the most important issue, and they "preferred Carter—by a heaping a margin of two to one." Perhaps, Perlstein suggests, "more than posterity appreciated, people respected Carter’s grinding, sedulous efforts to negotiate a favorable outcome with people who appeared to be lunatics, keeping the hostages alive and unharmed. Maybe they admired his rescue gamble in April. Or perhaps voters were terrified that Reagan might do anything to punish Iran."

There is also another distinctive dimension of relevance implicitly suggested by Perlstein's account of America's Right Turn, one which is inevitably more speculative, since we cannot yet know either the immediate outcome of this election or its long-term consequences. That said, let me speculate.

As is widely recognized now, what we now can call the Carter interregnum marked the definitive demise of the old "New Deal" Democratic coalition. That curious but incredibly successful coalition had included Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the urban and "ethnic" white working class, and African-Americans (where they voted). If the Trump term proves also to be an interregnum, it too will in turn have highlighted the decline of another equally curious amalgam that was the late 20th-century conservative coalition. Like the older "New Deal" Democratic coalition that it replaced, the conservative coalition that successfully acquired power in the Republican party with Reagan consisted of a comparably disparate collection of distinct and potentially incompatible groups. It included white southerners (still smarting from the seeming success of the Civil Rights movement), philosophical libertarians and advocates of the "free market" and limited government, "big business" (on the whole more comfortable with crony capitalism than the "free market"), somewhat elite cultural conservatives of a traditional "Tory" disposition (the likes of Russell Kirk), and cold warriors (who might have also identified with one of the other groups but were motivated by anti-communism above all).

The Carter interregnum institutionalized the collapse of the New Deal Democratic coalition, with white southerners and evangelical Christians fully embracing the Republican party and urban and "ethnic" white working class voters following them. While "neo-conservative" cold war anti-communism survived the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism, its influence in the conservative movement was increasingly marginalized in the Trump era, after the failure of the Iraq War and the subsequent rise of right-wing populism in the party. That rising right wing populism has likewise weakened the power of the other components of the conservative coalition, leaving some of them politically homeless, some of them submissive hostages to the party's populist base and its Trump personality cult.

The Carter-era collapse of the Democratic coalition and the concurrent rise of Reaganism led the Democrats in a neo-liberal direction, which is now in turn under challenge. If Trump endures Carter's fate, what direction will whatever Republican remnant survives take?

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Why Debates?


With the conventions coming to their predictable close, can the debates be far behind? Yes, the absurd quadrennial exercise known as the Presidential Debates will soon be very much upon us. Having institutionalized them in 1976, we can't seem to liberate ourselves from them, even when many voters will have already gone to the polls in early voting or voted absentee by mail before the last of the debates! (The first debate will take place on Tuesday, September 29.)

The original set of modern debates, the four famous Kennedy-Nixon Debates in 1960, created the fashion, although they were qualitatively different from the debates we have now. They were very issue-oriented and presumed an audience both better informed and more willing to listen to policy discussions that anyone presumes now.

Of course, what made those initial debates decisive in the end was that they were televised. They solidified television's mid-century dominance in American political life. They likely elected Kennedy, in that his good looks and better appreciation of how to command the TV medium (wearing make-up, looking at the camera instead of at his opponent, etc.) seem to have been decisive. Famously, those who listened to the first debate on the radio thought Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV considered Kennedy the winner. Ultimately the biggest winner of all was, of course, TV itself.

Nixon's narrow 1960 loss taught him to avoid future debates. It also stands to reason that debates will appeal primarily to a candidate who believes he or she needs the exposure and the status debates afford, while front runners may wish to avoid them completely if they can get away with doing so. The revival of debates in 1976 was facilitated in part by the atypical fact that both candidates - the unelected incumbent (Gerald Ford) and the outsider challenger (Jimmy Carter) - both believed that they might benefit. (Debates were also made possible because they were sponsored not by the networks - still bound by "Equal Time" legislation - but by an independent organization, at that time the League of Women Voters.) After 1976, these performances became an increasingly accepted part of the routine of presidential elections, which it has became harder and harder for a particular candidate to get out of having to participate in. So we seem stuck with them.

That first post-1960 modern debate on September 23, 1976, amply illustrated the absurdity of the entire exercise. As those of us who were around then will likely remember, the debate was interrupted by a sudden loss of sound for 27 minutes, during which the President of the United States and the man who would be the next President simply stood there in place, seemingly helpless. As Rick Perlstein describes the scene in his latest book, Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980 (Simon & Schuster, 2020, p. 13).

"But the candidates had been trained by their handlers—trained within an inch of their lives—that one could only lose a televised debate, so they should not try anything, anything at all, that risked a mistake, drilled not to sit down, or make any motion that might suggest weakness; indeed, it had required the intervention of a kindly stage manager just for the two men to wipe their sweaty brows during the interruption, because they would only do so when the cameras turned away. Some contest of ideas."


And this is how we choose our presidents! If anything, although the technology may have improved, the quality of the debates has probably even worsened. 

But, absent a candidate courageous enough to walk away from this nonsense, we are still stuck with debates, even though this year for sure we have a situation in which both candidates are well known enough and need no special media event to introduce them to the American electorate. 

But, if we are in fact stuck with them, might there be ways we could improve them and make them more useful for voters? How about earlier debates before voting actually begins? How about getting rid of audiences which distort the event with their partisan applause and cheer leading? (Needless to say, there was no such audience at the Kennedy-Nixon Debates. Presumably we won't have them this year because of the virus.) How about fewer questions with more time for more substantive answers, something that would make it less about the all-consuming goal of coming up with the perfect, repeatable soundbite? Even better, how about broadening the panel of questioners to include people who have a "beyond-the-Beltway "outlook? Why do they all have to be journalists? How about a scientist, for example, asking about the candidates' plans to deal with Covid-19 - or climate change? Or perhaps a teacher to ask about education policy?

Of course, other than the necessary accommodations this year to the pandemic, none of that is likely to happen. After all, this is just how we do it now - at least until we try something else.