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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Most Christian King

"The Most Christian King" (Rex christianissimus) was the traditional title of the French monarchs, 18 of whom were named Louis. How many lived up to the title may be debated, but there is little doubt about Louis IX (1214-1270), King of France (1226-1270), whose feast the Church celebrates today. Famous in his own time and since as a model medieval Catholic King, he still stands out as an example of piety lived out faithfully in a political role. The king himself was widely admired for his virtues, so much so that he was on occasion called upon to mediate quarrels among other rulers. He was canonized by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297, a mere 27 years after his death, the only French king ever to be canonized. He exemplifies the virtues of medieval Catholic spirituality and and political and social sensibility, as well as its inevitably time-conditioned characteristics and moral limitations.

When we learned about Saint Louis in school, invariably we learned how his mother, Blanche of Castille, who governed as regent in the early years of Louis' reign, supposedly said to him: I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet that that you should ever commit a mortal sin. Like most things medieval, such a saying seems strange to a modern sensibility, but it likely sounded right and proper and even loving to medieval ears. Louis himself seems to have taken his mother's admonition to heart to advise his own sin in similar terms: Keep yourself, my son, from everything that you know displeases God, that is to say, from every mortal sin. You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.

Saint Louis is said to have sought advice from his contemporary Saint Thomas Aquinas. Although Louis was sometimes mocked on account of his piety as a monk king, he wasn't actually a monk (although he did recite the Divine Office every day during his period of captivity during his first crusade). When he wasn't away on crusade, Louis was a busy king. Thomas in turn was a busy friar. So, while we are reliably informed that their paths certainly crossed, we really don't know how often or how much But there is a very famous story of a banquet they both attended.

As a teenager, I read Louis de Wohl's memorable historical novel about Aquinas and his time, The Quiet Light (1950). Saint Louis is not a major character in the novel. He is there, mainly in the background, as a more edifying alternative to one of the main protagonists, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), excommunicated in 1227 by Pope Pope Gregory IX, ostensibly for failing to honor his go on crusade. As his contemporary nickname Stupor Mundi suggests, he was a pre-modern exemplar of what would later come to be called "enlightenment," the very opposite of the spiritual sensibility Louis represented. Accordingly, In De Wohl's novel one of the Dominican friars contrasts "Frederick, who takes greedily what God has given to others,," and Louis who"gives passionately what God has given him." Elsewhere in the novel, it is said of Louis, "that he would have liked to live for God alone and that only his sense of duty kept him on his throne."

But to me the most charming and relevant portrayal of Saint Louis in de Wohl's novel is the scene at that famous banquet, the ostensible occasion for which in the novel is the feast of Corpus Christi (for which, of course, it was Saint thomas who composed the texts for the Mass and Office). During the banquet, Thomas, apparently in some sort of widely observed contemplative trance, suddenly bangs his fist on the table and says "And that settles the Manichees." The King looks at Thomas and summons a scribe and directs him, "go to master Thomas over there - and take down the argument he just found lest he forget it." The narrator then reflects "that there was a special and personal kind of understanding between this King who might have been a friar and this friar who might have been a King. that they had something in common in which no one else in this hall had a share. that everyone else was dwarfed by them, almost to the point of nonexistence."

The image of the pious King listening to and learning from the friar seems so manifestly medieval, yet its contemporary relevance cannot fail to be noticed. Few qualities seem so starkly absent but no less necessary in a political leader today than the ability and willingness to listen and to learn.

Obviously, we do not now need or seek a medieval monarch, but we do need a leader who is able to listen and do seek a leader who is willing to learn.

Photo: Statue of Saint Louis IX, in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Giving Up on God?

The world-wide decline of religion has been a perennial preoccupation of academics and non-academics alike. The survival of religion (especially in the United States) and recent reports of religion's apparent resurgence around the world have widely been seen as contrary evidence decisively undermining the classic (but also somewhat simplistic) secularization theories that once held sway in certain circles. Recently, however, that is, in the last decade or so, new data seems to suggest something different has been happening. One suggestive interpretation of that data is a recent article in the current issue of  Foreign Affairs (September/October 2020), "Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion," by Ronald F. Inglehart (1934- ), a political scientist and Director of the World Values survey, a global social science network.

Findings from the author's earlier studies had "made it clear that industrialization and the spread of scientific knowledge were not causing religion to disappear, as some scholars had once assumed." So much for classic secularization theories! Since 2007, however, he notes that "things have changed with surprising speed," as more of the countries being studied seemed to become less religious. Even the U.S. - "long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious" - seems to have joined this trend. The author's basic finding is simply that "Growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives." The most powerful force driving this trend, according to the author, "is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birthrates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries."

There is a lot to unpack in that. Simply stated, the argument is that "the most important  force behind secularization is a transformation concerning the norms governing human fertility." In the past, "virtually all world religions instilled" what the author calls "pro-fertility norms in their adherents." They did so because it was necessary to do so in a world of high infant morality and low life expectancy. The 20th century changed that. Thus, "when a society reached a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security, younger generations grew up taking that security for granted." Whereas, "religion may have been the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion" in insecure societies, "modernization has changed the equation."

It is a commonplace, if oversimplified, critique to ask whether an alien from some other planet, who read the New Testament and then observed much of what contemporary American religion tends to talk about, might wonder what the two had in common. From a social scientific standpoint, this study situates that apparent disconnect in religion's historic role in supporting and maintaining civilization. What it also suggests, however, is that "as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence" and so "became less dependent on religion - and less willing to accept its constraints."

On the other hand, as the author admits, "the future is always uncertain." Thus, a prolonged pandemic and/or another Great Depression could conceivably cause these seemingly irreversible cultural changes to reverse. Even so, he judges that unlikely, "because it would run counter to the powerful, long-term, technology-driven trend of growing prosperity and increased life expectancy that is helping push people away from religion."

But, between the pandemic and climate change, that "long-term, technology-driven trend" may well already be stalling or even going into reverse, in which case something will be needed to rebuild human solidarity to keep society and civilization going - in a world which is once again increasingly insecure. One could argue, as secularization theorists used to argue, that religion is now a spent force and cannot any longer make that essential contribution, that something else will have to do that. For now, however, it seems evident that that "long-term, technology-driven trend" tends to augment individualism at the expense of solidarity. It is hard to see how a world of "self-expression and free choice" can ever achieve the social solidarity necessary to cope with the consequences of climate change. After all, it can't even inspire people to care enough about each other to wear masks to cope with the current pandemic!

From a social-scientific standpoint, the prospects for religion to meet this social need may well be arguable. But, for now, it remains the only actually available alternative on offer in this threatening and increasingly insecure world.

(Photo: Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship - one of a series of four 1943 depictions of the "Four Freedoms" (of Speech, of Worship, from Want, and from Fear) from FDR's January 1941 State of the Union address.)

Sunday, August 23, 2020

You Are Peter


This month we have witnessed the new pandemic version of a venerable American institution, the presidential nominating convention. Like some of you, I am actually old enough to remember the good old days of contested conventions which actually picked their party’s candidates. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for a while. But, whatever form the conventions take, their arrival is another sign that this election season is entering its decisive phase. And it reminds us that every society, secular or religious, requires leadership; and the way a society’s leaders, secular or religious, are chosen will always say a lot about the society itself. 

Today’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ choice of Simon Peter to lead the Church that the Risen Christ would leave behind. Nowadays, you can find all sorts of wonderful things to watch on YouTube, like old newsreels of political conventions and campaigns.  And, if so inclined, you can also find some 25 Italian videos of the coronation of Peter’s successor Pope John XXIII in 1958. Several times during that lengthy ceremony, the Sistine Choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”).  In videos 13 and 14, you can watch and hear that same Gospel account chanted - twice in fact – first in Latin and then in Greek. I guess that’s what called making a point!

Today’s familiar Gospel takes us back in time - from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the institution that is the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to that first Pope, Peter himself. What the Romans at that time called Caesarea Philippi was about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory then ruled by King Herod’s son Philip. Now known as "Banias," it was then the site of pagan temple to the god Pan. Israel’s border was not then the war zone that it is now, and its borders were not patrolled and fortified the way they are now, but it was still a border with its own symbolic spiritual significance.

It was to that somewhat foreign, pagan place that Jesus took his disciples, and it was in that somewhat foreign, pagan place that he challenged them to answer what would become the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As their future leader, Peter answered on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One], the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one and only true) God.

 Then as now, Peter speaks for the Church – not just for his fellow apostles, but for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not some merely human opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself, at that stage, still only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission.

Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, where the current occupant of Peter’s office continues to speak - on behalf of the Church for the sake of the whole world. As Peter’s Successor, the Pope serves as the Church’s visible source of the unity across space and time. Across space (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer), one Church has been brought together “from every people, tongue, and nation,” so that “in a world torn by strife,” God’s people “may shine forth,” as a universal Church, “a prophetic sign of unity and concord.” That unity across space is illustrated not only when pilgrims from all over the world assemble in Saint Peter’s Square for the papal blessing urbi et orbi, “to the city and the world,” but also more recently when modern, pre-pandemic popes have visited local churches around the world. Even more recently, that visible unity across space was reflected in the image of the Pope alone leading prayer in Saint Peter’s Square, while the rest of us, hiding in our homes, watch from a safe distance via TV or internet.

Since then, the Pope has led the Church in praying that Christians would respond to the reduced restrictions with “prudence and obedience.” 

This unity across space is uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time - our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church. Our unity across time in professing the ancient apostolic faith of Peter, makes possible our present unity across space as Christ’s Church in divided and threatened world, which in turn fosters – for both the Church and the world - our future hope for both space and time in the kingdom of heaven.

It is well known that, especially in certain segments of the American Catholic Church in what for lack of a better term we might call the political and religious right, criticism of the Pope (particularly of the current Pope) has become quite common – and in a way that goes well beyond ordinary questions or disagreements about particular policies, the sorts of ordinary questions or disagreements that always occur in any living institution. Recently the retired patriarch of Venice and Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Cardinal Scola, spoke out about this contemporary problem, which is increasingly so typical of our particularly polarized politics. 

“It is not by affinity of temperament, of culture, of sensibility, or for friendship, or because one shares or does not share his affirmations that one acknowledges the meaning of the pope in the church,” Cardinal Scola has reminded us. It is rather that the Pope “is the ultimate, radical, and formal guarantee … of the unity of the Church.”

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 23, 2020.

[Photo: Pope Saint John XXIII (Pope 1958-1963) in tiara and sedia gestatoria]

Friday, August 21, 2020

What Did the Convention Accomplish?

Perhaps on some entertainment-culture calculation, it made some sense to have the star of VEEP host the convention's final night. She did, after all, play a Vice President, and the star of the convention was once a real Vice President. However, her tasteless jokes were as out of character with that real Vice President as her TV Vice president had been with him and his office. Other than that unfortunate lapse, however, the 2020 First-Ever Virtual Democratic Convention can only be classified as a magnificent success.

Conventions ceased doing what they were created to do in the 1970s. and have since turned into televised commercials for their candidates and parties - not a bad thing, per se, just a different thing. Even so the traditional trappings of cheering crowds and partisan conviviality were still seen as part of the experience. Thanks to the pandemic, the party was forced to be creative and come up with something new. It was obviously a bit artificial at times - candidates instinctively waving even when there was nobody there, speeches without obvious applause lines because there was no one to cheer, etc. Still it worked - and actually worked rather well.

Besides making the case to elect Biden and eject Trump, the convention's main task was to project a unified party. It had not done so - or at least not so well - in 2016. Then, of course, it was still possible for real delegates to disrupt the pre-planned flow in real time. That, of course, is no longer possible. That, combined with a realistic recognition of what is at stake and the harm done to the party by its internal divisions four years ago, led to a successful projection of party unity, with those who had earlier run against Joe Biden obligingly - and seemingly sincerely -endorsing him at every possible opportunity.

A successful campaign creates a contrast. The convention certainly did that. Throughout the four nights we heard how well liked Joe Biden is by those (many) who actually know him, what a good guy he is, how well formed his character has been by his faith, how he bounced back and pressed onward after tragedy and loss - all the sorts of things that no one could conceivably say (at least not with a straight face) about his opponent. There was plenty of policy talk, as there should be, and the incumbent president's policy failures were on display throughout. But the emphasis was on character, on the kind of person the presidency requires, and how Joe Biden meets that standard.

One of the advantages of this virtual format is that, while "ordinary" people didn't get to applaud and cheer much, more of them got to speak than usual. And it was possible to showcase people from all over, including people not particularly politically involved but who actual know the candidate and could testify credibly to his virtues, even as other "ordinary" people could testify to the sufferings they have endured thanks to the incumbent president and his party.

Biden's speech itself was perfectly pitched to this moment. No rousing oratory, which is not his strong point anyway, but rather a deeply personal, serious, straight talk about the dangers that need to be faced, and some sense of how he will face them (unsurprisingly very different from how his opponent has done so, or rather failed to do so). Voters care, of course, about what he will do as president, but they care as much about who he will be and how he will be as president - especially in light of recent experience. It is that fundamentally moral dimension of the American presidency which Biden instinctively understands and which Trump has never grasped at all

The party's nominee is usually introduced by another prominent politician or sometimes in recent years by a family member. We heard form plenty of both. But having 13-year old Brayden Harrington share with the world how Joe Biden had helped him deal with his stuttering was absolutely brilliant. Nothing could have better illustrated the complete character contrast between the two opposing candidates.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Challenge of the19th Amendment at 100

At the breakfast table in Season 3, Episode 4, of Downton Abbey - a table where only men and unmarried women eat breakfast (married women having their breakfast served to them in their rooms in bed) - Lord Grantham suddenly announced that "Tennessee has just ratified the 19th Amendment." Not only did Matthew Crawley and Lady Edith need to have that explained, but one suspects so did the contemporary British TV audience (and perhaps some American audiences as well).

But it was true. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee made good history, by being the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the decisive final ratification that guaranteed to women the right to vote throughout the United States. (This surpassed the British practice at the time which, as Lady Edith lamented only gave the vote to women who were  over 30 years old and a householder.)

Of course, many American women already had the right to vote - in certain more progressive, mainly western states - even before the 19th Amendment. And, more to the point, many other women - African-American women in the south, together with African-American men in the south - still had to wait for progress to reach them. But progress did come. In 1964 the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax. Then the 1965 Voting Rights Act was the landmark legislation by which Congress finally stepped up to its 15th-amendment responsibilities and sought to curtail voter suppression in certain states.  Finally the 26th Amendment lowered the minimum age for voting to 18.

But, of course, such progress has increasingly met with greater resistance, especially as the electoral benefits to the Republican party of making it harder for certain groups to vote have become evident. One of the Republican-controlled Supreme Court's most damaging decisions, Shelby County v. Holder (2013), decisively weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act and so made it easier for states with established histories of voter suppression to create new obstacles to voting. 

Today's centennial seems as appropriate an occasion as any to remind ourselves as a country of the basic democratic proposition that voters should choose their representatives - rather than letting the latter entrench themselves and the interests they serve by letting them choose who gets to vote.

Photo: Women's Suffrage Memorial, Market Square, Knoxville, TN

Monday, August 17, 2020

Convention Follies

Today's the day the Democrats start their convention - or at least what seems to want to pass for a convention in pandemic mode. I look forward to hearing some great speeches from some outstanding political figures - future leaders of our country undoubtedly among them. 

And yet.

I am happily old enough to remember when conventions actually mattered, when conventions were "contested," as we now say. In other words, conventions did what conventions were created to do. Democrats and Republicans convened from all over the country to sort out their differences and agree on a nominee to lead the party in the coming election. My earliest TV convention memory is of President Eisenhower arriving in Chicago to accept his party's renomination to great acclaim in 1956. Four years later, however, I was much more aware and alert to what was going on, when John F. Kennedy and his rivals fought it out in Los Angeles in 1960. He won on the first ballot, but it was not for certain a sure thing until that famous scene of Ted Kennedy standing with the Wyoming delegation when that state cast its votes to put Kennedy over the top. I remember the violent Chicago convention in 1968, and George McGovern accepting the nomination at something like 2:00 in the morning in 1972. I recall the Ford-Reagan contest in 1976, symbolized by competing First Ladies and competing state songs. That was, I believe, the last convention when the outcome was still unsettled until the convention itself met. Since then, these once mighty theaters of political power have degenerated into pre-scripted performances stripped not only of meaningful votes but even of those wonderful old-fashioned "spontaneous demonstrations." Contemporary conventions may still serve some function for showcasing the party and its candidates and revving up enthusiasm among the party rank and file, but that can hardly make up for the politically pointless entertainment exercises such conventions have become. Conventions can also serve as boosters for the host city. I confess I had been looking forward to seeing scenes of Milwaukee, a wonderful city which I have not seen since I left it in 1981.

But now the pandemic has put an end even to most of that. So the obvious question becomes, why bother? Why continue with this vestige of a once great political institution? Why not let it go, and leave it where it belongs in the museum of American political memories? 

Compared to old-style conventions, the system of primary elections we now have may be a poor substitute. But it is what we now have, what we have allowed ourselves to be saddled with. 

One lesson which we might well still derive from the conventions is their timing. Unlike the present primary-centered system that starts more than a year before the election, conventions consistently occurred in the summer - just months before the election. Re-doing our primary calendar along such traditional lines would be a blessing for everyone (except, I suppose, for journalists who live for campaigns) and also a salutary reminder that governing is supposed to be going on between elections, not constant campaigning.

Saturday, August 15, 2020


In this year of big anniversaries – the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, today's 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the dogmatic definition of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius XII in the Jubilee Year 1950. If you go on YouTube, you can find an Italian newsreel video from that year that shows some of the ceremony []. It begins the night before with the procession of the image [photo] of Maria, Salus Populi Romani (Mary, Protector of the Roman People), from the church of Ara Coeli, through the ancient Camidoglio, across town to Saint Peter’s Basilica – the first such procession with that ancient image since 1854. Normally that image resides in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, which was where Isaac Hecker went to venerate it after his expulsion from the Redemptorists in 1857 and where Pope Francis regularly venerates it before and after his journeys. Of course, now there are no more journeys. Imprisoned like the rest of us by this pandemic, the Pope has nonetheless continued to venerate that famous image and invites us to do so too. His pandemic prayer, which appears at the end of my daily email messages is addressed to Mary, Health of the Sick and Protector of the Roman People.

With Pope Francis, in this desperate time we too turn to Mary, whose body-and-soul exaltation in the kingdom of heaven we celebrate today. Like the mother being attacked by the dragon in the book of Revelation, we too seem surrounded on all sides by dangers of all sorts. This pandemic itself has highlighted so many social problems and inequalities that blight American society. Alongside the terrible tragedy of widespread sickness and death, we’re witnessing economic collapse, seemingly stable societies unravelling, and once-trusted institutions breaking down. The Assumption reminds us that God has already acted on our behalf by raising Jesus from the dead and given us all an alternative future. In Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. Where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, August 15, 2020.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Back to Birtherism

Just yesterday, commenting on the effort to recycle old prejudices about Catholicism as a false religion injurious to true American religion and to repurpose those prejudices against Joe Biden, I referenced Karl Marx's famous observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And now we have another instance of that in the attempt to recycle and repurpose the bigotry of "Birtherism." The first time was Trump's repeated insinuation that Barack Obama, born in Hawaii in 1961, was really from somewhere else. The new version is that Kamala Harris, born in California in 1964, is nonetheless (contrary to the clear language of the 14th Amendment) not an American citizen because her parents were immigrants.  

Besides contradicting the constitution's 14th amendment, which defines U.S. citizenship, that absurd argument would mean in practice that multitudes of life-long Americans have never been citizens. As correspondent Jim Geraghty has noted in (of all places) National Review, "Arguing that Kamala Harris is not an American citizen despite being born here and living here for almost all of her life is nonsense on stilts." Geraghty quotes another NR writer Dan McLaughlin, who apparently wrote back in 2018 that "birthright citizenship exists for reasons intrinsic to our American creed that ours is a society you join, not one reserved to those with an ancestral connection to the blood and soil."

Of course, a whites-only "blood and soil" identity politics is increasingly central to a certain vision of America being promoted today. hence this obsessive preoccupation with "othering" Americans who represent an alternative, more constitutional concept of American nationalism.

It's going to be a long road to November!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Another Catholic President?

For only the fourth time in American history, A Roman Catholic is the nominee for president of one of our two major political parties. (In all four cases, it has been the Democratic party that has tried to break this barrier, just as it has been only the Democratic party that has ever nominated an African-American or a woman for president. On the other hand, the Republicans have twice broken the taboo against divorced and remarried men becoming president.)

Of the four, only one, John F. Kennedy, actually won the presidency. Even so, the sky didn't fall in. So one would expect the issue of religion to have significantly lost its salience. On the day after the election in 1960, I remember the editorial in The New York Daily News (which had endorsed Nixon) saying that the election had dropped a "hydrogen bomb" on the tradition that a Catholic could not be president, and that that was a good thing.

Yet here we are, 80 years later, and the Catholic candidate's opponent has said of him that "He's against God." As if that were not weird enough as a rephrasing of traditional American anti-Catholic Protestant polemics, President Trump also used the strange expressions "Hurt The Bible, Hurt God." It is not at all clear in what theological understanding of the divine nature that it is possible to hurt God. Nor is it at all clear what, apart from damaging the physical book, it could possible mean to hurt the Bible. But, of course, Trump is not someone well known for his lifelong devotion to understanding the meaning of religion - unlike Biden who has historically shown an interest in religion and has always claimed to have been deeply motivated by his. (In this respect he is quite different from Kennedy, who tried to be very circumspect about keeping his religion out of public discussion as much as possible.)

Trump's attack on Biden's religion reflects a kind of comic recapitulation of the bigoted Protestant arguments against Kennedy in 1960. It reminds one of Karl Marx's famous observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that history repeats itself "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."

The day when one's religion - either the religion of the candidate or the religion of the voter -had a decisive impact on elections may well be long past, although, of course, in a close election any factor may matter. Who knows what impact Biden's religion - or Trump's disparagement of it - may have on those supposedly "swing voters" in key states who may decide the election? We'll know in November.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Voting for Vice President

The Vice Presidency of the United States, as its illustrious first occupant, John Adams, famously observed, is "the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived." That may be somewhat less true now than it was then. Even so, it seemed to me in my political science days and still seems so now, that seldom if ever has the presence of the second person on the ticket made a decisive difference. It is generally agreed that LBJ did that for JFK. It is sometimes suggested that Al Gore reinforced Bill Clinton's claim to be a "New Democrat." More often than not, running mates may do damage instead, as Lodge may have done to Nixon in 1960 and Tom Eagleton certainly did to McGovern in 1972. Someone - I think it may have been Nixon, but I am not sure - said a candidate would be better off running on his own, without a running mate. During the tedious run up to Joe Biden's ultimately unsurprising choice of Kamala Harris, I often thought that he too might well be better off just running against Trump, without having to choose a running mate from among competing party factions and identity groups. Alas that was not an option!

I am old enough to remember when the vice presidential selection came quickly and sometimes somewhat poorly orchestrated, almost as an afterthought at the end of the convention. In the new system, the selection gets lots of attention in advance, and the candidate is seriously vetted. But is the new system all that much better? If Eagleton exemplified what could go wrong under the older system, Sarah Palin illustrated the pitfalls of our present approach, where the pick now is expected to serve as a sort of pre-convention news splash. Admittedly, the older system gave us Spiro Agnew. but it also gave us Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Like our now sadly obsolete comic-opera conventions, the older way was problematic in all sorts of ways, but it did produce some fine figures.

So now the rosters are complete. The campaign posters can all be printed. It's still basically Biden vs. Trump - hardly Harris vs. Pence. But, for those, for example, who worry that Biden is too much a nostalgia candidate hoping to lead us back to a pre-Trump "normal," when in fact that "normal" was  already problematic and was what led us to where we are now, they may take some comfort in the Harris-Pence matchup, where the nostalgia for a long gone America that never actually was is on the other side. Whatever else she may bring to Biden's ticket, Kamala clearly represents a future very different from Pence's ideologized American white Protestant past.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Walking in Faith

If there were no pandemic, this would be vacation season for many. This year, sensible people stay home and don’t try to go anywhere. But, in other years, this would have been the season to head for the water, which, where I come from, mainly means the ocean. Yet, while frolicking on or in the water has always had a broad appeal, there has also always been a certain dimension of danger associated with water. Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly understood that. and I am sure they took their local waterway very seriously indeed. The great lake we call the Sea of Galilee was, after all, where the disciples had, until very recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as their main base of operations. And, like anyone who has ever been caught in a boat in a storm, they knew how very suddenly things can change and suddenly go very wrong on the water; and they certainly also knew how limited was the security that their seafaring skills could guarantee.

Today’s suggestive image of the disciples in the boat, being tossed about by the waves, with Jesus miles away praying on the mountain, has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration comes up later this week) described the Church as a boat in a storm being tossed about by the waves of the world. Not much has changed! That still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own amid the many stresses and dangers the world throws up at it, a world where even ordinary storms can pose serious challenges. And this, to repeat Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “is no ordinary time,” and the pandemic is no ordinary storm!

If we remember back about 4½ months ago, at the end of March Pope Francis celebrated what was called an “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer” in Saint Peter’s Square, flanked by the famous Crucifix from the Church of San Marcello that had been carried in procession during the plague of 1522 and the familiar image of Mary, Safety of the Roman people. In the pouring rain, the Pope read Mark’s account of of the disciples getting caught in the storm.

Like them, he said, we have been “caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. … Just like those disciples … so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”

The ultimate solution to the storm-threatened disciples’ dilemma is Jesus himself, who, as the Pope put it, “saves his disciples from their discouragement.” During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus, in the Gospel which we just heard, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands with us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Matthew’s account, as it often does, focuses on one of those in the boat in particular – Peter, the one Jesus appointed to be the leader of his Church. “Lord, if it is you, Peter says, command me to come to you on the water.” In highlighting Peter’s special status and unique relationship with Jesus, Matthew also shows Peter at his most endearing. Peter always blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, without first prudently considering the costs and benefits. But then, all of a sudden, he loses his focus, forgetting for the moment who has just called him to come, and instead imagines he is relying on himself, thinking the way the world thinks. And, when that happens, then the world starts to win. In his illusion of self-sufficiency, Peter becomes frightened and so starts to sink. Peter’s faith is real, but it is what Jesus calls “little faith,” a fearful faith, a faith that still lets itself get distracted by false ways of being and thinking.

Like Peter, like Elijah in today’s 1st Reading, we are all susceptible to the illusion of self-sufficiency. And so we are constantly caught somewhere between walking in faith and forever sinking in fear. So we are perpetually in need of that outstretched hand, which catches us in spite of all our fears, the hand of the Risen Christ, who has promised to remain in the same boat with us forever.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 9, 2020.

Friday, August 7, 2020

It Was All a Lie (The Book)

Repentant Republicans, who have 
been sufficiently traumatized by Trump-era darkness to finally see the light, are actually few in number, but they are often prominent enough and vocal enough to make more noise than their actual political significance seems to warrant. Among the loud list of Never Trumpers, Lincoln Republicans, etc., Stuart Stevens stands out for the clarity and completeness of his repentance. Right from the start he admits he was wrong - and had been for some time.

"I have no one to blame but myself. I believed. That’s where it all started to go wrong. I was drawn to a party that espoused a core set of values: character counts, personal responsibility, strong on Russia, the national debt actually mattered, immigration made America great, a big-tent party invited all. Legislation would come and go, compromises would be necessary, but these principles were assumed to be shared and defined what it meant to be a Republican for the last fifty years. What a fool I was. All of these immutable truths turned out to be mere marketing slogans." So begins It Was All A Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (Knopf 2020).

To my mind, one of the classic conundrums of contemporary American politics has been how for 40 years the Republican party has won elections (although revealingly has won the popular vote in a presidential election only once since 1988), while pursuing patently unpopular policies to enrich economic elites at everyone else's expense (i. e., at the expense of most voters). The obvious explanation has long been recognized as the party's increasing identification with white grievance culture. 

Stevens is big on that Reagan-era mantra "personal responsibility." He argues that "any sane path forward for something resembling a conservative governing philosophy in America" — if such a thing actually exists — "must start with honesty and accountability. I have this crazy idea that a return to personal responsibility begins with personal responsibility."

So Stevens takes some responsibility for his career as a Republican political operative, for his participation in past Republican campaigns. As such, Stevens himself employed appeals to white grievance populism to help his candidates win. He notes how Republicans went from 39% of the African American vote in 1956 (Eisenhower) and 34% in 1960 (Nixon) to 7% in 1964 when Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act. since then, no Republican presidential candidate has exceeded 17% of the African American vote. But, unlike the 2012 Republican party "Autopsy," he recognizes that this was not a failure of messaging but a predictable consequence of how Republicans have campaigned and how they have governed.

"The reason African Americans overwhelmingly reject Republicans isn’t based on word choices or phrasing. It’s based on policy. It isn’t how Republicans are talking to black voters that results in 90 percent or more of those voters refusing to vote for Republicans. It’s what the Republicans are doing, once elected. ... Since 1964, black voters have heard the Republican Party with exquisite clarity; more important, they have seen what Republicans are doing once in office."

Given all the attention Trump has gotten for himself, his character, and his personality, there is a tendency to see this Administration as an aberration, which it may indeed be in terms of traditional norms and behaviors, but Stevens's point is to emphasize how Trump is the "logical conclusion" of where the party has been for some time. And that suggests a stark consequence for the party's post-Trump future: "The Republican Party has legitimized bigotry and hate as an organizing principle for a major political party in a country with a unique role in the world."

Stevens is also particularly on target when it comes to his party's supposed preoccupation with so-called family values. "Trump doesn't signal a lowering of standards of morality by Republican voters. Instead he gives them a chance to prove how little they have always cared about those issues. Trump just removes the necessity of pretending."

All of which reminds me of my favorite 2016 quote from Russell Moore: 'The  Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about." 

Increasingly a part of the picture has the party's retreat from democratic commitment, most evident in its increasing efforts at voter suppression. Unsurprisingly, for a party that has lost the popular votes in all but one presidential election since 1988, "Republicans have fallen in love with the Electoral College because they see it as a way for the 'real America' to balance the power of the 'coastal elites'.”

The one bright spot Stevens sees in his party is some successful Republican governors. He mentions Phil Scott of Vermont, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Larry Hogan of Maryland. "They are the last outposts of a dying civilization, the socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican Party. I’ve worked for all three. I’d like to say that their breed will continue, but it’s difficult to understand how what they represent can coexist with the empowerment of the Trump elements within their state parties. ... In a world in which whatever happens in Washington dominates the national conversation like never before, it’s difficult to imagine the calm competence of these Republican governors having much impact on the direction of the Republican Party."

So it seems whatever future Stevens sees for his party is predictably bleak. "How Long," he asks, "can a political party that is defined as a white party cling to power in a country changing as rapidly as America?"

To go back to my original question, how does a political party whose ideological and policy preferences overwhelmingly benefit a wealthy elite minority win elections? For decades, it has aspired to do so by embracing certain cultural and moral grievances. More recently, it has also embraced outright opposition to democracy. Stevens seems to find both tactics both reprehensible and doomed to long-term failure.