Monday, February 28, 2022

The New Iron Curtain

Militarily, the Russians may have most of the conventional advantage, but the heroic Ukrainian resistance is at least inflicting on the Russians a serious bloody nose. Good for them! Ukrainians know well, from their own recent history, what it means to be swallowed up by the Evil Empire, and they obviously want no part of it.!

Meanwhile, the U.S. and our European allies are responding - rather fitfully, hardly heroically, but at least (surprisingly) united and consistently. Sanctions and threats of more sanctions obviously did not deter Russian aggression, and it remains to be seen how united and consistent the U.S. and our European allies are going to remain. Both the U.S. and Europe (especially Europe) have gotten amazingly comfortable with the historically exceptional experience of relative effortless peace and security on the European continent.

There have, of course, been previous periods of relative peace and security in Europe - almost an entire century (with brief interruptions) from 1815 to 1914 - periods of peace maintained by conscious and careful efforts to enforce a salutary balance of power. Apart from the NATO expansion at the end of the last century (for which in retrospect we should all be very thankful), the predominant impression has been one of ahistorical fantasy - a fantasy that peace and security somehow can be guaranteed simply by imagining it to be natural instead of the consequence of hard work and effort. But preserving peace and maintaining a secure balance of power in a dangerous and easily disrupted world are never automatic and are never produced merely by imagination.

When I was a boy, back in the Cold War 1950s, my family frequently listened to the radio news at dinner time. I remember repeatedly hearing about the "iron curtain" and childishly trying to imagine how a curtain could be made of iron, and how horrible such a thing would have to be. In fact, of course, the iron curtain was a metaphor for a reality which truly was horribly evil.

There is nothing inherently inevitable about President Putin's personal commitment to re-establish that iron curtain in the form of a politically isolated, economically impoverished, and culturally repressive imperial enclave, historically and symbolically buttressed by a traditionally supportive and compliant Orthodox Church (always a more effective expression of Russian imperial imagination than the Communist Party was, whose Patriarch has just recently recalled the Russians' and Ukrainians' "common centuries-old history dating back to the Baptism of Rus by Prince St. Vladimir the Equal-to-the-Apostles.") Yet such seems to be the bleak future Putin is promising his people in Russia and whatever borderlands Russia can conquer.

So, once again, it falls to the U.S. and our (hopefully united) European allies to contain Russia's expansionist political aspirations and keep it isolated in its self-imposed, self-destructive cultural enclave, until in time, like its Soviet iteration, it implodes from its own inherent internal moral corruption.

Photo: Winston Churchill's famous 1946 "Iron Curtain" Speech, Fulton, Missouri.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

From the Heart


These last several Sundays before Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ Great Sermon – a sermon full of strong and somewhat challenging words, which is what they were meant to do. Jesus’ message to his disciples was meant to challenge – and continues to challenge – not just you and me and anyone else who wants to be Jesus’ disciple, but a whole way of life, that of his 1st-century contemporaries, and our entire way of life today. In doing so, Jesus invites us also to push ahead to become who we are being invited to be.


Jesus challenges our common human tendency to do the minimum, to take the short cut, to focus on other people’s faults rather than our own. We are all familiar with the phenomenon known as “whataboutism” in contemporary politics, whereby one deflects criticism by changing the subject and pointing to someone else’s failings. In the new kingdom, to which Jesus is inviting us, all such refusal to take responsibility is ruled out from the start. We are what we dofrom the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. What I do says something significant about who I am, about what is going on in my heart. In both the Old and the New Testaments, the “heart” is understood to refer to the whole of the deepest part of of one’s humanity. Jesus is challenging us to confront the powerful subtlety of sin within us and our seemingly infinite capacity to makes excuses to do the minimum and take the shortcut to moral mediocrity.


Jesus in today’s Gospel is telling all of us that, if we want to respond effectively to his challenge to full Christian commitment, then we have to look at ourselves – at all our feelings and emotions and experiences – in the light of what God has made us for and how he expects us to get there, and then stretch ourselves by accepting the Lord’s invitation to full membership in the community of his disciples, who care for and support one another to be – not just what we can be on our own - but what God himself is enabling us to become.

Lent, which begins this Wednesday, challenges us to focus on what is important – to put our preoccupation with wealth and other such things back in some perspective. We do this all the time in our ordinary activities – or at least we try to if we are reasonably sane and focused. In our ordinary activities, we readily distinguish what is of ultimate importance, what is of long-term value, from what is a short-term sideshow. Jesus wants us to do the same with what is most important.


We live right now in a time and place particularly polarized and fragmented by judgment and finger-pointing, pretty much on all sides and from all ideological directions. Our society supposedly prides itself on its tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion, and our Church proclaims radical mercy. But what we actually see and hear and experience everywhere around us are angry judgments and vindictive condemnations. There may be no medium more designed for focusing on the splinters in other people’s eyes than Twitter. But even people who have never ever sent a single hateful tweet have been affected and corrupted by our ambient culture of self-righteous anger and condemnation, a culture which encourages us to minimize, if not ignore, our own shortcomings and failings.


Judgments are, of course, inevitable in life. We cannot even the cross the street without making a judgment (hopefully an accurate one) about what the traffic is doing! But how we judge is critical, how rapidly we judge is critical, how well informed we are when we judge is critical, and ultimately how in touch we are with what is going on inside ourselves when we judge is absolutely critical. How often have our judgments been filtered through our personal, social, or ideological biases, those wooden beams in our own eyes?


Perhaps one Lenten practice especially worth cultivating at this time might be an intentional focus precisely on how we jump to judgment on every issue (increasingly along tribal politically partisan lines) and devote ourselves to having a new heart, the heart of a disciple.

Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, February 27, 2022.

(Photo: High Altar, designed by Stanford White,  Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York)

Friday, February 25, 2022

War in Europe

War is nothing new, nor has it historically been uncommon. Thus, the Gates of Ancient Rome's Temple of Janus, which were open in times of war and closed in times of peace, were continuously open for hundreds of years of Roman history.  Yet we always seem to be surprised when war happens. 

As they did to Poland in 1939, the Russians have now invaded Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are courageously fighting back - alone - against overwhelming odds. Given the stated non-intervention policy of the United States, which for a variety of reasons (not all of them entirely bad) has increasingly been been displaying its old-time religion of isolationism, it is hard to envision any kind of Ukrainian happy ending to this 1930s-style tragedy. At best, one can conceive competing scenarios, some worse than others, but none of them good - either for Ukraine or for Europe or for a stable and secure international order. Short of direct military action, the rest of the world's tools to combat Russian aggression are more limited than we would like to admit. (Even so, there probably are measures which could be taken to damage Russia's economy and hurt the oligarchs who are President Putin's primary base of support. But Putin himself if likely impervious to such measures.)

Ukraine is not a NATO ally. But the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are - fortunately for them. So are most of the former Warsaw Pact Soviet "satellite" states. The debate about whether it was wise to expand NATO to include so many more new members has now been settled - by Vladimir Putin himself. (In the light of this Russian aggression, some are now speculating that Finland and Sweden might join NATO.) He has proved the point of NATO and confirmed Alexis de Tocqueville's famous prediction of the geopolitical Russian threat.

Responding to that threat will require a coordinated common commitment on the part of the U.S. and Europe not really seen since the days of the Cold War. Putin probably doubts whether either Europe or the U.S. has what it takes to assume the responsibilities and accept the sacrifices which previous generations did. 

Jimmy Carter's U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is supposed to have said: “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Whatever else may be said about Vladimir Putin's aspirations, he is a wannabe Tsar whose aim apparently is the restoration of as much as possible of that old "Evil Empire" we all worried so much about back during the Cold War, that Cold War "Evil Empire" which was itself just a more dangerous, 20th-century iteration of older Russian imperialist aspirations

It remains to be seen whether and how the U.S. and Europe may disprove Putin's doubts about our readiness to assume responsibility and accept sacrifice to contain his empire as that of his predecessors was contained.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Ukraine Conundrum

Matthew Yglesias' latest Substack column, "The Case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire," not only rescalls a cause that has long been dear to me but also reminds us once again what a disaster the 20th century really was for Europe (and, by extension, the world) and how so many of our contemporary problems are rooted in the destruction unleashed by World War I and institutionalized by troublemakers like Woodrow Wilson and the very bad post-war "peace" they imposed upon Central and Eastern Europe.

As the world contemplates the latest European calamity, it is helpful to remember that none of Europe's present political arrangements and borders were inevitable, much less inherent in the nature of things, and that the right combination of chance and better leadership might have left us with a better set of cards to deal with. That said, if (as Donald Rumsfeld famously observed) we go to war with the army we have, then we do diplomacy and conduct international relations with the countries, the borders, and the alliances we have, not necessarily those we would have chosen. 

All of which is by way of preface to the obvious observation that the world is stuck with a situation which seems unsatisfactory from almost every angle. 

To the Russians (or at least to President Putin who may be the only Russian who matters much at the moment), the very existence of an independent Ukraine is something like a historical-cultural insult. To understand the old Soviet Union, an understanding of Marxism may have been of some use, but much more important was an understanding of the old Russian Empire of the Tsars. The Soviet Union (and, after World War II, the Warsaw pact) represented a historical continuation of the old Russian Empire. Its dissolution was experienced by Putin as a complete catastrophe. If anything, the eastward expansion of NATO to the very borders of the old Soviet Union exacerbated that catastrophe, from Putin's perspective. (Whether a non-NATO "Finland"-like reordering of Central and Eastern Europe would have been more palatable to Putin and less provocative in the long-term is one of those alternate histories about which, like the survival of the Hapsburg Empire, we can only speculate.)

To recognize Russian self-understanding and Putin's perception of Russian interests in this area is not to deny Putin's malevolence but simply to recognize the geopolitical facts of the region. When thinking about Russia and eastern Europe, it never hurts to remember Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th-century prediction, which came true in the 20th century, that a democratic U.S. and an authoritarian Russia would be the two dominant powers "to sway the destinies of half the globe." For the last 30+ years, however, Russia has been in dramatic decline and may never recover its diminished imperial power. But we should not be surprised by Putin's persistence in trying to recover as much as he can of that power.

Poor Ukraine is fated by its geography and its history to be "too far from heaven and too close to Russia" (to adapt a familiar aphorism about Mexico's relationship to the U.S.) For all the historical, cultural, and religious ties that relate Russia and Ukraine, the irony is that Putin's menacing aggressiveness may have done more than anything else to push Ukraine to seek a closer connection with the West. Under the best of conditions, this would have been a difficult balancing act. Whatever the outcome of the immediate crisis, :Putin seems to have guaranteed a greater long-term conflict, whether that takes the form of continued resistance and guerilla warfare (a la Afghanistan) against invading Russian forces or or some more modest resistance to some more modest Russian provocations.

Whether it was or wasn't a good idea to expand NATO in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union can be debated endlessly, but the fact is that it has happened and that the current balance of power in Europe presupposes it. (Expanding NATO may have been a well intentioned assist to the newly liberated struggling  states of eastern Europe. It may also have been a foolish act of American hubris highlighting American ignorance of the region's geography and history. Either way, we are stuck with it, just as we were stuck with the earlier dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire, that set the stage for so much of the present mess.)

Ever since the end of the Soviet Union, NATO has struggled with its internally divisive forces. Paradoxically, Putin, who presumably wants most of all to diminish (if not destroy) NATO, has now strengthened the alliance, which, under President Biden's courageous leadership, has rediscovered (at least temporarily) some of its old unity and sense of mission. While this is undoubtedly a good thing for the U.S. and for NATO, it remains to be seen how sustainable such renewed unity and sense of purpose will be. Meanwhile, Putin's aggression has resulted in more NATO troops on his border, rather than the diminished NATO that must have been his goal. But what excuses for provocation and opportunities for miscalculation may lie in this?

Finally, the U.S., after the unfortunate experience of the Trump presidency, now has a president who is not enthralled by Putin and who has rediscovered America's national interest in a stable European order in which Russian expansionism is contained. Biden, like Putin, was formed in the crucible of the Cold War. He recognizes the Russian threat that Tocqueville predicted, better perhaps than some of his recent predecessors did. Yet, the country that successfully fought the Cold War has notably changed since then. While Russia has been in steady dramatic decline, so, in its own way, has the U.S., although admittedly not in the same ways. Whether the post-Trump U.S. is actually capable of sustained international leadership remains an open question after its adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failures of those adventures. Those adventures may have been well intentioned, and one can construct alternative histories in which they ended better than they did, but the actual "facts on the ground" created by our recent history seem much less promising. 

Of course, the U.S. remains the preeminent military power in the world, and (apart from nuclear weapons) Russia  is only notionally a major power. But the U.S. is struggling with its own self-induced internal decline, which may be this country's real long-term problem. In this regard, I was struck by something in (of all places) yesterday's Wall Street Journal. In a column entitled "How the U.S. and Europe Lost the Post-Cold War," Gerard Baker wrote:

The larger problem is that we in the West, in the U.S. especially, have been losing the  war from within. Victory in the Cold War bred complacency, a loss of a defining sense  of purpose. We failed to meet the most basic needs of many citizens for economic  security, opportunity and belonging and in the process stoked resentment and  political backlash. We failed to remember, respect and preserve the civilizational virtues that had driven our victory in the first place.

Monday, February 21, 2022


Fifty years ago today, President Richard Nixon, in one sense one of our least successful presidents (the first - and so far the only one - to resign the presidency under pressure), began his history-making trip to China, one of his presidency's most impactful events. At the time, in the context of Cold War international politics, it was one way of exploiting the bad relations between the two leading communist countries, China and the Soviet Union. Fifty years later, China is way more powerful than it was in 1972 and much more of a threat to the U.S. and the wider world that it was then. Meanwhile, while the Soviet Union is long gone and Russia remains only notionally a "Great Power," still Russia remains a persistent problem (as de Tocqueville so famously predicted it would be, long before there were any Bolsheviks). 

"Presidents Day" is a somewhat silly, commercial substitute for the traditional Washington's Birthday holiday. (Washington's Birthday remains the federal holiday's official name.) Yet it does invite renewed reflection on the American presidency and on the particular men who have held that exalted office. Thus, the History Channel last night premiered a new three-night documentary event Abraham Lincoln, advertised as "a definitive biography of the 16th president, the man who led the country during its bloodiest war and greatest crisis." Also last night, CNN premiered LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy, a four-part original series (two episodes last night, two more tonight) that purportedly "offers a captivating look at one of the most consequential and enigmatic presidents in American history," who "used the office to pass the most significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction ... [and] reshape the social fabric of the nation," while "he simultaneously escalated one America’s most controversial wars, that subsequently overshadowed his domestic accomplishments," features interviews with  the few surviving contemporaries of Johnson's, and the President himself is heard in recorded audio tapes.

LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy begins, of course, with the terrible events of November 22, 1963, which created the context and set the tone for the crucial first year of LBJ's presidency. Other important context is provided by reprising Johnson's Texas Hill Country upbringing that made him someone who understood the difference the New Deal made - and by extension what the Great Society might mean for people. The program highlights how, despite having been an outsider to the Kennedy Camelot and an "accidental" president, LBJ was from day one committed to becoming a bold, effective, and consequential president. Subsequent Chief Executives may have had similar ambitions, but none have had the wealth of political preparation and experience he had or the unique political and social circumstances of mid-1960s America which made bold, effective, and consequential politics and policy possible.

LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy is thus a somewhat nostalgic recollection of what was in many ways a somewhat better time and an opportunity for better politics, a world we have sadly long since lost. Nothing better expresses the difference between then and now than LBJ's slogan "abundance and liberty for all."

When I was a child and we still had real civic holidays, there were two presidential holidays, Lincoln'd Birthday (February 12) and Washington's Birthday (February 22). At the time, I recall my father predicting that we would likely have another such holiday, honoring our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sadly, that never materialized, although, after Lincoln and Washington, FDR has probably been the most profiled president, both in books and on TV. The 2014 Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, (which deals with the lives and careers of both Theodore and Franklin as well as with Eleanor) remains one of my favorite presidential documentaries.

What all such programs highlight is how enormously effective and consequential presidents like Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson were - effective  as leaders in their own time and consequential in their legacies. The modern American presidency is uniquely a very powerful office, and we customarily call the U.S. President "the most powerful person in the world." Even so, a lot of the luster seems to have been lost from the office, and the aspirations of more recent presidents to be effective leaders with consequential legacies seems to have been more frustrated than fulfilled. Both Johnson and Nixon came close, but, having flown too close to the sun, seemed to fall as memorably as any of their successes (which were real and significant for both of them). Likewise, George H.W. Bush accomplished a lot in managing the end of the Cold War and in successfully prosecuting a limited war with Iraq, but (like other one-term president defeated for reelection) his lasting legacy is that of a one-term president defeated for reelection. 

Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all managed to get reelected. And two of them (Clinton and Obama) left office still very popular. Even so, their complex legacies all appear diminished in comparison with both the aspirations and the accomplishments of Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Johnson - and thus appear as part of that larger historical process of transition to a decreasingly effective national politics, which, while highly focused on the presidency, increasingly diminishes presidential and makes presidents mainly mascots of competing teams or tribes.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Georgians (The Book)

The so-called "long 18th century," the era in British history associated with the accession of the House of Hanover and the reigns of the four Georges (1714-1830) is recreated magnificently in this latest book by London University Professor of History, Penelope J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain (Yale U. Pr., 2022). 

In her book, Corfield explores multiple aspects of 18th-century British life at a time when even the very notion of "British" was itself still novel and in need of deeper definition and exploration. Corfield considers contemporary pessimistic perceptions of decline and loss and simultaneously optimistic perceptions of progress and - quite literally - light. Her book takes us on a tour of the highs and lows, the bright and bleak of evolving British culture and society - in politics and economics and science and religion and domestic arrangements - balanced by profound continuity, most notably in the renewed role of the monarchy.

Particularly useful, especially for a contemporary American audience, is the book's treatment of the evolution of British political institutions - particularly parliament and political parties - during this period. This is important for two reasons. The first is that American appreciation of 18th-century British politics has historically been distorted by the American Revolution and the revolutionary ideology's deliberate falsification of British policy and the respective roles of King and Parliament. The second is that the evolution of British politics during this period was completely at odds with what was happening on the continent. The 18th-century European experience was one of increasingly un-British political absolutism culminating in a correspondingly un-British self-destructive revolution. Popular American history (to whatever extent history is still taught and learned in America) reinforces the first distortion, while academic political philosophy focuses (understandably enough) on un-British continental developments in philosophy and political theory.

Comparably insightful is The Georgians' treatment of the evolution of 18th-century civil society and its social classes, which were, in the author's words in social ferment. Again, this provides a much more thorough portrayal of Georgian society than modern readers, armed with contemporary ideological obsessions, are familiar with - especially perhaps when it comes to gendered roles and relationships. Most notably, the Georgian era was characterized  by a "new breadth and diversity of role open to emergent meritocrats from all backgrounds."

The 18th-century was the first scientific century, that is, a time in which growing scientific knowledge and discoveries translated into (relatively) rapid technological change. In this, it began a pattern that would be increasingly characteristic of subsequent centuries. We are accustomed to thinking of historical "progress" - primarily filtered through the mass experience of technological change.

Such an era inevitably saw a certain loosening of previous social conventions. Corfield highlights how this was a time when people stated dressing as they pleased (rather than as prescribed by law) and when the egalitarian handshake began to make inroads into social interactions.

The Georgians could n ever have anticipated our post-modern urbanized and globalized world, but the society they were evolving in the end had much more in common with what was to folloow than with what had preceded it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Jubilee of Post-Pandemic Hope

Now, as the first twenty-five years of the new century draw to a close, we are called to enter into a season of preparation that can enable the Christian people to experience the Holy Year in all its pastoral richness.

The history of Holy Years has gone from the seemingly spontaneous first Jubilee Year of 1300 to the intensely and publicly prepared for "Great Jubilee" to mark the turn of the millennium in 2000. In recent centuries, these "Jubilees" or "Holy Years" have generally been celebrated at 25-year intervals. Revolutionary politics prevented the Jubilees of 1800 and 1850, and the Italian occupation of Rome resulted in a very toned-down 1875 Jubilee in which the Holy Doors remained closed. Twentieth-century Holy Years grew progressively more elaborate, culminating in the "Great Jubilee" of 2000, during which I was one of the millions privileged to travel to Rome, passing through each of the Holy Doors as a Holy-Year pilgrim.

Inexorably, the calendar keeps advancing, and soon it will be time for another such celebration. On January 3, Pope Francis approved the official motto, Pilgrims of Hope, for Holy Year 2025. Then, this past Friday, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Pope Francis elaborated further on the upcoming Jubilee in an official Letter to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, quoted above at the top of this post.

Unlike the "Great Jubilee" of 2000, which occurred at a period of relative optimism, the forthcoming Holy Year will be celebrated under significantly different circumstances, for both the Church and the world. The Pope obviously recognizes this and acknowledged it in his Letter:

In the last two years, not a single country has been unaffected by the sudden outbreak of an epidemic that made us experience first-hand not only the tragedy of dying alone, but also the uncertainty and fleetingness of existence, and in doing so, has changed our very way of life. Together with all our brothers and sisters, we Christians endured those hardships and limitations. Our churches remained closed, as did our schools, factories, offices, shops, and venues for recreation.  All of us saw certain freedoms curtailed, while the pandemic generated feelings not only of grief, but also, at times, of doubt, fear and disorientation. The scientific community quickly developed an initial remedy that is gradually permitting us to resume our daily lives. We are fully confident that the epidemic will be overcome and that the world will return to its usual pattern of personal relationships and social life. This will happen more readily to the extent that we can demonstrate effective solidarity, so that our neighbors most in need will not be neglected, and that everyone can have access to scientific breakthroughs and the necessary medicines.

It is precisely in order to contribute greatly to restoring a climate of hope and trust as a prelude to the renewal and rebirth that we so urgently desire, Pope Francis writes that he chose Pilgrims of Hope as the Jubilee's motto.

Detailed directions about the preparation for the Holy Year will presumably be forthcoming. Meanwhile, Pope Francis is inviting the church to devote 2024, the year preceding the Jubilee event, to a great “symphony” of prayer.  Prayer, above all else, to renew our desire to be in the presence of the Lord, to listen to him and to adore him. Prayer, moreover, to thank God for the many gifts of his love for us and to praise his work in creation, which summons everyone to respect it and to take concrete and responsible steps to protect it. Prayer as the expression of a single “heart and soul” (cf. Acts 4:32), which then translates into solidarity and the sharing of our daily bread. Prayer that makes it possible for every man and woman in this world to turn to the one God and to reveal to him what lies hidden in the depths of their heart. Prayer as the royal road to holiness, which enables us to be contemplative even in the midst of activity. In a word, may it be an intense year of prayer in which hearts are opened to receive the outpouring of God’s grace and to make the “Our Father,” the prayer Jesus taught us, the life programme of each of his disciples.

great “symphony” of prayer  sounds like a good way to fill in the time between the frenzy of activity of the synodal process and the Jubilee. It also, I suspect, expresses even better than the synodal process what may be most needed as we recover from and emerge from the period of pandemic to face the challengingly uncertain future that likely lies ahead.

(Photo: The Jubilee Year Holy Door, Saint Peter's Basilica.)

Monday, February 14, 2022

Insurgency (The Book)

The flood of Trump-related political books continues. To this flood, Jeremy Peters, who  currently covers Republican party politics and the conservative movement for The New York Times politics desk, has happily added another Trump-era book: Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted (NY: Crown, 2022).

In the week or so since the book's publication, Peters has been ubiquitous on TV news shows and podcasts, promoting his book and highlighting its significance for our understanding of the Trump phenomenon and of the decades-long insurgent politics within the Republican and "conservative" world which have brought us to this juncture in American political and cultural history.

Insurgency is thus about much more than just the story of Donald Trump and his seemingly surprising rise to the presidency and his dominance within the Republican party and the "conservative" movement. It is a thorough examination of the decades-long development of the Republican party into the strange phenomenon it is today, "of how short the distance always was between Trump and the beating heart of the modern Republican Party." Peters provides the reader a detailed account of the internal transformation of the GOP and of the role of both Trump himself and of his prophetic forerunners like Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin who predated Trump's political preeminence.

Trump, Peters argues, "didn’t bring anything inside the Republican Party that wasn’t already there. He just validated the suspicions and fed the anxieties of tens of millions of Americans who had long feared they were one presidential election away from losing their purchase on social and political power." Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign a full 30 years ago represented "a no-apologies, nationalistic insurgency that was a watershed moment in Republican politics." As for Palin, John McCain's GOP running mate against Obama in 2008, "she instantly connected with a particular type of American who wasn’t used to seeing someone like her represented at the pinnacle of power in the Republican Party."

That, of course, was an older iteration of the Republican party one which Republican voters have over time been drifting away from -  "drifting away from conventional politicians and their stale policy offerings of laissez-faire capitalism, robust military spending, and rising-tide-lifts-all-boats economics." That older party was well represented by, for example, the GOP's unsuccessful 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who "represented the kind of wealth that many people weren’t seeing as aspirational but as avaricious." Instead of someone like Romney, what such alienated voters wanted "was a president like the people Ailes was putting on Fox News." Meanwhile, many increasingly "saw themselves in Trump," who "had thoroughly remade the GOP in his image."

In addition to the likes of Buchanan and Palin and Ailes, Peters highlights the part played by the Tea Party "that anvil of resentment and rage that promised to flatten Washington and 'Take America Back'.” To an establishment Republican like Romney, Trump was "the court jester of American politics." Yet even Romney realized he required Trump's endorsement in 2012. Peters portrays the spectacle of that event for what it was: "the ghosts of the Republican Party’s soon-to-be past and its future standing uncomfortably together in a physical manifestation of the warring camps within." Unfortunately for Romney (and the establishment Republicanism Romney represented), "finding himself powerless to say no to Trump," Romney "discovered that no amount of scaffolding could prevent Trump from finding a way to steal the show."

Another key turning point was Romney's 2012 loss itself, which amazingly came as a surprise to many Republicans, who had "convinced themselves that most Americans saw Obama the way they did: as a failed liberal ideologue who was ill-suited to lead a country that still hadn’t rebounded from crisis." For some time, "fundamental to the way Republicans have long seen themselves as a party," Republicans had believed "that the majority of the country leans Republican no matter what the results at the ballot box say is."

To trace the trajectory by which Trump became an avatar of conservatism and (even more improbably) a Cyrus-figure for the religious right, Peters highlights both the special salience of immigration (where Trump already resonated with his angry base) and the more surprising story of Trump's successful appeal to constituencies and on issues where no such resonance existed and where logically one would have expected greater dissonance. (One such issue was obviously abortion. Trump, after all, was already "on tape saying things like 'I am pro-choice in every respect'," which he had said in a 1999 interview he gave to Meet the Press.)

The successful rise of right-wing populism is inexorably tied to the mass-market appeal of Trump and his forerunners. As Trump himself has expressed it (and maybe rediscovering now perhaps to his chagrin on the vaccine issue) “The audience tells you where to go.” As one ex-congressman turned Talk show host learned, “Sign on to Team Trump and speak well of him. That’s where our audience is.” And that audience of right-wing media consumers quickly came to see themselves in Trump (as they had seen themselves previously in Palin). Of course, to accomplish this required what Peters calls,"an extraordinary suspension of disbelief."

"Here was a man who bragged compulsively about being rich and powerful but who was complaining, in effect, that he was a victim. He flew into their communities on his private jet to tell them how poorly treated he was, and it didn’t come off the least bit insincere. Swaddled in privilege and given to gaudy displays of material excess, Trump didn’t live anything like most Americans. ... Devoid of empathy, incapable of humility, and unfamiliar with what it means to suffer consequences, he behaved and spoke in ways most would never dare. And yet Trump’s habit of seeing persecutors everywhere he looked did not come off as paranoid or self-obsessed to his fans. It seemed perfectly reasonable because while they may not have used the vulgarities and hyperbole that he did, they agreed with what he was saying and pictured how they’d be persecuted too if they dared to agree with him out loud in the wrong company."

Trump in turn has "noted with no small amount of self-satisfaction how conservative media outlets suffered for giving voice to a point of view that contradicted or questioned him. 'A lot of people don’t want that,' he says. 'They don’t want to hear negativity toward me'.”

And that is where Republican party and "conservative" movement politics appear stuck at present. For decades both have been increasingly radicalized by insurgencies whose long-term trajectories have often been underestimated. Insurgency may not be the final word on a political disorder that seems to be continually evolving still. But it leaves little unsaid about how it has gotten to where it is now.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

A Special Moment and Missed Opportunity

Exactly 70 years ago today, on February 12, 1952, speaking from a set in the Adelphi Theater on West 54th Street in New York City, the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) premiered his new TV show Life Is Worth Living. It was a ground-breaking experiment in Roman Catholic outreach to the broader American society via the (then) new medium of television. Sheen's show won an Emmy in 1952 and ran until 1957, regularly drawing as many as 30 million viewers. 

Sadly, I was not one of them. My family bought our first television set later that same year, several months after Sheen's premiere performance. But my parents preferred watching Milton Berle. The first time I ever recall seeing Sheen on TV was a special show he did on the occasion of the coronation of Pope Saint John XXIII in 1958. That said, even without me in the audience, Sheen's program was amazingly successful. It was the most high-profile pubic presentation of Catholic faith at the time, presenting it in a way which was resonant with the dramatically changing post-war national culture and the new style of religion that spoke to that culture. Thus, Will Herberg, in his classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Doubleday, 1955) famously saw Sheen as a major mediator of Roman Catholicism's new post-war status as part of "the national consensus as one of the three versions of the 'American Way of Life'."

TV was new in 1952. Sheen was not. He already had a reputation as a serious academic, a successful convert-maker, a famous preacher both in the pulpit and on NBC's weekly Sunday-night radio broadcast, The Catholic Hour. Television, however, made Sheen one of the primary representatives of American public religion. Sheen himself took particular satisfaction in how his program both improved the Church's public image and led to greater inter-religious understanding among Catholic and non-Catholic Americans. Yet, as Church Historian Mark S. Massa has noted  in Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (Crossroads, 1999), "Sheen remained a committed devotee of Thomistic ultramontanism. Sheen never wavered in his firm faith that Catholicism provided the best - and very possibly the only - answer to the question of human existence." Thus, Sheen's seemingly "nondenominational 'inspirational' chats" in fact were "profoundly Catholic reflections on the cultural state of the American union," a "natural law Thomism" that "sounded not far from the up-beat, 'can do' spirituality just then claiming the American religious mainstream in books, movies, and state of the union addresses."

Likewise Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), recalled Sheen as "a courtly and more intellectual version of Billy Graham," who like Graham was "turning the new mass media to Christian ends" and "understood his era perfectly," while arguing, as an American Catholic apologist, that the Catholic Church was "a better custodian of American values than many of its secular critics."

As so often happens, short-term personality conflicts trumped long-term interests, and Sheen eventually left Life Is Worth Living (and New York's most prominent pulpit) apparently as a result of opposition from New York's powerful Archbishop, Francis Cardinal Spellman. Then as now, we can only surmise how a more genuinely united American Catholic Church might have better navigated the severe stresses she would have to face.

Friday, February 11, 2022

World Day of the Sick


Three times in my life, I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit the French shrine at Lourdes, where I once even got to celebrate Mass in the famous Grotto, the now venerable but originally undistinguished place where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a sickly girl from an impoverished family, a total of 18 times, from February 11 to July 16, 1858. As I suspect almost anyone who has ever been there will gladly confirm, it is certainly an awesomely inspiring experience to join the millions of people of varied backgrounds who journey to that holy shrine as pilgrims each year. Lourdes, like Rome, offers that very special experience of the universality of the Church, as one joins one’s prayer with pilgrims from all over the world in such great gatherings as the daily afternoon procession with the Blessed Sacrament and the evening candlelight procession and group rosary.

On the occasion of the consecration of the enormous underground basilica at Lourdes in March 1958, the future Pope Saint John XXIII called the daily eucharistic procession at Lourdes "the reenactment of the passing of the living Jesus through the midst of the crowds, to teach them and grant them miracles and graces of all kinds."

In that spirit, it is especially inspiring to see so many sick people travel to Lourdes to pray for physical and spiritual healing there, and also to observe the compassionate and loving way in which the sick are welcomed and enabled to participate in all the various activities. Since 1992, today’s feast of Our Lady of Lourdes has also been designated as the World Day of the Sick. In so designating it, Pope John Paul II (who certainly knew something about the experience of sickness in human life) called it “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church, and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of humankind.”

Now thirty years later, we are immersed in a global pandemic which has killed millions, tested our ability to come together to solve social problems, and fractured what was left of our communal trust and social solidarity. In human terms, it will take time just to assess fully, let alone to recover from, the deep damage done by this pandemic experience. All the more to be cherished, then, is the witness of communal trust and social solidarity among the sick at Lourdes and the caring compassion that characterizes their welcome as pilgrims. All the more grateful should the world be for the beauty of this shrine and the power of its message.

As the shrine now fully reopens after the limits imposed by the pandemic, we may well repeat the prayer with which Pope Saint John XXIII addressed Our Lady at Lourdes in 1958: "Renew the miracles you performed a century ago, and let new wonders follow the old."


Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Whither the Churches?

In a recent NY Times column, "The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself," David Brooks addresses the present predicament of politicized Christianity in the United States As the title indicates, his focus is on American Evangelicalism, but what he writes can clearly be applied analogously to any Christian church, denomination, sect, or congregation that has either intentionally or inadvertently become preoccupied with partisan politics to the extent that it seems increasingly more like a front organization for the Republican party.

Thus, Brooks quotes Russell Moore: “We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe that the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.”

While he cites Trump as "the proximate cause of all this disruption," Brooks sees Trump more as "merely the embodiment of many of the raw wounds that already existed in parts of the white evangelical world: misogyny, racism, racial obliviousness, celebrity worship, resentment and the willingness to sacrifice principle for power." Meanwhile, citing research by the political scientist Ryan Burge showing that, as of 2020, roughly 40% of those "who called themselves evangelical attended church once a year or less," Brooks suggests that what has been a traditional religious marker for many Americans is now "just a political label" for some. That too might possibly apply more broadly beyond the officially "Evangelical" brand to others whose Christian identity may be less about religious belief and belonging and more about contemporary tribal political identity.

So, while for decades now "evangelical pastors have found that their 20-minute Sunday sermons could not outshine the hours and hours of Fox News their parishioners were mainlining every week," the problem may be not just "that the klieg light of Fox was so bright, but also that the flickering candle of Christian formation was so dim."

What challenge to ecclesiastical business as usual could be more basic?

One further consequence, which again might apply more broadly across the American religious spectrum is how "the atmosphere within many Christian organizations has grown more tense and bitter." One sign of that is how "there is now a common desire to pummel, shame and ostracize other Christians over disagreements." Brooks identifies this as "a profound moment of turmoil, pain, change,", which, ever the optimist, he also hopes may also be one of "possible transformation." 

Of all things, this reminds Brooks of the familiar saga of those 20th-century intellectuals who adopted and then abandoned doctrinaire communism. While leaving communism and their communist comrades behind "was brutal for many," they also, Brooks suggests, experienced liberation. "They began to think new things, find new allies and sometimes embark on new causes.” He recalls that experience as a promising model for some Christian Evangelicals. "They’ve broken from the community they thought they were wed to for life. Except for them it wasn’t God that failed, but the human institutions built in his name. This experience of breaking, rethinking and reorienting a life could be the first stage in renewal."

Brooks identifies examples of this trend, people like Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson and David French, who "are courageously and passionately opposing the Trumpification of American Christianity. They’ve become leading spokesmen for reform and participants in the discussions that are now happening over what needs to be done."

While what those figures are trying to do is significant - spiritually for them, first of all, as it was for the ex-communists Brooks references, I am reminded that communism as a political force outlasted those mid-20th-century conversions (as indeed variations on Marxist philosophy also continued to thrive for decades). It is hard to see into the future, of course, and predictions about the trajectory of American religion, especially in recent decades, have been contradicted by unexpected secular trends (Trump, among them). One wonders how much hope one should hold out for effective alternatives to Trumpified American religion. 

On the other hand, Brooks is, I think, on to something in seeing a more promising future in generational change and demographic differences, which he believes the American church to become "more like the global church."

On the other hand, one should never underestimate the staying power of institutional structures (normally a good thing for societies). As Brooks himself acknowledges, American evangelicalism "has historically had a Christian nationalist current and also a more justice-oriented current, which was powerful as recently as the 1970s. Both of these currents ebb and flow over the decades.."

For David Brooks' complete column, go to:

Photo: Some of the Christian imagery at the January 6 insurrection, from religionunplugged. com.

Monday, February 7, 2022

A Royal Vocation


Yesterday, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II completed 70 years since her accession to the British throne, the longest reign of any monarch in British history. Only two European rulers have reigned longer: Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), who became king in 1643 and reigned for 72 years and 110 days, and Prince Johann II of Liechtenstein (1840 -1929), who became Reigning Prince of Liechtenstein in 1858 and ruled for 70 years and 91 days.

The formal "Platinum Jubilee" celebrations will take place in June, but it was February 6, 1952, when King George VI's sudden and early death transformed the 25-year of Princess Elizabeth, at that time caught unawares in Kenya, where she was ailing in for her ailing father on a Commonwealth Tour. (The drama of that event is well portrayed in episode 2 of season 1 of The Crown.)

Longevity, of course, isn't everything - or even the most important thing. The fact that Queen Elizabeth has had to work with 14 British Prime Ministers since 1952 (from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson), not to  mention the numerous Prime Ministers of her Commonwealth realms and the countless other politicians and statesmen she has met with these past 70 years, together with her extensive travels throughout the Commonwealth and around the world, make her undoubtedly the most experienced and knowledgeable world leader on the planet at present and perhaps ever. Length of service and the special aura of the office she holds have combined to make her the outstanding figure she is in today's world, but what make her and her reign so special and so symbolically important are the duty and devotion she has personally brought to her role, qualities quite out of sync with the spirit of the present age but so sorely needed by it. In the words of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby: "Today we mark the 70th anniversary of The Queen's accession to the throne. As we do so, we give thanks for Her Majesty’s dedication to us all - and her faithful witness to Jesus Christ." 

The archbishop also described her role as Queen in terms of lifelong religious vocation (ritualized in the coronation ceremony). "The coronation service is a form of ordination, in a liturgical sense, and she lives that out without a grumble," Welby said, comparing the coronation rite's language and structure "to an ordination of a priest or a bishop." 

In an era in which faith, family, duty, loyalty have all been derided and diminished by our ruling ethos of psychologized libertarianism, the witness of a lifelong commitment to a sacred vocation is a breathtaking counter-witness to our prevailing political, cultural, and social structures and values.


Sunday, February 6, 2022

Fishing for the World

One of Israel’s most popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” as I did in 1993 (photo), modern pilgrims can then dine on something called “St. Peter’s Fish,” a name that recalls the story we just heard of Peter’s great catch of fish. But, as that story itself suggests, the point was not really fish but the great growth in people that lay in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.

Like Peter’s fishing, however, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks. Certainly, that increasingly seems to be the case in our own country right now. Yet, despite his obvious frustration with his failures and the depressing tiredness that commonly accompanies frustration (“Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing”), Peter the fisherman found the faith, the confidence, to respond with what turned out to be the right answer, “at your command I will lower the nets.”

No sooner had he done so, of course, than they caught a great number of fish, whereupon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-seeking, personality-driven media would surely highlight how Peter was once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Pundits would be gleefully speculating about what would derail Peter from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!

When Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not Peter misspeaking. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading, who naturally assumed that no one could survive something so awesome as seeing God directly.

Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause one to respond in apparently contradictory ways – sailing with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. We humans are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time. Far from frightening Peter away, however, Jesus’ intention was instead to bring him even closer – calling him from fisherman to disciple to apostle to pope, thus setting in motion the mission of the Church.

As members of that Church and beneficiaries of its mission, we have, all of us, been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the Pope’s ceremonial ring has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on it is that of Saint Peter in a boat - fishing. It is precisely our union with Peter which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us today with whatever energies and resources for renewal and evangelization we may have.

Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, but he is hardly its only fisherman.


Thus, at the ordination of a priest, the ordaining bishop prays: in our weakness give us also the helpers that we need to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles. In speaking thus for himself as successor of the apostles, the bishop speaks also for all of us, on behalf of the whole Church, acknowledging the Church’s need for fishermen in sufficient numbers to meet the world needs.

We are all increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church – everywhere everyone having to make do with less.

We have fewer Catholics in this country today, as a percentage of population, but we also have far fewer resources than we once did to serve them. In 1965, there were about 58,000 priests in the United States, almost all of them in active ministry; almost 60 years later, there are about 35,000 priests in the US, with only 68 percent in active ministry. Fifty years ago, the average age of a priest in the US was 35. Fifty years later, half of all active priests are already 70 – including yours truly, who will be 74 next month.

Listening today to these incredibly inspiring stories of the commissioning of Peter the Apostle and Isaiah the Prophet before him, listening too to Saint Paul’s powerful personal description of his own vocation story in his letter to the 1st-century Christian community in Corinth, we are challenged to be alert to God’s every invitation and to ask ourselves what we too can do, what God may be asking of us - and if there is someone whom we know (perhaps right here in this church this morning) whom the Lord is depending upon to pick up part of Peter’s net, so that Jesus’ boat can arrive at last at its destined shore.

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, February 6, 2022.

Saturday, February 5, 2022


Macbeth, often superstitiously referred to as "the Scottish Play," was the first Shakespeare play I ever seriously watched. It was late 1961 or early 1962, and our high school English class was required to watch a TV performance of the play. Coincidentally, the last live Shakespeare play I attended was a performance of Macbeth in Central Park a few years back. It is Shakespeare's shortest play, which presumably lends itself to more frequent performance and hence popularity. It is the basis for the acclaimed new (2021) American film The Tragedy of Macbeth, written and directed by Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, which I watched last night. Washington, perhaps one of our era's greatest actors, shines (if that is the right word when playing such a reprehensible character) as the authentically skilled but pathologically ambitious politician. McDormand displays appropriate ferocity as the malignant motivator for Macbeth's unstoppable steeping of himself in blood.

The Tragedie of Macbeth (Shakespeare's play's full original title) was probably composed in connection with the accession in 1603 of Scotland's King James VI to the throne of England as King James I. While Macbeth himself was a real person, his companion Banquo is a fictional character. In Shakespeare's time, however, Banquo was part of the Macbeth legend and was believed to be an ancestor of Scotland's Stuart dynasty (an important consideration for Shakespeare writing after the accession of the Stuarts to the English throne). Shakespeare apparently based the play on Holinshed's version of the legend, in which Banquo's son, Fleance, flees to Wales, where he fathers a son who later becomes the first hereditary steward to the King of Scotland, from which the House of Stuart was ultimately derived

Completely contrary to the familiar version of the story, the historical Macbeth succeeded King Duncan in 1040 after defeating Duncan in battle (not killing him in his sleep). Moreover, Macbeth's reign appears to have been relatively unchallenged until, after getting involved in war with the English, he was finally defeated and killed and soon after succeeded by Duncan's son, who later became King Malcolm III, in 1057. (In 1066, Malcom married Margaret, and English Princess, who became the famous Saint Margaret of Scotland.)

The challenge of any Shakespeare film is how to translate a recognized masterpiece of a stage play into a comparably monumental cinematic performance. Filming in black-and-white may seem like an artistic affectation, which perhaps it is. Along with the slimmed-down set, however, it definitely helps here to create a particular ambience of menace. The distinctive atmospheric special effects (above and beyond "the weird sisters") convey an air of gloom and fright that befits a tale that seems destined to end so badly.  for its principal protagonists. My only reservation about the foreboding special effects is that they can at times overshadow the dialogue, which - in any play, but especially in this short play - is ultimately the heart of it all.. Watching it, ironically brought back memories of that first exposure to Macbeth on TV 60 years ago, which was also (of course) in black and white.

The figure of Macbeth, the valiant nobleman, and his evil wife, both tragically flawed by uncontrollable ambition excited by demonic temptation and powerless to extricate themselves from the endless sequence of criminal acts they have unleashed, remains perennially appealing to audiences for all sorts of obvious reasons. It is the genius of this short play (and of this particular production) to to make the dramatic connection with those recognizable resonances.

Macbeth is but one of Shakespeare's plays that explore the potential for political disorder due to corruption at the top. A well-governed kingdom depends on a multitude of factors, but above all, Shakespeare repeatedly reminds his audiences, on the spiritual and more health of its head. That undoubtedly accounts for this play's persistent salience as societies seemingly so different from medieval Scotland and Jacobean England prove so similar in the plague of spiritual and moral dysfunctions that challenge the possibilities of virtuous leadership and stable political order.

The original play ends in a medieval present in which the new King, prior to being crowned at Scone, promises a restoration of order. In this ideologically modern production, while Malcolm is acknowledged as the rightful new king, the focus instead is on some implied utopian future pregfigured by the fleeing Fleance.