“Don’t wait for a crisis to make a change.”
It was the fourth Sunday of Lent, and the homilist during Mass was talking about conversion. And I was completely distracted by the protest in my head: “Don’t wait for a crisis? How many crises do we need already?”
Since October 2012, I’ve had an odd relationship to politics. I say this to you as someone who has been a political junkie ever since I can remember. My first crush was on ABC’s Peter Jennings because he brought me the political news.
I couldn’t get enough Rush Limbaugh during the summers of my high school years. And what a great gift C-SPAN was for those of us whose hunger for following retail politics on the campaign trail and congressional hearings seemed to be insatiable! I was a seventh or eighth grade reader of the magazine I’ve now been working at for almost 20 years, National Review, where we cover politics.
But thanks be to God we cover little things like religion and culture, too, because that’s where my heart is and that’s where our renewal is going to be. And it’s going to be a heavy lift and long haul. Be ready to be stretched beyond what you knew possible.
What happened that aforementioned fall is I went over to Rome less than a month before President Barack Obama was going to win reelection. Of course, everyone wanted to know what was going to happen, and, frankly, wanted to be reassured.
Most of the people I would be talking to were Americans working in or around the Vatican. They were acutely aware of the religious-liberty battle going on back home — that the White House had pushed the Catholic bishops in the U.S. into the role of defender of religious liberty, “the first freedom,” because of a gratuitous, coercive mandate regulated as part of the president’s signature health-care legislation. The problem was, they were still in the minority. Honestly, in many ways, they still are.
Putting an ocean between me and the campaign frontlines had a sobering effect. It was all passion and chaos back home, but in the Eternal City came eternal perspective. There came detachment. Not calm, mind you. I may have woken someone up yelling at the CNN International live coverage of the one vice presidential debate of the cycle, as the two candidates provided two completely different sets of facts.
The vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, claimed the religious-liberty issue some Catholics and others had had with the administration was past. In truth, it’s present and future. It will be later this month — during Holy Week — when the Little Sisters of the Poor will get their day at the Supreme Court. But instead of scream at CNN anymore, asking “How can you say that?” I want to scream from the rooftops: “Do we see what we’re doing to ourselves?”
The fact is we’re long past crisis point, in many ways. It’s been a long road — and many Catholics and other religious believers, myself included, have been complicit. We have not always been who we say we are. We are often not who we say we are.
How many of us take some solace in the fact the Little Sisters of the Poor exist, content knowing someone is loving the elderly poor? How many of us live in our silos, content to keep our faith quasi-quiet?
It was the first and only Catholic president of the United States who made clear a privatization would happen as far as his faith went. We’re not called to be theocrats, but we are called to make disciples of all nations. That great commission is not for the lukewarm or for compartmentalization.
Perhaps that homily line stuck with me so because of some of the commentary that I was reading around the same time from friends and colleagues. Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Religious Liberty Commission announced: “It’s about time for Christians to revisit Augustine’s ‘City of God.’”
Chad Pecknold from the Catholic University of America had a mini-article in a series of Tweets: “The American republic is in danger of self-destructing. We see this in the womb, but also in marriage, education, and law.” He pointed out that “Obama iconography isn’t much different than Trump iconography: it’s responsive to a disordered desire, to deformed habits of the heart.”
We are the ones we have been waiting for “Make America great again”? Pecknold tweeted that “The expanse of executive powers has been possible, in part, because citizens are entertained enough to cede self-rule.”
He added, “The authoritarian temptation is easy to fall into when a culture is bored, when the virtues required for self-government are lacking.” He also pointed out that, “Threat to religious liberty is [the] greatest danger to the republic precisely because religion is [the] most important source of renewal for republic.”
The point is: That while none of the smart money/conventional wisdom/professional pundits saw this coming, a Christian could — a true Christian living with the heart of our Lord for his neighbor and, yes, even his political enemy.
Donald Trump, just like the Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage, was not the problem. The roots were deep by then. How many Catholics really know our faith? How many of us could make a compelling case for why marriage matters anyway?
And abortion, for more than four decades. The pro-life movement may be a healthy one and growing, with millennials seeing the light. But what a poison. So when you start reflecting, this was foreseeable — people wanting someone who might just blow the whole system up, even if that might give away some freedom along the way. What’s freedom anyway? If we don’t quite get love as more than a feeling, why’s freedom going to matter?
We could see it in the culture, we could see it in the law, we could see it, if we’re honest, in our hearts.
So what are we going to do about it? A number of Catholic leaders have recently issued a plea to fellow Catholics and “people of good will” to reject Donald Trump as Republican nominee for president. Their open letter states that “Mr. Trump’s record and his campaign show us no promise of greatness; they promise only the further degradation of our politics and our culture.” Beyond that — and should that come to pass — we have some more foundational issues to deal with, ones that require patience and dedication and grace.
In fact, there is a new DVD out called “Full of Grace.” It follows Mary, after Jesus has died. She sits with Paul and some of the Apostles and those they had taught the faith too. She encourages them. She reminds them who they are in him.
Perhaps the most powerful testimony in the movie is a young woman who is a help to Mary in her final days. She never met Jesus but she knows him. She explains about Mary: “She loved me when she didn’t have to.” And adds: “When I look into her eyes, when I see how she lives, I know it is true. I see him in her. I hear him because of her.”
How many people would say that of us? Many? Any? Our witness should overflow with such grace. And it would make all the difference in our politics. If we looked at everyone — and thus every issue — in the light of faith, with the eyes of Christ’s heart. It makes a difference.
But doing that requires people of faith, who live and breathe it. When Pope Francis was in Philadelphia this fall, he asked the same question Pope Leo XIII asked native daughter St. Katharine Drexel when she approached him about the needs of the missions: “What about you? What are you going to do?”
As we worry about the future of the republic, we might use that as guidance. As families, as parishes, as communities (even ecumenically): What are we going to do?
Pray together for the country, as a start. What a witness — to witness to this power. Have faith. Pray for families. Pray for God to inspire individuals who, out of love for him and in gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given, have clarity and courage, who will hold fast to what is good and make the case for the freedom to be virtuous stewards. Politics need not be entertaining, but noble. Let’s pray for something better.
That something better includes ceasing to look for a political savior. We have Christ, we need to be living as if we believe.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of the National Review Online. She is co-author of the newly updated edition of “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice” (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com).