It was in the general-purpose room of St. Francis of Assisi Church in West Des Moines that Donald Trump made his last pitch to Iowa voters, inside a caucus room. He wanted to make sure people remembered that not only will he build the wall on our border with Mexico, but that he’s the only candidate who will make Mexico pay for it.
The scene confirmed for me that I did the right thing earlier in the day.
On the afternoon of the Iowa Caucus, I went Roman (or roaming) to Little Italy in New York City. One of the Jubilee of Mercy pilgrimage options in the Archdiocese of New York has you beginning at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and winding up five or so blocks later at the Church of the Precious Blood, which is actually open 24 hours throughout the jubilee.
In a city that never sleeps, 24-hour access to the Blessed Sacrament isn’t always an option. Mercy, indeed!
Praying was about as constructive a thing one could do in the hours before the caucus. All election days are days of conjecture, but the first caucus in the nation is particularly speculative.The world didn’t need me to add to the commentators reporting on what their Uber driver said about Donald Trump. (Mine having typically said what the 12-year-old son of a friend said in analyzing the phenomena this election cycle: People want to see what he’ll do. At least it might be different.)
You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief when Ted Cruz won the Iowa Caucus for the Republicans. Ditto that the morning after Hillary Clinton — former First Lady, former senator, former Secretary of State — was merely the “apparent winner” of the Democratic party.
It seemed to mean that nothing felt like it was quite set in stone yet, no domino effect was in progress. The voting had really only just begun.
Nothing is inevitable in politics. Money actually can’t buy me love. Hard work — “the ground game” — means something. All are relevant and appropriate headlines once the votes were in.
But, of course, winning Iowa isn’t a game changer for elections. And the reality that Trump winning was conceivable isn’t erased. What does that mean?
It is as the Uber driver said, in part: There’s a frustration with politics. And neither one of us had to tell you about that. There’s also a surrender to celebrity politics — one that I can understand.
During the 2012 election, I remember there couldn’t be a clearer contrast during the vice presidential debate. When it came to what is now the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Supreme Court case, Paul Ryan said there was a religious-liberty problem the White House had unnecessarily created and Joe Biden said look away, there’s nothing here.
The vice president’s narrative was untrue, but it was the storyline with the bigger megaphone the campaign — including essential ideological buy-in from the media — was selling. And so it was believed to be true, notwithstanding the sisters’ courage in insisting on pressing their case.
With Donald Trump, you don’t have the media ideological buy-in so much as fascination. He may not have won the evangelical vote with his endorsement from Sarah Pain in the end, but he did get even more airtime because it was a good show. They can’t look away.
Nor can we.
When it comes down to it, this election isn’t about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or anyone else. It’s about what Americanism seeks to be, as the founder of National Review, the magazine I work for, once put it.
Our Constitution and Bill of Rights, William F. Buckley Jr. said, “grew out of a long, empirical journey, the eternal spark of which, of course, traces to Bethlehem, to that star that magnified man beyond any power of the emperors and gold seekers and legions of soldiers and slaves: a star that implanted in each one of us that essence that separates us from the beasts, and tells us that we were made in the image of God and were meant to be free.”
Politics is noble work, even if it doesn’t always seem that way when operatives — and hosts — are shouting over one another. As Pope Francis put it to Congress during his visit here this past September:
“Yours is a work, which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
It’s not too hard to lose sight of that crucial work in the heat of an election. Perhaps even in the general purpose room of St. Francis of Assisi Church in West Des Moines.
In his new book-length interview, “The Name of God Is Mercy,” Pope Francis responds to a question about why humanity is so in need of mercy:
“Because humanity is wounded, deeply wounded. Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them. And it’s not just a question of social ills or people wounded by poverty, social exclusion, or one of the many slaveries of the third millennium. Relativism wounds people too: all things seem equal, all things appear the same. Humanity needs mercy and compassion.”
He goes on to talk about sin, citing Pius XII, who “more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin. Today we add further to the tragedy by considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy.”
“The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet.”
He says a few lines down that: “Today people try to find salvation wherever they can.”
Even in politics.
Donald Trump didn’t start the fire. Nor did Bernie Sanders’ call for revolution. How are we going to respond?
Sober and alert. Wise as serpents and innocent as doves. These come to mind. Well-informed Catholic citizens who know the Gospel and the Social Doctrine of the Church do the hard work of talking about it in light of God himself in his creation.
Merciful candidates who know the frustrations and don’t fan the flames, but sow an earned trust. A civility with substance. But that requires a detachment from ideological colonies, as Pope Francis has described a tendency of our day, at a time when the donkeys and elephants are coming out in force, with the danger of trampling on the unengaged, isolated and fatigued.
Making America great again, as one campaign line puts it, requires an urgent humility, one that looks for he would gave us our life and our freedom to help us be good stewards of his good gifts.
Walking through the holy doors at the Church of the Precious Blood in Little Italy, I couldn’t help but notice all the “in memory of” plaques on and by windows and statues. The Italian immigrants there built something beautiful, to remember who they are and give thanks for their gifts, and in earnest pleas that they might get to where they are destined eternally.
What are we renewing? What are we preserving? What are we building? And do we do it with a spirit of welcome and hospitality — of freedom and flourishing — or anger and fear?
These questions might be for an election year examination of conscience for anyone who felt dismissed, frustrated, raged or resigned at any point along the road to the primaries.
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).