Have you noticed how conversations about President Donald Trump seem to get nowhere fast? They often involve declarations of unbending loyalty and even love, sometimes including an unprompted “I voted for him!” Or the tone is one of absolute fear and anger, occasionally with a Hitler comparison. Sober objectivity isn’t usually how it goes, in other words, at any time of the day, regardless of what the president’s latest tweet may have been.
For people who voted for him, good judicial choices and right directionals on religious liberty and unborn life only seem to solidify their support and pride. While encouraging the good — and welcoming conversion — a responsible citizen should keep in mind that he’s held opposing views on these things, too.
For those who oppose him, there’s something to be said for the “fake news” cry of the president and his supporters. There’s a justifiable uncertainty in the air, because we do have a president whose core isn’t necessarily one built on a sturdy foundation of faith and philosophy or diplomatic experience, and who does tend to the undisciplined, at best. There’s also the reality that, on so many fronts, the problem isn’t Trump. He’s what comes of our bitter cynicism and deep disappointment in politics — and our unrealistic expectations, too, for a political savior.
The more the media insists he is everything that is wrong in the United States, the more his supporters are going to protest and stand firmly behind him regardless of just about anything he’s up to. For people who oppose him — on the right and left — there’s a temptation to a sense of self-righteousness in criticizing him, as if it’s a moral end in itself. It’s becoming as if opposing Trump is a religion or movement unto itself. But perhaps the urgent movement is to get back to real religious faith as a buttress to our republic, and more enduring principles than a politician and what he can do for me as our bipartisan reflex.
The conversations I keep hearing about Trump keep prompting a needed flashback, from Pope Francis’ address to Congress when he visited the U.S. in 2015. He said, in part:
“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.
“A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism, which sees only good or evil — or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world … demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.
“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject. That reductionism is a real danger in a world that tends to be more complicated than that. A cynicism about politics has led to a hardening of hearts.”
The aforementioned all being true, there are two things in particular in political news from October that perked me up a bit and restored my hope in the whole realm. One was Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican, speaking at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York. Another was former president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, having a few words of empathy for President Trump.
Starting with the latter event: Carter coming to the defense of Trump is perhaps the unlikeliest of headlines. And Trump was, naturally, quick to tweet about it before the former president might consider having second thoughts.
In an interview with Maureen Dowd from The New York Times, the former president said, “I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about.” He added, “I think they feel free to claim that Trump is mentally deranged and everything else without hesitation.”
“Just read the nice remarks by President Jimmy Carter about me and how badly I am treated by the press (fake news),” Trump tweeted in response, adding, “Thank you, Mr. President!”
Ryan, for his part, was the keynote at the charity dinner that every four years typically brings together the two major presidential candidates for a mutual roasting. In presidential election years, especially, there’s always some debate about whether the Church should be involved in such a thing. Ordinarily, the archbishop of New York hosts and will be seen with both presidential candidates. The upside of the dinner, besides the money raised, is the message of civility it tries to send. Both candidates tend to have fun in good-natured humor (however forced it may sometimes be).
This year, in an off year no less full of anxiety, Ryan began in on the president, saying, “Enough with the applause, alright? You sound like the cabinet when Donald Trump walks in the room. Just wanted to get right off to it, right?”
He continued in that spirit, making jokes at the expense of Republicans and Democrats alike. While he was likely venting some steam in the process, he kept with the spirit of the dinner, which tends to be an opportunity for some humor and bipartisan laughter. It can be a reminder that we might take ourselves a wee bit too seriously from day to day, a habit that can tend to feed incivility. Long gone seem the days of solid friendships in the midst of robust political differences. That kind of mutual respect can lead to unlikely partnerships on important things. It’s the stuff of genuine human encounter, potential leadership and even statesmanship.
Ryan closed with words about the more important things than partisanship.
“We need an event like this more now than ever. It is an opportunity for us to come together in support of a truly righteous mission — to bring hope to the neediest children in the Archdiocese of New York,” said Ryan. “We can achieve so much, and we can achieve so much when we tackle poverty eye to eye, soul to soul, person to person. As Catholics, we call this solidarity and subsidiarity.”
Ryan went on to talk about some of the natural disasters and the deadly shooting “massacre” in Las Vegas that have happened in recent months. He described being in post-hurricane Houston a few weeks earlier.
“The sun was barely up, it was the crack of dawn, and it was already as humid as can be. And you could almost feel the exhaustion in the air,” he said. “But we get there, and I got to tell you, this shelter was alive. It was full of life and hope and prayer. … Volunteers from seemingly everywhere, people from the South, people from the Midwest, people from the Northeast.
“People were telling me how they just felt they had to be there, that they didn’t care how long it took,” continued Ryan. “They would stay and do whatever was needed. They just got up and came. It was truly something. So yes, much has been taken, but not our spirit. Not our nation’s resilience. Not our faith.
“So in these moments when people are suddenly isolated and separated from everything they know, it is those unspoken bonds between us, it is that common humanity, which brings us together and lifts us up,” he added. “We need to work together for [renewal]. It’s a work that’s beyond politics. It’s a work that politics will catch onto if people of virtue insist on it.”
Seizing beatitudinal opportunity
The election of Trump has absolutely highlighted some of the angrier elements in our country. But with the rejection, there’s an opportunity to rally behind the healthy, celebrate people of the Beatitudes, what each and every Christian is called to be. There’s this tendency right now to watch politics as if it is one big reality television show, or a car crash on the road to gawk at.
In truth, it’s a challenge to do better, motivated by love of one another, of country, of the God who gives us the gifts of life and liberty, and who expects us to protect these for ourselves and others.
Here’s a little more of what Pope Francis said to Congress:
“We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
Can each and every one of us be part of that good work? Can we be convicted by our conscience for the work of hope — whoever the president is and whatever we think of him?
The most encouraging conversations I find myself in about politics involve people organizing holy hours in their parishes and praying for the president and other civil leaders, often alongside Church leaders. Exhibiting moral outrage on social media only goes so far; prayer and virtue is where our power lies. It’s what may move us always forward, as St. Junípero Serra might point us.