I am relieved.
Now that a week has passed, and people have processed things a little, I can admit publicly what I have to date only said to a few close friends.
I am relieved at the outcome of the election.
This is not to say I am pleased. Regardless of what he said while addressing the University of Notre Dame, Barack Obama has amply demonstrated his willingness to ignore the rights of religious entities to exist and to operate—in ways that go well beyond formal acts of worship—according to their founding precepts. His administration has demonstrated its continued intention to “fundamentally transform the United States of America,” as he put it on November 1, by expanding the reach of government.
As the president might say, “make no mistake”: We do not come back from this election, and by “we” I mean America as we have known it; not with the present culture.
At National Review Online, Charles C. W. Cooke writes eloquently of this truth, but where he feels despair, I feel set free. This election has shattered, finally the illusion that if “good conservatives just keep fighting,” somehow “another Reagan” was going to come along and restore the “shining city on a hill”. For too long I have watched friends remain enthralled to the notion that a single man or woman equipped with rhetorical skills, a bit of spine, and right-thinking would be able to resurrect what is remembered by some modern conservatives as a golden age.
It’s not coming back because half the country didn’t want it, or didn’t even recognize what it had and therefore won’t miss it, and because for young adults and the generations coming up the backbone of conservative theory—rugged individualism, privacy, minimal government—is a complete non-sequitur; it does not compute. Their parents hovered and arranged play-dates and videotaped their every move; they went through public schools working on group projects rather than writing individual reports; they are less acquainted with an omniscient God than previous generations, and comfortable instead with the omnipresent camera and interfaces—the strange god of All Media, Interactive.
Quite unlike their parents, in other words, this is a generation less interested in their personal consciences; one tailor-made for living under authority, and with built-in limits to their liberties.
Is it a tragic thing that what we had is gone and won’t be coming back? Well, yes, because while it lasted it was the most remarkable engine for human freedom, ingenuity, and opportunity the modern world had ever known. But along with all of the goods we manufactured and skyscrapers we erected, we cultivated immense pride—a pride that overfocused us on the material rather than the spiritual aspects of prosperity (to do for others) and freedom (to live for others) and military might (to defend ourselves and others). When we overtipped the scales and became weighed down with McMansions we neither needed (with our 2.5 children) nor could really afford, when we began to manipulate the stock market, when we began to make war with drones and shrug off human life as “collateral damage” we justified it by saying we were the greatest nation the world had ever seen; exceptional and indispensible.
Like Moses, we let pride overcome our mission. The conservatives—obsessing on greatness—refused to acknowledge any weakness. But there is always weakness; not admitting mistakes is the greatest of them. By refusing to cede error or suggest moderation, the right allowed the left to grab on to moral arguments so few were making—about greed, and selfishness, and triumphalism—and to pervert them through the filter of secular statism, until limited taxation, individual accomplishment, and strategic military defense became caricatured as great moral evils, and most other matters became relative. In a great irony, the secularists who warned of encroaching theocracy just a few years ago claimed that the government’s way was the godly way and golly, the people were all right with that, because theological nuance just complicates things, anyway.
And that is how the GOP lost and the Democrats won; through pride and error. Our job at this point is not to save the nation. The nation is tumbling precisely the way the philosophers said it would when it became over-reliant on government. Our job, now is to save each other; to help spiritually strengthen each other for all that is yet to come.
Earlier in the week, I had an exchange with an overwrought woman who declared herself “done with God” because she had prayed for a GOP victory and felt abandoned. It became clear that the “shining city on the hill” meant everything to her; “America is not supposed to end,” she said. When I suggested that such pride might have played a part in this defeat—that Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land because of pride, and the GOP is no Moses—she railed again. When I asked her what she could worship in the nation’s stead, she replied, “nothing.”
That sort of immature faith will not sustain us through the difficult times ahead.
Believers who feel defeated by this election have actually been given a great gift; they’ve been given the opportunity to divest themselves of the sin of idolatry and pride. The battle is not between parties; it is between things seen and unseen. It is between light and dark. The stuff before our eyes, all these earthly concerns, earthly governance—it plays out ultimately for the profit of our souls, not our retirement accounts. If we are professing Christians then we understand the narrative is moving forward to a certain conclusion; the pageant of salvation leads, always, to a complete divesting of everything that has come before. The only way to victory, now is to put the Gipper to rest, and play strictly for God. And God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts, his “shining city on a hill” like nothing in our imagining.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.