I’ve been dreading this November for the past year. In half a century of voting, I’ve been worried or frustrated by our public life many times. But 2020 has a unique toxicity, as if the whole nation were heaving, rudderless, on an ocean of poisonous blame. There is no peace and no dignity in our political storm. So in recent months, I’ve held tight to the two oars of my lifeboat.
The first is a verse from Sirach: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (28:2). This is hard, because I love my anger. Not publicly, of course. That would be bad form. But secretly, yes—it’s consoling and familiar. It’s also self-exonerating. I nourish it every day in my resentments about people and politics, about issues in the Church, and in a dozen other ways, all of which leave me feeling vindicated, then empty, and then powerless—and thus angrier still. And I know I’m not alone. I see the same struggle in too many other faces. It’s the disease du jour. This sort of anger, unrighteous, unhealthy, but earnestly nursed, is the current terrain of American life. It’s also the doorway to despair. So, I cling, or try to cling, even more firmly to my other oar. It’s a verse from Revelation: “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (21:5).
Behold, I make all things new. All things made new: I believe that promise. But of course, “new” can mean different things to different people.
The Founders of the American Experiment sought to create a novus ordo seclorum, a “new order of the ages.” Seen in isolation, it’s a hugely ambitious goal—a project that was Promethean, arrogant, even delusional. But two things restrained the temptation to hubris: Nearly all the Founders and colonists were religious believers, rooted in a biblical thought-world, who accepted the idea of natural law; and the new country could not afford extreme theories and wild intellectuals. It needed practical builders grounded in practical needs. There were disparities of wealth, but never on the scale of those in Europe, and many who wanted a new start or more opportunity could simply move west.
We’ve now run out of room to “move west.” Disparities in wealth have never been sharper. Racial tensions are high. And biblical faith, which imparted the moral framework to our public life, is declining. The country is more and more technocratic, materialistic, and utilitarian. Absent God, the result is an odd mix of anxieties, resentments, overconfidence, and illusions. This will end badly. As Psalm 127 says, unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain; unless the Lord protects the city, the sentries watch in vain.
Henri de Lubac, the great Jesuit theologian, had some guiding words on how Christians should think about making things genuinely “new”:
Belief in eternity does not tear us away from the present, as we are sometimes told, to make us lost in dreams: it works just the other way. It is rather by disregarding eternity that Christians have disregarded their times.
It’s because our actions in this world matter so greatly for the next that our choices and behaviors have meaning. Everything we try to do without God, no matter how noble or well-intentioned, is infected with our flaws and resentments. We can’t escape our defects. They’re part of who we are. Thus, in every age, the story of the world becomes the same tired drama, again and again, with a new cast and different props, but always the same, basic plot. A truly “new order of the ages” can only come about through our humility and conversion to the God who created and loves us. He’s the only reliable builder.
Since the 2020 election is unlikely to produce any leader distinguished by either humility or conversion, the rest of us might profitably focus our attention, prayers, and efforts further down the road, on those key elements of our shared life that somehow—but urgently—need to be “made new”:
Anthropology, which is a big word for the question raised by Psalm 8: Who is man? Are men and women just very smart monkeys? Raw material for scientific manipulation and rewiring? If they do have special dignity, why? Is there such a thing as a universally distinct and shared “human nature,” and if so, what is it? We need both to praise the many benefits of, and to exercise new caution about, the limits and dangers of science and those disciplines calling themselves “social” sciences.
Politics. It’s important for all of us to recognize how broken and unrepresentative the political system has become. Appeals for national unity will sound especially hollow after this year’s bitter presidential campaign. Four years of an eccentric White House, vindictively biased news media, and a poisonous, slow-motion coup in the lower house of Congress have made civility impossible. It’s not hard to understand why: Our coastal elites and the masses of ordinary Americans who live in flyover country now differ from each other in vastly more ways than time zone. This fact does not absolve us from the Christian obligation to work for the country’s health by being politically engaged. But for sanity’s sake, we need to find ways of fostering inner peace and avoiding the slavery of anger and news addiction.
Economy. The massive concentration of wealth in a small economic elite is an anti-biblical obscenity. How can we maintain reasonable entrepreneurial freedom and rewards for hard work and innovation while minimizing destructive economic dislocations and disparities in wealth? What would a genuinely Christian economy look like? How can we bring it about?
Race. How can we acknowledge and repair sins of the past and work for racial justice, while repudiating a war on our nation’s history and new forms of race-hatred disguised by pieties but rooted in an appetite for vengeance?
Education. Public education is a broken assembly line producing not well-rounded human beings, but politically conditioned, historically ignorant work-and-consumption units for a changing economy. Catholic education, too, at every level, needs a deep rethink. Most Catholic schools at the primary through secondary levels provide good academics and a decent, generic moral formation, but not a durable Catholic identity. Most institutions of Catholic higher education are barely distinguishable from their secular cousins. Over the past two decades, more than one Catholic bishop has told me privately that if he could, he’d close 80 percent of Catholic diocesan schools. With the money saved, he’d support the other 20 percent that actually do their jobs as uniquely Catholic schools, while finding and funding new ways of delivering a sound Catholic education. Bureaucratic inertia prevents vigorous experiments.
Memory and imagination. Americans are bad at history. It’s part of our national personality of self-invention and our fear of being captured by the baggage of the past. As a nation, we want to look forward, not backward. Henry Ford said it best: “History is bunk.” But history isn’t bunk. The real future, and how we imagine its possibilities, are always dependent on lessons learned in the experiences of the past. The Church is transnational and transgenerational; remembering is a vital part of her mission. Memory is crucial to the identity of persons, families, and communities. To the degree that American Catholics lose their uniquely Catholic history, they lose their identity and their savor as salt.
Culture. The human heart longs for beauty and thrives on beautiful art, music, literature, architecture, religion, and education. That’s why these pursuits are so often called “the humanities.” A diseased culture produces ugliness in its manners, imagination, and everything else. It’s perfectly possible to have a technologically advanced society with a diseased soul, and this is exactly what we’ve created. Roger Scruton’s writings are powerful on the importance of beauty, as is the work of Duncan Stroik on the nature of good architecture. Technological expertise is important, but fools with tools are still fools. How can we recover a sense of beauty in our personal lives and in our Church?
Marriage and family. Sex is extremely powerful as both a glue and a solvent. American consumer culture now orders itself against the self-sacrificing duties of marriage and family, while legitimizing disordered sexuality. This is short-term and suicidal for a society, but perfectly suited to individual appetites and consumption. Marriage and family are about the future. They’re covenants, not contracts. They always involve unintended, unforeseen obligations; thus, they’re instinctively an expression of trust and hope. Addicted consumers are about the here and now, and a culture based on them has no long-term future.
Church. The traditional clerical leadership of the Church, for the time being, is largely discredited, either by its bad actions or by its mediocrity and inadequacy in the face of drastically new challenges. This has happened before; it’s not a cause for panic (assuming we do know our history). How can we find and form strong, faithful lay leaders? How can we help form and sustain a new, purified, and more compelling clergy?
And finally, how can we get Catholics once again to see themselves first and foremost not as Latino, or white, or black, or Democrat, or Republican, or even American—but as Catholics? This last question is central to every believer’s life. The interior peace we all yearn for, especially in a time of turmoil, is ultimately a matter of citizenship—the home to which we give our hearts and deepest loyalties.
In 146 b.c., Roman armies defeated and destroyed the city of Carthage, once the premier power of the Mediterranean world. They obliterated it so completely that the site lay barren for more than a century. Yet, rather than exulting in victory, Scipio Aemilianus, the conquering general, wept. His friend, the historian Polybius, who was with him as the great city burned, wrote that Scipio “stood long reflecting on the inevitable change that awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men.” And turning to Polybius, the Roman said, “I feel a terror and a dread that someone, someday, gives the same order about my own native city.” This is exactly the fate that a shrunken and crippled Rome was to suffer in the centuries to come. It was sacked not once, but seven times. Alaric’s rape and pillage of the city in a.d. 410 inspired the greatest of all reflections on the nature of the Christian sojourn in the world, Augustine’s City of God.
We don’t have a license to avoid this November’s election. As Christians, our voices and our choices do matter in politics and in every other sector of our life as a society. Thus, I will vote against the Biden-Harris ticket because, as the father of a child with Down syndrome and the grandfather of three more with disabilities, I will not abide their party’s obscene allegiance to abortion and other related issues. Beyond that, too many of Biden’s actions as a self-identified Catholic seem plainly hypocritical, and Harris is an extraordinarily ambitious and dangerous enemy of the Church. But I also know that some good people will find a way to see things differently.
Whatever happens in November, the lesson in this wicked season is this: Any confusion we allow ourselves between the City of Man and the City of God is really a ticket to the City of Dis, that fortress of wrath at the center of Dante’s Inferno. As Augustine wrote, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. He, and only he, can make all things new. Even me. Even us.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.