A friend sent me this article by David Frum in the Atlantic. “It makes me wonder,” he wrote, “if we are prepared, as a chuch, to help people confront the challenges of the present day. My fear is that we go on with business as usual, worrying about outlawing abortion, getting school ouches, protecting immigrants, and preserving ‘religious freedom’ without ever seeing the big picture — in which case history will someday wonder ‘where was the church?’ Maybe I am overreacting . . .”
Frum’s article is about the slow slide to autocracy we see in President Trump, even in these early days in his presidency, a tendency we see worldwide—in Hungary, in South Africa, in Venezuela and the Philippines and in Poland. Frum writes that despite the historic strength of American democracy,
the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?
Over the past generation, we have seen ominous indicators of a breakdown of the American political system: the willingness of congressional Republicans to push the United States to the brink of a default on its national obligations in 2013 in order to score a point in budget negotiations; Barack Obama’s assertion of a unilateral executive power to confer legal status upon millions of people illegally present in the United States—despite his own prior acknowledgment that no such power existed.
Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.
The fear is not that Donald Trump will set out to build an authoritarian state, but that we will let him in part because he will satisfy us just enough, give us just enough of what we want that we will conveniently overlook his not-so-subtle pivot away from our cherished democracy.
It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless. Venezuela, a stable democracy from the late 1950s through the 1990s, was corrupted by a politics of personal favoritism, as Hugo Chávez used state resources to bestow gifts on supporters. Venezuelan state TV even aired a regular program to showcase weeping recipients of new houses and free appliances. Americans recently got a preview of their own version of that show as grateful Carrier employees thanked then-President-elect Trump for keeping their jobs in Indiana. . .
Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of personal munificence, in which graft does not matter, because rules and institutions do not matter. He will want to associate economic benefit with personal favor. He will create personal constituencies, and implicate other people in his corruption. That, over time, is what truly subverts the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. If the public cannot be induced to care, the power of the investigators serving at Trump’s pleasure will be diminished all the more.
This is especially dangerous for the church. Trump has already thrown some bones our way: defunding international agencies that include provisions for abortion, the nomination of a socially-conservative supreme court justice. I have already heard many delighted Catholics cheer, emphasizing that this is why they voted for Trump, and arguing that the good he is doing outweighs the evil. So he harasses and intimidates his opponents. So he lies. So what if any criticism is taken as opposition, and “and all critics are to be treated as enemies?” We might say we don’t like the guy but continue to support him so long as we are getting a good deal. After all, isn’t our president the artist of the Deal?
The truth is that in the modern period, the church has an uncomfortably easy relationship with autocrats when they serve our interests. And so, my friend’s question: are we maybe missing the bigger picture. Will history ask where the church was when we reflect on what happens to America over these next years? Are we headed for authoritarianism? Frum expresses my fears, and my friend’s:
The lurid mass movements of the 20th century—communist, fascist, and other—have bequeathed to our imaginations an outdated image of what 21st-century authoritarianism might look like.
Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead.
“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too.
If people retreat into private life, if critics grow quieter, if cynicism becomes endemic, the corruption will slowly become more brazen, the intimidation of opponents stronger. Laws intended to ensure accountability or prevent graft or protect civil liberties will be weakened.
If the president uses his office to grab billions for himself and his family, his supporters will feel empowered to take millions. If he successfully exerts power to punish enemies, his successors will emulate his methods.
If citizens learn that success in business or in public service depends on the favor of the president and his ruling clique, then it’s not only American politics that will change. The economy will be corrupted too, and with it the larger culture. A culture that has accepted that graft is the norm, that rules don’t matter as much as relationships with those in power, and that people can be punished for speech and acts that remain theoretically legal—such a culture is not easily reoriented back to constitutionalism, freedom, and public integrity.
Where is the church? Where should it be? I have a few thoughts:
1. The church tends to fall prey to a form of utilitarian realpolitik that has served it badly. I have heard many Catholics in good faith say with total conviction that they had a duty to vote for Trump, despite their misgivings, because of their obligation to defeat the pro-abortion Hillary Clinton. Yet, there is no such obligation to defeat the other party. We don’t spend so much time talking about forming consciences so we can say simply that you’re fine so long as you vote against the other guy. To quote Faithful Citizenship, “The work for justice requires that the mind and the heart of Catholics be educated and formed to know and practice the whole faith.” (Emphasis mine).
2. Voting is a small part of so-called “faithful citizenship.” The work of democracy requires much more than a trip to the polls. To be a Catholic is to be committed to public life, to a refusal to retreat to the safe world of the religious ghetto but to embrace a radical orientation outward, to building a society that reflects the Kingdom. Facebook and Twitter might seem like good substitutes for the public square but the work of democracy involves more than virtual words. It requires we sacrifice our time to march and protest and write editorials and to volunteer. It requires we sacrifice our money to organizations that serve the needy in our midsts. We need to know our representatives and be in touch with them. To quote Frum,
Trump and his team count on one thing above all others: public indifference. “I think people don’t care,” he said in September when asked whether voters wanted him to release his tax returns. “Nobody cares,” he reiterated to 60 Minutes in November. Conflicts of interest with foreign investments? Trump tweeted on November 21 that he didn’t believe voters cared about that either: “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!”
What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.
. . .
Get into the habit of telephoning your senators and House member at their local offices, especially if you live in a red state. Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected. Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily. Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well. Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens. Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets. Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders. Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.
3. A refusal to succumb to partisanship. We are watching while Congressional Republicans whose worldview and political allegiances fall in line with Trump for the unity of the party. For a political party, this is maybe understandable (though not justifiable). But for Christians to do the same is shameful. Our imagination in this country is formed more by partisan politics than it is by anything else, not least of all, our faith. When we think of ourselves in terms of partisan allegiance, we lose the ability to speak prophetically against those who claim to represent us. We need to have enough detachment from the parties that our vote matters.
4. And maybe most important: Education. Learn the faith. Learn civics. I went to a talk recently where the speaker mentioned that only 15% of Catholics read Faithful Citizenship. A 2014 study revealed that only one-third of citizens could name all three branches of government, and one-third couldn’t name a single one. But it isn’t just that. The church has historically-embraced a love of the liberal arts as an education in humanity. “Catholic” education, in this sense, was liberal education. It includes literature and history and science and logic and art. The goal of such a liberal education is not just to form good Catholics, but good people who are capable of thinking critically and deeply and consciously orienting their lives towards truth goodness and beauty.
I spoke to someone recently who said they did not read literature, that it seemed a waste of time and a distraction from the faith. But the tradition of the church has been to look to the arts, especially literature, for some of the most profound articulations of the truths we revolve our life around. The “Catholic imagination” is the term we give to a sacramental worldview that sees all of creation, and especially humanity, as a repository and a channel of God’s very existence and the grace he makes present. God is not just in a church building, not just in the Eucharist, but He is in the cowardice of the Whiskey Priest, the “dappled things” of Hopkins, the earthy lyrics of Bruce Springsteen or the movies of Martin Scorsese. And while Catholics have willingly armed themselves in the culture wars, I fear there is much of contemporary culture—in music and visual arts and movies and literature—that we may have missed because it wasn’t explicitly “Catholic.” And to miss these channels of God’s grace is to miss God.
I fear that too many Catholics, those who homeschool and those in Catholic schools in particular, sacrifice broad quality education for education that is “at least Catholic.” But Catholics believe in a God that is not contained in the sacraments, but is not contained by anything. The search for truth IS the search for God. True Catholic education demands that we commit to “building a world characterized by an ‘uncompromising commitment to truth.’”
The Catholic intellectual tradition also forms us to be less extremist along partisan lines. It includes a commitment to reductionism and a disposition to see the world in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” The Catholic tradition forms us to people who don’t take sides, particularly partisan sides more concerned with power than goodness. And the Catholic tradition makes us life-long learners who are dedicated to contributions to the intellectual and moral life that come from all sources.
Where is the church right now? What is the role of the church as the Trump administration gets on its feet? Our commitment cannot be to just getting ahead, nor can we sacrifice our sacred commitments to truth and goodness merely so that we can get a few policies that we want. The role of the church is to shape hearts and minds, save souls, and build up the kingdom. We must be ever-vigilant to the ways that politics tempts us to do anything otherwise.