One of the principal forms of political discussion in the American colonies in the years before independence was what were called “election day sermons.” The term “election day” did not mean the day voters went to the polls to choose delegates, as with us, but the day the newly chosen delegates were inaugurated. According to the practice of the time, each new colonial legislature invited a prominent minister to address its members about God and political duty as they were about to take up their burdens.
In the year of Our Lord 1775, the Massachusetts Bay legislature invited the prominent Congregationalist minister Samuel Langdon to deliver the election sermon. Langdon, who had taken up the presidency of Harvard University the previous year -- Harvard was not then as it is now -- took as his text the following passage from the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, who was one of the greatest of Old Testament prophets. I wonder whether we too might find it instructive to consider Isaiah’s words on our own “election day.”
How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Every one loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them.
Therefore the Lord says, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: "Ah, I will vent my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes. I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city."
Perhaps Langdon did not make sufficiently clear that the Lord of Hosts was speaking to the people of Israel, not to the Americans. But he was not wrong to hope that God would combine mercy with justice in His dealings with all nations, including ours.
Liberalism is said to mean believing in liberality, which is generosity. Though generosity is a real virtue, it lies between opposite vices. The interesting question, then, is not whether you are in favor of liberality. Instead let us ask: How do you recognize and avoid covetousness on the one hand, and prodigality on the other?
Libertarianism is said to mean believing in liberty. But there is no such thing as liberty in general; there are only particular liberties, because every claim of liberty P entails denial of some liberty Q: If grown-ups have the liberty to kill babies, then babies lack the liberty to live. It isn’t helpful to know that you are for certain liberties, because everyone is. Which strictly defined liberties are you for?
Conservatism is said to mean desiring to conserve ancient goods. Yet even after telling us which ancient things are good, as a political stance conservatism is ambiguous. Is it your aim to conserve the ancient goods by means of the State, or in spite of the state?
Atheism is said to mean denying that God exists. But no one denies all gods, for in every human life, some object is given unconditional priority, and other things are chosen for its sake. It might be protested that people choose inconsistently, yet no one is completely inconsistent, for there is always a drift toward pursuing some things in preference to others. So the question for the atheist is this: Which gods do you mean to deny, and which one do you mean to affirm?
Agnosticism is said to means believing that the truth about the First Being is rationally unattainable. But to know God’s rational unknowability would be to know something about Him. Indeed, it would be to know a great deal about Him. One would have to know that even if He exists, He is infinitely remote, because otherwise one could not be so sure that knowledge about Him were rationally inaccessible. One would have to know that even if He exists, He is unconcerned with human beings, because otherwise one would expect Him to have provided the means for humans to know Him. One would have to know that this hypothetical being is completely unlike the Biblical portrayal of Him, because in that portrayal He does care about us and has already provided such means. So, in the end, the agnostic must claim to know quite a number of things about God just to prop up his claim to not knowing any. The question for him is this: How can he rationally justify his claim to know just those things?
Protestantism is said to mean protesting. What the Reformers protested is a matter of historical record: Luther, for example, protested the idea that being right with God requires anything more than sheer faith. What the latter-day heirs of the Reformers are protesting is far less clear. So for Protestants, the question is: What do you still consider so gravely, so certainly, and so irreparably wrong in Catholicism that it requires a continuing schism?
Since Catholicism is not universal in every sense – obviously, not everyone is Catholic -- I had thought of closing this post by asking in what sense Catholics claim catholicity. Alas for parallelism: The question would have fallen flat, because the Church has already answered it.
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We have come to expect vast and manipulative public relations campaigns mounted to influence the voters, who are then supposed to exert influence on elected officials. In an empire, however, the only constituency that matters to people who want things done is the courtiers, and the only constituency that matters to the courtiers is the emperor himself.
Mikhail Zygar, founder of Russia’s only independent television station, relates in his book All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin that on one occasion, wealthy Russians who stood to gain if Russia hosted the 2014 Olympics in Sochi staged an equally vast and manipulative campaign of influence, seemingly targeted at the public, but really targeted at Vladimir Putin. Zygar writes,
[Putin’s] initial reaction was lukewarm. So the bid committee turned to Dmitry Peskov, who was then the deputy of presidential press secretary Alexei Gromov.
It is said that Peskov proposed a low-cost advertising campaign focused on one man: Vladimir Putin. The bid committee produced billboards and radio spots advertising the Sochi bid. Peskov gave clues as to the route that the president’s motorcade took to the Kremlin, as well as what radio stations he listened to while on the move and at what times, and the media buys were targeted accordingly. The slogan for the public (i.e., for Putin) was “The Games We Deserve.”
A stooge caller was hired to call in during the president’s annual live Q&A session with the public and ask about when Russia would finally host the Olympics. It made Putin think that the people really wanted the Olympics and that, moreover, they wanted them in Sochi, so he gave the go-ahead. Al the state TV channels immediately climbed on board, and the bid committee’s money trough became bottomless.
Zygar suggests that this is common in far more important matters than the Olympics: The strongman is regularly maneuvered into his decisions by the persons with whom he has surrounded himself, persons we have imagined to be stooges.
The United States are not Russia. Yet considering the inclination of recent presidents to rule by decree, the eagerness of presidential candidates of both parties to promise to do so, and the suppine acquiescence of the Congress, one wonders when our own wanters of things done will begin following the same strategy.
Or have they begun doing so already?
Don't overlook: Book Trailer
I number myself as a drop in the flood of formerly Evangelical Protestant scholars and writers who have become Catholic in recent decades. The purpose of this post is not to boast that we are right, and I certainly don’t want to bash the Evangelical community, among whom I first heard the Gospel as a child. God bless you.
But in the interests of ecumenical understanding, and with all respect, I think Evangelicals who criticize the motives of Catholic converts ought to work harder at getting them right.
Just now I read yet another article in an Evangelical outlet trying to explain why people become Catholic. A number of motives were suggested: That Catholicism is older and more traditional, that its liturgy is beautiful, and that the clarity of its teachings makes people feel secure.
Never was it suggested that we might simply find Catholicism more convincing -- that we may have concluded that what the Catholic Church teaches is simply true.
Wouldn’t these critics be miffed if someone suggested that people become Evangelicals only because Evangelicalism is a recent development which breaks with tradition, that it has bouncy worship services, and that the Evangelical belief that “once saved, always saved” makes people feel secure?
Not that the antiquity, tradition, and doctrinal clarity of the Catholic Church don’t matter to Catholic converts; of course they do. The question, though, is not whether they carry weight, but what sort of weight they carry. Protestants believe that the Catholic Church has distorted the Gospel since earliest times. Yet when we converts studied the ancient Christian writers, it seemed to us that a different picture emerged. Catholic doctrine appeared to have developed continuously and faithfully since the time of the Apostles. Even if our critics think we were mistaken, they should try to see that we were not pursuing the antiquity, tradition, and doctrinal clarity of the Church instead of the truth, but for the sake of the truth.
The same goes for liturgy. Beautiful words and sacramental actions devoid of truth would not be an argument for the Church. What we found, though, was that the content of the liturgy was profoundly resonant with the Word of God, and that we experienced the presence of Christ more powerfully in Catholic worship than we had ever experienced it before. The strange surmise crept over our minds that the Church may be just what she says she is.
How dreadful it would have been to prefer beauty above truth. But how good to see more of truth’s beauty.
Don't overlook: Book Trailer
During the Constitutional ratification debates, the skeptical party worried that a state that tried to govern too many people and too much territory would inevitably degenerate into despotism. That is why they believed in keeping as much authority in the localities instead of exporting it to the top.
Their principle can be generalized. A republic turns despotic not only when it tries to govern too many people and too much territory, but also when it tries to govern too many things. A massive bureaucracy, topped by an emperor, staffed by members of the knowledge class, suffering conceits of all-knowledge and all-competence, inexorably becomes the true rulers.
All other influential classes become subservient to it; more and more, for example, the directors of large businesses expect to make profits less by producing new wealth, than by courting patronage and manipulating the regulatory apparatus. Under such a regime, the governing norm is no longer the rule of law, but the rule of the deal and decree.
How doubly unlucky for us that these patterns have repeated themselves at the same moment that our knowledge class has repudiated the natural law.
One suspects that the renunciation of nature will have unanticipated consequences. But our emperors and bureaucrats do not believe in unanticipated consequences. How else explain lunacies like transgender bathrooms?
If they ever waxed philosophical, they would claim to rule nature herself.
Ancient chroniclers have preserved a pair of apocryphal stories about this error. Although the two stories end differently, they begin similarly. When the Emperor Caligula had brought the Roman army to the English Channel, he had his troops bring artillery pieces and form a line of battle on the shore to intimidate Ocean. When King Cnut had attained “the summit of his power” over England, Scotland, Denmark, and Norway, he ordered a throne set up on the shore, commanding the waters neither to flow over his land nor to presume to wet his feet or clothing.
But Caligula declared victory over Ocean, commanding his soldiers to gather shells as spoils of conquest, and then fleeing. By contrast, when the waters poured over Cnut’s feet and legs, he rose, stepped backward, and cried to his courtiers, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. No one is worthy of the name but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
As only one of these sovereigns admitted, it is God who compassed the sea with its bounds and set a law to the waters. Nature limits human laws, but by His laws nature came to be.
Don't overlook: Book Trailer
I’ve been waiting for Cambridge University Press to release the paperback edition of my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, so that bookworms who long for it will no longer have to mortgage their firstborn children. This happy event has finally transpired; your children are safe.
All this reminds me of one of my favorite book jokes. A certain scholar sent his manuscript to an academic press. After the reviewing wheels had turned, the editor emailed, “Fine book. We’d like to publish it, but it’s too long. Could you trim it by ten percent?”
The scholar answered, “I’ll get back with you.” The very next day, he emailed a ten-percent-shorter version of the manuscript back to the press.
Astonished by the swift turnaround, the editor telephoned. “The new version is fine,” he said, “but how were you able to cut it down so quickly?”
“Easy,” said the scholar. “I removed all the transitions.”
Don't overlook: Book Trailer