Thoughts from Inside the Beltway

On this summer Saturday, dear readers, your correspondent once again approaches as an Idler (Dr. Johnson’s title for himself when producing essays “as hastily as an ordinary letter”) and a Rambler, the name of Johnson’s publication where he asked his readers to pray “that in this undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation of myself and others.” 

A few diverse observations from the nation’s capital, as we begin the Fortnight for Freedom that the bishops are leading, between the Vigil of the Feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher last Thursday, and July 4th:

A Conversation at Farragut Square: I have learned much about the spiritual and physical benefits of walking from Fr. James Schall, at whose encouragement I get around the city on foot whenever possible. But despite his best efforts, I’m not prepared for every encounter on the sidewalks.

Washington has legions of young people deployed to strike up conversations with passers-by for various causes. Greenpeace and Children International are prominent exponents of this technique.

I recently encountered such a young man bearing the emblem of Planned Parenthood. He politely asked me to talk, and he seemed bright. So, out of character for me, I stopped to chat.

I began not with “hello” but with a question: “When do you think human life begins?” His answer had to do with the sentience of life, a stock argument that will allow just about anything to be done to anybody if really taken to its conclusion: “Let me make sure I understand. In your view, a human embryo is less deserving of protection than an orangutan.” “Yes,” came the quick reply. I wished him well – it had all been in a friendly tone – and sped off to my next appointment.

It is probably a vain hope, but I imagined that with his “Yes” came a flash of doubt in his eyes, as in, “Do I really think that?” But I don’t know.

Modern Conveniences: Washington summers are notorious for heat. French and British diplomats, familiar with the most sub-tropical climes of their former empires, tell me that nowhere on the planet is the precise combination of heat and humidity so preternaturally miserable as in Washington in July and August.

Before air conditioning, those who had the resources left town for these months. Those without money worked in the morning until they could no longer stand it and went home. Air conditioning has made it possible for Washingtonians to sit in their cubicles and think up new ways to hate each other all twelve months of the year.

         Between WWII and Lincoln: the Reflecting Pool

The return of major league baseball a few years ago brought with it the hope that official Washington would come out of its chambers to the ballpark near the Capitol in summer, restoring a sense of common cause, or at least common disappointment (though this year the Nationals are reasonably good).

But when political arguments come to be based on dramatically different views of the human person, on whether any authority other than the autonomous self can be valid – well, baseball doesn’t work miracles.

Around the Monuments: I greatly admire the families who come to Washington, children and grandparents in tow, to see the museums and monuments around the National Mall. It is tough slogging in the heat, and it is not unusual to come upon quarrels.

But the nobility of the “little platoons” comes through as they see for themselves the nation’s familiar political architecture, the memorials to great leaders, and the museums with everything from the Declaration of Independence to the 1903 Wright Flyer to the inauguration gowns of the first ladies.

The constructive patriotism of these visitors, their inculcation of the idea of the country as something bigger than themselves handed down to them and to be handed forward, lightens the jaded mind too familiar with the lobbyists on K Street, the vast bureaucratic-administrative apparatus, the media, and the rent seekers running for reelection.

But as I look at the monuments and stately buildings, I am also struck by how indifferent Christ would have been to them. Christ’s attitude towards political authority seems always to reflect almost a casual nonchalance: “Sure, give Caesar his money, pay your temple taxes. Now let’s talk about something important.” 

In the second volume on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI describes the encounter between Christ and Pilate, the political power of the place and day.

Previously, Christ had said, “My kingship is not of this world.” When Pilate asks him if he is a king, Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” The pope concludes, “If power, indeed military power, is characteristic of kingship and kingdoms, there is no sign of it in Jesus’ case. . . .This kingdom is powerless. It has no ‘legions.’” 

As American Catholics during this Fortnight of Freedom think about our government, we are almost startled to realize again what the American Founders, celebrated in the capital’s monuments, knew well: The government in Washington can be either an instrument of, or a rival to, the kingdom Christ proclaimed.

This July 4th, therefore, is a little different from the others.. Something fundamental is – more clearly than usual – at stake. The Fortnight of Freedom is an affirmation of something reflected in Washington’s monuments and something much greater.


Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.