Lingering Blues

In one of Tom Stoppard’s plays, a character remarks in a breezy way, “Well, tomorrow’s another day.” To which another character responds, “No, I find that tomorrow is usually the same day.” 

Friends, still trying to recover after the shock of the election, remark that the world hasn’t come to an end. True enough, but that bromide does not sweep away the gravity of what is before us, or the depth of the political and moral changes that the election portends. (And for young people in Georgetown a critical part of the world is coming to an end: We gather there at the end of the week for James Schall’s farewell lecture.)

My friend George Marlin, who knows more about the Catholic vote than just about anyone else, pores over the data and concludes that the thing he knows most about, apart from politics in New York and the bond market, has come now to mean less and less. The white Catholic vote among working people has been dropping dramatically, removed by what Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time.”  

Marlin reports that the Cafeteria Catholics voted for Obama at a level of 57-43, mirroring the vote for Romney among the Catholics who regularly go to Mass. The readers of these columns have often despaired over the erosion of the Catholic faithful, and now the so-called Cafeteria Catholics have helped make the country into one large version of the famous lawyer-joke: A lawyer is told that he will be made a success in business and love, if at the end he gives Satan his soul. And the lawyer, drawn but puzzled, asks, “What’s the catch?” 

Catholics are told that Barack Obama is the only national Democrat who has opposed the move even to protect the child who survives an abortion;  that he would impose on Catholic institutions and Catholic businessmen the obligation to fund abortions and contraception for their employees;  that he would install same-sex marriage, with the penalties sure to come for institutions and businessmen who would dare refuse to honor this new “right” inscribed in the law. And a large portion of the Catholic population, hearing these things, remarks, “Yes. . .and what’s the problem?”

A reader recently complained that George Marlin and I assumed that more Catholics would have voted for Romney if the argument over abortion had been made part of the campaign. But George and I are long past that assumption.

         Dark Day by Delos Palmer, 1934 (Stamford Histrical Society)

In the movie Ninotchka, Greta Garbo, playing a faithful Communist apparatchik, remarks approvingly of the purges going on in Stalin’s Russia:  “We will have fewer, but better Russians.” I detect, among many friends, that they would not be averse to a pruning of the tree in the Church, that there may be slightly fewer but better Catholics.

And yet, are we to be shocked – shocked – that in a fallen world the people around us, even Catholics, are not all they should be?  Pope Benedict a while back offered a meditation on the story of St. Andrew, put to death on an X-shaped cross. In the story, Andrew hails the cross as the object given an exalted meaning by Christ: “Before the Lord mounted you, you inspired an earthly fear. Now, instead, endowed with heavenly love, you are accepted as a gift.” Benedict went on to say that “our own crosses acquire value if we consider them and accept them as a part of the cross of Christ.”

We are deeply disappointed with our fellow citizens and even with Catholic voters, but the task of making the argument to them should be taken up now as a gift, bidding us to the work we are fitted to do. And what else is there but to do it? 

The depression of the election lingers, and several friends say that they still feel it in their bodies. But they know that they must pick themselves up, and if they are not looking into real estate in Malta, they know that the only thing to do is to rejoin the argument in this, their own country – to sound the reasons again for affirming their faith and finding a way to teach anew.

John Kennedy, before he ran for president, used to tell the story of Abraham Davenport, the crusty figure in Connecticut in the days of the Revolution. Davenport was a colonel in the Connecticut State Militia and in his sixties during the crisis with Britain. He was a member of the Connecticut Council of Safety during the Revolution, a body that was said to have powers of life and death at that time.

He was also a member of the legislature. He was in the legislature in Hartford on that day in May, 1780 when the skies darkened, the birds went silent and disappeared, and the fear took hold that the Day of Judgment was at hand. A motion was made to adjourn the House. Davenport would have none it. He sought briskly to dissolve the panic and impart some clear-headedness. He is reported to have said:  “I am against an adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”  

Let the candles be brought; we have work yet to do.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.