Sobering Up after the Caucuses

The prospect of the 2016 campaign season should fill any sane person with mortal dread. We’re about to see our public and private bugbears, already scary enough, played out on a new digital stage – much bigger than even just four years ago – which means all hype, all the time, for ratings and attention. And as TCT knows as well as anyone, regrettable comments by online readers, Tweeters, Facebook warriors, who wouldn’t dream of saying such things to others, except from the safety of anonymity.

Monday’s caucuses delivered unexpected results, for me, at least. They made clear that America, and the whole Western world really, seems in urgent search of something, without knowing exactly what. Whatever that may be, one thing is certain: it will not come to us merely via politics. If you think any of the current frontrunners can really cure even our large-scale ailments, your faith in 21st-century politics is far greater than mine.

It’s one of the crosses we currently bear to think that more European-style socialism – sorry, social democracy – which we already have to a large degree, or a louder and brasher conservatism will somehow resolve our lack of real purpose. We’re trying to solve spiritual and moral problems with political means.

As the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy never tired of pointing out: “You live in a deranged age – more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” What he meant by this is that we – even the poor among us – are far wealthier and more comfortable (materially) than all but the most fortunate people in the past. We suffer from one main drawback: we’ve lost the sense of why we’re alive.

There’s only one remedy for this, and that is to teach people who man is, because of who God is. The modern state will not do that and shouldn’t even try, since we know – given what Western culture has become – what happens when public schools and government agencies try to teach ultimate “values.”

Or even seek to promote so-called neutrality, which somehow always ends up taking the public culture ever farther from its religious and constitutional roots. Maybe that’s why the Founders chose not to include education as one of the enumerated powers of the new American Republic.

Constitution notwithstanding, however, a very large building houses a Department of Education in Washington. It’s not easy to say how much it spends yearly because the budget comes from several sources; $100 billion is close enough. If you’re disturbed by what you see, anywhere between pre-school programs and graduate schools, it’s partly the fault of educators who are themselves not very well educated or independent. But federal largesse and the politics it injects at every level of schooling now haven’t helped.

Department of Education
Department of Education

So it falls to Catholic and other independent centers of teaching and learning to offer a deeper vision, to use a poignant phrase. It’s worth debating Common Core, but we desperately need an uncommon core to move us off our current malaise. Unfortunately, Catholic educators too have with notable exceptions fallen prey to the usual political talk about empowering people with the skills to get jobs and earn more – fine things in themselves, but vocational training, not education in the strong sense. One more iteration of homo economicus, not man and woman made in the image and likeness of God.

Our basic difficulty lies in the fact that – absent a broadly shared spiritual vision – we want the modern state to be a kind of church. That’s been a general trend, at least since the American and French Revolutions, but the decline has accelerated as the real churches have allowed the modern state to take up things like education, healthcare, and poor relief that were once the province of a usefully countervailing, independent institution.

The Church now often seems most energized by how to help secular institutions carry out their activities. It used to be that the Church understood itself to be providing its most useful service, even to the state, by forming people to virtue and reminding them of things that transcend – and therefore moderate – politics.

There’s much at stake, of course, in our quadrennial exercise of choosing our king. If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders becomes president – or even a hastily recruited, less radical, residually Catholic Joe Biden – we will in short order have a Supreme Court that will not only radically secularize society, but finish the job of demolishing what’s left of the Constitutional order.

Up until now, the main question when the SCOTUS takes on crucial cases has been what does Justice Kennedy think? With two or three or four appointments by a president in thrall to Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, and bent on maintaining healthcare mandates that threaten religious liberty, we may be asking ourselves: do I have enough money to move to Malta?

Republicans might do better. Cruz and Rubio certainly understand the stakes and have greater respect for the actual, as opposed to the “living,” Constitution. They would have phones and pens, but not use them like our current president. Then again, we have sad examples of Republican appointments: Souter, Kennedy, Roberts (in certain moods).

In ancient Athens, great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle thought democracy the worst form of government. Winston Churchill famously added: except for all the others. We have to be content, said old Aristotle, with a “tincture of virtue” in public life and not expect philosopher-kings, as Plato desired.

Unpleasant truths in America today. Even those of us who have had no illusions about political life maintained a certain pride in the fact that the Old American Dame worked so well, despite everything. But we’re entering a time now when our best options are not all that great. And we have to hope that playing the long game will ultimately work out for the best.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.