No King But Cesar

It was one of those modern moments that would be impossible to parody. On Easter Sunday, visitors to Google’s main site were greeted with a unique doodle portraying a solemn-faced figure. Robed all in white and gazing meditatively towards the far horizon, he looked positively Messianic. Had Google, for the first time in the company’s history, decided to tip its hat to triumphant Risen Christ? Of course not. The man pictured was the late Cesar Chavez, who also happened to be born on March 31. When asked to explain this odd choice, the company explained that “it’s difficult for us to choose” which event to commemorate on a given day. In other words, they had actively considered the options, and decided that Chavez was more worthy of notice than Jesus Christ.

What exactly were the Google executives thinking? They could have let the day pass unmarked, and nobody would have minded. Instead, they chose to pay tribute to an obscure cultural figure on a day when hundreds of thousands of their users were celebrating the holiest day of their liturgical year. It’s tempting to see the gesture as an intentional insult to Christians, but personally I think the real truth may be more pathetic than twisted. On a day when Roman Christians are rejoicing in the salvation of mankind, forlorn Google executives may have felt a yearning for some festivities of their own. Conveniently, Barack Obama had in 2011 designated March 31 Cesar Chavez Day, so Google lifted its eyes to the mountains and beheld an inspirational figure of a sort that they could understand.

In many ways, Google’s ridiculous antics were revealing of a more familiar trend. Humans have always been apt to ignore the divine drama of human salvation, looking instead to the tawdry and ephemeral narrative of the political sphere. (I can almost picture them patting themselves on the back for honoring a person who “really did something” instead of the semi-mythical founder of a religious cult.) God’s ways can be frustratingly inscrutable, and he doesn’t always give us the answers that we want. By contrast, the political realm is (or often seems to be) ours to command, and it provides, at least for a short while, a passable substitute for the true human story, namely, that of our fall and redemption. The Jews made the mistake of seeing a political leader in their Messiah. Since that time, countless others have made the parallel mistake of making a Messiah out of one who was merely a man.

When we appreciate the quasi-eschatological significance that progressive unbelievers attach to the political sphere, we may better understand the zeal with which they seek to defy God and nature by blessing unreality with the sanction of law. Recent events have provided us with a clear example in the fight over “marriage equality.” Biology, psychology and centuries of human experience resoundingly affirm that man and woman are ordered to one another in a way that two men or two women can never be. Properly understood, homosexual marriage is not so much a travesty as a misunderstanding; it is not possible for two people of the same sex to marry. Nevertheless, nothing currently prevents homosexual couples from imitating the time-honored arrangement of conjugal marriage to the best of their ability. The zeal and belligerence with which progressives now pursue legal marriage for homosexuals (refusing even to be satisfied with an equivalent package of benefits and protections awarded under a different name) reveals a desire for something more than legal benefits. Progressives want law to bestow on homosexual relationships the normativity that nature herself has denied them. Having put their faith in politics, they are confident that politics can deliver whatever their hearts desire.

 

We find a slightly more complicated case in the Obama Administration’s HHS Mandate, which was shocking not just for its audacity, but also for its gratuitousness. The administration is intent to see that contraceptives and sterilization be provided free of charge in every health insurance plan. But contraceptives are already ubiquitous, inexpensive, and medically unnecessary. (Or, insofar as they are needed to treat an actual medical problem, Catholics have no moral objection to providing them.) Why trample the religious freedom of thousands in order to solve a problem that, to all appearances, did not exist? The measure seemed even more ill-advised given that (as demographers darkly warn) our society is in no danger of being overrun by babies. From a social standpoint it would make more sense to subsidize those who are producing and rearing the next generation.

Clearly, to the authors and proponents of the mandate, more was at stake than simple expedience. In their minds the measure was not gratuitous, because the problem being addressed was a moral one. Justice, not practicality, was their object. Against whom, though, the charge of injustice be levied? Fertility is bestowed on humans by God or by nature, not by the decree of the Roman Pontiff. It seems, then, that nature herself must stand accused by the agents of progressive justice. To them, nature’s decision to make the exercise of sexuality fruitful (whether or not the human agents wish for it to be), and to assign to women a disproportionately burdensome role in childbearing, is intolerable. An outrage of this magnitude requires a firm response. By enshrining contraceptives and sterilization as an entitlement, the Mandate seeks to trump the normativity of nature with a new, politically manufactured normativity. Henceforth, no woman shall be fertile against her will.

Having witnessed these ludicrous attempts to litigate away basic natural facts, it’s easy to understand why Christians might decide that political involvement just isn’t worth the effort. Democratic governance is meant to encourage citizens to reason and debate together, but the far left seems to have unmoored itself from reality in such a way as to stymie any serious conversation. At such a time, our own parishes, communities and homes may seem to provide a much-needed refuge from a world that is descending rapidly into madness.

Of course, we may soon find that even these safe havens are soon besieged if we give up the fight. But also, in the spirit of the Easter Sunday that even Google troubled (albeit somewhat perversely) to notice, we should consider that, in the end, it is we who possess the real goods that these progressive crusaders crave. Like all people, liberal unbelievers yearn for love and marriage, absolution and redemption, inspiration and hope. They will not find them in the places where they are currently looking. But if they tire of searching then we, who have been so graciously favored, must be ready to point them away from the barren wasteland of progressive politics, and towards the Lord of Life.

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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