As we enter the silly season of another presidential campaign, the conscientious Christian finds himself, as in most things, situated in the midst of a delicate paradox. On the one hand, we have seen a string of real-life absurdities in recent politics that exceeds the imaginative powers of the great humorists. Phrases like “It all depends on what you mean by ‘is'” and “No controlling legal authority” and even formerly neutral terms like Buddhist nuns, iced tea, and cigars have become the staple of late-night comedians. On the other hand, the stakes now are literally life and death: Our next president will set abortion policy through appointments to the Supreme Court for decades.
So we can only pray that our stumbling and mostly myopic politics will in some way, utterly beyond our ken, be guided by a merciful providence. In this context, just to invoke the notion of providence, which is to say God’s lordship over all things great and small, including the historical process, is almost enough to upset our faith. We easily accept that God rules over history in its large lines; it’s the short term that could turn us into atheists. What was God thinking, for example, when He allowed Bill Clinton into the White House and Monica Lewinsky into the intern corps? Or when He allowed politically tongue-tied but later loquacious Viagra spokesman Bob Dole to become the only alternative to the last four years of infamy? We cannot say.
One possible answer, a quite frightening one, is that He respects our freedom so much that He has simply allowed the cumulative choices of Americans over the last 30 years to have their natural effects. Or as the Old Testament puts it, He may decide to leave us in the stubbornness of our hearts to follow our own—invariably disastrous—designs.
The New Testament gives us a very different picture. God goes out of His way to save His people, even going so far as to suffer and die—two things ancient thought, Jewish and pagan, believed it was impossible for God to do—to save us. The great and prophetic modern French Catholic Charles Péguy used to refer to God’s grace as a devergondée, a shameless woman who runs after men certainly not worth attention. In a way, that’s what it takes to bring us back to sanity.
Of course, none of this has any public relevance whatever in our currently secularized campaigns. Under the pressure of great decisions, figures like the Founding Fathers and Lincoln dimly discerned providence behind the political hurly-burly. But we find it hard to believe any great decisions lie before us—though they do. Instead, the rhetoric of both parties vaguely revolves around things like “the failed policies of the past” and the “bright promise of the future?’ The immense prosperity generated in America in the past few years and the lack of an international threat obscure more basic issues for us in a variety of ways. But we need to be absolutely lucid about the alternatives before us.
All of us should want the material and economic might of the United States to continue, and even to grow. America is a troubled place at the beginning of the new millennium. But compared with the alternatives to our world hegemony—the European Union or some international coalition run from the United Nations—there is something providential in our rise to unchallenged power in the 20th century. For all our foreign policy fiascos, it’s better for us to be the arbiters of the world’s condition than any other power we can name. We should feel no shame in saying this and pursuing foreign policies to make it so.
When we think—as the Holy Father has encouraged us to do— about the culture that drives modern societies, however, the providential pattern grows cloudier. There is no challenger to American global dominance in culture either. But even we Americans, as the surveys tell us, are worried about our moral direction as a nation. Everyone seems to sense that this has something to do with selfishness and lack of character. Few are willing to see the roots of the larger crisis in the self-indulgence created by the unholy trinity of contraception, abortion, and family breakup. Prosperity has masked and distorted this connection; but it will be back with a vengeance.
A related question for many voters is education. By this, I believe, they mean to say that they are also worried about our moral direction in its most basic public form. Given social break-down and current taboos, the schools cannot explicitly say much that might remedy the situation. Rare is the American who says he is worried about education because—as the educationists would claim—we are not paying teachers enough or are not sensitive to the claims of various groups. On the contrary, most Americans believe the problems with schools are not primarily financial. America grew great while many were educated in simple one-room schoolhouses. Today, there is much wrong in the culture that naturally comes to the surface in these most basic public institutions.
Even poverty now is something different than in the past. If anyone starved to death from poverty in the United States, it would be a front-page story for months. Instead, our news sources tell us that most Americans, particularly the poor, are overweight. This is a poverty of a very different kind and it calls for a very different response. Our poverty—even in well-off suburbs—is a cultural poverty that has material and moral consequences. It sometimes seems like we are slipping into a kind of Dark Age in which the culture is lost though material conditions remain steady.
The lament that this election is not ideological—life issues aside—may actually show us a providential opening. The very reduction in the importance of the usual political issues may be the most prominent sign of providence in our current moment. As has become the common custom, both parties will promise voters goody- bags in the fall. But more and more people know these benefits are marginal to our real problems. The main issues are not material ones and will only get worse until we decide to face them. In the meantime, we may have to go through a tough school of hard knocks, but from the realization that providence does not abandon us, even in this silly season, we may take heart.