Sunday, February 26, 2017

Not My President?

That's a slogan that has been popping up recently, though not for the first time with Trump.  The slogan seems to be greatly irking some Republicans today, but it really should not -- not if they were "true Conservatives", or at least not if they really believed in the strict and literal interpretation of the Constitution.  That's because the Constitution defines the position of "President of the United States of America", but it does not define a position of "President of Each and Every Person in the United States of America."

And yes, there is a difference.  The president's role is to preside, within narrow Constitutional constraints, over the central government of the United States; he is not some king or Führer to demand the personal loyalty of each person.
Sadly, Americans have long made a habit of regarding presidents (particularly those of their own party) as secular messiahs.  For instance, many years ago, I took a course in classical philosophy, and at some point the professor mentioned that he remembered his feeling of shock when FDR died, because he had had the vague notion that FDR was sort of "the fourth Person of the Holy Trinity."

Before I proceed any further, I should acknowledge that yes, there are legitimate forms of government that demand loyalty to an emperor or monarch without making the emperor or monarch into a secular messiah; obviously, though, the United States is not supposed to have either an emperor or a monarch.  Yes, the president should receive some measure of honor from citizens, but the honor he receives from a citizen should not exceed that that Pharaoh gave to Joseph in Genesis 41:40 (RSVCE):

... you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.
The president is supposed to be a public servant, so Luke 17:7-10 (RSVCE) has to be held in tension against the appropriate honor due to a president:

Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, "Come at once and sit down at table"? Will he not rather say to him, "Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink"? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty."
In other words, #heismyemployee is more accurate than #heismypresident. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Suppose a producer -- we'll call him Alan Smithee -- decided to make a movie with the following plot.
Amidst the horrors of World War I, an inconspicuous German enlisted man encounters a mysterious being who claims to be from another world.  After demonstrating his ability to do the seemingly impossible, the being tells the soldier that he has been selected for a test that will determine whether or not the human species is serious enough to merit existence.  The soldier will be given help -- uncanny luck, some will call it, or even divine intervention -- but he must prune humanity of a significant fraction of its "undesirables".  Failure to do this will be punished by the extinction of mankind.  Also, the soldier must not tell anyone of his real reasons for embarking on this mission.  The soldier will be both loved and hated during his lifetime, but after his death he will be the universal symbol of evil; no one will know that he has actually saved the human species.
The soldier's name?  Adolf Hitler.
How would this movie be received?  Would critics praise it for asking "hard questions" about right and wrong, or about judging the actions of another when we do not have all the information?  Or would it be criticized on the grounds that there is no historical evidence this ever happened?

No, the response would be much simpler:  What the hell are you doing trying to find a way to excuse the indefensible?!?!  

That's because it has always been understood that some actions are so wrong that even to consider them as real possibilities compromises one's character.  This is captured in the exchange that has been attributed to many famous men, including Winston Churchill
Churchill: "Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?"  
Socialite: "My goodness, Mr. Churchill... Well, I suppose... we would have to discuss terms, of course... " 
Churchill: "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?" 
Socialite: "Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!" 
Churchill: "Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling about the price."
It should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church has had something to say about this.  The most explicit treatment of it probably comes in Pope St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which includes this:  
In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture....  If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain "irremediably" evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person.

What might be more surprising is that even within the Church, such an obvious truth can no longer be taken for granted.  In fact, whether or not this Teaching remains in force is precisely the fourth dubium submitted by four cardinals regarding the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.  Thus far, Pope Francis has declined to answer, but it seems almost certain that he cannot answer no -- cannot, because the Holy Spirit would prevent him, whatever his personal will might be.

Even though almost everyone would admit there are some acts which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever, the identity of those acts varies from person to person, time to time, and culture to culture.  On the whole, it seems that there are fewer items on most people's lists of unthinkable acts today than there were a half century ago.  Nevertheless, for any kind of Christian, publicly repudiating Jesus Christ is clearly on that list; if there is some price for which you would deny Jesus, then you have already tentatively and implicitly denied Him.

This is the context of Martin Scorsese's movie Silence.  No doubt it was made "very tempting, very persuasive" to the priest to deny Christ -- a phrase that comes from a passage hinting at equally dark deeds performed by one of the characters in "Two Doctors" by M.R. James

But I told him that I could not easily conceive of an arrangement, as he called it, of such a kind that would not include as one of its conditions a heavier payment than any Christian would care to make; to which he assented. "But," he said, "I have no doubt these bargains can be made very tempting, very persuasive. Still, you would not favour them, eh, Doctor? No, I suppose not." 
But really, where is the line to be drawn?  If the priest is willing to deny Christ in exchange for an end to the torture of others, would he be willing to sacrifice incense to Satan?  Would he be willing to sacrifice one baby to Satan to stop the torture of twenty adults?  Ten babies?  Nineteen babies?  Where is the line he would refuse to step across -- and why, if he truly believes what he has been preaching, is that line more bright and clear to him than the one he has already violated?