On the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Princeton campus erupted in ecstatic shrieks and sighs. I had not voted for Obama, and I hated much of what he stood for (“marriage equality”, “the right to choose”, “data”, all that). But as students streaked by the window, I felt a touch of faith, like the dour Englishman in Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy who cannot help but be moved when confronted by a Neapolitan religious procession in all its mad fervour.
Similar bacchic rites occurred wherever America’s young elites cluster. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured the mood with her novel Americanah, in which a young couple living near Yale (one a graduate student, the other a blogger) is saved from break-up by the Obama campaign. When Barack won his smashing victory in the Iowa primaries, the couple “made love, for the first time in weeks, and Obama was there with them, like an unspoken prayer, a third emotional presence.”
I learned then that Americans regard elections in sacramental terms, as part of what Harvard University’s Adrian Vermeule calls the liturgy of liberalism. If Obama’s victory was seen by our own clerical class a kind of baptismal rebirth, Trump’s victory eight years later called for last rites.
Underlying these cultic responses lies a religious belief in ever-expanding freedom, whether it comes to market relations, cultural traditions or sexual mores. This missionary faith crosses the globe, uniting businessmen and academics, non-profit workers and journalists. Each of these disciples of liberty tends to focus on expanding one of several freedoms. Libertarians complain of the burden of regulations. Feminists decry a lack of “reproductive choice”. Occasionally a member of one camp will express reservations about the priorities of the other. Since the end of the Cold War, the two have nonetheless worked in steady tandem. At Aspen and Davos they join in ecumenical council, decrying the repression and oppression for which ever more freedom is the only cure.
The tenets of this faith are less secure than those of either Christianity or Islam. Liberals believe in a progressive eschatology of ever-increasing enlightenment and freedom, sentimentally expressed in the phrase “love wins”. But history has a way of disappointing such hopes. Imagine a progressive’s response to the sight of Obama (steadfast supporter both of Planned Parenthood and the economically liberalising TPP free trade deal) being succeeded by a regressive ogre like Trump. It is roughly what a Christian would feel were he to find Christ’s mummified body still lying in the tomb.
What are Catholics to make of the man who has done so much to refute a rival faith? Some think Trump a new Constantine, or at least a Bashar al-Assad: someone who, however odious, will nonetheless protect Christians from people who desperately want to destroy them. When one party demands that the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for contraceptives and labels any affirmation of Christian marriage as rank bigotry, Catholics have reason to look for protection elsewhere. Yet Trump, with his crude nativism, is an awkward protector for what remains an immigrant church. If Trump looks like an angel to some, to others he appears to be the Devil incarnate. For them, the picture of Cardinal Timothy Dolan cozying up to Donald Trump is equivalent to a bishop blessing the Third Reich.
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