Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine it had been anyone but President Donald Trump, who issued the recent “Loyalty Day” proclamation, declaring May 1st to be “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom,” and calling for expressions of our common national commitment to “individual liberties, to limited government, and to the inherent dignity of every human being[.]”
It should not be too difficult, actually.
It turns out that U.S. Presidents have been issuing similar proclamations on or about May 1st – “May Day” or “International Labor Day” in much of the world – since the 1920’s, and that it has been an officially designated, “on the books” holiday since 1958 (Esquire Magazine, of all publications, has a good short history of the Day, complete with links – thanks, internet!).
Still, something does feel different about Trump’s Proclamation – something in the tone and substance of it, sure – but also and primarily in the fact that it was President Donald J. Trump who issued it in the first place.
We were perhaps prepared to have any such statement from Trump give us the creeps. After all, he is the one, who brought us the little bit of dystopian spectacle that was the Trump Rally Video (remember that)?
Though, if we are fair and candid, that keyhole peek into bizarro-world showed us something arguably less disturbing than the actual pledge of loyalty and service, not to America, but to the just-elected Barack Obama produced in 2009 by a group of prominent celebrities.
What, though, makes our skin crawl when Trump issues a run-of-the-mill Presidential Proclamation for a holiday that, until this year, stirred less sentiment in the American People than Arbor Day?
I suspect it is because we are viscerally aware that President Trump is what we get when we behave as we have been behaving toward one another.
For too long, we have been willing to buy the tripe of candidates who “speak our language” and “represent our views” – whatever those are, and equally willing – perhaps more willing – to spare “our” candidates or incumbents that exposure to the caustic process of critical examination, which it is always the duty of a free citizenry to bring to bear on the character and conduct of those, who would hold office in their government.
Our readiness to believe the worst about the candidates and officeholders with whom we disagree only compounds the ills of complacency with regard to “our” candidates and officeholders.
Trump is gaudy, crass, and boorish: He is a caricature of himself.
Since we have elected him President of the United States, though, he is also a caricature of the people he has been elected to serve.
Like it or not, we have to take him seriously.
The President’s Proclamation this year primarily calls for flag waving and praise of our fighting forces – and while I am immensely grateful to our fellows in the military service of our nation, and would not begrudge them any worthy and deserved praise – the intensity of focus this year makes me think of another President’s remarks:
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide. (Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838).
Then, as now – and “then” might be 1838, or 1921, or 1958, or any other year – the real danger to our way of life consists in our retreat from the one thing that makes us who we are: Our willingness first to admit newcomers to our conversation, and then to talk with one another – endlessly.
America is essentially “the talking nation.”
While we have placed – and continue to place – certain circumstantial requirements on membership, the only basic and unavoidable condition we place on anyone who would be one of us is that he or she be capable of joining our conversation – that he or she be Aristotle’s “political animal” – which is only a way of saying “human being.”
Our greatest national debates have all turned on this one issue: How broadly to extend the terms of our conversation (and how to go about the work of accommodating vocabularies, terminologies, and idioms hitherto strange to us).
If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we have never achieved anything like unqualified success in the management of the tensions inherent in our national conversation, such as it is, though we have always – somehow, on some level – recognized that the success of our project does ultimately depend on our refusal to disengage from the common conversation in which we find ourselves.
Today, we seem too often to be unwilling to talk with one another.
This unwillingness – which, seconded and nurtured, will quickly become inability – presents itself in various ways: sometimes as explicit exclusion; sometimes as implicit disqualification.
Typically, this unwillingness – which cuts across every political, social, and cultural stratum and divide – manifests itself as a refusal to treat a fellow as a conversation partner, i.e. with a bare minimum of fairness and decency.
Catholics in the United States ought to be especially sensible of the dangers involved in adopting such a stance, since we – or our forebears – had to struggle so mightily to gain a place in the conversation (and give up a great deal of what we understood, rightly or wrongly, to make us who we were), and so be especially solicitous of our fellows, who simply do not see things the way we do.
Indeed, we oughtn’t be either discouraged by the circumstances, or frightened by the stakes – though they are high – indeed, as high as they have ever been.
Indeed, Catholic citizens of the United States – together with those Catholics, who would be citizens – need to realize how close to home the present crisis hits us.
The enemies of the Church have begun once again to attack both the Church and our political liberty simultaneously: They began by insinuating, moved quickly through the phase of suggesting, and now are openly asserting that Christianity is not capable of sustaining the morals of a republic.
Rather than answer with mass expressions of cultural force, or assertions of cultural relevance, we need to lead by example: To act as though we really do believe in the principles we say are the keystone of our society.
So, let me conclude with a modest proposal: Let’s celebrate “Loyalty Day” by really thinking about the positions with which we disagree, and let’s not stop thinking about them until we find something good in them, and then, let’s reach out and start – or pick up – a conversation with someone who holds one or another of those positions, and engage that someone in charity.
Christopher R. Altieri is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Collegium Augustinianum Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology, and the co-Founder of Vocaris Media, where he hosts the Thinking with the Church podcast. His most recent book is The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.