Monday night’s presidential debate reminded me of two senior citizens quarreling over a bingo game in an old folks’ home. The grumpy grandad was picking a fight with the old lady who learned long ago that the best way to calm an angry man was to keep smiling and rise above it.
“There, there George, we’ll try to make sure your butterscotch pudding is warm next time…” You get the idea.
Their quarreling made for good TV, and brought back memories of those Jerry Springer shows where planned spats boosted the viewing statistics.
The shallowness of the debate was the most depressing thing about it.
One doesn’t expect a presidential debate to be a doctrinal dispute, a sermon, a meditation or a theological exposition. Neither do voters expect their politicians to be exceptionally pious. Conventional religiosity will suffice, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both deliver in that respect.
Both pay lip service to a bland form of Christianity that has become America’s national religion.
Hillary Clinton’s Christianity consists of vague platitudes about Jesus being a good role model and “I have learned from my Christian faith to do as much good for others as I can.”
Donald Trump’s understanding of Christianity doesn’t even go that deep. He belongs to a mainstream Presbyterian church famous for a pastor who preached positive thinking. Trump doesn’t feel he has done anything for which he needs to ask forgiveness, and when he “eats his little cracker and grape juice” he feels “very, very tremendous” about himself.
Our low expectations for the candidates’ Christianity were certainly fulfilled in Monday’s debate.
Not only was religion absent from the agenda, but there was also no discussion of values, principles, morality and ethics. There did not even seem to be any evidence that either candidate had ever studied or even reflected on such matters. The conversation circled around money and power, power and money.
The Christian religion concerns more than what religious people do on Sunday morning in their churches. Christian theology has implications for every aspect of human society. Christianity includes a deep and far reaching philosophy on the meaning of life, the innate dignity of each human being, the eternal dimension of marriage, the family, the environment and the whole human experience.
Catholic social teaching provides a rich, thoughtful and profoundly practical meditation on the application of theology to civic life. While one doesn’t expect Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to be experts in Catholic thought, it would have been encouraging and enlightening to have had some sort of indication that they were at least aware that such a body of thought exists.
Given that they wish to occupy the most powerful office in the world, it would have been encouraging if there had been an indication they had given the matter some thought, or if they had not given it any thought, that perhaps they had one or two advisers who had done so.
Instead, Hillary Clinton trotted out some polished phrases about her plans and programs while Donald Trump assured us that he had some “very, very tremendous ideas” to bring “millions and millions of jobs” back to America. When it came to urban violence Trump called for law and order, while Clinton waffled about community relations.
When it came to dealing with the challenge of Islamic jihadists, Trump said, “I have a really, really great plan.” and Clinton said, “I have a plan too!”
Really? Any idea that there might be an underlying, cohesive belief system that guided their lives was absent. Any hint of a spirituality or philosophy that enlightened either of the candidates was totally missing. Not only was there no spirituality or philosophy, there wasn’t even an ideology.
Catholic social teaching is guided by the core doctrines of Catholic theology. In his book Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart explains the importance of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Very simply, God took human form and forever thereafter changed humanity. This historical truth was like a quantum leap forward in evolution.
As the first theologians pondered and wondered at this truth, they decided that because God became man, man could become like God. This new and innate dignity of each human being was the seed that would transform humanity. This previously unimagined potential would transform human society forever.
This truth lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching and its fruit is the principles of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity. Political policies and programs are therefore based on the innate value of every human life. “Solidarity” means “I am my brother’s keeper,” while “Subsidiarity” means what is local is real.
One does not need to be a Catholic, nor even a Christian, to understand the truth, simplicity and practicality of these values.
We accept the fact that a presidential debate these days is a global entertainment phenomenon. It’s rough and tumble reality TV, and one does not expect candidates to engage in meditative navel gazing, spiritual raptures or philosophical head scratching.
Nevertheless, is it too much to expect that aspirants to the office of President of the United States exhibit some indication that their lives and ideas have more depth than bragging about the casinos they have built or the tired political talking points they wish to recycle?