NEW YORK—For the past year the hottest entertainment ticket in the Big Apple has been the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, where one-time allies turned rival Presidential hopefuls clash over their vision of the future of America.
But across town, a similar story (with a bit more star wattage but less hip-hop) took center stage last night at the 71st annual Alfred E. Smith dinner where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shared a meal and a dais with New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan as the only thing between them.
And while this campaign has been marked by a toxic level of cynicism fueled by personal insults and attacks, the two presidential hopefuls kept with tradition and came together to raise money for Catholic charities and provided a glimpse of something that has been largely absent from this race: a bit of humor (even if awkward at times) and an effort at civility.
The Al Smith Dinner dates back to 1945, honoring the legacy of the nation’s first Roman Catholic presidential candidate. Beginning in 1960 with Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, it’s become an occasion for presidential contenders to put politics aside for an evening and roast one another and themselves while raising millions for children in need.
Despite some awkward moments, both candidates made attempts to humor their opponent. At a nod to her large speaking fees from Wall Street executives, Trump remarked that “This is the first time Hillary is sitting down and speaking to corporate leaders and not getting paid for it.”
Meanwhile, Clinton fired back moments later by observing that “It’s amazing that I’m up here with Donald. I didn’t think he’d be up for a peaceful transition of power,” a reference to his reluctance to say whether he will accept the outcome of this election.
But after all was said and done, it was Dolan who took to the lectern to ease the felt tension and to remind the room of why they had gathered in the first place: New York’s children who are in need of the financial support of Catholic charities.
He also didn’t hesitate to add that among the evening’s attendees were a Mexican immigrant who relied on the Church’s charity works to learn English, and a woman who decided against abortion and found aid from the Church—a polite reminder that there are areas where both candidates remain out of step with the Church.
A 2012 election year Knights of Columbus-Marist poll revealed that 8 in 10 participants responded that they were “frustrated” with the tone of our politics. That same year, Dolan asked Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama to sign a “Civility in America” pledge and to focus the presidential contest on the issues rather than personal attacks.
Four years later, “frustrated” seems to be an inadequate description of our present situation, especially for U.S. Catholics who have found serious faults with both candidates. Trump’s questionable stance on abortion and charges of sexual assault has divided traditional Republican voting Catholics. Meanwhile, the latest release of hacked e-mails from the Clinton campaign has led to allegations of anti-Catholic bias in the Democratic Party.
In August, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput took to his diocesan paper to highlight the “astonishing flaws” of both candidates and last month, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln Nebraska, made headlines by heeding that “No Catholic should feel obliged to vote for one candidate just to prevent the election of another.”
If there’s one thing that both this election cycle has revealed, it’s that something is seriously wrong with the way we do politics.
Yet despite the grim circumstances, the refreshing reminder from last night was that even in the midst of such contentiousness, the Catholic Church still has the ability to bring people together and offer hope and a better way of engaging the world around us.
As Pope Francis warned long before this campaign began, “Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith.” The model taught by Francis—whose papacy is a master class in creating a culture of encounter—is for Catholics to be courageous witnesses to the joy of the gospel and to make it attractive to the world around us.
Such a proposal transcends partisan divides, and reorients us to matters of ultimate and final concern.
The negativity on the campaign trail and the disgust that most American voters have over this election will be over in less than twenty days. But the issues at stake—the marginalized workers, the immigrant in fear of being ripped apart from their family, or the woman facing a crisis pregnancy—will remain with us.
As Dolan closed out the dinner, his message suggested that it won’t necessarily be a campaign that will be there to meet these needs—it will be the Church. For Catholics of all political persuasions, this Al Smith dinner should be a reminder that faithful citizenship isn’t just a matter of what we do on November 8th—it’s what happens afterwards that really counts.