I have been attempting to reconcile myself with the idea of Donald Trump.
It has not gone smoothly.
As both a Catholic and as a conservative, I am, in many ways, the antithesis of every adjective used to describe both “The Donald” and the movement he’s given rise to. Populism, in so many ways relative to place and time, has always been an uneasy “ism” for an eternal and universal Church to deal with. Likewise, Trump’s credentials as a social conservative are, at best, inconsistent. He has a loud mouth, questionable character, and absolutely no experience when it comes to foreign policy.
But beyond these factors, it has been Trump’s campaign slogan— “Make America Great Again”—that I have wrestled with the most.
At a time when Christianity as a whole faces unprecedented challenges from both the federal government and mainstream culture, it can be difficult to subscribe to the idea of America exceptionalism that the slogan suggests.
It’s not a difficult mindset to understand, especially for those of us in our twenties. America, in many ways, is the land where the federal government threatens to remove Christianity from private schools and universities, aggressively champions a subjective idea of gender, and gives millions of dollars in taxes to an organization with the sole goal of killing unborn children and turning a profit from the sale of their body parts.
And don’t even get me started on the current state of American culture.
Beyond these factors, and in spite of the threatening climate Christians find themselves in, I just don’t know if I can buy this idea of America being the end-all-be-all of civilization. My bachelor’s degree in History hasn’t given me much, but it has provided me with plenty of examples of societies rising and falling throughout the course of human civilization. And let me save you the tuition bill: they all fall, eventually.
But perhaps I have not placed “Make America Great Again” in the proper context. Maybe, if taken out of the soundbites, if removed from the goofy red hats and if looked upon from the perspective of a deeper, implied meaning, “Make America Great Again” turns out to be the philosophical basis for Trump’s underlying conservatism.
The thought occurred to me, ironically enough, while rereading Pope Francis’ first encyclical—Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). Published in June 2013, the encyclical (pardon the pun) illuminates the intersection of faith and reason, and seeks to point readers on the path to recovering objective truth through belief in Christ and the Church.
Philosophically speaking, it should have nothing to do with Donald Trump. Francis, you might recall, has not exactly given a ringing endorsement of the entrepreneur-turned-reality-television-star-turned Republican candidate. Yet, in a roundabout way, Francis’ call for both individuals and society to recover truth and reject subjective isolation is a reminder for the necessity of conservatism, and, ironically, Donald Trump.
Identifying the great crisis of our age, Francis writes that
…truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion. Surely this kind of truth — we hear it said — is what was claimed by the great totalitarian movements of the last century, a truth that imposed its own world view in order to crush the actual lives of individuals. In the end, what we are left with is relativism, in which the question of universal truth — and ultimately this means the question of God — is no longer relevant.
We see this sad dynamic every day. From a media-driven culture that labels those who stand for traditional marriage as bigots, to a government that actively levels financial penalties against religious organizations which don’t comply with its draconian health care mandates, the message of those who deny truth is to rally behind the banner of fear. In mainstream society, anything seen as objective, as right or wrong, is a “step back,” a return to whispers of twentieth-century totalitarianism. (Because, as we all know, nothing says Nazisim like the Little Sisters of the Poor and their refusal to issue contraceptives as part of a health care plan.)
This idea of painting the past as bleak, desolate, and enslaving is a tactic the left trots out time and time again. Yet to think of the past in these terms, to (gasp!) think of pre-Roe America only as a place where women were dying in staggering numbers because the government wouldn’t pay for their abortion-inducing contraceptives, is so ridiculous it borders on laughable.
We all know that there were times in our country’s past when people were more united, when the rights of the vulnerable were more secure, and where the First Amendment wasn’t something that was under siege by government overreach. We know these things because we remember these things. And we remember these things because we have a common past.
Francis, in Lumen Fidei, speaks to the need to rediscover truth thorough this same act of memory:
The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path.
To a great extent, this is the idea of conservatism; namely, that there are aspects of our past worth holding onto, and that there are traditions and values which bind us together and, to quote T.S. Eliot, “point to one end.” When we remember and recover these aspects from memory, putting them into practice in our lives and in our society, we begin to reflect a shared truth.
And make no mistake about it: In a nation with a strong Judeo-Christian history, truth involves the realization that our rule of law comes from nature and nature’s God, and not from movements in popular culture or populistic politics that come and go. Our nation’s historical connotation of truth might not always align on a 1:1 ratio with Catholic teaching, but it reflects a deep desire to have a communion with the past.
In other words, it does not want to reject the question of God; it wishes to strive for an answer in the experiences of the past.
This is what it means to have faith. This is what it means to be a conservative. And, perhaps we can even say, this is what it means to “Make America Great Again.”
I have been attempting to reconcile myself with the idea of Donald Trump. I may never be able to reconcile my political and religious beliefs with the man himself, but I don’t have to in order to vote for him. This is because the idea of Trump is driven by people–people who ultimately are driven by a collective memory and desire for truth. I get it — there’s no assurance that Trump himself will stand with the Church on very important issues. But there is an assurance that the alternatives on the left will not.
Ultimately, it comes down to faith: Not in Trump, but in God and the desire of America’s citizens to search for Him. And as Lumen Fidei reminds us, “Faith illumines life and society.” Let it also illuminate our choice in the election.