Catholics responsible for presenting Church social teaching who are dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump, and by the support he has received from their co-religionists, should look in the mirror for an explanation of the turn events have taken. His triumph has a great deal to do with their failed leadership.
The “social issues” mark a profound crisis in modern society that the Church as a whole hasn’t adequately faced or understood. The failure grows worse as time passes.
We live in a society marked by increasing ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, in which more and more of life is carried on through commercial or bureaucratic arrangements. In such a society problems are expected to be resolved by money, legal considerations, and administrative decisions rather than personal connections, informal social networks, and common goals and understandings. The result is that people feel entitled to pursue whatever they feel like pursuing rather than consulting social ideals and expectations, which are increasingly understood as foreign to what they really are.
That development has led to the social issues. These have to do with the habits, attitudes, and beliefs that order people’s day-to-day lives and their connections to others. These include understandings of what men and women are and what they owe each other. They also include religion, what people think the world is all about and what is ultimately behind our rights and obligations. That means they relate to inherited culture, to the customs and understandings that develop among people who have lived together for a long time and found common ways of dealing with life. And they relate to identity, to the things that make us what we are: men or women, Americans or Chinese, Catholics, Muslims, or dedicated secularists.
When such issues arise they are hard to deal with politically. They have to do with subtle and complex considerations that are hard to formulate explicitly, but help give us a position in the world that enables us to deal sensibly with more particular issues. So they concern the things that constitute a society as a society and enable it and its members to govern themselves.
So it’s normal for the social issues to remain pre-political. But what happens when they are no longer taken for granted, and enter politics as disputed questions? The impulse in a society like our own, in which the most powerful institutions are based on money, procedural rules, formal grants of authority, and claims of expertise, is to simplify life by getting rid of them. It is assumed that the world can run on global markets, transnational bureaucracies, and private contractual arrangements, and do without the authoritative common understandings and networks of informal connections to others that have traditionally been fundamental to society.
Matters relating to sex, identity, culture, religion and the like can then be reduced to hobbies, impulses, or personal commitments and so kept out of public life. In effect, it’s an attempt to deal with all social life on the model of foreign policy: independent sovereign actors deal with each other in accordance with their interests and goals, which are accepted by other actors as legitimate except to the extent someone’s goals are at odds with equal treatment or the stability and efficiency of the system.
The approach seems to work reasonably well for some types of people, at least for a while. It works for those who are highly functional, career-oriented, and have weak impulses or good impulse control. Such people can find the meaning of life in their careers, and act in prudent ways that help advance them. It doesn’t work for people who don’t have the qualities and inclinations required for a career in any personally sustaining sense. Such people rely much more on informal human connections to orient their lives and connect them to others. In a society that turns such matters into private preferences, they are set adrift.
And that accounts for what we see around us. The meritocratic class, who run things and want to get rid of the social issues, allies itself with various marginal groups: people from minority cultural backgrounds, people who for reasons such as sexual oddity find it difficult to live in a traditional way, and the increasing numbers of people who suffer from the weak social ties and chaotic lives produced by cultural dissolution.
So we end up with an alliance of insiders and outsiders against the middle group Jerry Falwell used to refer to as the moral majority: those who remain attached to the standards, practices, and culture that have traditionally ordered society. The more cultural dissolution disconnects people from society, the smaller the middle group becomes and the more people look to government to protect and provide for them. As a result, the insiders progressively gain power, the outsiders grow more numerous, and the middle group becomes not only smaller but less cohesive and self-confident.
The obvious role for the Church in such a situation is to stand for the protection and reconstitution of moral tradition. That would help the outsiders far more than propping up insiders who first make them helpless by disrupting sustaining habits and ties to others and then profess to help them. With her thousands of bishops, thousands of journals, institutes, and academic institutions, tens of thousands of scholars and journalists, hundreds of thousands of clergy and religious, and millions of concerned laity, all professing faith in God, love of man, and the deepest concern for social matters, she is uniquely suited to do so. As in the Middle Ages, when she resisted noble and royal domination, she could be a powerful and above all independent voice in support of a better world.
But with shining exceptions like the last two popes and those they inspired she has mostly failed to do so. Instead, those who speak for her increasingly support the top class in the name of looking out for those at the bottom. So they get the rewards of selling out along with a reputation for compassionate concern for the marginalized and prophetic boldness in rejecting pharisaic legalism. They can live comfortably and with the approval of everyone respectable while presenting themselves as successors to John the Baptist.
But how does Donald Trump fit into all this? He’s not much of a social conservative and didn’t run on social issues. He said the usual things Republicans say about such things, but his campaign mostly had to do with trade, immigration, and foreign policy. Even so, he’s become the flag bearer for social conservatism because it was a job others wouldn’t do.
People complain he is a crude vulgarian, and there’s something to that. He seems to resist external influences, so he retains a lot of the outlook of the ordinary untutored man. He’s a billionaire New Yorker and Ivy League graduate who talks the way a blue collar guy might be expected to talk in a bar in Queens.
But that turns out to be an advantage today. Respectable public orthodoxy and the intellectual class that propagates it have fallen into a black hole of technology worship and scientism. Our rulers believe in studies and statistics but refuse to understand basic features of everyday life. Trump’s immunity to instruction means he retains some of the normal cognitive abilities that education today suppresses—like the ability to recognize that the world can’t really be managed, “cultural diversity” often means conflict, a baby is a baby even before it’s born, and the human race is divided into two sexes that are different from each other.
That peculiarity, together with his comparative lack of contempt for his supporters and unwillingness to kowtow to his supposed betters, has led him to reverse some of the more outrageous Obama-era initiatives, like forced support for contraception and transgenderism, and support judges who don’t wholly buy into the religion of our governing classes, which is progressivism.
That’s obviously not enough. A better world requires better leaders with a more developed view of things. The Church is the custodian of such a view, but her leaders, spokesmen, and scholars mostly decline to present it with any force or conviction. It would put them too much at odds with respectable opinion. That leaves Donald Trump as the champion of ordinary loyal people who don’t like where we’re headed. That’s not a good situation, but it’s the one the conduct of their betters has placed them in.