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The hangover from last week’s surreal edition of the Al Smith Dinner is finally wearing off, and things still look ugly. Host Timothy Cardinal Dolan says it was an “awkward” meeting between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who shared a dais with Dolan at the old televised dinner raising money for New York Catholic charities. Yes, obviously awkward, Your Eminence, but wasn’t it a tad awkward for you to be there, too?
Wasn’t it especially awkward for Your Eminence when Hillary, opponent of all that is Catholic (except liberal Jesuit heresy) said, “We need to get better at finding ways to disagree on matters of policy while agreeing on questions of decency and civility?” Dolan instead would agree, as he responded to calls to permanently cancel the dinner by saying, “nothing can ruin the event” as it is “America and the Church at their best.” Dolan is gravely wrong.
The dinner itself is trivial but its pretense to civility — years ago and now — highlights a paradoxical problem for Christians confronting the Left’s anti-Christian agenda. How do we remain “civil and decent” in confronting the Left’s ideologues and yet resist their hijacking of what it now means to be “civil and decent?”
Time was, a “good Christian man” embodied the ideal of American society. Now, the word “man” is verböten — too heteronormative and bigoted, and if you use it at work, you are soon to be fired. Pundits and politicians need to stop thinking in terms of abstract “policy matters” and remember what life is like on the ground, day-to-day, for us Christians. If you are a professional living in almost any American city, you cannot profess your faith; never mind that — you cannot utter pronouns informed by your faith — unless they are approved by the Gay/Trans Thought Police. Be civil, be decent! Your talent, your accomplishments, your hard work, and even your bubbly cheerfulness, do not matter. Your career will be ruined if you do not comply.
So, what is a Christian to do? Of course, we cannot respond with malice. We are called to the challenge of turning the other cheek and even loving our enemies. Do not underestimate the power of prayer in that endeavor. But haven’t we reached a point at which we need to assert ourselves, however politely, in a different way?
Consider the failed approach of Catholic leaders. They think that the first step to re-earning respect in American society is to “dialogue” with the Left. That low bar of success basically amounts to being friendly with liberals, tolerating “policy differences,” even hobnobbing with them “in good faith” at charity dinners, and then hoping they will change their minds. Friendliness is good, but the emphasis of this approach is wrong, not only because it has produced bad results, but because it grossly misinterprets what the Left is trying to do.
The point of embracing “dialogue,” for the Left, is to convince Christians that Christian morals are not all that important, or that they are somehow compatible with intrinsically anti-Christian views. In our desire to feel better about our opponents and intoxicated with the illusion that we were bringing them closer to us, we Catholics, for example, have, over time, lost our own sense of decency — hence the hollow commitment of a majority of Californians opposing gay marriage, or the Obergefell decision, written by a Catholic.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year said it was allegedly difficult for him not to veto a California law permitting assisted murder. That is what dialogue accomplished — it made it a purportedly “tough” decision. The truth is that Brown, like Tim Kaine and Justice Kennedy, is a disobedient Catholic who has ignored the pleas of bishops and dismissed the theological case against a seemingly-abstract “policy matter.” He did so because, ultimately, the bishops’ word and the Church’s “views” are not the most important thing for him. They do not seem all that important to the Church, either, whose leaders, persisting in dialogue, refuse to issue any official censure of these public Catholics’ dismissal of the Faith. What is most important for all involved? The empty ideals of openness, dialogue, decency. Yet when we look closer, these seemingly empty ideals are being filled with an anti-Christian agenda.
When Hillary speaks of the ideals of “civility and decency,” she really means the extermination of Christian principles. Only then will we be “decent” to gays intending to “marry”; only then will we be “decent” to the suffering who, often with dubious consent, “want” to be killed; only then will we be “decent” to poor young, confused “transsexual” boys who want to use the girls’ room. While many Christians (and especially Catholics) were losing a thick sense of what is decent, beyond good manners at a dinner, the Left fundamentally redefined the term.
The new “decency” of the Obama-Clinton era will continue to metastasize in ways that we could not have imagined when the Al Smith Dinner began 70 years ago. Pastors now express concern that they will be forced by the government to marry gay couples. Soon throughout the country, as we have already seen in California, school administrators will recommend to parents that sad or bullied children are “in” the wrong gender. Do not resist openness to changing your kids’ gender, they will say, or else you are bigoted and a decidedly indecent parent. And if your pariah status among fellow families is not enough, government coercion will finish the job.
What are we to do? We Catholics might begin by saying directly to Catholic leaders like Cardinal Dolan or even pundits like the brilliant intellectual, Robert George — wake up, Christianity is disappearing in America and you are consoling yourself with the pretentious nothings of “dialogue” and the abstract legalism of “religious liberty?” There is a critical asymmetry in your precious dialogue, and even a man like Donald Trump, with few Christian bona fides, can see it — Hillary and her party indeed “pretend not to hate Catholics” and are devoted to undermining the Church and her morals. Dialogue, perhaps admirable in other situations, cannot be constructive when it is with someone who intends to destroy you.
Is it too much to ask our leaders to combine rhetorical skill with some courage to tell this truth, to set a different tone of Christian urgency with the passion it deserves? We should stop obsessing over sterile “dialogue” and sheer “decency” (which has a new meaning now) and instead focus on explaining — without malice — how important these principles are to us Christians. They are not “policy positions” and they are not theoretical aspects of a Mills-esque Socratic dialectic — they are fundamental to our very being, to our sense of decency. Who knows, maybe the sincerity and fervor with which such points are made may actually attract converts.
Problem is that, at this point, the new “decency” is fundamental to the norms of perhaps most of the country. And so, are our leaders willing to see that contingent, with all of its power and glamour, get angry with even our polite articulations? Will they try to lead us ordinary Christians out of the trenches in which we find ourselves?