CLEARWATER, FLORIDA -- According to Google Maps, I’m 147 miles from the University of Florida in Gainesville, but that didn’t keep people from being on edge here as a white supremacist prepared to speak at that academic institution. Mercifully, while there was reportedly “at least one punch,” nothing like what happened in Charlottesville in August happened in the Sunshine State.
People here seemed to take the incident as a prompt for an examination of conscience. At a morning Mass at the House of Prayer, the priest, the pastor of a neighboring church (St. Catherine of Siena, a lifetime favorite of mine), talked about his own prejudices along the way of life. Nothing reaching the level of Richard Spencer and his followers, but that’s the point: It’s a long road to where we can wind up. Nip that stuff in the bud early. Shine a light on it -- acknowledge it -- and eradicate it in your own heart.
The same day, former president George W. Bush gave a speech in New York. And in one of the weird turns in contemporary history, it was well received, because it was deemed an attack on President Donald Trump. But there’s a poverty to that interpretation. Bush had wise words to offer -- not about him, not about Trump, but about us and what we need to be, individually and nationally, for the sake of ourselves, our neighbors and the whole world.
He said: “(T)his is a unique moment. The great democracies face new and serious threats, yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.”
He continued: “We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future. We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity. We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
Bush's point about human freedom point is crucial. For way too long now, we’ve gotten into a bipartisan habit of waiting for politics to solve the problem, whatever it is. And while there are certain policy and world history questions that are necessarily in the realm of political leadership, good and evil isn’t among them, not exclusively.
We have this reflex when something bad happens in the world -- a mass shooting like we’ve seen all too often and most recently in Las Vegas -- talking heads say there ought to be a law or there ought to be more guns in other hands, depending on your ideological tendencies. But there ought to be families flourishing and neighbors looking out for neighbors and schools, churches and communities nurturing people with real, practical hope and the resources that keep it within reach. It’s all part of being good stewards of human life, our democratic republic and freedom.
One of President Bush’s key paragraphs was:
" There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by Socialist central planning. Some have called this 'democratic deconsolidation.' Really, it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers and forgetfulness."
I remember an ad campaign more than a few years back now about how there was “mourning” in America. Obviously trying to capture something of Ronald Reagan, the ad acknowledged the incipient exhaustion and anger that seem to be overwhelming us now. People had already become extremely cynical about politics, but it was shading into something else: disappointment becoming anger, and anger becoming a desperate need to try something -- anything -- else.
So, where does moral clarity come in? I say it involves not forgetting who we are and want to be and not acting from anger and defensiveness. We should be remembering that life and freedom are our most prized possessions, that they are gifts, but also responsibilities.
We hear talk about security in all our political debates these days. But we will have no security going forward if we don’t each realize our role in the bigger story of the future health of this place we call home.