Friday, October 7, 2016

Paging Julian Felsenburgh

Blogger note:  Just recently this blog took on discrepancies between Tim Kaine's political stances and his affirmation of his Catholic faith.  This post, working from material composed earlier this year, provides balance with a critical view of the Trump campaign.

Robert Hughes Benson's Lord of the World.  Folks, you need to read this book.  It matters not that the book was published in 1907, the same year as St. Pius X's Pascendi, five years before the Titanic sank, seven years before Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand, thirty-two years before Hitler invaded Poland.  The novel features euthanasia, the loss of religious liberty, anti-Catholicism (because they're two different things), globalization, total war, martyrdom, demagoguery, and the miraculous.

Bradley Birzer, author of illuminating studies of Christopher Dawson and Tolkien, earlier this year  posted this brief article at The Imaginative Conservative.   I myself was reminded about Benson and this particular novel by this Crux article by John Allen, Jr.  Both Benedict XVI and Francis have recommended the book.  Benson (1868-1914), whose father had been Archbishop of Canterbury, was a celebrity convert and priest.  Once quite popular among English-reading Catholics, his reputation has vanished since the Second Vatican Council.

Lord of the World follows the parallel trajectories of Father Percy and his doppelganger, Julian Felsenburgh, a senator from Vermont (no, I am not making that up) who is clearly the anti-Christ.  Secularism has pushed all religion to the fringes as the masses chose instead this world's pleasures (euthanasia and what amounts to physician-assisted suicide are readily available).  Only Rome the city itself resists as it has, through international treaty, become the sole earthly haven for Catholics.  Martyrdom awaits any Catholic who dares declare the Faith openly.  Meanwhile a worship of divinized earthly powers spreads like wildfire.  Amassing this new awakening, and yet remaining above it all, stands Julian Felsenburgh.  Traveling across the world at record speeds, Felsenburgh successfully unites the entire planet, save Rome, under one government.   Meanwhile, Father Percy sees his clerical friends lose their faith and the Church lose even what little it retains on earth.  The impending victory of Felsenburgh's atheist materialism seems complete.  The conclusion, though, must be read all the way to its very last words.  No spoilers here.
(Pic credits:  Ave Maria Press & Wikipedia)

Here's the point:  Donald Trump's ascendancy since last summer bears remarkable resemblance to Julian Felsenburgh.  (I would suspect that had Senator Bernie Sanders, against all odds, defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, we would have heard much more about the novel's Vermont senator.)

Matthew Schmitz writesNot enough has been said about how Pope Francis—a man of strong intuitions and vivid language—lives in and has been formed by literature. ... And he thinks by their patterns. Whereas Benedict strove for a concise, clear scholarly expression, Francis seeks the striking images and strong characterizations of the storyteller. Over here are the good guys, over there the bad.

That is certainly true regarding Lord of the World, and that's also how the Trump-Clinton presidential race is viewed. Trump's supporters, embattled and ridiculed, see Clinton as an elitist, conniving crook; Clinton voters see only blind anger and bigotry motivating Trump's "deplorable" minions. Check the daily agita at Real Clear Politics with its point/counterpoint links and electoral college maps (including one option to make-your-own map...which admittedly is pretty fun). This election has folks scared. Trump supporters cast their choice in the starkest of terms: either we charge the cockpit now or, electing Hillary Clinton the nation commits suicide with a semi-automatic pistol. I.e., America as we know it comes to an end. Even a cursory reading of Lord of the World reveals the striking similarity between that mindset and Julian Felsenburgh. Trump and Felsenburgh are the last-chance saviors...for a material world.

Predictably, the only place online where I could find somebody else making the Trump-Felsenburgh connection was a self-described radical fringe chat room where the other topics include UFOs, the Illuminati, and Jesuit conspiracies (OK, I made up that last one.)  

At one level, to pump this blog's title, the Trump campaign appears as one big, geographically-extended example of "spiritual diabetes."  Having feasted for years on the cheap carbohydrates of unreflective rhetoric, myopic self-righteousness, and genuine dismay at national events, Trump followers have reached a point in their own--individual and collective--spiritual states where they can no longer moderate their own spiritual blood-sugar levels.  Those have elevated persistently, thus inflaming the entire system.  The high blood sugar level results in thirst, but now no amount of water can slake it.  Trump's campaign of "Make America Great Again" appears as yet another quick-fix/no sacrifices involved solution.  

But the time has passed, if it ever were present, for indulging in cute ideas.  The problem is that Trump's campaign represents, just like the actual nation-wide diabetes epidemic, a real threat to national well-being.  Trump himself and his supporters, especially younger ones, seem frustrated with the democratic process itself.  As in, "why do we need it?" 
Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post:
Recent decades have seen precipitous declines in trust in nearly every major U.S. institution. Still, many of us assumed that, underneath it all, faith in democracy itself held steady — that we are angry at so many entrenched institutions because they have fallen short of cherished democratic ideals.
Trump, of course, has also managed to alienate racial and ethnic minorities, which younger people are more likely to belong to. One could imagine another charismatic, Trump-like figure who differently defined the “out-group” at fault for the nation’s ills — the privileged rich, say — who could have similar sway over youths’ imaginations.
Remember, though, it isn’t only the young who’ve become more accepting of anti-democratic values. The data shows this evolution in every age group, on both left and right.
Maybe it’s been too long since democracy faced a truly existential threat, and so Americans have come to take it for granted. But these days it may be dangerous to assume democracy will always be the only game in town.

That is, flatly, nihilism.  The frustrated resort to power alone results, ultimately, in everybody dead.  That, of course, will happen anyway, but nihilism obviously hastens that end unnaturally (and, usually, violently).   Trump's campaign represents the willful, and willfully neglectful, descent into that from which the democratic system should and could save us.  Before the abyss comes cynicism.  Trump's political association with Christianity is at best functional; like Felsenburgh he is more than happy to accept accolades.  

Democracy is supposed to elevate us above such lethal pettiness. Of course, being an Augustinian I must admit that nothing is perfect and all earthly constructions are doomed to fail.  The Athenians voted more than once to commit strategic errors that results in catastrophic losses to the Spartans.  They also voted to execute Socrates.  The United States is no different, and our own history is replete with examples. Lord of the World grasps the same point;  Felsenburgh's burgeoning popularity appears clearly--to the reader--as Satanic conquest, but Benson casts the entire story as popular acclaim run apocalyptically amok.  

There are those fighting the good fight.  Like the faithful remnant in Lord of the World, some of them might meet (symbolically, not least not yet) public martrydom for their efforts.  Scott Eric Alt has advanced a consistently thoughtful--and consistently Roman Catholic--assessment of the election and the issues involved therein.  He also receives waves of vehement denunciations in his comboxes--from Clinton voters as well as Trump voters.  That reminds us:  the Church's position on moral matters simply does not fit neatly into American culture's Manichean "left/right, liberal/conservative" spectrum.  The Faith is more complex and profound (not complicated) than that.  We are called to testify to that reality.  We do the best we can in this world, knowing--as Robert Hughes Benson himself did--that salvation comes not from earthly politics but from God alone.

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