What Trump and Francis Might Teach Us: Against the Gnostic Threat in Secular and Church Politics

The root of pharisaism is the gnostic temptation to claim a knowledge that marks inside and outside in invidious ways.

There is too much apriorism in politics on both left and right, that is, clinging to ideas despite on-the-ground facts. Conservatives do it; progressives do it; supercilious centrists do it.

An essential fact from the sociology of knowledge must be recognized, which explains the covert isomorphism uniting political foes: the pundits of right, left, and in-between, overwhelmingly, belong to what Peggy Noonan has called the protected class.

I am materialist enough to think this decisive.

That social positioning threatens to distort everything. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a materially comfortable talking head to transcend ideology.

Did you vote for Trump? There are many, many on the left who feel morally superior in ruling you out of the circle of respect owed a rational agent, though, ironically, such an act of dehumanization is one of the most morally inferior things to do.

But the totalitarianism of the left does not require sussing out. I am much more concerned with the gnostic dynamic at play on my side of the fence, amongst the conservative and religiously orthodox.

I will engage the disastrous response to Pope Francis soon enough. I’ll just say right now, it is one thing for a Catholic to prefer different personal styles in popes. It is quite another for a Catholic to imply (or more than imply) that he has an inside line on the truth in such a way that he may judge the pope.

If truth in faith and morals is so obvious that the charism of the papal office is unnecessary for ascertaining it, then the papacy is jejune, and would in fact be the most retrograde institution on the planet.

But, indeed, the papacy is the one place truth may hope for vindication in a world of profound ambiguity and in the age of consummate ideology. Just like the vast majority of Catholics not belonging to the commentariat, I’ll stand with the pope.

That is the Catholic position. Of course, I understand the modern need for reserving to oneself magisterial authority. But pronouncing for all the Church and world does not belong to any one person, except the pope. The attempt to do so by whomever else is a wildly illegitimate extension of the authentic authority that conscience has for any given person over him or herself. 

This is not meant to impugn any Catholic who is sincerely seeking for answers. Asking questions is always a good thing. Always. And I will try to lend my own moral-theological expertise, such as it is, to that cause.

But that will be in a series of posts yet to come. What I want to address right now is the need for political conservatives to recognize that Trump voters have something to teach us.

I am a proud political conservative, who has subscribed for years to both National Review and The Weekly Standard. I am definitely more in the Standard camp (as I really like immigrants), but Burke and Kirk have always been important to me.

That said, the agenda of movement conservatism, no matter how committed I am to it, must be recognized as having been unable, over two presidential election cycles, to crack the electoral map.

But somehow this vulgarian Trump did gain the following to do so.

And it would be to transform conservatism into ideology to refuse to try to learn from this.

Peggy Noonan continues to provide essential insight into this new moment in American (and global) politics.

She cites a crucial passage from Edmund Burke as to the decisive role circumstances play in political prudence. It’s one thing to have the right principles (and we must). It’s another to apply them correctly. Movement conservatives and orthodox moral theologians need to understand this. Oddly, both Trump, as an occasion, and Francis, as a teacher, provide opportunities to learn on this score.

I end with a searing passage from Noonan, which would be morally callous for anyone, especially pundits, to ignore:

“Life has been famously cruel to some good people the past few decades. The past few years it seemed the progressive left and the Democratic Party, confident in what they called the coalition of the ascendant, were looking at the old American working class, especially the white working class, and saying: ‘Here’s your disability check, now go take your opioids and get lost while we transform our country. By the way, we have friends on Wall Street.’ From the right and Republicans it was: ‘Take your piece of the dole, we are importing an entire new people from other countries to take your place, could you please sort of pass away? We’re replacing you! Why can’t you get the message? By the way, we have friends on Wall Street.’”