By James W. Dolan
We need to be tethered to something larger than ourselves. Without connections to people, places, principles, and purpose, things, and ideas lofty and compelling, we are left adrift in a tumultuous sea struggling just to stay afloat. As much as we may think we are in control, we are tossed about on currents we can neither manage nor understand.
Such is the condition we find ourselves in this era of Trump. I was struck watching him at the memorial service for President George H.W. Bush during the reciting of the Apostle’s Creed. While the other dignitaries were reading the prayer, he stood looking straight ahead, holding the paper down without speaking. For him to acknowledge the primacy of anything beyond himself was apparently unthinkable.
I wonder what he was thinking as he listened to the 41st president being eulogized as a kind, generous, humble, honorable man who never took himself too seriously except when pursuing the common good. Was he pondering how to better emulate him or thinking “this is the kind of funeral I would like if and when I die.” So consumed with self, I suspect he has no time to dwell on matters spiritual.
I frankly cannot fault him for his obvious limitations because I doubt he has the capacity to accept or understand values beyond those preceded by a dollar sign. How much personal responsibility he bears for his moral failings is something only God can determine. What ties most of us to belief in love, mercy, and justice is set forth in the creed, which is a prayerful acknowledgment of our dependence. Without that belief in some form, we are left hanging – unhinged.
Sitting in the front row at the service was Jimmy Carter, probably the best former president we have ever had and, in 2002, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Coming off a rather unlucky and disappointing one term in office, he has dedicated the last 37 years to helping the poor and unfortunate. Not just by raising money, but by personally helping to build homes for Habitats for Humanity and actively participating in efforts to promote peace. Unlike the Clintons, who were sitting next to him, he never sought to parlay the presidency into a personal fortune.
The pursuit of money, recognition, and power too often obscures our need to believe in something larger then ourselves. Acknowledging immutable values that may be manipulated but never changed is a necessary component of faith. Otherwise, we define what is true, just, and compassionate based on our own needs and perspectives. Viewed as human customs, they can be applied, ignored, or distorted as circumstances warrant. Rather than reliable beacons to what is right and good, they become merely suggestions.
Donald Trump’s apparent ignorance of transcendent values is evident in his lack of respect for truth. For him, truth is a whim or impulse. That same attitude is reflected in his notion of justice or love. For him everything is but a matter of convenience; for without absolute truth, justice or love, there is no accountability. There is nothing against which to measure good or evil. It’s all the same.
A belief in transcendent values implies faith. Not any particular faith, for there are many different religions and many who follow no religion who accept absolute values and try to live accordingly. The acceptance of them is one thing; the application of them is an even more challenging task. The memorial service for President Bush was a celebration of a life lived in conformity with transcendent, i.e., God given, values and an expression of the prayerful belief that such a life would be rewarded.
For a few moments at least, those gathered in that church had the opportunity to reflect on what it all means. Does it matter how we live our lives? Are there rewards or consequences? If not, why am I here? Some may conclude that absolute values cannot exist in a vacuum, so that affirms the existence of a higher power. Christians acknowledge that, and while it is certainly not the only way to belief, it does assert the primacy of values and a merciful judgment by which we are held accountable.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District judge who now practices law.