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It’s always tough to have to follow up Laura de Jong in this space, especially when she writes a beautiful post like yesterday’s on … beauty. Besides being taken with its style, I most appreciate the post’s substance. In fact, I think we should send on to the Theobros who are so adamant about truth with a reminder that aesthetic considerations loomed large in the way the Jonathan Edwards they cherish came round to loving the doctrine of election instead of hating it. He found the doctrine sweet, bright, and a delight. We might disagree with his taste, but taste it was that turned the tables, and beauty it is that so often convinces us.

The appeal to beauty is all the stronger for those of us who live in West Michigan because of the rapturous autumn colors we’ve been having this year. So much bright sun and pure blue sky, making the yellows, reds, and oranges on the changing trees positively glow from the inside.

The Beat Goes On

But I can’t help being dogged by a sense of gray for all that. Slate gray, storm-cloud gray. And that’s because it’s election season, and not just any election season but this election season. Maybe my sense of gray comes from all the political adverts around the evening news (the only broadcasting my wife and I watch). The vilified opponent’s face bobs there in slow motion against a screen all black to gray, their mouths supposedly repeating awful things while the menacing voice-over warns: “So & so! Bad for Michigan, bad for you!!”

This election season seems especially bad because we are still mired deeply in the Age of Trump. Political Ages come and go in America—the Age of Jackson, the Age of Roosevelt, the Age of Reagan—so-called because the figure named set the terms, the agenda, and the tone for a whole era, not just for his own years in office but for more to follow.

So Donald Trump is ours, and we are his, willy-nilly, and so we will be for a while yet, even if he doesn’t ever occupy the White House again. All in his party must pay fealty to him, or—much the same effect—pretend to. It is he who sucks up the political air in our collective room, his followers who are quick to start and never quit, his mastery of the media that sets the bar for comparison and competition. Those who oppose him must work around him. So it was for Jackson, for FDR, for Reagan, and so it is for Trump. Fittingly in his case, this is the narcissist’s dream.

I am far from the first to point out that this means we live in the Age of Lies. Trump’s political career started with the lie that Barack Obama was not legally an American. It rests today on the lie that he, Trump, won the 2020 presidential election. Start to finish a lie, then, and so many lies in between. The Washington Post counted 30,573 of them in his four years in office — 20.92 falsehoods a day, their number and their distance from the truth increasing as time passed. What else can this betoken than that Trump is a true son of the father of lies? And so also his acolytes? Tarring, too, those who oppose him with some infernal soot?

Both Sides Now

But now I’m sounding altogether too much like a candidate for Michigan Secretary of State. Time to look down the trail of my own party and see the big lie that is, ummm, lying back there. I refer to the repeated assurances by the Lyndon Johnson administration that the war in Vietnam was unavoidable, that it was winnable, and that it was in fact being won. The decisive corner was ever closer to being turned, the light shining ever bigger and brighter at the end of the tunnel.

This string of lies, not originating but surely multiplying and crescendoing on Johnson’s watch, was what The Pentagon Papers exposed for all to see. The Papers’ leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, had been gung-ho in favor of the war until he toured Vietnam up close, followed by a fateful encounter with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Flying home after extensive touring and conversations with the relevant parties in Vietnam, McNamara told Ellsberg that the war was not being won and could not be won on any terms that the USA would find acceptable. Then, upon landing in D.C., the Secretary promptly told the assembled press corps that everything was peachy keen.

That was Ellsberg’s conversion moment, as Vietnam in general was the moment that bald distrust for the government became endemic in American society. The distrust started on the Left and has since migrated to the Right, and both have their responsibility for deepening the plight.

To stay with the Democratic side, Gary Gerstle’s recent book, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, reveals the blithe confidence that the Clinton administration had in the magic mechanism of global markets to advance a “progressive” agenda, and its ignorance—willful and callous—of the devastation that would be wrought in middle America by forcing industrial workers there to compete with Mexican and Chinese labor.

Smiling Ivy Leaguers preening about equity and tolerance and a cool cosmopolitan culture tarnished those values in the heartland for a generation and opened it to Trumpian appeals. Thus does each side breed deep distrust of the other, so much so that Trump’s party will not accept the peaceful transfer of power or recognize the opposition as legitimate. The mark of the “underdeveloped” countries we grew up learning to pity.

I Have Finally Found a Way to Live

Where to turn amidst this circling gloom? I’ve been inspired by a friend who has been subject to several degrees of that hell called chemotherapy to combat not one but two types of cancer. His honesty, his courage, his determination, his resolute and — God be thanked — anything but blind faith have set my personal mark for what Christian commitment comes to. Utter realism, unflinching perseverance. At one point in this process, he gave me a copy of W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939.” Auden apparently came to dislike the piece, but for me it fits so deeply with our times and our possibilities.

The date in the poem’s title refers to the German invasion of Poland, with which the European fat was well and truly in the fire of total war. “I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street/Uncertain and afraid,” Auden begins, “As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade:/Waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands of the earth,/Obsessing our private lives….” Election season 2022 anyone?

The poet next wonders what “has driven a culture mad” and what forces went into producing the “psychopathic god” that was Adolph Hitler. Only Auden was willing to share the blame: “I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.” He then moved from person to system: “Exiled Thucydides knew/All that a speech can say/About Democracy,/And what dictators do,/The elderly rubbish they talk/To an apathetic grave…enlightenment driven away,/The habit-forming pain/Mismanagement and grief:/We must suffer them all again.” We too?

Five more stanzas follow with details and themes that could be written about today. I could quote them all, but space does not permit, so I’ll just commend the whole text to your meditation. For now, jump ahead to the penultimate stanza which rejects the twin towers of collectivism and individualism that dominated the political skyline of Auden’s age, echoed in our own: “There is no such thing as the State/And no one exists alone;/Hunger allows no choice/To the citizen or the police;/We must love one another or die.”

And then the closing stanza, speaking my friend’s resolution and my own:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Header photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
Fog photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:
    Transcendental comfort. Heidelberg 1 instead of Westminster 1.

  • James Smith says:

    Every election cycle I’m reminded of two quotes by H. L. Mencken:

    “As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.“

    I step into the voting booth with a heavy heart asking the same question, “In a country filled with intelligent, decent, caring people, how is it I must choose between these two?”

  • Jeff Bouman says:

    Thanks, Jim. You have indeed shown “an affirming flame” to me and to many, for many years.

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