Deacon Christopher Roberts, a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, offered the following reflection Nov. 4, the day after the national elections, to students and staff of Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, of which he is the president. Afterward he led students in the rosary.
Elections are important. There’s a reason we get invested in the drama. Elections have consequences, especially for the unborn, the poor, the environment, the economy, the justice system, war and peace, foreign policy, our medical system, religious liberty and many, many other things. No doubt about it, elections matter.
I hope you have been and will be bold in class about asking questions, seeking to draw connections between our classical syllabus and what’s in the news today. The ideas animating our curriculum – what is the overall arc of human history, what is our story, what is the purpose of creation, what do we think is the theme or direction of history; and, within that, what is a human being, what is human nature, what is a just and fair law, what are human rights and human responsibilities, what makes a good society? – these are the questions animating and lying just under the surface of our political debates.
For example, you should be able to draw a parallel between Plato’s allegory of the cave and questions about truth and credibility in today’s media culture. When you meet the characters in Dante or Shakespeare, you should walk away with insight into the virtues and vices of today’s leaders. You should be able to connect the dots between the theological doctrines that generated and continue to sustain our society’s ideals.
The truth is that the ideas and values in our culture come from somewhere. Ideas have histories; they have origins, and stories. For example, not every culture believes the same things about the poor, or the unborn, or about justice. How did our society learn to ask and argue about these questions? How do you learn to understand these ideas, to become articulate about them and able to use them?
That’s why a classical education is like a super power, a type of x-ray vision, for this education is where you learn where our values come from, the story of how our society got to where it is, and what resources there are for fixing things.
But the other thing we learn, when we take the long view of a classical education, is that elections are not everything. They matter, but only relatively or penultimately. Because in historical perspective, there isn’t enough of a difference between a Democrat or a Republican. Of course the two parties are not exactly the same, but in important ways, party politics are intramural debates between two varieties of late modern hyper-individualism.
The truth is, we need to imagine bigger alternatives. Neither technology nor markets nor anything else on yesterday’s menu will save us. The problems in our culture are much more profound than anything on yesterday’s ballot.
For example, if you want to address the problem of individualism – why families and marriages aren’t more stable, and why some people seem to think sexual self-expression is an absolute right – or, if you want to connect our ecological crisis with our cultural confusion about male and female (why can’t we accept the goodness of material creation as it is given to us, and live within limits?); or if you want to discuss abortion or racism, and what makes a human life matter; or if you want to talk about the economy, and what makes for dignified and humane work — then you’ve got to go back much more deeply than this election. Our problems are fundamentally philosophical and spiritual, not political.
The good news is that our classical education gives us this wider perspective. Our education should enable patience and fortitude, a detachment that resists the passions and anxieties of the present overtaking us. It is consoling to play the long game. We have patience for this journey. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
But the very best news is that behind, above, and suffusing the classics is something even deeper and more beautiful: our Christian faith. And our faith is trustworthy. Our Lord is King. Elections and politics matter – but not absolutely. We care, we’re active, we vote, we respect the stakes. But there is a deeper peace, a deeper reality, and when we pray without ceasing, we live and root ourselves in that deeper reality.
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