From the Bishops Presidential Election 2016 and The Promise of Utopia

The confrontational, contentious, name-calling and combative tone of the 2016 presidential campaign has left its mark on the American psyche. Across the political spectrum, Democrats, Republicans and independents in equal numbers have felt stressed out from the constant barrage of negative news reports and adversarial commentaries. Not only have we suffered through politicized news reporting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but we have endured the unrelenting battering of the social media.

In England, the campaign for its prime minister lasts just one month. In Argentina, candidates begin their advertisements only 60 days before the election. Their official campaign starts only 25 days later. In France, the presidential campaign is generally only two weeks long.

But, in America, the campaign for president begins almost two years before the election. In the time allotted for campaigning for the office of the president of our country, a woman could conceive and bear a child and then conceive again and bear a second child. These six hundred and forty-four days are time enough to work the public into a frenzy. Not to mention the estimated two billion dollars spent by one candidate alone. The U.S. far outspends every other country in its campaign for its leaders. Hence the stress of our most recent campaign.

Why all this time? Why all this money? Why all the media's concentrated attention on the candidates during their campaigns, often at the expense of informing Americans of the tragic events happening around the world? Perhaps the heart of the issue is the frantic effort to realize an impossible dream.  

In 1630, while still aboard the ship Arbella, Puritan John Winthrop told the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be seen as "a city upon a hill." By this, he was saying that they would soon land and set up a new community that would be an example of charity, affection and unity for the entire world. On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy resurrected this phrase "a city upon a hill" to remind us that "the eyes of all people are upon us" to establish a just society. President Ronald Reagan likewise used the same image of "a city upon a hill." Many others, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama have alluded to this ideal society of "a city upon a hill."

In the political rhetoric of both Democrats and Republicans, past and present, there continues to sound forth an inherent optimism of establishing the ideal "city on the hill." Each major political party sees itself as having the right policies and programs to usher in what is best for our society. In effect, this belief of each political group belies the centuries-old search for Utopia.

Five hundred years ago this year, Sir Thomas More sent the manuscript of his work Utopia to his life-long friend Erasmus of Rotterdam. The great Dutch humanist arranged to have the work published. In it, Thomas More details a picture of a prosperous and harmonious country. In the imaginary land of Utopia, there is no private property and no poverty. Leaders are limited in the amount of money that they can accrue. And, anyone aspiring to high office is seen as unfit to hold it. No brothels. No public pubs.

Those who read More's work as a communist manifesto of the ideal political order without private property miss the point. Utopia is a Greek neologism for nowhere. The narrator of the story of Utopia bears the surname "Hythloday" which means "peddler of nonsense." More cleverly crafts his work as a sarcastic commentary on the political corruption of his day. He is not advocating a heaven brought down to earth. Rather, he is exposing the inability of man to achieve an ideal society on his own through any one political order.

As Professor John Boyle has remarked, "The political order is not the source of our happiness. This is a theological point…dear to More's heart. The political order can serve to help order men to their happiness, but it cannot achieve it. This is a matter of Church, of the City of God. Political order can more or less help, but it can't achieve …the Utopian dream."

Perhaps all the frustration, stress, anger and disappointment generated by the 2016 presidential campaign is the logical consequence of politicians' promising a Utopia that they cannot deliver to a society intent on building not the city of God, but the city of Man. Politics are merely a tool to achieve an end.  They can be used to foster the common good or to advance evil. Politics reflect the culture in which they are embedded. Our hope for happiness lies beyond this world. Now is the time to return our culture to God and his laws that transcend the whims and fashions of a particular day!

Reprinted with permission from The Beacon, the official publication of the diocese of Paterson, NJ.

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