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Mayor Buttigieg's God of Feelings

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

Mr. Peter Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a candidate for the presidency of the United States, has picked a theological quarrel with Mike Pence, the current vice-president.


buttThe specific focus of the quarrel is not of peculiar interest beyond our times—our peculiar times. The general import is as vast as creation.

Political people generally have an outsized opinion of their importance in the whirls and eddies of historical muddle.  They forget that history is a muddle, and so they take for inevitabilities and unshakable verities what are the local and passing sloshes of the muddy stream.  When the political person is a theological person, watch out.  I do not object to political persons being theological persons.  Politics and theology are weighty endeavors.  We go wrong when we turn from the practical wisdom of mankind, and the millennial tradition of the Church, which is a good deal wiser and more practical than man is, and trade upon our own stock of private wisdom and inspiration, which is never going to be great, and which is often flat silly.

Consider Carry A. Nation, she of the portentous middle initial, returning dissatisfied from a meeting with William McKinley, who struck her as insufficiently zealous in his support for Prohibition.  He must have been a secret congregant in the Church of Rum.  When he was assassinated in 1901, she expressed the consoling opinion that he had gotten what he deserved.  Mrs. Nation was a fearless, earnest, hatchet-faced, rather stupid woman who said she was obeying a call from God.  Calls from God are most convenient things.  They allow you to clear the table of reason, human experience, and Scripture itself.  For Jesus did not turn wine into water, and the psalmist did not say that weak tea gladdens the heart, and the worthy Samaritan did not clean the robbed man's wounds with oil and lemonade.

I am reminded of another theological controversy from that era.  Congress had placed a stern condition upon Utah's admission to the union.  To become a state, the Mormon church must reject bigamy.  The congressmen put no credence in the raptures of Joseph Smith or the moral philosophy of Brigham Young.  Republicans especially were adamant.  Utah entered the union in 1896, but people still suspected that many a man's wives were seated like olive plants around his table, with the children roundabout the premises.  When Reed Smoot was elected to the senate from Utah in 1904, three years of investigations and hearings followed, to ascertain just what was transpiring along the shores of the Salt Lake.  They make for fascinating reading, not only for their excellent English, but for the senators' care in finding out the truth.  They knew that it mattered, too.  A union with a polygamous state in it would be like the hull of a ship with a twenty-foot broad hole in it—the sort of thing we have now.

I recall a moving testimony from an old Mormon gentleman possessed of a plurality. He would accept his church's decision to forbid the practice. He would submit to the law of the land. But he would not admit that his marriages were anything but blessed. He shed a tear, and his voice trembled. I do not remember his precise words. The upshot, however, was that he would never see in any but a holy light his union with Mrs. Perkins—and Mrs. Perkins, and Mrs. Perkins, and Mrs. Perkins.

Two thousand years of Western institutions, and the clear witness of the New Testament and the Church?  The old man stood firm.  I am sure his wives were grateful.

I am not, as readers will have gathered, a Marxist or a feminist.  Therefore, I have no ready ways to explain away such behavior.  I cannot say, "Carrie A. Nation was a power-hungry tool in the hands of a moralistic bourgeoisie," because that does not move me one millimeter closer—I use the metric system, in partial concession to the scientific Marx—not one millimeter closer, I say, to understanding the silly woman and her cause, one that far wiser heads than hers espoused.  I cannot say, "The bigamist male is out for power and domination, not love," because a rooster pecked by a single hen may not fare better with three, and because the human heart is a riddle that only God can solve. I am sure that every time Mrs. Nation took her ax to a saloon, she felt that God was bracing her heart and nerving her skinny arm. I am sure that many an old Mormon, looking back upon his life, might say that Miriam brought him close to God, and Naomi closer still, and Abigail closest of all. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

What then about this quarrel between Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Pence?

Mr. Buttigieg is a man who pretends that he does marital things with another man, a biological impossibility.  Mr. Pence declines to support Mr. Buttigieg.  He says that mock-marital actions mock marriage.  (I note that a man and a woman can mock marriage too, in a variety of ways, such as engaging in marital acts while not being married.) Mr.  Buttigieg will not let it go.  He says that his romantic partner brings him closer to God.  He says Mr. Pence's quarrel is not with his deeds, but with his CreatorHe was made this way, he says.

Let's reason this out.  What can he mean by that little word,  made? I look at a shovel. It has a long wooden handle and a pointed and scooped iron blade. It is made for digging. It is not for serving casserole or cleaning earwax. I look at a man and a woman. Unless I am a babe or a man from Mars, I know that they are made for one another. No one has a reproductive system. Everybody has half of one. Men have this half, and women have that half. No man is made for the depositing of the seed of life into a pot of hydrochloric acid or a sewer.

Mr. Buttigieg wants us to believe, then, that God who made Mr. Buttigieg's body did not consult his own blueprints when he made Mr. Buttigieg's feelings.  It seems instead that Mr. Buttigieg's body is a mere conveyance for Mr. Buttigieg's feelings.  One can imagine plenty of more convenient, more effectual, and less septic conveyances for those feelings.  But I suspect that when it comes to Creation, the mayor is surer of his feelings than of his body.  The body has no meaning.  It might be thus or so.  But feelings are another matter.

I can imagine someone believing in a religion whose deity shrugged when it came to the material world, but who furrowed his brow with the glare of divinity when it came to shaping emotions.  That religion would not be Christianity, nor would it have the slightest relation to scripture—unless perhaps there's a page missing.

And on the eighth day God rose up from his languor, and he rubbed his eyes, and he said, "Let there be feelings in the man and woman, and let the feelings have dominion over them, when they rise and when they lie, when they do and when they refrain from doing, in all the works they work and the thoughts whereof they take thought," and so it was.  God saw that feelings were good. And God blessed feelings, and said, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill their minds and subdue them."  And so it was.

It is good to have passions.  We are not human without them.  It is good to have thoughts, and arms, and mouths, and all other kinds of things.  What we do with them is another matter.

It's a pleasant thing to judge ourselves in the court of our feelings. We always come out victors. Nay, much more. We enter as a defendant, shuffling our feet and not daring to look up. One hour into the trial, we are the plaintiff, righteous and indignant. Two hours, we are the judge. Three hours, we have become the very Law, and the Whole Duty of Man. Four hours, and God is in the dock, sweating.

We are immersed in feelings—and in choice.  We may not take any feeling as good just because we have it, or because it is powerful, or because it is a lean-to against the loneliness of our time.  I can no more call my feelings inevitable than I can call my choices so.  At every moment, I am not merely experiencing a feeling. I restrain, affirm, reject, direct, hearten, dampen, alter. But when we want to justify our feelings in retrospect, we say they could not have been otherwise. If we're religious about it, we pass the blame—or the credit—on to God.

If love is just a feeling, bigamists have a lot to teach us. So do men whose heads swim at the sight of handsome boys. Read Plato's Symposium. So do adulterers.  So do fornicators.  So do adventurers in the anonymous and risky.  So do whores.

But nowhere in Scripture am I advised to find out what my feelings are. "To thine own self be true" is the advice of Polonius, a meddler and fool. I am to love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. That means I take my direction from God, not from my Funny Interior Feelings, as Arnold Lunn put it. My feelings require training in God's law. That law in part is written on creation itself, for the invisible God is known by that which is visible and created. It doesn't take a theological genius to see that male is made for female. Any farmer can see it.

So in a sense it's true that Mr. Pence has a problem with Mr. Buttigieg's creator.  Not with the man's feelings as such; I don't doubt his sincerity, indeed, sincerity as far as the eye can see.  The problem is that Mr. Buttigieg's imagined creator is no other than Mr. Buttigieg.  And I do not think that even a mayor of South Bend warrants that reverence.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

esolenAnthony Esolen. "Mayor Buttigieg's God of Feelings." Crisis (April 24, 2019).

Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.

The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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