That was Chuck Todd’s question on his political geek show, The Daily Rundown, on MSNBC one recent morning. Todd was moderating a panel discussing former New York congressman Anthony Weiner’s insistence on running for mayor of New York City despite his history of Twitter ill repute, coupled with former governor Eliot Spitzer’s zeal for political comeback as the city’s comptroller, despite the prostitution scandal that ended his tenure in Albany. Politicians don’t have to be and frequently aren’t role models. But, really, Todd dared to dream, couldn’t one of them try to be?
Role models, of course, exist in public life, but they tend not to make news as much as the powerful in the throes of scandal. We are drawn in by scandal — ABC’s prime-time lineup includes shows called Scandal and Mistresses, as if to confirm the point. So why wouldn’t we have pols stubbornly and defiantly insisting that embarrassing, and even criminal, choices made really shouldn’t have long-term consequences? They are not making pleas for forgiveness and redemption so much as for tolerance.
Rather than buy in, we might consider that shame isn’t an entirely bad thing. Not when it makes us self-aware enough to expect more and to value — and attempt to mold — character.
But instead, all too many children grow up ignorant of the joy in self-respect, unable to truly dream, to know that they can have something better, that they should demand something better. And so we wind up with a Glamour magazine poll determining that women consider John F. Kennedy “The Sexiest Man (Not) Alive.” Given what we know now about some of his tawdry choices, you’d think we’d want something better.
Is it any surprise, if we find JFK’s persistent infidelity alluring, that we’ve lost sight of what we owe one another?
Pope Francis delivered a homily last week on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Tunisia; Lampedusa is currently overflowing with “Arab Spring” refugees, many of them Muslim. Alluding to the Good Samaritan, Francis said that if we saw a man lying half dead by the roadside, all too many of us might think, “Poor guy,” and keep walking. He said: “We have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility . . . [We have] the culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, . . . that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.”
If we even bother to think, “Poor guy,” if we happen to look up from our iPhones long enough to notice him, we’ve become all too comfortable insisting that someone else help. We feel good about ourselves if we contribute to the latest disaster-relief fund or sign onto legislation that we pretend can work miracles. But it is in civil society where our common humanity is realized. Who are we in that? Where are we in that? Are we playing our role in it? Are we loving, serving, strengthening?
Perhaps at the heart of the allure of JFK for the 21st century is the secular drift he made mainstream. It was in his announcing that religion was something that doesn’t really infuse our lives, in his historic campaign speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, that we hit a historic secularist milestone. That speech marked an embrace of letting ourselves off easy, a posture toward a privatization of faith that has only deepened as religious proposals are increasingly seen as threats, so much so that the federal government would tell Christians — including those running schools that seek to provide to their employees a form of health insurance that is in keeping with their mission — their “hang-ups” about abortion and contraception are not fit for the public square.
As Americans were taking a long Independence Day weekend, the Vatican released the encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), substantially drafted by Pope Benedict XVI and finished and signed by Pope Francis. In it, faith is described as that which illuminates all of life. “Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith.” The faithful demonstrate an “openness” to an “offer of primordial love,” in which “their lives are enlarged and expanded.”
For all our talk of freedom, are we actually minimizing our lives? Abhorring suffering, allergic to sacrifice, we look for satisfaction in material largesse.
We don’t all believe the same things about the meaning of our lives. But when even many of those who believe in God, who believe in His Incarnation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, have succumbed to believing that their faith is, as Lumen Fidei puts it, but “a beautiful story” or “a lofty sentiment which brings consolation and cheer, yet remains prey to the vagaries of our spirit and the changing seasons, incapable of sustaining a steady journey through life,” we’re all sooner or later going to be finding ourselves settling.
All is not lost, however. I take the current Italian edition of Vanity Fair as a bit of a sign of hope for our times. Pope Francis is on the cover, dubbed man of the year. He has been a magnetic force, drawing worldwide attention since his election, with St. Peter’s Square overflowing for his Masses and other public events. Might this be not be a cult of personality but rather a personal and cultural challenge? Pope Francis believes that God’s love is “tangible” and “powerful,” and that it “really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection,” as Lumen Fidei puts it. Italian magazine editors may have found us some common ground for cultural renewal. Believe it or not, people who are truly called by that supernatural reality during the course of our temporal interactions aren’t all that bad to have around. They might just make a difference in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in politics, in the arts, and in the lives of the most forgotten — and of you and me. These people might not settle, and they might challenge us to expect more for and of ourselves, too.