In a speech at Notre Dame Law School last October, William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General and Donald Trump’s current Oddjob, made clear that his conservative Catholicism and definition of democracy were one and the same. Like Republican fundamentalists since Newt Gingrich’s reign, Barr decried “moral relativism” as the cause of every social ill, insisting that the Constitution’s framers believed that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”
When I read this, I thought how each side of the political divide preaches not just to the choir but to its most baroque-motet-y part—in Barr’s case, the Opus Dei fold of Gregory IX fanboys. But I also wondered if Barr had any desire to convert freethinkers to his cause. Because if he did, the way in was through hate.
For one of Catholicism’s most famous converts, the way in was through love. “I loved not yet,” St. Augustine famously said when struggling with belief, “yet I loved to love.” I remember reading excepts from his Confessions in college and thinking of Donna Summer singing “Love to Love You, Baby.”
But that is not an accurate analogy, because even though Augustine of Hippo probably loved to love a lot of different women, he was talking about loving without any limitation to person or idea but broadly loving the act of loving. It was more like Van Morrison’s “Madame George”—the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves.
We are called a divided nation, but it seems that we have a lot in common by loving the act of hating even more than we love our targeted hatred of individuals and ideas. In his address at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump denigrated the prayers of Mormons and Catholics alike and said that people of faith sometimes “hate” people—meaning, I presume, himself as a recent person of faith and a world-class hater. To me, the hating game began in earnest in 2010, when George W. Bush professed on national television “I’m not a hater. I don’t hate Kanye West.” When I saw this clip, I thought how West had never said that George Bush hates Black people; he had said in the wake of Katrina that George Bush “doesn’t care about Black people.” It was W who made it about hate.
Nancy Pelosi the practicing Catholic also did not like to be assumed to be a hater of Donald Trump. But she was admonishing a journalist from the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group who had tired to put those very words in her mouth. “As a Catholic,” she charged, “I resent your using the word hate in a sentence that addresses me. I pray for the President all the time. So don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.”
While I admire Pelosi for myriad reasons, when she and other enlightened Catholics mention their faith, I still think of that song from my Catholic school days, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” I hated that song for its bloodless drone, for the way people seemed to go into a trance singing it. It seemed like you were asking God to make you a loveless robot. But I thought about the song a couple years ago while watching a video clip of a Trump rally where fans were decked out head to toe in “Catholics for Trump!” signage like they were Let’s Make a Deal contestants. It seemed that these people were begging their fearless leader to “make me a channel of your hate.”
George Bush obviously thought a hater was an awful thing to be, but these days it seems quaint to profess hate-aversion. It seems even quainter to think that the way to counter haters is to have compassion and empathy, to be proactive at loving. It’s long been a cliché that the hot emotion of love is the polar opposite of the cognitive coolness of thinking and reasoning. But maybe it’s the hot emotion of hating that is the true opposite of thinking. What, you have to wonder, really drives hate—the absence of love or the absence of thought?
In his review of Louis C.K.’s post-cancellation comeback tour, Hilton Als had an interesting thing to say about the mostly white men at a comedy club on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls: “The audience seemed less interested in narrative and nuance than in living out a kind of revenge fantasy against thinking.” It seems like the physical energy at Trump’s Let’s Make a Deal rallies is unleashed to expunge any native inclination to Cogito, ergo sum. By negating their thinking, Trump supporters are negating themselves, subjugating their very existence, willing themselves to be subsumed within the void of what Catholics call “individual conscience.” Adjusting to a changing world requires reassessing your values; they don’t want to do that.
Augustine was the rhetorical master of changing his ways. He wasn’t like Paul, struck down by a bolt of lightning and his head was suddenly different. Augustine changed his ways through deep thought and reflection. Here’s what he was really saying in that famous quote: I loved not yet . . . but I was thinking a lot about my prejudices and the lies I’ve told myself to rationalize selfish pursuits and this process of exploration is instilling in me a tremendous longing to love.
I remember when Lee Atwater was diagnosed with fatal brain cancer and converted to Catholicism in the final year of his life. In a Life magazine profile, he apologized to Michael Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of his work on George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. People made comparisons to Augustine. Today, however, we have no more of that “contrition” business; the haters just “double down.” Trump Republicans are Double Down Nation. Barr and his brethren have placed their thorn-less crown on the yellow head of the man who puts children in cages, hailing their chief as the antidote to “moral relativism.” L’état, c’est moi? Check. Odio ergo sum? Double-plus check. §