Let's just say Lincoln-Douglas it wasn't. There wasn't a real idea expressed or debated during the whole mindless ordeal. Instead the two presidential candidates this year traded personal barbs. Who won and who lost, and does it matter? There's no doubt about Donald Trump's being the better showman, or at least there wasn't during the first half-hour of the match. All eyes and the television camera gravitated toward him as the best two-out-of-three-falls contest began, and largely stayed there. It was enough to cast a glaring light on the spirit of our age, or rather the lack of one.
To know a candidate's history is to know that candidate. It should not come as a surprise to learn, as we did from Matthew Schmitz' profile in the August issue of First Things, that Donald Trump was baptized and confirmed at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Norman Vincent Peale presided. Adlai Stevenson once commented that he found St. Paul appealing but Peale appalling. It was Norman Vincent Peale who wrote "The Power of Positive Thinking," a kind of spiritual version of Dale Carnegie's book about how to win friends and influence people. Dr. Peale, according to Schmitz, found that The Donald had a "profound streak of honest humility." Which no one else seems to have detected, and no wonder, for the theme of his campaign, as of his life, would always seem to have been win, win, win -- and now he's going to make us all winners. Just leave it to him.
Where the Bible urges man to search his heart for sin and iniquity and seek forgiveness, it's hard to imagine The Donald doing any such thing. A true disciple of Dr. Peale, he plows ahead unaware that Christianity -- hold on to your hats -- is a religion of losers, slaves, the downtrodden of this world. He denounced the widow whose house he tried to take as a "terrible human being" and referred to her lawyer as a loser. He's made fun of a reporter for having a crippled hand. He's applauded Planned Parenthood for doing "very good work."
The man is a piece of work himself. And so is his opponent this presidential year, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's scarcely an example of the wretched of the earth. Back in 1955, Walter Lippmann wrote a book titled "The Public Philosophy." In it he argued that basic American commitments to majority rule, freedom of speech, the rule of law and private property are worthless without being founded on a basic moral understanding. Without them, they turn into just another struggle for power. Like the kind the country is seeing this year.
Beware: When a court can twist the meaning of a basic institution of society from time immemorial into some pagan parody, then the courts can just as well call black white and red green. What then does it mean in today's funhouse mirror of law to be a mother or father or child? Everything's up for grabs, and The Donald is urging all of us to grab while the grabbing is good. Then we can all be the great successes he and HRC have been throughout their lives, God help us.
The world is founded, Lippmann argued, on certain biblically undeniable truths, which he summed up as natural law. Richard John Neuhaus liked to cite Martin Luther King's vision of justice, equality and a covenant that included all of the above. There is a great, over-riding, objective truth that cannot be forever ignored. Lest we all turn into preening prima donnas. And abandon all hope, ye who enter there. For there may be no exit from such a depraved world.
Why settle for the world to come when you can have this one as well? It's the American way, isn't it? Everything for everybody all the time! Donald Trump made the perfect apostle for St. Norman. "I was his greatest student of all time," The Donald announced and pronounced himself early in his self-worshipping career. Much as The Donald promotes himself now.
St. Norman, a kindly man at heart, called the United States "the greatest country in the world" and dedicated his books to the "everyday people of this land" who "are my own kind whom I know and love and believe in with great faith," writes Schmitz. For St. Norman had met them in the masonic halls, by-the-sea resorts and on cruise ships where he testified to his faith. He spoke of our innate decency and ability, and assured all of us we could be as successful as he had been if only we walked in his masterful footsteps. Just harness his own Power of Positive Thinking, and our potential was limitless.
St. Norman told his church that its members would experience "constant energy" if only they would banish from their thoughts anything negative and so be eternally charged with cheerfulness and smiling good will. Those were the signs of eternal selection. That all this was a grotesque perversion of Calvinist theology seems to have escaped St. Norman's followers. So naturally The Donald would badmouth Jeb Bush early in this presidential campaign for being "low-energy" and therefore committing the unforgivable sin of being a loser. Losers are to be despised, not celebrated.
As for the facts of the matter, they don't count. For Peale, "attitudes are more important than facts," reports Schmitz in First Things. And the man who shows "a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether." Forget those small facts otherwise known as human frailty, bad marriages, economic misfortune and such. Just let a smile be your umbrella and the wages of sin would never have to be paid. If the Bible urges man to search his heart and repent, St. Norman told those who suffer that all they need do is "make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it 10 percent." If the heart is deceitful above all things, as Jeremiah warned us, for Dr. Peale its darkest corners were really illuminated by pure California sunshine.
Campaigning in Iowa, The Donald confessed that he had never sought forgiveness for his sins, seemingly unaware that by seeking forgiveness for ourselves, we lay the foundation for forgiving others. And from what Norman Vincent Peale derided as "fear thoughts" comes the light of Christian love.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.