‘When I go back to Berkeley, I will be lost, and with all the damned depression, riots, and attempts by everyone to get me on pot I am afraid I shall just flip.”
This comes from a letter that William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review — one of the few magazines not framed on Donald Trump’s walls (we put “Against Trump” on the cover a few months ago) — received in 1968 from a young man looking for advice.
The student explained that he had been having “attacks of doubt.” He had gotten into some of the wild things that can happen on a college campus. His world was being upended as his philosophy class brought him to believe that there are no assumed givens or truths. He described himself as “spinning” and “reeling” and “confused.”
“I do not really know what is wrong with me, but I do feel that something is wrong with me, and I ask your advice. I am sorry for wasting your time, if I am, but I am so sad and need help.”
That was Berkeley then. It seems to be much of the world these days.
On a Monday morning recently, yards away from Grand Central Station, commuters were rushing to make their trains, with coffee cup in hand and iPhone earplugs firmly in place. But some of them took the time to walk into St. Agnes Church, for Mass or a quick prayer. That morning the psalm read:
You have rocked the country and split it open;
repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering.
You have made your people feel hardships;
you have given us stupefying wine.
Oh how true that seems!
#share#Which is why Arthur Brooks some years ago took the American Enterprise Institute on a course of reflecting on more enduring things than the current policy debates. In the process, he became a perhaps unlikely friend of the Dalai Lama, among others. This month he hosted a day devoted to Catholic social teaching and human flourishing. During the course of it, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, answered another problem the young man writing from Berkeley had. The student told Buckley that he had tried to revive a conservative Young Americans for Freedom chapter at Berkeley and wound up realizing he couldn’t hold his own when confronted by a Communist atheist. Wuerl told the story of a speech he had given at Harvard on faith in a pluralistic society. A law professor who identified himself as an atheist directed a question both to Wuerl and leaders from other religious traditions sitting in the front row: “What do you people think you bring to our society?”
Wuerl answered the lawyer with a series of questions of his own: “What do you think the world would be like if it were not for the voices of all of those religious traditions represented in the hall? What would it be like if we did not hear voices in the midst of the community saying, You shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness? What would our culture be like had we not heard religious imperatives such as Love your neighbor as yourself, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? How much more harsh would our land be if we did not grow up hearing, Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers? What would the world be like had we never been reminded that someday we will have to answer to God for our actions?”
The atheist got the point and acknowledged that without the leavening influence of people living their faith, “It” — the world – “would be a mess!” Or, more of a mess than it already is.
Wuerl warned that the current reluctance in some quarters to welcome in public and civic life any transcendent religious point of reference has become a matter of preoccupation precisely because in the foundation and unfolding of our way of life, it has always been assumed that good public policy — policy that results in a good and just society and in virtuous citizens — ultimately must have some religious antecedence, some appreciation that there are moral imperatives not created by human beings.
To that young man writing from Berkeley, Cardinal Wuerl might have, as he did at AEI, pointed to America’s founding. We are a people who at least on paper assent to a reality that includes some self-evident truths — including “inalienable” rights from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
He pointed out that “When we stand up today in the public arena and the courts for the identity, integrity, and freedom of our ministries, we do so not to protect a narrow privilege, but to uphold American constitutional guarantees and to protect our right and duty to serve ‘the least of these’ and promote the common good without violating the teachings of our faith.”
He pointed to poverty and immigration and our need to be good stewards of human life and of all the gifts and talents we have been given. He pointed to the poison of abortion in our midst and said: “Clearly a nation that destroys a million unborn children a year is failing a fundamental moral test. Today some resist any restrictions on abortion on demand in the name of choice and yet insist all of us pay for their choice to destroy innocent human life.” To the young people present he said, as he might have said to the Berkeley student: “Our task is to do not everything we can but only what we ought to do.” Perhaps that’s a good starting point for anyone feeling lost today.