In defense of institutions: has President Trump awakened a giant?

A protest at the Arrivals Hall of San Francisco's International Airport (CNS photo/Peter Dasilva, EPA) People gather for a protest at the Arrivals Hall of San Francisco's International Airport (CNS photo/Peter Dasilva, EPA). 

Events of the past few weeks have me thinking about an experience I had over 10 years ago. I was attending an interfaith discussion when a woman in the audience got up and challenged an older Jesuit on the panel. She asked him how he could remain in the church after the horrors of the sex abuse scandal. The distinguished Jesuit very politely thanked her for the question and then calmly, and without defensiveness, responded: “In my 50 years of religious life I have learned two things. The first is that institutions are necessary. The second is that they are meant to be resisted at all costs.”

That comment has stayed with me because it articulated an inherent tension that resonates with my own life. During times of strain in my relationship with the church, I can always point to the fact that, in spite of its sins, it is also the church of Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Dorothy Day, which continues to make Christ's message of mercy and hope tangible to countless people around the globe.

Research has long told us that we live in an age in which institutional affiliation and trust are dwindling in terms of our religious, political, civic and social lives. It can begin to feel as though committing to anything beyond our own self is an act of existential bad faith. As though people are holding out for a person, family or organization that perfectly reflects every facet of their diamond-like uniqueness before making a commitment. It takes time and experience to understand that this perfect reflection simply does not exist (and may not be desirable even if it did). The truth is we do not engage life as a simple, binary matching system; much of our lives are lived in complex, dynamic relationships with competing interests.

We are grasping onto these institutions because they manifest the values of freedom, openness and opportunity that America aspires to.

Within those dynamic tensions, institutions are not just useful tools in social commerce or quaint holdovers from a bygone age. At their best they reflect our ideals as a society and what we value as a community. They create stability and predictability in an uncertain world. They promote peace and protection for all citizens.

And then there is the chaos of President Donald J. Trump.

Since his inauguration, unprecedented—and unvetted—actions have issued forth from the Oval Office. An endless stream of tweets have offered us an unfiltered view of what occupies the mind of our nation’s chief executive as he lashes out like a sullen teenager at every perceived slight. He treats longstanding institutions of government like they are pop-up hamburger stands whose customer service policies can be easily changed with a phone call from the central office. All without much apparent concern for longstanding American precedents and principles or the human lives affected on the other end of these policies and tweets.

To supporters who counter that “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet” I would ask for evidence that the recipe being used here will end up as an omelet instead of a riotous mess of egg yolks and shells covering the walls and floors, which I suspect the rest of us will have to clean up.

The good news? These unprecedented executive actions have inspired equally unprecedented public outrage. Countless people—men, women, young, old, from every imaginable background—have taken to the streets to protest. People who have never been activists before are getting involved. In this time of institutional diminishment, it has taken the threat to stable institutions that we take for granted for millions to awaken and rise up in their defense.

We are grasping onto these institutions because they manifest the values of freedom, openness and opportunity that America aspires to. They deserve to be treated as a sacred trust because we understand that their impact is not abstract. Human lives are in the balance.

The challenge will be to resist fragmenting over divisive wedge issues in order to forge a coherent movement that can unify an incredibly diverse array of voices. People will need to find common cause to maintain the American ideals that we now recognize are so necessary. Even if that common cause is simply that those who wish to dismantle our highest principles, undermine the concept of “truth” and attack our sacred institutions need to be resisted at all costs.

Lisa Weber
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you!

Bill McGarvey
1 month 2 weeks ago

You're very welcome, Lisa.

Bill McGarvey
1 month 2 weeks ago

.

Mary Jane Hurley Brant
1 month 2 weeks ago

An introspective essay, Bill. To wrestle is to be introspective enough to want and to do so. To live with the tension while our thoughts, our faith and our beliefs can be examined is a endeavor worthwhile. Your piece here has done that for me. Thank you.

Bill McGarvey
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you. Glad it helped spark some thinking...

David Tornabene
1 month 2 weeks ago

Terrific article, Bill

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

What institutions?

I am not aware of any. If you mean education, I doubt if anyone will take them seriously. If you mean left wing PAC's, I doubt anyone will take them seriously either. Few take the News seriously. The photo above looks like a bunch of kids who probably couldn't tell you anything about the issues.

Who are these institutions?

Bill McGarvey
1 month 1 week ago

I was thinking pretty broadly in terms of institutions. A few who have been buffeted about by the chaotic style of this administration would be the judicial and legislative branches, our intelligence community, Immigration Services, the State Department, National Security Council. Thanks for your comment.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

I would be careful with what you wish for. You are advocating or hoping for an internal insurrection within the government. That will not end with anything positive. If anything pray for fair reporting and reasoned approaches to anything that might be detrimental. The people Trump appointed to his cabinet are fair and accomplished people. You may disagree with their policies but half the country doesn't.

So far I have seen nothing detrimental but completely unfair reporting. If you want to debate that, fine but do it with reason.

Bill McGarvey
1 month 1 week ago

"I would be careful with what you wish for. You are advocating or hoping for an internal insurrection within the government." I'm neither advocating nor hoping for any such thing. I don't know how any reasonable reading of my essay would end with that conclusion. The "chaos" I referred to is self evident hour by hour as the news of the adventures of someone like General Flynn continuously leak out. Sadly I don't think we've seen the end of this circus. If you choose to believe this is all simply a vicious conspiracy being manipulated by hold-over hacks from the Obama administration, I think you're not giving enough credit to some the hacks being installed by the new administration. If you think this is all simply biased reporting then you leave us no common ground upon which to have a discourse.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

From your comment you said

I'm neither advocating nor hoping for any such thing. I don't know how any reasonable reading of my essay would end with that conclusion.

Your article was very vague about institutions especially since you chose to show what looked like a group of student protesting. I asked who the institutions were and you said

the judicial and legislative branches, our intelligence community, Immigration Services, the State Department, National Security Council.

Most of these are in the executive branch and are directly under the president and some are actually in the White House. You also said

Even if that common cause is simply that those who wish to dismantle our highest principles, undermine the concept of “truth” and attack our sacred institutions need to be resisted at all costs.

That is advocating that many of those in the executive branch and directly under the president resist at all costs. That sounds like internal insurrection within the government. The proper response is to resign and provide the reasons for resignation. I cant imagine something more damning if it based on merit.

Again you may not like the policies of the Trump administration but the way to fight them is with reason and evidence and not resist at all costs.

You obviously have strong opinions on what is happening in the Trump administration. I suggest you lay them out and have a discussion about them to see if your opinions make sense or not. For example, you bring up General Flynn and the leaks. As far as I can understand he did nothing wrong or at least there has been nothing leaked that was wrong. He says he did nothing wrong in his conversation with the Russian ambassador. The ostensible reason for his firing was that he lied. But did he?

Apparently he has not been shown the transcript of the phone call which was against the law to record let alone leak. It is a major crime to have made this recording. This had to have been approved at the highest levels of the Obama Administration since it happened in December. There is a lot to come on this so we will have to wait.

My guess is that there is something else that no one is talking about that is behind this. Probably to do with either Iran or Russia.

Joseph J Dunn
1 month 1 week ago

You point to the importance of individuals rallying to defend our institutions. Well, I see individuals in airports rallying for the admission of refugees, while others harass even born-in-America Latino students. Individuals march on the Mall to protest abortion, facing equally committed ‘pro-choice’ individuals. And so it goes all around the country on a variety of issues. Meanwhile, the “institutions” for whom you express concern, I think of as the Congress, which is still operational, and the Courts, which have already acted on at least one of Trump’s executive orders. And some institution, perhaps the Vice Presidency, has brought about the resignation of a National Security Advisor. So our institutions are alive and well, and individually we are still as divided as ever.

“And then there is the chaos of President Donald J. Trump.” Chaotic, yes. But not unique. Remember 1829? Jackson was completely unpredictable. 1861? God, save us. And September 1901: as one Senator quipped, “Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States.” In 1933 Congress and president had the busiest ‘first hundred days’ ever, which was really popular, but major parts of which were unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court ruled two years later. We survived all that. Our institutions endure. As you write, “…institutions are not just useful tools in social commerce or quaint holdovers from a bygone age…They create stability and predictability in an uncertain world. They promote peace and protection for all citizens.” Ultimately, it’s the Constitution that offers the best hope to us 319 million individuals. Have faith.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

And some institution, perhaps the Vice Presidency, has brought about the resignation of a National Security Advisor.

Probably not true. This is very disturbing as the institutions mentioned by the author seem at war with the Trump administration. A transcript of the telephone call exists and is not supposed to exist so someone in the Obama intelligence organization had it recorded. It shows that Flynn did not really lie. He mentioned sanctions in passing.

Joseph J Dunn
1 month 1 week ago

Thanks. I have not seen the transcript of the General's telephone conversation, and I don't know first hand what he said to VP Pence. But politics being what it is, if the transcript were illegally or improperly made, or released, or misrepresented, by 'someone in the Obama intelligence organization', wouldn't the Trump Administration have called out that person, or at least that fact, with great gusto and indignation? And whatever the recording holds, and whatever the 'Obama intelligence organization' did or didn't do, someone high in the Administration was obviously chagrinned enough to call for/accept the resignation. So maybe the general inadvertently omitted some parts of the conversation, and maybe the VP put a harsh interpretation on that. But in the end only someone within the Trump administration could ask for or require the resignation, or accept it. Cheers.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

See

http://bit.ly/2kQvoTb

Is it accurate? We are in a twilight zone as to what is true or not true. Apparently there are still Obama people in the White House. If so it would makes sense to get rid of them but you have to have staff.

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