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