The spirit behind Trumpian populism is captured in Part II of Let Us Dream, which contains superb teaching on spiritual discernment: how we can detect what is of and what is opposed to God, unmasking the bad spirit when it appears sub angelo lucis—disguised as an angel of light. Christian nationalism is full of appeals to the good and to God, to Jesus and to righteousness, but its real spirit is easy to detect. It exploits fears and suspicions, blames others, and rubs salt in the wounds of grievance. It polarizes and divides the world into us (good) and them (bad), “closing us in on our own interests and viewpoints by means of suspicion and supposition.”
Francis describes this spirit of opposition to the common good and to unity as the “isolated conscience,” a temptation that leads to a sense of alienated superiority from the body (in this case, from democratic society) and turns people into “beleaguered, complaining selves who disdain others, believing that we alone know the truth.” There can be few better descriptions of the mob Trump sent to the Capitol than this—people full of angry self-righteousness and a sense of betrayal, spouting bizarre claims of stolen elections and claiming divine sanction for their actions. (“When God gives you a vision, you don’t need to know anything else,” said the emcee of the Jericho March, Eric Metaxas.)
At the root of the isolated conscience, says Francis, there is always what St. Ignatius of Loyola called an “acquired fortune” (cosa adquisita), or some sense of entitlement or privilege. The fear of losing this acquired fortune leads people to cling more tightly to it, while “the spirit of suspicion and supposition supplies reasons to hold back, concealing my attachments while justifying them through the faults of others,” writes Francis. Those in the grip of this spirit can come to believe almost anything they are told by people who share their grievance, and distrust evidence or argument advanced by those they see as enemies. Hence “Stop the Steal.”
In the nakedly racist, grievance-filled discourse of Trump and his mob, in the guns and Confederate flags they carried, the “acquired fortune” is in plain view: it is the mythology of the Lost Cause, the Christian nationalist myth of the South as the preserver of American exceptionalism and moral superiority. All this is tied up with a sense of victimhood and betrayal to which Trump’s MAGA rhetoric appeals. Building a wall to keep out “Mexicans,” storming the Capitol to overturn a “stolen” election he lost—Trump stokes the grievances and superiority of isolated conscience like no other, oblivious to any notion of the common good or fraternity.
If Jonah is the Biblical icon of the isolated conscience, says Francis, then Zacchaeus—the diminutive tax collector changed by God’s mercy—is the great Scriptural example of one who renounces his isolation to serve the people. The catalyst of his transformation is his response to Christ: rather than accuse others, he accuses himself. Humility, as Francis says, is the antidote to the isolated conscience. In lowering ourselves—in relation not to others, but out of awe for God—we make room for the good spirit to act in us. Then, “rather than find fault in my brother or sister, I see in him or her one who is also struggling, and in need of help, and I offer myself in service to them.”
Humility is the basis of the fraternity envisioned in Fratelli tutti. We see it in the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose identity is not threatened by a fellow human in need. The kind of political conscience the pope is calling for reflects that attention to the needs of others, whatever their allegiances, and a willingness to organize our economy in a way that will meet those needs.
It is a way of doing politics that stays above the fray of polarization, aware of the contagious power of accusation. Rather than feeding this beast, it allows it to reveal itself and wither—much as Biden has done in response to Trump. “Like coronavirus, if the virus of polarization cannot transfer from host to host, it gradually disappears,” Francis observes.
But the pope does not want us to run away from conflict. Part II of Let Us Dream describes a dynamic, God-created reality filled with forces that pull against each other and tensions that demand resolution, which the pope calls “living polarities” or “contrapositions.”
Such tensions—between what is and what should be, between different views and interests—are the stuff of politics. To flee from them, seeking peace at any price, means refusing to accept reality. But what is diabolic is the attempt to exploit these tensions by turning them into contradictions, reducing complicated realities to simple binaries (e.g. the people versus enemies of the people), and demanding that we choose one side to defeat the other.