Published August 31, 2021
Allow me to offer a modest proposal: Erasmus for president, 2024. It’s never too early to get a worthy candidate on the campaign trail. And given the duds and eccentrics that both our mainstream parties tend to prefer, Desiderius (“Des”) Erasmus should clean the floor with them.
Yes, I know: Critics will claim that Erasmus appears to be dead; and yes, that’s awkward. But given the competence of our current political leadership, does that really matter? Would anyone notice the difference? In fact, has anyone noticed any brainwave activity in key parts of the nation’s capital lately? No. Of course, “Legion” is the name of our country’s pundits, skeptics, and whiners, and their carping won’t stop with calumnies like, “wait a minute, he’s a dead guy.” Ignore them. Sticklers for legal fine print—those tiresome cranks and “doctors of the law” that Pope Francis so rightly chastises—will also note that, along with being “dead,” Erasmus is, arguably, a foreigner. Ignore them.
Bottom line: Don’t we want the very best for our country? Of course we do. And Erasmus has superb credentials. More on that in a moment. But first, on the issue of his being “deceased”: Says who? Nobody has the right to dictate how we, and those we admire, should self-identify. Death is a natural part of life, and the difference between the two—especially in an age of constant flux and distraction, with the automatons we already routinely elect—can be very minor and frankly irrelevant.
And let’s face it: Reinventing the self, even if it’s been unplugged for a while, is by its nature retroactive. It’s also the very heart of authenticity; a sacred fruit of our civil liberties; and a human right that’s proudly, patriotically, “made in the USA.” The truth is, appearances (like being “dead”) can deceive; they’re notoriously unreliable, and they depend on perception and expert interpretation. This is exactly why we have experts. Any experienced communicator will tell you—Jen Psaki, for example—that perception is reality, and the world is neither more nor less than what we choose to make it. As a result, we need to insist, as the 2024 campaign unfolds, that using the past tense and the name of Erasmus in the same sentence is not just inappropriate. It’s dishonest and insulting.
As for the “foreigner” smear against a man whose intellect has earned him global citizenship, confirmed in the court of public opinion: We’re a rainbow nation of immigrants, inclusion, and diversity. Why exclude anyone simply based on his or her biochemical activity or national origin? Plus, the aspirational nature of our borders, combined with the number of so-called “illegals” and “dead people” who likely voted in a U.S. election just last fall, make it senseless to niggle about arcane constitutional theory, especially given the magnitude of our current leadership crisis.
I also detect some concern, mainly from good Protestant friends and the much larger “nones”/secularist peanut gallery, that we might, even now, have too many Romish officials leading us. Another papist, they fear, whatever his health status, might be one too many.
This has the unpleasant scent of religious bigotry. But let’s put that aside for the moment. It’s true that our candidate has a record of sectarian fidelity. The dogma does live, if not loudly, at least vigorously in him. The great Vatican II scholar and peritus, Louis Bouyer (currently indisposed), wrote an entire book on the Catholic integrity of Erasmus and his thought. But candidly, it’s not an issue. Given the fact that so many of our Catholic leaders—two presidents in recent memory, most of the Supreme Court, and countless senators and representatives—have built a solid track record of impressing their faith lightly (almost imperceptibly) on the American Way, worry about some sort of Catholic coup d’état seems unwarranted.
So, with all that background noise out of the way, let’s turn to the substance of our current leadership crisis. It’s simple. Leadership involves getting and using power. Power is secured through politics. And politics, as the historian Henry Adams once observed, is the “systematic organization of hatreds.” Baldly put, our problem as a country boils down to the fact that we hate each other. And apparently, we’ve always hated each other, or at least each other’s views. But there’s a difference now.
In the past, our private and public lives played out within the framework of a broad, biblically inspired set of beliefs and moral behaviors. Politics was serious business, but for large blocs of the population, religion was even more serious. And the latter (religion) had a guiding, or at least restraining, effect on the former (politics). That’s no longer the case. As the late Henri de Lubac suggested, we’ve transferred our religious zealotry to our politics. Politics is now, in effect, our religion—but without the irritating, aerodynamic drag of a “God” to act as a brake on our hatreds.
In such perilous light, Erasmus is our Man of the Hour. He’s a natural media darling: born illegitimate; betrayed and abandoned at an early age by his guardians; raised in austerity; cosmopolitan; multilingual; a champion of humanism; committed to educational reform and cultural excellence; a brilliant intellect; a generous heart; a respectful but relentless critic of political and religious hypocrisy; a man of moderation, peace, simplicity, friendships, dialogue, and conciliation, unafraid to speak the truth—and thus a man loathed equally by both radicals and reactionaries. In other words, Erasmus 2024 is the ideal man for all seasons; even our own season of snakes and sharks. We should grab and brand that slogan immediately . . . before somebody else does.
A final thought. If we really want to make America great again, again, The Razzman—not The Donald, and not Slow Joe—is the guy to get it done. Which leads me to a suggestion for the First Things brain trust: What better place to formally launch Erasmus for President, 2024, than right here, in the publishing bosom of Erasmian sanity and distinction, at the Erasmus Lecture 2023? Obviously, I don’t control the great man’s schedule. I can’t speak for his availability. But should a last minute stand-in be needed, the editors have my number.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate in Constiutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.