Two stories last week made for thought-provoking bookends to a day full of the momentous developments we have come to expect in this era of constant crisis.
On Thursday morning, former Trump adviser and rightwing agitator Steve Bannon was arrested on a luxury yacht — an ironic venue for a man hailed as the Populist Champion of the Common Man — and charged with defrauding investors who sent him money in the belief that Bannon would help build a border wall with Mexico. His arrest by postal agents was another nice irony, given that President Trump appears bent on undermining the United States Postal Service, and by extension the election. That anyone would send money to a man like Bannon and for such a purpose is, well, mystifying.
But the motive for the arrest was crystal clear to a Bannon aide, Benjamin Harnwell, a fellow alt-Catholic who has been working with Bannon to set up a training school for Christian nationalist-populists in a sprawling medieval monastery in the Apennine mountains in central Italy.
Bannon’s arrest, Harnwell claimed (“with a metaphysical certainty of 100 percent,” mind you) was the work of “the forces of darkness” who “will stop at nothing to destroy anyone who dares to stand up to them.”
Harnwell’s Manichean language echoed that of others on the Catholic right, particularly Bannon’s ally, the renegade Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, whose campaign to foment a schism against Pope Francis has grown increasingly bizarro. Viganò has been trending into QAnon territory with talk of a “deep church” alongside a “deep state” plotting against him and his ideological soulmates, like Donald Trump. In a fan letter to the President last month he wrote about the “children of darkness” aligned against “the children of light” — the latter included Trump, as well as himself.
(Trump returned the favor with a fulsome tweet of thanks.)
Hours after Bannon’s arrest, his polar opposite on the Catholic spectrum, Joe Biden, accepted the Democratic nomination from a virtual convention with a speech that also deployed the light-versus-dark trope.
“May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden concluded with the last of a dozen references to “light” — twice as many as his six references to “dark” or “darkness.”
The message was clear. “Light is more powerful than dark,” he said.
The notion of the light battling against the darkness, Good versus Evil, is as old as, well, the Bible — which Biden also quoted, as did Viganò. But the motif has been appropriated so thoroughly via popular culture that this framing can sound more jokey than deadly serious. It’s like listening to passages of dialogue from any film in the Star Wars canon, or perhaps a Game of Thrones episode. “‘I will be an ally of the light,’ says Biden, securing the Melisandre vote,” tweeted New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik.
Biden was surely channeling Jesus more than the Jedi. “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John (12:36). Or, as Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians (5:8-9): “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”
But another possible reference, derived from that same source material, is Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic 1944 text of political theology, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense.
I don’t know if Biden’s speechwriters were thinking about Niebuhr; however, having spent eight years as Barack Obama’s right-hand man, Biden ought to have at least a sense of Niebuhr’s thinking. It was Obama who in 2007 called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher,” launching a thousand think pieces on the famous Protestant theologian and his idea of “Christian realism.”
Niebuhr wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness as the battle with Nazi Germany was reaching its decisive moments. The stakes of this battle with the quintessence of evil sharpened his sense of realism about what those who cherish democracy must do to protect and preserve it. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” Niebuhr says in the book’s most famous aphorism.
Niebuhr’s point, as Gary Dorrien puts it in his introduction to a new edition, is that “liberal democracy is worth defending, not because it fulfills a moral ideal or because modern civilized types deserve nothing less, but because it is the best way to restrain human egotism and will-to-power.”
Niebuhr’s epigraph, from the parable of the dishonest steward in the Gospel of Luke (16:8), reinforces this need for realistic wisdom amid wickedness: “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”
Of course figuring out who is a child of the light and who of the dark side is the age-old problem. Some Christian conservatives were quick to try to turn the tables on Biden and claim that he “is on the side of darkness.”
Trump also took that path. The day after Biden’s well-received speech, the president gave a preview of how he might spin this light-versus-dark theme at the Republican nominating convention this week:
“Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, I see American greatness,” he told a conservative group in Virginia. “They spent four straight days attacking America as racist and a horrible country that must be redeemed. Joe Biden grimly declared a season of American darkness, and yet look at what we’ve accomplished.”
But the facts speak for themselves. Trump has been undermining the election system and public confidence in it while Biden eloquently articulated the grim reality we see around us — and also the faith and humility we need to turn things around. Niebuhr the mainline Protestant would have appreciated the sentiments, and realism, of Biden the Irish Catholic.
This all augurs a truly biblical battle through November, and maybe beyond. As Dorrien noted, Niebuhr was warning that the children of darkness are defined by their moral cynicism. They will use anything — even religion — to advance their agenda. That seems like as good a summation of Trumpism as I’ve heard.