This morning I had one of those startling moments when time folds back on itself, as I remembered a convergence of events that all took place in this sunny week of June, albeit in different years. Think of it as snapshots next to each other, D-Day, juxtaposed with the wedding of a French count at his castle in Normandy in June, fifty years later. Now add two more snapshots, one of Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in June of 1987, and one of the cultural barbarians at the gates in America in June of 2012. Take all four pictures and look for the pairs. There are two portraits of courage in confronting evil and two portraits of modern decadence. I am guilty of participating in one of the latter.
Still slightly hung over from much too much champagne and French wine, I was returning to Germany after the wedding of an aging French count on June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The perfunctory wedding itself that afternoon had been a sad affair, a travesty of the church in which it had been held. It was his third marriage, her second, 27 years of difference in their age (but the bloom was already off the rose and she showed an inordinate amount of skin) and no one there expected the marriage to last. But on to the party. We were celebrating the festivities at the count’s family castle, or rather what was left of it.
Servants with white gloves served champagne in the twilight just after a torrential drenching from the Atlantic clouds had necessitated the placement of boards across the grassy field as an impromptu bridge to a party tent. The ladies hoist their hems gingerly as they cross the boards with an uncertain silken sway. Ample amounts of champagne, caviar and foie gras transform the mood from soggy to one more sprightly. The guests, many of them nobility, are escorted across the soaked field into ruins of the castle and down into the cellar, which provides cover from the rain. The counts and barons commiserate good naturedly about the beastly cost of keeping up family castles and sit down to toast the newlyweds, even if the nuptials were not new to either of them.
Ancient tables groan under the weight of seven courses of rich fare. We maneuver through the strategic battlefield of silver place settings, each piece monogrammed with the family crest, and a flotilla of wine glasses at each place. First we use the oyster knife and a small fork and throw back a small glass of a Pouilly-Fuisse to chase the slithery appetizer down. Dover sole topped with langouste is eaten with the fish knife and the next fork, and a glass of Sancerre. Then lemon sorbet to cleanse the palette (small spoon on the plate) and a sip of champagne. Medallions of lamb and potatoes au gratin follow with white asparagus (next fork in from the left, the next knife in from the right) and a red Beaujolais in the larger glass toward the center. Then entrecôte with a reduced red wine sauce and green peppercorns, Grenaille pommes de terre, with a rich red Burgundy in the largest goblet (next fork in from the left, serrated knife to the right). Then salad of field greens, next fork to the left. Then a pause.
Smoking breaks out at the table as we all attempt to digest the orgiastic fare. Guests propose toasts that grow more ribald as the evening progresses. The copious amount of alcohol makes it easier for people seated next to each other who speak different languages to find a common one. (Predominantly French and German, a sprinkling of English, and perhaps some Italian thrown in for seasoning.) Laughter bubbles up into the night sky above the ruin. Tarte de Pommes a la Normande follows for dessert (fork perpendicular across the top) then a cheese platter of French delicacies, along with cognac and Calvados. Our host informs us that the triple-cream cheese is named after Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French magistrate who wrote in his book on gastronomy that “dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman with only one eye.”
After finally finishing dinner, we float up the stairs on the waves of French wine for the evening’s entertainment. The count had arranged for a jousting match, a real one, with teams of horseback riders in the heraldic colors of their noble ancestors from that region of Normandy. These were young noblemen from the region who compete in such tournaments for the sport of it, so it seems. Trumpets announce the beginning of each match. Majestic horses thunder across the field, pell-mell toward each other, each of their riders extending a lance at the armor-clad opponent in an attempt to unseat him. Wild cheers erupt for the victors, while the defeated riders take a wet pratfall as their steeds snort and whirl to retrieve them. Fireworks conclude the evening with a spectacular display worthy of any fiefdom.
The next morning after this lavish display of opulence, somewhat chastened by the over-indulgence, I was driving back along the coast of Normandy past the very same beaches where American troops had landed exactly fifty years earlier on D-Day. I was acutely aware of the contrast between their lives, so many of them cut short on the sands below as they came to liberate Europeans from the Nazis, and my life, living amidst the luxury of the next generation of Germans and French. The fireworks our soldiers experienced were real bombs and they didn’t give a damn about which fork to use, if they lived to have another meal.I had a magazine with a commemorative map of D-Day and as we sped through the towns, I plotted our progress in the footsteps of the Allied troops. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juneau, Sword. The code names given those beaches echoed for me with the cries of the men who died there. The images from the movie The Longest Day flashed through my memory, as I attempted to reconstruct the invasion. As we passed Ste-Mère-Église, I could envision the tangled parachute caught on the church steeple, one of the many paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne that had parachuted in the night before. Brave boys, overcoming terror with their willingness to fight, came from the corn-fed plains of America to do battle with tyranny, confronting a totalitarian regime they knew was evil. Many of them gave the ultimate sacrifice, as they bled out into the sand below me. All told, 100,000 lives were lost in the invasion. I wondered where the family of my French host had been then. Had they dared to resist?
On the evening that D-Day’s invasion had begun on those beaches, Americans huddled around their radios to hear from President Roosevelt. He was not known as a particularly religious man, but he did something that evening that seems surprising to our modern sensibilities. On the radio live, with all of America hanging on his every word, he prayed:
Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest until victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and by flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.
With unabashed fervor, Roosevelt continued,
Oh Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. With thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.
As Warren Kozak wrote this past week in the Wall Street Journal: “This was an American president unafraid to embrace God and to define an enemy that clearly rejected the norms of humanity. And if the nature of the enemy was not clear to everyone that night, it would be made resoundingly clear as the armies advanced into Germany 10 months later.” Roosevelt’s prayer was an appeal to God to help our forces defeat the apostles of a kind of false religion, the triumphalist Aryan ideology.
In hindsight, it is easy to say that the Second World War was already won on D-Day, but there were many more bloody months of anguish ahead as the troops fought their way through Europe to force Hitler’s capitulation. Some theologians compare the victory of Christ’s crucifixion to D-Day. At that point it becomes clear how the war is going to end, but a lot of fierce fighting remains. The agonizing losses were heavy in the war in Europe and the Pacific before the final victory. And now we find ourselves in the midst of the ongoing spiritual battle since Christ’s death and resurrection, trusting the outcome yet fighting in our own trenches until the Second Coming.
Before the war was over in Europe, the Allied leaders had met at Yalta in February of 1945 to make a plan for reorganizing the territories occupied by the Nazis. Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt sat down to redraw the maps of Europe. Central and Eastern Europe were left under the control of Russia, as were sections of the capitols, Berlin and Vienna. Winston Churchill saw the danger of that division and in his address of March 6, 1946 he gave it a name it would retain:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.
Of course, when the Russian promises vaporized, along with the sovereignty of these citizens, the dividing line between countries and the West became a more literal curtain of iron, barbed wire and explosives. When the Berlin Wall went up in the night between Aug.12 and 13,1961, to keep East bloc subjects from fleeing to freedom via West Berlin, the Western nations stood by, unable to prevent it. Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old boy, tried to sprint to the other side one year later, and as he clambered over the barbed wire he was shot by East German border guards who let him bleed to death, tangled in the barbs before horrified onlookers from both sides. He was the first of hundreds to die in the attempt. I know the East German conscript who soon after that incident was given the assignment to stand guard at that very spot, under orders to shoot any other countrymen trying to escape. When Rüdiger Knechtel refused to shoot, he was imprisoned for more than two years.
The Berlin Wall stood unchallenged so long that people on both sides in Europe had come to think of it as a permanent fact of life. Most people on eastern side had lost hope that their fate could ever be anything other than subjugation, and it seemed that no one in the West dared to challenge the Soviet empire, other than Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and uttered these surprising words:
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
It was like a bracing jolt of cold water to the face, a slap to rouse the sleeping, a trumpet call to jolt the weary. It signaled anyone who was listening that the staus quo was not necessarily written in stone, and that Ronald Reagan, for one, could imagine a future without that wall. It gave hope to those constrained behind the Iron Curtain and re-ignited the courage they needed to resist.
When President Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, sophisticated Europeans (like the ones who attended the wedding at the castle) sniffed that he was being melodramatic, and that he had watched too many Star Wars movies. But President Reagan was one of the few people who grasped that the conflict was not only a military one, although the stationing of weapons to counter the Soviet buildup was crucial; and it was not only an economic conflict, although outspending the Soviets eventually forced Gorbachev to admit he could not continue. Ronald Reagan understood that at its heart, the conflict with communism had a moral and even a spiritual component. The atheistic ideology was a false religion that demanded a response in the realm of the spirit. And President Reagan was not afraid to call evil by its name.
I know that when people took to the streets across Eastern Europe in 1989 and in Russia in 1991, facing down armed soldiers under orders to shoot them, many of the leaders of the peaceful revolution were there because of their faith in Christ. They were instrumental in keeping the conflict peaceful. I know this because I spent time with them, met their children, slept on their couches, heard the stories of their incarceration and visited the graves of those who were murdered. When the Berlin Wall fell, everyone on both sides of it was astonished. This was not an inevitable outcome of anyone’s clever political strategy.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, another leader not known for his public piety, said in a speech after the fall, “When empires topple, they usually do so with a bang and not with a whimper. That this did not happen with a bang is practically a miracle.” There are moments when you “grasp the cloak of God, as he strides through history,” Kohl said, quoting his predecessor, Bismarck.
Something very curious has happened to both Europe and to America in the years since World War II, and since the Cold War, when we could name the enemy and the evil we were fighting against. Kozak reflects on Roosevelt’s radio broadcast the night of June 6, 1944, concluding that now, after the years that have passed since D-Day, ”it seems strangely difficult for our leaders to clearly define our values, our way of life, our causes for going to war to defend our ideals. It is unfathomable today that a president would embrace God the way Roosevelt did on that night.” Something fundamental has changed in our moral landscape, something that rose up for a few months of crystalline clarity after September 11, 2001, but has deflated again into a flatness, a flabbiness.
I think of our son, Winston Elliott IV, a First Lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne, now serving in one of the very same units that parachuted into Normandy as the first silent wave of troops on D-Day. Instead, he is stationed in Afghanistan in a war that has not been declared, although our exit from it has been. But our sons are still there. Our goals are ambiguous, although the deaths of the young men who served with Winston are stone-cold realities. If this is really about bringing democracy to the Middle East, did anyone bother to think through whether the cultural conditions are there to make that possible? The cultural soil within which free political institutions thrive is a very particular kind of soil that cannot be exported. It must be home grown. Not even all the European countries that birthed the fragile order of free markets, constitutions and democratic processes can still make them work.
Europe was already redefining its essence when I lived there in the 1980s and 90s. I was made acutely aware of that when I was invited as a delegate to the New Atlantic Alliance in 1996, an ambitious endeavor to bring together statesmen, former political leaders of the ilk of Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Havel, intellectuals and academics of Europe and America, to define the heart of unity for Eastern and Western Europe, the countries of NATO, and the Western world, suddenly enlarged by the collapse of communism.
I was invited to be a part of the committee on culture, and asked to submit a White Paper describing the essence of our shared culture. I could think of no better source than T.S. Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Eliot writes that culture is what allows us to say that it was worthwhile for a people to have lived. He says, as does Christopher Dawson, that the essence of culture is, at its roots, the faith that is shared by the people. European culture is rooted in the ordering of the mind from the ancient Greeks, the ordering of the polity from the ancient Romans, fused with the Christianity that gave Europe its heart, its universities, and much of its art, literature and music. Our shared Christian faith is what provides the matrix of family and community life, the source of morals and ethics, the only sure restraint on intemperance, and a certain wellspring of goodness, generosity and order.
The new internationalists were having none of that bosh. Out with the church, and in with the real definition of culture, I was told in our committee, like movie rights, and whether television broadcasts could be made across the borders of countries. I hope they are happy with the badly dubbed versions of American movies and knock-offs of sit-coms that have flooded into their homes after that otherwise delightful congress. Meanwhile, the European churches are even emptier now then they were then. Christian faith is a footnote of European history.
But my return to America hasn’t left me any happier with my own culture. I have spent the past fifteen years in the trenches of our inner cities coming along side people of faith who are rehabilitating drug addicts, preventing prisoners from going back behind bars, finding mentors for at-risk children, and helping prepare such people for employment. I am not asking the government to do more, but I do want it to get out of the way of the people who are trying to help with their own money and determination. I resent a government that seeks to force its secular ideology on people of faith through its misguided edicts, insidiously force-fed as health care mandates. And I rejoice that the slumbering giant of the Catholic Church finally has been roused. But through blatant misinterpretation of the First Amendment the battle lines are being drawn in America to no longer protect the freedom to exercise religion, but instead to excise religion from the public square altogether, in the name of a new so-called right: freedom from religion. I wonder how long it will be before these little faith-filled platoons will be attacked directly.
So on this sunny June day of 2012, I can see time folded back upon itself, with four frames of events taking place in the same week: D-Day and the count’s wedding in Normandy; Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate and a snapshot of the barbarians at the gates of America today. Two of these snapshots capture moments of courage and heroism in confronting evil. In the first, D-Day’s valiant soldiers are fighting the Nazis, as FDR leads the nation in prayer for them. In the second snapshot, Ronald Reagan challenges the leader of the Soviet’s “Evil Empire” to tear down the Berlin Wall. Even if neither of the leaders were particularly pious, their response acknowledged that the evil they faced demanded a rebuke in the spiritual dimension as well as the military.
In the other two framed shots, I see indulgence, conspicuous consumption, and orgiastic preoccupation with pleasure. In the first snapshot here I see the elegant and overfed merrymakers at the castle wedding, lifting their glasses to toast the jousting match. And in the second snapshot, I see the less elegant but overfed barbarians at the gates of contemporary America, hoisting a beer to toast our sports heroes. Here are two faces of decadent cultures sunk into the pursuit of pleasure. The excesses of indulgence I experienced in Europe aren’t all that different than the American version, except in the details. Americans are building castles if they didn’t happen to inherit one. McMansions anyone? Instead of jousting, we have football. And Big Gulps instead of goblets of wine. Well, unless you live in New York. The barbarians are already among us, and they are mindlessly walking around our shopping malls on peaceful days, and bashing skulls, robbing and raping on bad days. This is much worse than when T.S. Eliot warned of the barbarian nomads advancing in their mechanized caravans. Much, much worse.
Some days I despair for our civilization. The words of Yeats rattle around in my head, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Then my husband talks me down off the ledge. Some days I talk him down. Then one of us remembers that Yeats continues, “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
I was just reading an excerpt from my friend Joe Loconte’s new book, The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt. He gave me a glimmer of hope from France in the Second World War, a counterpoint to my D-Day reflections. He writes: “Just before historian Philip Hallie discovered the story of Chambonnais—the French villagers who rescued thousands of Jews during the Second World War—he was in a state of deep depression. He had finished researching and writing a book about cruelty, and for weeks he was tormented by the stories of torture and killing. Fear, bitterness, and fury filled his soul. But when he finished reading an account of resistance among the villagers—a scene in which they openly defied French police by sheltering Jews—he found that his cheeks were awash in tears. ‘What had wrung these tears from me, body and soul, the way you squeeze a grape, seeds and all, to get its juice, though the seeds make the juice bitter?’ he asked. ‘It was joy that did it, overwhelming joy, which can squeeze tears out of us as suddenly as misery can.’”
We all experience moments like this: when moral beauty appears before our eyes like a mountain peak beyond a dense and dark wood. What follows in that moment is joy, inexpressible and nearly irresistible.
That’s it exactly. That’s how I felt when I discovered the unsung heroes of the peaceful revolution that toppled the Soviet empire. Their gutsy faith and conviction were an antidote to the corrosive effects of the smug and sophisticated Europeans with whom I nobbed. That’s the kind of joy I experience when a newly released prisoner or a former drug addict makes it through to a graduation of the WorkFaith Connection. These people are bruised and battered, emotionally and sometimes physically, getting ready to find not just a job, but a whole new life, rooted in faith. We get to see glimpses of God’s raw, unfiltered power at work. As I hear their stories, I am filled with that kind of surge of joy. And I get to hug every single one of them.
Raising up a generation to serve as the Remant is crucial. Some of them will be the people who have lived on the dark side and have had a Pauline conversion, now on the rebound. I also hope to reach some promising young leaders before they have been ruined by life. That’s why I am back at a university, teaching after a long loop through other pursuits. What really matters? I ask my students. What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? Showing them culture in light of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and man’s relationship with God, is my ambitious goal. The inquisitive intelligence of the students entrusted to me is both energizing and humbling. After reading Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order, as we discussed Rome’s decline and the moral darkness that began to descend, these students saw the parallels to the current morass without prompting. When I am privileged to meet with wiser heads who have been pointing students toward The Permanent Things far longer than I, they reassure me that I am not alone in this endeavor. If young people like these can be equipped to be a Remnant of light in the growing darkness, perhaps there is hope for saving our civilization.
Unless the Second Coming is next Tuesday, which is fine with me.
Books on Ronald Reagan are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.