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Monday, December 5, 2022

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Thanksgiving and the King ~ The Imaginative Conservative


In this age of irreverence, we have much to recover, and we cannot achieve that recovery without the hard work of self-mastery in the outdoors and the classroom, but especially without worship of the true teacher, who is Christ the King.

This past Sunday, Catholics across the world celebrated The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It’s interesting to think how little comment we probably made, either to each other or to ourselves, about this homage to kingship. As a rule, Americans are allergic to kings and queens, although we have a fascinated and proprietary concern about the English monarchy. Many people were moved to tears by reading about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, but we were also surprised by the deeply personal response to her death shown by our English friends. Elizabeth the Queen had been theirs, integral to their identities in a way that Americans find it difficult to imagine.

Like the Romans after the expulsion of the Tarquins, we bridle at the idea of “one only man” (as Cassius memorably says in Julius Caesar). We balk at concentrating too much political or even ceremonial power in the hands of a monarch, especially if we have had no part in the choosing. The most difficult section for Americans in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France might be his passionate argument for the principle of royal inheritance (the reason that King Charles now succeeds Queen Elizabeth):

In this choice of inheritance, [we English] have given to our political structure the image of a blood-relationship, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable (and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities) our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.

Burke sounds wonderful—well, for the English—but we Americans find it absurd to think that the responsibility of high office could be conferred by birthright.

On the other hand, imagine saying “Christ the President” or “Christ the Prime Minister.” It borders on blasphemy. A conundrum: we steadfastly affirm the kingship of Christ, yet just as steadfastly we reject political kingship, despite its many classical endorsements, because it might turn into the reign of George III. In rejecting it, we discount the warmth and reverence that Burke praises. Reading the Federalist Papers, our seniors in Humanities 401 are unlikely to learn much about what Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” as opposed to the “efficient” element of government. I am reminded of the remarks of English Bob, a gunfighter in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Commenting on the assassination of Pres. Garfield, English Bob (played by Richard Harris) reasons with a barber: “If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied. The sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand… how shall I put it? In awe.” Not so, he says, with a president.

One of the ironies of Thanksgiving is that the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, celebrating the success of their first harvest in November of 1621, never renounced their loyalty to the king, despite having separated from the Church of England of which he was the head. It is a little startling to read the beginning of the Mayflower Compact: “In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.” In other words, they take their sense of dignity and purpose from their standing as loyal subjects, and then “covenant and combine [them]selves together into a civil body politic, for [their] better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid” and so on. Even as they establish the paradigm of American self-government, they mark the date “in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.”

Did those Pilgrims admire James I for the “the king-becoming graces” praised in Macbeth: “justice, verity, temperance, stableness” and all the others? Almost certainly not, since they left England to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. Yet they revered James as King, a living symbol of divine authority: our sovereign lord. They respected the vertical dimension in public life that reinforces a hierarchy in the soul (the subject of a long discussion in Plato’s Republic, which our freshmen will read next semester). By contrast, democracies (God bless them) enforce a horizontal movement toward equality that tends to erase respect for the “better” and the “best” and to interpret anything dignified as a ruse of power.

As we give thanks at Wyoming Catholic College to our hardworking faculty and staff, to our luminous students and the parents who have entrusted them to us, we also thank all the benefactors who support this unique effort of education. They understand that in this age of irreverence, we have much to recover, and we cannot achieve that recovery without the hard work of self-mastery in the outdoors and the classroom, but especially without worship of the true teacher, who is Christ the King.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is “God the Father – a panel from their Ghent Altarpiece” (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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