Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Presidents’ Day: Fame and the Law of the Gift

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 18, 2013

Today is Presidents’ Day in the United States, a holiday which began its history as “Washington’s Birthday” on February 22nd, and gradually morphed into a convenient Monday holiday to honor America’s Presidency in general. Those of us who believe no useful work can be accomplished when the Post Office, and more importantly the banks, are closed have somehow rather magically earned the right to a relaxed schedule today.

However, even a relaxed brain has considerable computational power, and this particular holiday makes me wonder about fame, and particularly political fame. We tend to regard the famous as somehow better—or at least more accomplished—than ourselves. But I have a theory that in most cases it is a sufficient explanation simply to be in the right place at the right time. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I helped out with a friend’s Senatorial campaign, and again this year while observing the many relatively unknown candidates striving for the position of Attorney General in Virginia, which can be a stepping stone to becoming Governor. Both senators and governors have a shot at being remembered, eventually, on Presidents’ Day.

My one political friend is a deep and fearless Catholic, very bright, with a lifetime of tactical experience behind him, articulate, and a hard worker. But he is also just a guy like the rest of us, and his opponents over the years have also been, in this fundamental sense, just like the rest of us. Many a lesser man has been elected Senator or Governor. And if my friend has shown me how good a person a politician can be, many others have demonstrated the opposite. In any case, there does not seem to be a great deal of correlation between any kind of greatness and victory. Being chosen by some sort of Party establishment seems to be the most important factor—and if that choice depends on some innate greatness, I have not been able to discern it.

Consider, as a far more potent example, our current president. Barack Obama did not work his way up in politics over a long stretch of years. He had relatively few special achievements to his credit, compared with others. Before becoming President, in fact, he had unusually little experience with public office. He was no more intelligent, articulate or accomplished than many other candidates—and arguably very much less accomplished. But he was liberal and black at a time when, for a variety of reasons, a significant majority of Americans thought it would be absolutely wonderful to elect a liberal black politician as President.

We tend to think that major politicians are very different from the rest of us. They may have moved in very different circles because of wealth or social position, but it is amazing how short the distance is between being nobody and being somebody. The truth is most often very similar to the Obama story: A fairly ordinary person (in comparison with others in the political class) wakes up one day to find himself in the right place at the right time. In almost all fields this sudden promotion is called being a “hot commodity”. Before and after the fact, it is very difficult to discern why this particular commodity was hot.

I do not say that it takes no effort or skill to maintain one’s position. But getting the position in the first place, instead of someone else? That is the question. As further evidence, consider how hard it is for anybody to predict what or whom the next “hot commodity” will be.

We can, however, predict with a high degree of certainty what or whom the next hot commodity will not be. Except under very rare circumstances, he, she or it will not be highly principled. By “highly principled” I mean a person or a movement which derives moral principles from something that transcends the perceptions of the dominant culture, and refuses to fudge or obscure those principles regardless of the demands imposed by a desire for fame.

This is an exceedingly simple calculation. If the dominant culture holds that green is blue, it implies several things. First it implies that there is no need to make green blue, because everybody is already focused on that. What value is there in promoting a cause everyone has already endorsed? Second, and by obvious contrast, it implies the great importance of restoring or nurturing a broad recognition of the value of green. It is the neglected causes that need the attention of those with vision and courage.

And third, it implies that the surest road to obscurity is to become a champion of green. Nobody any longer believes in green. Greenists have given over their reason to some old and outworn authority, or some absurd and ancient prejudice. Greenists oppose progress. They want to turn back the clock. They even want to prevent their more enlightened neighbors from making the world Blue. Only a knave or a fool would support a blueophobe.

There are other kinds of fame than political fame, of course. Among others types, there is artistic fame and educational fame and business fame. And I submit that in each case there are very few who actually earn their fame. The common denominator, I believe you’ll find, is that the famous have been in the right place, at the right time, with a message that their particular community wanted to hear—or perhaps with a decision which just happened, in one almost random instance, to turn out well. In most cases, if the relevant culture cannot have the current famous person, well then, someone else will serve just as well. Of course, we all know there are exceptions. But I think we also know that the exceptions are very thin on the ground.

Much as I enjoy running down the famous, this same principle holds true in our own lives. So much of what we achieve depends on a combination of gifts we have received from God and others; so much of our success comes from opportunities which just happened to arise for us because we were in the right place at the right time and with the right connections, usually through no great wisdom of our own. Pagans call this luck. Christians call it Providence. Either way, it is the one great inexorable law of the universe. It is the law of the gift.

Now it so happens that recognition of the law of the gift is simply fear of the Lord by a different name. Psalm 111 reminds us it is the beginning of wisdom. This is because it changes forever how we rate ourselves, how we behave, and whom we seek to please. It enables us to see that the great majority of famous people, having clothed themselves with little but their own self-congratulation, will have to hide for fear of exposing their nakedness when God appears (Gn 3:10). The alternative is to put on the armor of God (Eph 6:11,13) in order to seek a very different sort of fame—to risk becoming a reproach and a byword (Wis 5:4)—until He comes.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: sparch - Feb. 19, 2013 9:53 AM ET USA

    Although it can be historicaly shown that politicians are usually lacking in any ethical and moral code of conduct, the last few decades have shown a severe slide in this regard. Answers that are expediant rather than resulting in solutions is the mainstay, so long as power to those in office is maintained. The time has come to ease back into the arms of our Lord and trust in his widsdom, rather than the fleeting opinions of others that offer all the hope in the world, but in the end fail.