We must anchor ourselves in truth

Hearing that an anchor is the probable cause of the Oct. 1 California oil spill may have led some people to wonder how an anchor works. Its cross beams and heavy points, called flukes, sink into solid ground beneath the water and hold a ship steady, even in a storm.

Yet this anchor failed — dragging its boat, and 4,000 feet of pipeline, 105 feet across the ocean floor.

Since Christianity’s earliest days, anchors have symbolized hope. “Humans swear by someone greater than themselves,” Paul wrote. “… We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb 6:19). The anchor, often found in early cemeteries, reminded Christians of their anchor in Christ.

About 55 years after our nation was founded, a French political scientist and diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited the United States in 1831 and traveled extensively. He then wrote the book, “Democracy in America.” He praised many things, including Americans’ devotion to independence and our enterprising spirit — while criticized others, including slavery and individualism. As Bishop Robert Barron noted at an Oct. 4, 2021, Red Mass for the legal community in New Orleans, Tocqueville, worried individualism could be a major flaw.

“Tocqueville saw in the rhetoric of Jefferson, and the other founders, a preference for the freedom of the individual to pursue happiness as he or she saw fit, without any particular direction given from civil authorities,” Bishop Barron said. “The danger, as Tocqueville saw it, was the opening up of a civic space utterly denuded of moral or spiritual purpose …”

In his 1835 book, Tocqueville wrote that certain “habits of the heart” could save our democracy by providing moral and spiritual anchors in turbulent times.

“Nature and circumstances have made the inhabitants of the United States bold,” Tocqueville wrote. (Yet) “… hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.”

Tocqueville believed religion, what he called “the first of (U.S.) political institutions,” was our anchor. With it, we could be our best, restrained when needed, and always free to advance the common good. However, losing it, Tocqueville feared, would doom us to chaos and tyranny. His related “habits of the heart” included a sense of unity, respecting “otherness,” addressing tensions in ways respecting the common good, taking personal responsibility and creating community. All these, he believed, were learned from religion.

Tocqueville saw these habits as redeeming truths about America. Yet, today, we live in what some call a “post-truth era.” “Post truth” entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Truth is hard to define — even harder in an age where we, more and more, seem to mistake perceptions for truth.

Dominican Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, in January 2017, described post-truth this way: “Many people today would say, instead, that all is grey. After all, we want to be tolerant and flexible, not closed minded or judgmental. We don’t want people to impose their views on us or to impose our views on them.”

Yet, we are called to speak certain truths. As the archbishop added, “Truth is radically humanizing, freeing us from all that holds us back and makes us less than we could be and should be.”

This is true of the United StatesU.S. and of Christianity. Post- truth thought seems to echo Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). Yet we know, as Pilate did not, that truth stood before him, as it stands before us. Jesus had already said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6).

That is what the Christian anchor symbol means: there is Truth, with a capital “T.” It is eternal. And it exists outside of us and our perceptions, but desires to enter our hearts. If we do not anchor ourselves in this Truth and the long-held truths of both Christianity and the democratic experiment, we risk becoming an anchor that pulls loose in a storm and wreaks havoc.