Signs of the Time

Recently a future King of England, dressed in an open-collared shirt and without a jacket, slid behind the steering wheel of a car and drove his wife, new-born son and himself away from a maternity hospital in London. He drove, not a chauffeur or bodyguard. I couldn’t tell from the video I saw on You Tube what kind of car Prince William drove but it looked middle-class. But then, even most luxury cars look middle-class these days.

One’s suspicion that the scene at the hospital was contrived for watching cameras was confirmed when William admitted in an interview that he practiced hooking up the baby’s car seat so that would go smoothly.

Not too long ago William’s father, Prince Charles, titillated millions around the world by letting loose with a couple of swear words when invited to try his hand at the delivery of a television weather report.

Before that the Queen herself played herself in a TV skit to kick off the worldwide broadcast of the 2012 summer Olympic Games. She didn’t swear, but there was still something unsettling about the business, akin perhaps to seeing a well-dressed woman take out a compact to apply fresh makeup in public instead of going to a ladies’ room to do it.

The British royals should take care. If they keep trying to look like regular people it could get regular people to seeing them as that.

Of course that’s how most American leaders have wanted to seem ever since a wealthy lawyer named Lincoln who was married to the daughter of a rich Kentucky slave-owner got himself elected President on the strength of being born in a log cabin. Unfortunately, regular people is exactly what many of them have been.

In Washington, D.C., where I live, Mr. Lincoln’s current successor, President Obama, usually rides around town in a black Suburban instead of a limousine. If the object is for him to look like one of the people it fails since his SUV is in a convoy of a half-dozen other identical vehicles, all with smoked windows so you don’t know which one carries him, plus there are motorcycle outriders and intersecting streets along his route are blocked by police cruisers. Nobody else gets that treatment. And nobody else in Washington would think to ride in a limousine when the top man doesn’t.

I don’t readily remember the last time I saw a limousine in this city. They used to be all over the place, especially during the Reagan years. Then there would sometimes be veritable traffic jams of them around certain downtown hotels, as when there was going to be a state dinner at the White House and Ron and Nancy’s rich California friends would fly into the capital in their private jets in order to attend.

Those men with lives dedicated to making money and wives dedicated to themselves perfectly represented the right wing, called conservatism, of our national liberalism. They were its face. Ordinary folks seldom got close enough to see the traces of all the cosmetic surgery that made it look glamorous.

Now that I think of it, the last big show of limos in Washington was for Reagan’s funeral. It’s still okay to ride in a limo for a funeral, or a wedding. High-school kids can also rent one for prom night.

Oh, there’s another exception. When Prime Minister Netanyahu is in town he always rides in a limousine. It must be only in ex-Christendom that displays of inequality are become impermissible.

That’s understandable. It is in ex-Christendom that the sway of liberal democracy is most complete.

That being the case, it amazes me that anyone finds it peculiar we should now have a Pope who lives in a residential hotel instead of the Apostolic Palace, sits in a chair instead of on a throne, or that the customized Mercedes limousine used by John Paul II is kept out of sight. (The white jeep was only for riding through the crowds in St. Peter’s Square.)

Perhaps the Mercedes will be auctioned off one day soon. That’s what Paul VI, the last Pope to wear one, did with his papal tiara so that now it sits in the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington for tourists to ogle. Pope Paul put it on the block at about the same time he did away with the Noble Guard and similar bodies, leaving only the Swiss Guard to provide a measure of the flash and vibrant color that once upon a time shone in the papal court.

The color now spreading like a pall, less in Rome actually than most everywhere else, is grey, not deep rich gunmetal-grey or the hypnotic blue-grey of a wolf’s eyes, but ashen grey like the faces of men trudging into captivity after defeat in battle.

I wonder what the plutocrat who buys the papal limousine will do with it after a few rides. Build a pavilion where he can go look at it the way Oscar Wilde’s fictional protagonist would steal up to the attic to contemplate the portrait of his moral decay?

Things being as they are, the youngest persons alive today are unlikely to live long enough to see a Pope whose pontificate will unabashedly manifest, as of old, the monarchical character of the papacy. In an age when royalty itself dresses in shirtsleeves and drives its own cars there will be no reverting to the tiara at a papal installation anytime soon, and the ceremony will continue to be called an installation, not a coronation, in the same way that subjects of the British Crown are now known in popular speech as citizens of the U.K.

How can the citizen of a democracy be a subject? And how, in the circumstances that prevail today, can Christ be recognized again as King, as He was everywhere in the West for more than a thousand years, with all power given Him in Heaven and on earth (Matthew, 28:18)? He will not be. The circumstances have to be changed. And that won’t happen tomorrow. For it ever to happen, men who would build anew a Christian social order have to stop thinking it can tomorrow and instead take a longer view, work toward achieving lesser, winnable goals, but always toward the attainment of ones nobody alive today is likely to see reached. It’s work for the long haul.

As it happens, I’ll be speaking of the long haul in a talk entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” that, God willing, I’ll offer at this month’s SBC conference. I mention this for folks planning to attend and in the hope a productive conversation will be got going.