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A Note From the Ignorant

I don’t write much about religion because don’t know much about it. But today, that qualifies me to explain how the recent kerfuffle over the GOP’s press release happened. I was one of the conservatives who shook their heads at the statement, and I retweeted someone making fun of it.

First, a quick explanation of my background. I was raised Catholic, went to church every Sunday during some periods of my life, and attended more than a decade’s worth of what I knew as “catechism classes.” Somehow I didn’t know there was such a thing as the catechism” when I finished those classes, though, so I guess they weren’t very good. And I suppose I dropped out rather than finishing: my senior year of high school I decided not to get confirmed, and today I’m an agnostic.

Anyhow, as Rod Dreher wrote, the sentence in question “could have been phrased more clearly.” Here it is again:

Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.

When an ignorant person like me reads this sentence, it sounds like the writer is drawing a vague parallel between two eras, not referring to two celebrations of the same religious figure. I initially read it the same way I’d read, say, “Just as they had four years prior, in December of 1992 Americans were waiting for a new president to take office.”

The sentence is written that way, with “a new president” instead of a name, because the noun phrase refers to two different people (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton). Even if you knew nothing about American politics, in fact, you would almost certainly infer from that sentence that we were talking about two different presidents. It doesn’t really work if you replace 1992 with 1996; “a new president” can’t be the same guy who’s currently president.

Similarly, with the sentence from the GOP press release, one is tempted to infer that we are talking about two different kings. The first, the one three wise men are heralding, is obviously Jesus. But the second is obviously not, because he’s not a “new King” this year. From there one’s mind inevitably goes to Trump, especially in the context of a press release from his party.

What we’re apparently missing (according to friends who straightened me out on Twitter) is that the liturgical calendar is cyclical, so Jesus is indeed celebrated as “a new King” every year. This makes sense of some stuff I heard at church in my youth (“Christ is risen,” etc.), but it’s not something that occurred to me just from reading the GOP’s sentence. I think a lot of people—even some with religious-but-not-that-serious-about-it backgrounds—were in the same boat.

Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.

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