Subsidiarity and the Meaning of Words

There was a handsome suit on display in the shopwindow of my D.C. tailor for quite a while. Called the “H.W.,” it showed off the 41st president’s signature pinstripes in a slimmer, more modern cut. That coat said something about the first President Bush: it was classic, solid, and wholly uninteresting. 

Herbert Walker Bush has been relegated to an irrelevant (and in the suit’s case, inaccurate) history. But not much time has really passed since he lived in the White House. And the man’s best ideas are meeting their moment. The first and key is about community. He said it best in his inaugural:

“And there is another tradition. And that is the idea of community — a beautiful word with a big meaning…For we are a nation of communities, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique.

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, “Holy Name” – a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

Bush’s focus on community was grounded on his belief in the family. He articulated, more beautifully and more clearly than any other president, the Catholic idea of subsidiarity:

“At the bright center is the individual. And radiating out from him or her is the family, the essential unit of closeness and of love. For it is the family that communicates to our children — to the 21st century — our culture, our religious faith, our traditions and history.

From the individual to the family to the community, and on out to the town, to the church and school, and, still echoing out, to the county, the state, the nation – each doing only what it does well, and no more. And I believe that power must always be kept close to the individual – close to the hands that raise the family and run the home. I am guided by certain traditions. One is that there is a God and He is good, and his love, while free, has a self imposed cost: We must be good to one another.”

This focus on the family matters because the family is the core of education. It is where we learn what we believe and how we should think. It is where we learn what words mean.

And words are important because the Great Deciders — the Supreme Court Justices — they are legislating right now on the big questions. And many of them are textualists. Being a textualist, of course, starts with text. With words.

After Senator Josh Hawley lit into the Supreme Court’s recent Bostock decision, he gutted Justice Gorsuch during a floor speech. After excoriating the decision as profoundly damaging and mistaken, Hawley essentially said that its authors did the best they could with what God had given them:

“I believe a hundred percent that the justice who principally authored this decision — Justice Gorsuch — and those who joined him, are sincere, and were writing to the best of their ability, and reasoning to the best of their ability (…) No, I think that they were doing what they thought was best, and using all of the skills and gifts that they had.”

Hawley knows how much words matter because he worked for years at Becket, a D.C. law firm that protects religious believers. Becket has a rich and successful history of efficient language, using the right words to drive a message and the right faces to carry a story. Not coincidentally, Becket has a history of winning its cases over and over again.

I was in the room while Kristina Arriaga, Becket’s visionary chief during its best days and Hawley’s onetime boss, realized that the Little Sisters of the Poor had a simple message at hand: #LetThemServe. We drove that message hard, online and off, and pulled everything from photo ops to web videos into line behind it. The New York Times wrote later that, “Opponents of the contraception mandate have been brilliant in positioning the case as being about nuns who have a name ‘perfectly pitched to make liberals/progressives squirm,’ as Mona Charen wrote in National Review…” Indeed.

But now we can’t agree on language any more: our time is one of black lives or all lives, defunding and time’s up and cancel culture. Our words are as broken as our families. As ephemeral as our communities. And that’s a shame, because after the Court’s decision we are dooming ourselves to another season of struggle over a 3-letter word that starts with confusion and ends in ‘x’.