Alone If Necessary: Of Nicea, Nixon, and Nerve

Nick contra mundum – Nick against the world! I’m standing with him.

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I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.”
 ~
St. Thomas More
 

I have it on the best authority (namely my wife, Nancy) that the following is a true story.

It took place sometime in 1972 during Nixon’s re-election campaign. Abortion rights had yet to become a signature position for the political left, which meant that significant numbers of traditional Catholics in the U.S. still identified with the Democratic Party and voted accordingly.

The upper-level students at Omaha’s Mary Our Queen School were old enough to be aware of the presidential election, although too young to have adopted any independent political allegiances. In other words, just like today, they largely parroted the political positions of their parents.

Nonetheless, their teachers, many of them sisters, promoted classroom debate regarding the issues and candidates, taking advantage of current events to flesh out dry classroom lessons. One day, the fifth-graders at Mary Our Queen (Nancy among them) had an opportunity to engage in a mock election. For whatever pedagogical reason, Sr. Gertrude decided to make it an open ballot – in fact, hardly a ballot at all. “Who would you like to win this election?” the good nun inquired of the whole class. “Raise your hand if you support George McGovern.”

A sea of hands went up immediately – of course! The majority of students in that middle-class, Midwestern Catholic stronghold came from staunch Democratic stock, and those who didn’t were probably cowed into going along with the crowd. Why rock the boat?

After the hands went down, Sr. Gertrude followed through on her civics lesson and, in fairness, inquired after the other side of the ticket. “And who supports Richard Nixon?”

Silence – stillness. And then, across the room, a single hand went up. Everyone in the class turned to look. It was Ray Tomesselo, his arm erect yet shaking, a grim defiance plastered on his face. Murmurs of disbelief circulated throughout the room – didn’t he hear the question? His demeanor indicated it wasn’t a jest – maybe he was confused. Heads shook; smirks materialized; the teacher intervened. “Why do you support Nixon, Ray?” she asked, probably to satisfy her own curiosity as much as to build on an unexpected teachable moment.

It was a crux – a watershed. The angels hovered overhead, and the saints cheered him on from their cosmic bleachers: Would Ray speak? Summoning up all the fortitude and actual grace at his disposal, this fifth-grade moral martyr raised his chin and gave voice to his conscience. “Because my brother is in Vietnam,” he faltered, “and Nixon said he'd end the war and bring home the troops.”

Ray Tomesselo contra mundum – just like St. Athanasius “against the world” during the height of the Arian heresy. I have this mental image of the him standing alone at the Council of Nicea, declaiming orthodoxy amid Arian catcalls and jeers, maybe even ducking occasionally to avoid getting beaned by a shoe or a rotten leek. It’s the same picture I have of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms defending his schismatic notions. “Here I stand,” he supposedly announced to his fuming interrogators. “I can do no other.” He was wrong, of course, but you have to admire his backbone.

Anyway, like Luther, like Athanasius, Ray Tomesselo held tight to his convictions and fearlessly broadcasted them, come what may. Grade-school politics and social pressure were not enough to subvert this young hero’s fraternal loyalty. Ray’s singular stand might’ve had no bearing on the subsequent election, no impact on what actually transpired in Southeast Asia, but his demonstration of single-minded devotion – borne of desperation, borne of a young boy’s urgent desire to see his brother home safe – was a stirring and unforgettable testimony of love. At least my wife never forgot it.

Here’s a parallel story of selfless courage – less dramatic, perhaps, but equally unforgettable, and one that I can vouch for myself.

Last fall, the country was still in an uproar after Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination for President. Democrats and left-leaning pundits were aghast; many conservatives were similarly dumbfounded. How could a political neophyte with so much negative baggage – his record of unseemly behaviors, his penchant for off-the-cuff outrages and in-your-face Tweets, his political missteps and gaffes – be the choice of so many Americans to be the leader of the free world?

Like many families, we entertained regular dinnertime debates about the candidates and issues, and often enough it got heated. My nonvoting teens played devil’s advocate and argued multiple sides of each point – sometimes in the same conversation. My collegians, when present for weekends or breaks, exhibited their independence from their stodgy conservative parents and voiced support for Clinton and Bernie and anybody other than Trump.

Around and around we’d go, tossing out zingers, absorbing and processing rejoinders, and then spouting off another round of opinions. It was the height of domestic rhetorical maneuvering, and, although it naturally got heated on occasion, I was glad that my progeny were both capable and willing to engage the issues.

Then, one night, one of the older kids turned to my grade-schoolers, Katharine and Nicholas, to draw them out. “How about you, guys?” came the question. “What do you think?”

Kath, a fifth-grader, was not prepared to stake an ideological claim in that highly charged atmosphere and demurred. However, Nick, in sixth grade at the time, spoke right up. “I’m for Trump,” he said without apology.

Shock! How could it be? Murmurs of disbelief – echoes of Omaha – emanated from our homegrown cognoscenti. “Really?” came the challenge. “Why?”

And here, once again, I can envision the hosts of heaven leaning in to catch what happened next. Would Nick stand his ground? Would he risk the disdain of his beloved older siblings?

“He’s against abortion,” was Nick’s simple reply.

Now understand that Nick is no ordinary grade-schooler. Sure, he’s a joker (like his old man) who loves to play the drums and read Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. He’s also thoroughly devout, like so many his age, and absorbs without question what he’s taught in religion class – about abortion and everything else.

But Nick also has Down syndrome, and he’s keenly aware that abortion is disproportionately visited on unborn kids like him. Like Ray, Nick saw the presidential election in stark personal terms. It wasn’t a contest of ideologies; it wasn’t simply a bloated exercise in high-pressure pandering, posturing, and marketing. No. It was a choice between those candidates who’d expand the killing of his kind, and one who at least voiced his opposition to that killing. For Nick, it was life or death.

Turns out, Nick’s instincts proved spot-on, for President Trump has largely followed through on his pro-life campaign promises. But even if he hadn’t, Nick’s intentions were unquestionably solid. Despite accusations to the contrary, devout Catholics are not single-issue voters. Even so, my son rightly and unforgettably nailed our first priority in his support of Trump, and he did it without heed of criticism. Nick contra mundum – Nick against the world!  I’m standing with him.