The Doubters After Mattis

Brian Gongol

Just prior to Mass every weekend at the church I attended in college, one of the lectors would read a welcome message that always concluded with these words: "Whoever you are and wherever you came from, we're glad you're here."

It was an unusual message for a Catholic church. We're known for our rules much more than for our welcome. But it was the right message, too. It told the doubter, the skeptic, and the just-plain-lost that they weren't going to face judgment or rejection for showing up. It said that the decisions of the past were less important than the direction of the future.

There are a whole lot of people who need to hear that message today. Not in the pews (though it's still a great message for a church to share) -- but in our politics.

It's been a week since the red-hot resignation of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. And nothing has happened in the last week to soothe any nerves. The President overrode his initial reaction to the news and is pushing Mattis out with the New Year. The Secretary's holiday letter to servicemembers warned that "Storm clouds loom". Even the Senate Majority Leader is "particularly distressed" with the President's decision.

In light of all this, many a Trump voter may be having their first second thoughts about the President. In Mattis's two years on watch at the Pentagon, there has been little said from any credible corner that undermines his stature as a dedicated, competent, and patriotic servant of the Constitution.

So his resignation letter lands on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office with a mighty "thud".

That's almost certainly by design: Mattis's resignation isn't about him pursuing some cliche like "spending more time with the grandkids" (he doesn't have any, anyway). It's a full-throated shout of protest that the President is on the wrong track -- perhaps irreversibly so.

This isn't the anonymous act of a bit player in a minor bureaucratic department. It's a bold and public warning, signed with his name. When he writes that "My views [...] are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues", he's placing his reputation on the line by making his act a matter of informed protest.

Whether the Mattis resignation gives rise to someone's first moment of doubt about President Trump or their thousandth, nobody should under-estimate just what an extraordinary event is taking place.

This isn't the time to harass or harangue anyone who takes the resignation as a wake-up call. There are many people who voted for President Trump in good faith, who believed in his promises of greatness, or who have seen more good than bad in his work so far. There are zealots, of course -- but there are also doubters and skeptics and those who feel just plain lost in the political realm.

As they voice their doubts or reveal their skepticism, they need to hear reassurance that their uncertainty is valid. They need to hear that it's OK to question the direction of things -- even if it's for the first time. It's okay to admit those things, even if you're wearing a MAGA hat while you do it.

Like the questioners who showed up at my college church, they need to hear "Whoever you are, and wherever you came from, we're glad you're here."

This resignation is a serious event, and if people take it seriously, that was certainly Secretary Mattis's intent. There are two ways its seriousness can be undermined: One is for nobody to take notice. The second is for people to treat this moment as some kind of purity test. We cannot change how people voted in the past, nor what may have motivated their prior reasoning. All we have is the ability to recognize the present and chart a direction for the future.

That future will be tumultuous and it will include all kinds of disputes, both worthy and trivial. But some things are more important than those disputes -- and foremost among those is a government in which the leadership at the top respects and depends upon the counsel it receives from experts like Secretary Mattis. In the words of America's 30th President, Calvin Coolidge:

"It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions."