Author’s note: As commenter DanC kindly pointed out, I had my Chaput speeches mixed up. The post below has been corrected from its originally published version to refer to the correct context and original text. I apologize for any confusion I caused.
I spent a while learning how to teach adolescents in addition to my time being one, so I have thought a lot about identity formation. Facing a future with President Donald Trump is forcing many Americans to reconsider what the country really thinks, believes, and wants. If the election results demonstrate anything about our national culture, it is that we are divided, and the division is sharper than many of us realized. It even extends into our religious identities. I have seen more than one report that Catholics voted almost 50/50 for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The Catholic vote is not as easy to pin down as it once was.
So who are we as a church and as a country? Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offered some thoughts several weeks before the election at the USCCB’s Bishop’s Symposium. He was speaking to Catholics who are involved in the political sphere, but I think his message is helpful for all of us who seek to be both Catholic and American. I offer some of his remarks here with some commentary of my own.
America’s cultural and political elites talk a lot about equality, opportunity and justice. But they behave like a privileged class with an authority based on their connections and skills.
One of the things I’ve learned from living in so many cities, states, and countries is the true meaning of culture and the power of experience. The best definition of culture I know is “how we do things around here.” In Austin, we don’t honk our car horns out of anger in stop-and-go traffic (and boy, do we have that traffic). In other cities, people honk. It’s not a matter of rudeness or nonchalance; it’s just how we do it. Before the election, many in the media wondered who would ever vote for Donald Trump. Now we know: quite a lot of people would, and did, and most of them are residents of areas far from major media’s usual concern. A Trump presidency was a possibility from the moment he received the nomination. The many who expressed disbelief may have forgotten about all the rest, and it was those voters who secured Trump’s win.
Consider the elitist attitudes we find in our own parishes. How many have thought that youth ministry doesn’t need a trained professional so much as anyone who can pass a background check, run some games, and order pizza? They’re just teenagers, after all. How many lectors have met only the bare minimum qualifications of literacy and lack of the common fear of public speaking? It’s just a book, right? How many parishes consider themselves multicultural because they have a Mass or two in Spanish? Surely, it’s just about the language, and it’s just because they don’t have to learn English.
But culture is so much more than age or language. There is a Catholic culture, and the intersection of “Catholic” and “American” is growing more complicated all the time.
To put it another way, quite a few of us American Catholics have worked our way into a leadership class that the rest of the country both envies and resents. And the price of our entry has been the transfer of our real loyalties and convictions from the old Church of our baptism to the new “Church” of our ambitions and appetites. People like Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Kennedy, Joe Biden and Tim Kaine are not anomalies. They’re part of a very large crowd that cuts across all professions and both major political parties.
It’s always easier to just stand back and watch things happen than it is to make things happen. Faith takes work. It’s simpler, neater, to just shake our heads at the perplexing behavior of “public Catholics” such as those mentioned by Chaput when we, of course, would be different. We would stand up for the truth despite its unpopularity. We would let our faith inform our decisions, no matter what.
But what if our jobs were on the line? What if we were sworn to represent organizations or populations that do not share our faith? If we can’t leave our faith at the door, how far can we carry it across the threshold of a public office? When we represent the people, do we have to stop representing our hearts? When we stand up for our personal principles, are we ignoring those we have pledged to serve?
Is it possible to be a Catholic and a representative in our American democracy?
For all of its greatness, democratic culture proceeds from the idea that we’re born as autonomous, self-creating individuals who need to be protected from, and made equal with, each other. It’s simply not true. And it leads to the peculiar progressive impulse to master and realign reality to conform to human desire, whereas the Christian masters and realigns his desires to conform to and improve reality.
As Chaput explains, Christianity rests on the notion that we are all creatures of God. We are subject to him, and we are made for community. The goal is to get everyone to the perfection of heaven by the grace of Jesus Christ. In general, we want what is bad for us (sin), and we strive towards the good things that are of God. Our politics, however, take more of an “every man for himself,” “I control my own destiny” approach, in a weird blend of individualism, social support, and noninterference.
We Christians believe that people are inherently good, so it stands to reason that government of the people should also be good. Can we be distinctly Catholic and distinctly American at the same time? Chaput seems to think so:
We need to help Catholics recover their own sense of distinction from the surrounding secular meltdown. The Church and American democracy are very different kinds of societies with very different structures and goals. They can never be fully integrated without eviscerating the Christian faith. An appropriate “separateness” for Catholics is already there in the New Testament. We’ve too often ignored it because Western civilization has such deep Christian roots. But we need to reclaim it, starting now.
Our challenge is to find a way to include respect and fidelity to the people we serve in politics without excluding our faith. As public servants, without some level of inclusion, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs. As Catholics, without some measure of faith, we would be betraying our baptism.
If by “inclusive” we mean patiently and sensitively inviting all people to a relationship with Jesus Christ, then yes, we do very much need to be inclusive. But if “inclusive” means including people who do not believe what the Catholic faith teaches and will not reform their lives according to what the Church holds to be true, then inclusion is a form of lying. And it’s not just lying but an act of betrayal and violence against the rights of those who do believe and do seek to live according to God’s Word. Inclusion requires conversion and a change of life; or at least the sincere desire to change.
Saying this isn’t a form of legalism or a lack of charity. It’s simple honesty. And there can be no real charity without honesty. We need to be very careful not to hypnotize ourselves with our words and dreams. The “new evangelization” is fundamentally not so different from the “old evangelization.” It begins with personal witness and action, and with sincere friendships among committed Catholics — not with bureaucratic programs or elegant sounding plans. These latter things can be important. But they’re never the heart of the matter.
The only way to be inclusive is to include the truth and exclude all else. Chaput argues that there is no room for Catholics “in name only,” but there is plenty of grace for those who seek real faith. God calls us to serve, even in politics, but he does not call us to compromise our salvation for the sake of the American dream.
How are you feeling in these post-election days? Is this election a sign of the failure of democracy? Have you experienced elitist political attitudes? Do you think is it much ado about nothing? Read the full speech and offer your thoughts in charity and truth.