3 Takeaways From the Latest Acrimonious Election Cycle

COMMENTARY: Forgive your brothers and sisters for what we think are their political sins, try to find the reason for their bad choices in ideals we share or at least respect, and look for their virtues.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at the memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, March 1, 2016.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at the memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, March 1, 2016. (photo: Susan Walsh/Pool/Sipa USA / Associated Press)

The way some Catholics spoke of other Catholics before and especially after the midterm elections … oh boy — extremists, fascists, wokesters, pro-aborts, Nazis, socialists, misogynists, feminists; haters of the poor, women, workers, babies, gays, schoolchildren, families, students, small business owners; enemies of democracy, enemies of the Constitution; Magats, demoncrats, racists, elitists; all with a general suggestion that people on the other side were bad Catholics or worldly Catholics or not Catholic at all except in name. 

A distressing number seemed to believe that last one. With a revealing ignorance of Catholic social teaching, which knows how many choices a Catholic can make, depending on what he sees happening, they identified Catholicism with particular candidates and policies and one or other of the two major parties. Anyone who didn’t agree must be a bad or a fake Catholic. 

All the world’s hatreds could be found among politicized Catholics. This year was worse than ever. Many people didn’t  just feel passionate about politics till the election, and then went back to normal. Some Catholics expressed a real, settled belief that others weren’t Catholics, because real Catholics had very definite political beliefs. You shall know them by their yard signs.

 

What Should Catholics Do?

The issues have been framed by Democrat and Republican both as ultimate issues, a battle between good and evil, between defenders of a democracy imperiled by “fascists” and an “America” imperiled by “wokesters.” In this election, for many people, a vote wasn’t just a prudential decision about public policy, but a definitive moral act. You either answered the altar call or you didn’t. To vote wrong was a sin.

What should Catholics who feel that way do? And the greater number of us who are tempted to feel that way? Assuming, that is, we take as binding on us the catholic nature of the Catholic Church and don’t want to be separated from our sisters and brothers, even if we feel them to be two inches from Nazis or two inches from Stalinists.

Three things, I think: Forgive them for what we think are their political sins, try to find the reason for their bad choices in ideals we share or at least respect, and look for their virtues.

 

Forgive the Apparently Unforgiveable

First, forgive what we feel, rightly or wrongly, to be serious sin — against God, against the truth, against man, and indirectly against us. If we’re wrong about their politics being a sin, at least we’ve done something to heal our relation with them.

Two years ago, just after election day, an old friend posted on his Facebook page a quote from C.S. Lewis about forgiveness. Father Douglas Wyper is an Orthodox priest, who travels in politically conservative circles, and had seen how angry some of his friends were, especially the ardent pro-lifers. 

He quoted Lewis: 

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

He explained that he was as anti-abortion as any of his friends. He agreed that we’re commanded to contend for the truth and defend the defenseless, but noted that we’re also commanded to love even our enemies. 

“It is not for us to judge others,” Father Wyper wrote. “God will judge all evil doers. Let me repeat that: God will judge. Not me, not you. We are to love as best we can in this fallen world and pray especially for those we believe are in error. God has forgiven each of us for our inexcusable sins. Let’s be always mindful of His mercy in our dealings with others.”

The quote came from the end of Lewis’ essay “On Forgiveness.” It appears in two posthumous works, Fern-Seed and Elephants and an expanded version of The Weight of Glory.

 “Begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought,” Lewis wrote. We can think of lots of reasons other people have gone wrong politically. That includes putting yourself in the same position as the other person, as a sinner in need of grace — and in this case as someone whose politics may offend the moral order in some way. 

Lewis asks how we can do this, because it’s not easy. “Only, I think, by remembering where we stand,” he writes, “by meaning our words we say in our prayers each night ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.”


Find Their Reasons 

Second, try to find the reason for what you think your political enemies’ bad choices in ideals we share or at least respect. Almost everyone thinks they want good things, not bad things. They may be fooling themselves — we may be fooling ourselves — but they intend to support the good.

People are complicated and their political views get mixed up with everything else they think and want. There is rarely a direct line from character to politics. We can never reliably judge the kind of person someone is from his political statements.

Those who vote for massive government spending on social problems want people helped in what they believe the most effective way. They don’t believe business and individuals will do what needs to be done, or can do what needs to be done, on their own. They have good reasons for thinking this.

Those who vote against that spending want people helped in what they believe the most effective and the safest way. They believe government will do it badly and do more than it should, with too many unintended consequences. They have good reasons for thinking this.

The first may sound simple-minded and naïve, and greedy, to the second. The second may sound heartless and selfish to the first. And that may be true of many on both sides. But both want something good. 

Looking for the other’s ideals, politicized Catholics should find that the people they despise want good things, and maybe the same good things, but have different but reasonable ideas about how they may be accomplished. They may be wrong, but they’re not monsters.

 

Look for Their Ideals

Third, look for the political enemies’ virtues. Not surprisingly, Dorothy Day offers us an example. In a book called Voices From the Catholic Worker, her friend and biographer Jim Forest described the way she spoke of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman. 

He was as far from her politically as it was possible to be. As far as the Magat is from the Wokester was the war-supporting Cardinal Spellman and the pacifist Day. Yet though she publicly criticized his political positions, she stood up for him.

“And it wouldn’t be in generalities,” Forest wrote. “She told me once that Spellman had priests who didn’t like to receive calls to go down to the Bowery to administer the last rites. He told the person answering the phone, ‘If any of those calls come through, give them to me personally.’ Dorothy knew things like that about people, and she would tell them to show their good side. … Dorothy had a lot of reasons to dislike Cardinal Spellman, but it was more her hobby to find out things to admire about him.”

Another of her friends said that she referred to Cardinal Spellman as “our dear, sweet cardinal.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it suggests her attitude.

Seeing a political enemies’ personal virtues complicates judgment about what their politics says about who they are. The cardinal who blew off the pope to demand “total victory” in Vietnam got up in the middle of the night to go to a rough neighborhood to give homeless people the last rites.

 

Dividing and Reconciling

If you want to divide modern Christians from one another, in a way that would make them despise each other and keep them from reconciling, don’t bother with theological differences. Divide them politically. Nothing in our political life encourages us to try think better of the people we disagree us. Doing it takes effort and a mental and spiritual discipline.

As Catholics, we have to try. And as it happens, that’s a way of witnessing to the world. To adapt Tertullian’s observation of Christians in the third century, people will say of Catholics who see beyond politics, “See how the fascist and the wokester love one another.”

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