Healing a Divided Country
EDITORIAL: At this juncture, what can we as Catholics do to help heal this breach, to bring the country together?
Historians in the coming years will look back on the 2016 election and likely remark that this was the ugliest, most bitter and divisive presidential campaign in U.S. history. For those of us who have witnessed this election, we may wonder if it is now possible to heal a country that seems so divided, so polarized and so incapable of reaching any kind of consensus to achieve the common good for the country.
Yet the more astute historians will also note that there have been moments in America’s electoral past that rival the 2016 election for both nastiness and the poor quality of the candidates involved. These moments of history are invaluable because they have a habit of reminding us that political divisions — even those that led to bloodshed — also often have tragically imperfect solutions.Historians in the coming years will look back on the 2016 election and likely remark that this was the ugliest, most bitter and divisive presidential campaign in U.S. history. For those of us who have witnessed this election, we may wonder if it is now possible to heal a country that seems so divided, so polarized and so incapable of reaching any kind of consensus to achieve the common good for the country.
In 1828, President John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson had a rematch of the horrid 1824 election, the only one in history to be decided by the House of Representatives, as neither candidate was able to secure a majority of electoral votes. The fact that Jackson won the popular vote but still lost to Adams in the House, through what his supporters viewed as a series of corrupt deals, only deepened the bad blood between the candidates and set the stage for a truly raucous and even harsher 1828 campaign. As it was, the election proved even worse than expected.
Jackson was assailed for his cruel and violent past as a soldier — including the execution of militia members accused of desertion. He was criticized for being a duelist and for what some called adultery. His wife’s confused marital history — she had married Jackson in 1791 in the mistaken belief that her first husband, whom she wed as a teenager, had divorced her — led to the accusations of bigamy. The viciousness of the attacks may have led to her early death.
Meanwhile, the patrician-like Adams was savaged by Jackson’s supporters for allegedly stealing the presidency in 1824, misusing government funds and having supposedly procured an American girl for sexual conquest by the Russian czar when Adams was ambassador to Russia.
The populist candidate — Jackson — defeated the incumbent Adams by a wide margin, but the country at the end of the 1828 election was horribly divided, having chosen between two severely flawed candidates.
Jackson was re-elected in 1832 in a landslide, even as the country lurched toward the even graver political and social crises of slavery that culminated in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, a conflict that caused the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers on both sides and tens of thousands of men, women and children.
The 1832 election proved that a country can appear to reunite, even if the political healing is badly flawed. This, however, is not 1832. There are some obvious parallels between then and now, with a campaign as ugly as anything we have seen in recent memory. The country is divided in so many different ways at this moment in American history: by race, income, religion, gender and sexuality, and even by the generations.
We as a people are balkanized, polarized and angry — and all too often no longer hearing what the other has to say, let alone approving of the other’s right to hold contrary thoughts or opinions. Political correctness, weaponized tolerance and relativism have all taken their toll.
The question to be asked is: Is it possible to put us back together again?
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a promise of hope and change, with the pledge to create not a country of blue and red states, but a purple America. Eight years later, the country is in the grips of despair and cynicism, full of doubt that anything can change.
The coming months will give us the chance to decide whether it is possible to achieve any kind of a consensus that can advance the common good. This seems an enormous challenge. America in the second decade of the 21st century is struggling beneath the weight of a legacy of abortion that has cost the lives of 70 million American children, a war on gender and authentic marriage and an effort to secularize society and drive faith from the public square.
At this juncture, what can we as Catholics do to help heal this breach, to bring the country together?
As he gazed across a global landscape in 1992 that had changed so dramatically from the time of his election in 1978, Pope St. John Paul II pointed a way forward for the global civilization in a new millennium. In “Letting the Gospel Take Root in Every Culture,” John Paul wrote:
“The challenge of the 21st century is to humanize society and its institutions through the Gospel; to restore to the family, to cities and to villages a soul worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. The Church can count on men and women of culture to help peoples rediscover their memory, to revive their consciences and to prepare their future.”
John Paul II survived totalitarian Nazism and atheistic totalitarian Marxism. He stood against both because he had a profound memory of faith and understood that to build an authentic civilization of love we begin with a renewal of the moral conscience that involves our institutions, our governments, our businesses and ourselves.
“The spiritual void that threatens society is above all a cultural void, and it is the moral conscience,” John Paul noted, “renewed by the Gospel of Christ, which can truly fill it. Only then, in creative fidelity to its own heritage bequeathed by the past and ever alive, will [we] be able to face the future with plans that will be a real encounter between the Word of Life and culture in search of love and truth for the human person.”
With such a renewal, our bleeding and ashen body politic can recover. The election of 1828 seems a very long time ago, but its lessons remain for us today. Our American ancestors found imperfect solutions to grievous social and political problems. Let us pray that we learn from that painful experience and this time get it right.