Former Congressman: Capitol Riots Are Dangerous Symptom of Nation’s Fractures That Catholics Must Heal
Former U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a Catholic pro-life Democrat, tells the Register that the Capitol Hill riots reveal a perilous political divide.
WASHINGTON — The United States is dangerously fractured and desperately needs healing. Former U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a Catholic and pro-life Democrat from Illinois, lost his seat in a primary over his defense of religious liberty and the unborn and was in Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot.
In a Jan. 13 interview with the Register, Lipinski said President Donald Trump does bear some responsibility for the events of Jan. 6, but he added the fractures in the country are much deeper than the president and are exacerbated by social media. He said Americans need to come together to avoid making the situation worse, and leaders in politics, society and the Church need to work together for long-term solutions.
Catholics, Lipinski said, must lead the way, starting with a commitment to “be Catholic first.”
What has been your experience of the events of Jan. 6?
The Capitol is a civil sacred place. It is not just the symbol but really is the seat of our republic. To see this going on in the place I’m very familiar with, and to know that I had friends who were there, it was just very shocking. And still a week later I still have a hard time comprehending what happened.
I was back there [Tuesday]. I came back to D.C. to get my second COVID vaccine shot. And so I walked over to the Capitol building. And on the inside, they replaced the damage that had been done, and I saw the place where the Capitol police officer had fatally shot a woman who was trying to get into an area that would have given access to the House floor. That all looked very normal [now]; nothing out of place or different.
But outside of the Capitol building — the fencing, the National Guard troops, the very limited avenues of access to the Capitol building or the House office buildings, and Independence Avenue closed off on either end of Capitol Hill — that very much there showed how things have changed in the situation that we are tragically in right now.
Do you believe President Trump bears responsibility for the rioters’ attack on the Capitol?
He certainly unquestionably bears some responsibility, because he was stoking the concerns and complaints about the election being stolen and somehow our country being taken away from us. And the charges that he was making were false. He and his legal team had their opportunities in court.
So the fact that there was this rally going on: He spoke to the crowd, and he knew that he was purposely riling them up. Now, did he really want them to go and attack the Capitol? I don’t know, but I think it was irresponsible for him to be speaking the way he was speaking. Americans do not want their country to be taken from them. And the president was playing on their fears that that was happening. And so I think that was all very irresponsible of the president to be doing that.
What do you make of the president’s actions or inaction during the riot itself? We have learned that Trump was busy trying to contact senators to overturn the certification of the election, whereas Vice President Mike Pence took it upon himself to send in the National Guard.
Well, again, President Trump has displayed on numerous occasions that he is concerned not just first and foremost about himself, but his disregard for others and for institutions. And it’s so difficult because there are people who support President Trump — a lot of my friends support President Trump — and I understand why they do. I think President Trump has spoken to a lot of real problems and issues in our country. He has spoken up for people who feel that they have been left behind, that no one is listening to them. And he has had some good policies, especially when it comes to protecting the unborn. And so I understand all those things. I understand why people do support him. But on the other hand, he has displayed that he is about himself, and that is about it. And he will use any lever available to him in order to help himself and try to maintain his power. And it’s very troubling.
Four years ago, I said, the problems and issues in our country are not because of Donald Trump. He has added to them, but he’s a symptom of many things that are wrong right now in our country. But if what is done next just continues to divide our country, and if it’s used as a political cudgel to go against not just President Trump, but the average American who supported President Trump, then that is just going to make the situation worse for our country.
What are your thoughts, then, on the impeachment proceedings?
I have been very ambivalent about impeachment. I think that President Trump deserves to be impeached and removed from office. My only question is, “Is this the most prudent step right now for Congress? Is this what is best for our country?” And I have a lot of questions about that. This is so unprecedented, though, that it’s hard to know what the right answer is.
And I’m glad I’m no longer in Congress. Unfortunately, the way things have become in our society, and especially in politics now, is you are told that you need to take one side or the other and that all issues are just black and white. I think this is not an easy choice here, because the question, again: “Does Donald Trump deserve to be impeached and removed?” I believe so. “Is this the best thing for our country right now?” I’m not sure about that.
How did we get down this road where millions of Americans distrust the outcome of the election and are even seized with fear that our country, as we know it, is over? What do you think can be done to really address this in a helpful way?
The first thing I’d say is there’s no simple answer. There’s no quick fix. Again, our politics and society have focused so much on quick fixes. Our politicians have focused so much on promises of solutions to problems being simple and being easy. It is something in my political life that I always had a difficulty with. Because I was never comfortable telling people, telling my constituents, that things could be fixed overnight and all problems could be fixed overnight. Well, many in politics today are making those promises, whatever the problem is. When it was mass shootings, people would have a simple solution for it: They knew what to do and were going to solve the problem once and for all. And I knew that it was a more complex problem.
So many of our problems that we face in our country today are much more difficult. Politics is downstream from culture. A lot of the issues are cultural issues. And so, what I really want to focus on now personally is “what can we do,” especially “what can Catholics do” to bring healing to our nation and build our culture back up.
After I gave my commencement address at Ave Maria University in 2019, I spoke about tribalism in our country and our society and that Catholics don’t fit neatly into either tribe. And we shouldn’t try to; we shouldn’t have to choose one side or the other. We need to lead. We need to be Catholic first, and we need to lead in changing our culture and showing a better way.
What happened Jan. 6 in the Capitol just makes it even more clear to more people that we have a major problem that needs to be dealt with. And it’s something that politicians can help to not make things worse. I fear that they will, but this is a bigger issue than politics in simple political solutions. And I think we, as Catholics, especially have an important role to play. And the Catholic Church is also impacted by this tribalism, in this split. And that’s very troubling.
What would you say are some of the ways that the entire Church can contribute to creating an environment of unity and peace in these divisive times? What’s our role here?
I think, as individuals, we need to all step back from choosing a side that we then go all-in for. We need to stick with our values as Catholics: what the Catechism and 2,000 years of Catholic teaching have taught us about our responsibility in our role here on earth for a good society. Again, I understand Catholics who have been supportive of Trump because of what he has done to protect the unborn; because of what he has done on religious liberty issues. And those are incredibly important. But people oftentimes would then feel like they need to be all-in for anything that President Trump supports and that they had to be supportive of his claims about the election being stolen. Again, we should all be sticking to what we know is right and true and not believing that a politician or politicians are going to save us. This almost-messianic belief in politics is very dangerous.
There are things that I certainly have stood strong for, and it hurt me [politically]. The reason I lost my Democratic primary was because I’ve stood up for life, and I’ve spoken out strongly for religious liberty. And that doesn’t play well in the Democratic Party these days. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should become an adherent to the Republican Party and President Trump and all that they proclaim and support.
What are your thoughts on the actions that the big social-media platforms have taken to cut off the president’s access to them in the wake of the events? And do you have concerns about social media’s impact on our political life?
I think social media has played a huge role in the divisions in our society. The algorithms that are used on our various social-media sites to drive people to certain places to get information have really helped to divide us, to drive people more to the extremes, and to take people away from having any exposure to different ideas. And so I think social-media platforms in general have played a very detrimental role in our society, but we’re not going to get rid of them. And it is also concerning when now they are determining who gets to be heard from and who does not.
The government has never really come to grips with the role that social media play and what types of regulations might there be on social media and what they can and can’t do. They do not display responsibility. And it’s very troubling. On the one hand, I think the fact that President Trump has been cut off from Twitter, I don’t know what that’s going to do. Maybe it’s going to have a good impact, but it concerns me greatly. How are these decisions made now, and how are they going to be made in the future? And I’ve read things, and I’m never sure what to believe and who to believe. I’ve read things about other people being cut off by Twitter or Facebook.
It’s concerning to me, but again, these are things that we haven’t dealt with. And when we deal with anything these days, it seems to come from one determined side or the other. There hasn’t been a real sober attempt to deal with these issues, such as social media and the role that they play, with a view towards what’s best for our society, or what’s best for maintaining our institutions in this country that most people just seem to take for granted right now.
What actions would you recommend Congress and the incoming Biden administration take to help unite and heal the country over the next four years?
I’ve said since the election that of any Democrat who could be president now, in many ways, Joe Biden is the best Democrat who could become president at this time, because of his long career of being someone who brings people together; of not being a radical, but someone who’s pragmatic and has worked with Republicans. A lot of times, as vice president, if there had to be an agreement reached in Washington, he was the one who did that. He worked with [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell a couple of times to reopen the government when there was a government shutdown. I think, in general, he has a view of the role of government that is much more pragmatic and a view of politics that is much more pragmatic and is wanting to get things done and being willing to work with people. This runs very counter to the way a lot of people, especially people who are getting into politics today, view everything, especially in the Democratic Party.
Now, having said that, it is concerning to me, though, that, as a Catholic, I think right off the bat, there’s going to be issues, because everyone certainly expects Joe Biden to announce shortly after he is inaugurated that he is issuing a number of executive orders that are going to result in taking away protections for the unborn that had been put in place under President Trump.
Right off the bat, it’s going to be a question of how Catholics react to that and how the Catholic bishops react to that. I hope somehow everyone else and I are wrong about him doing those things, but with the Democratic Party, the way it is today, I don’t see how he doesn’t do those things on those issues. And that’s going to be problematic again for our country, but more so for the Catholic Church and the divisions in the Catholic Church.
Thank you so much, Congressman. Any final thoughts?
Honestly, I’ve always been someone for many years who has had concerns about the direction that our society and our country are going in. But things have gotten much worse more quickly than I expected, and it’s going to take some real leadership to help to change the direction — and a lot of leaders, not just in politics, but community leaders and church leaders who are just trying to calm everything down. But one side or the other, or both, are always going to get upset about it. So it’s a very perilous time right now.
As Catholics, we all need to first pray for our country and our society. We need to pray for President-elect Biden and for members of Congress. We all need to work every day in every interaction we have, and what we do on social media, to try to bring more calm, respect and understanding. Catholics have an especially important role to play. Catholics are, voting-wise, split about 50-50 Democrat and Republican. And I would ask Catholics that while you need to choose who you’re going to vote for, be Catholic first. That’s the most important thing for Catholics and for Catholic leaders: to say you’re Catholic, and be Catholic first, long before whatever your party that you may choose to vote for. And let’s try to work together for the betterment of our country and our society.