It’s almost that time of year: election season. These days, with Democratic politicians throwing their hat into the presidential ring every other day, it can seem like the 2020 election is knocking at our doors, demanding that we choose a preliminary candidate to support. I imagine most of you have probably heard the joke about the two topics you don’t discuss at the dinner table or on a first date: religion and politics. Given that this is FemCatholic, the first rule is already out the window. Let’s go ahead and throw the second rule out the window, too.
Before I dive into an introduction to Catholic political engagement, allow me to explain my background and why this topic appeals to me. I’m a cradle Catholic who is passionate about politics and public service. I have always kept a career as a politician in my back pocket, and I currently work for an elected judge. Recently, I noticed a considerable change in the manner in which people discuss politics, if they discuss it at all. From hostile dinner table conversations to Facebook comment wars, people seem unable now, more than ever, to engage in constructive political dialogue. If people dare to discuss politics, they do so within their own echo chambers, where they are surrounded by like-minded people who reinforce their opinions. This is why I want to discuss the current culture of politics and how Catholics can alter this landscape and participate meaningfully in politics.
“We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem.” – Arthur Brooks
How many of you winced when you saw the title of this article? How many of you brace for impact when conversations take a political turn? Both are understandable reactions.
Social scientist Arthur Brooks asserts that the current political climate has been overtaken by “the culture of contempt.” Contempt is defined as “the act of despising” and a “lack of respect or reverence for something.” Brooks summarizes the culture of contempt as the disdainful and scornful treatment of others because of their political opinions. This culture makes politics at the dinner table seem like a recipe for disaster. It is also the gasoline that fuels Facebook and Twitter wars.
Brooks summarizes the culture of contempt as the disdainful and scornful treatment of others because of their political opinions.
The culture of contempt is problematic for several reasons. Just take a look at the definition above; the culture of contempt is problematic because of the actions which characterize it. Despise, scorn, and disdain should not be the hallmark qualities of our politics. Such conduct is dehumanizing because it reduces people to their ideologies. It promotes constant “othering,” sorting people into ideological buckets at the expense of their dignity and individuality. People are more than the sum of their political views, and their inherent dignity depends in no way on their political opinions. The culture of contempt goads us into believing that people take positions on issues for arbitrary reasons and focuses on labels at the expense of reasons. For example, a woman who is vehemently pro-choice may have a friend who became pregnant by rape. Perhaps she became pregnant herself in the middle of college and had an abortion in order to finish her education. Maybe a friend of yours from church supports same-sex marriage because he has a brother who is gay and partnered. Neither of these people should be labeled as “a typical feminist” or “just another liberal.” We should engage people to discover the reasons behind their political views because doing so allows us to encounter their humanity.
We should engage people to discover the reasons behind their political views because doing so allows us to encounter their humanity.
The culture of contempt is also problematic because it impedes constructive political dialogue. Dialogue across the aisle is impossible without a foundation of respect. As Arthur Brooks explains, no one has ever been insulted into agreement. The culture of contempt also reduces overall well-being. Being treated with contempt engenders resentment, and treating others with contempt causes biological stress reactions. This culture also creates ideological extremism and fuels the creation of echo chambers, where political beliefs are isolated from disagreement.
As I hope is evident from the examples above, the culture of contempt is a poor substitute for political dialogue. While the culture of contempt may be an apt description for the current state of American politics, it doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be any longer. We need to restore true dialogue: genuine, two-way communication with an unshakable foundation of respect. As members of a Church that endorses human dignity and respect as fundamental principles, Catholics can change the culture of contempt into one of respectful disagreement.
“[C]ontempt is based on a mistaken assumption - that there is no room for common ground.” - Arthur Brooks
As Archbishop Charles Chaput explains in his book Render Unto Caesar, Catholics have an obligation to be engaged and visible in the political sphere. The separation of church and state does not equate to abdication of political involvement by religious people. Moreover, the fact that politics is saturated with contempt does not excuse us from participating. We have the power and the responsibility to change the culture of contempt into a culture of respectful disagreement.
A culture of respectful disagreement is exactly what it sounds like: a culture rife with disagreement and founded upon unconditional respect. When I was growing up, my dad always told me that people can disagree without being disagreeable. This is perhaps the cardinal, yet often overlooked, rule of political engagement. Being disagreeable is a symptom of the culture of contempt. Disagreeing, on the other hand, is simply part of democracy. Disagreement forces us to question our views and defend them against challenge. Isolating ourselves from disagreement is a disservice not only to ourselves, but also to society writ large.
Being disagreeable is a symptom of the culture of contempt. Disagreeing, on the other hand, is simply part of democracy.
The culture of contempt fools us into thinking that ideological competition is the source of our dissatisfaction. However, ideological competition fuels our progress as a nation. Rather than accept a solution which is the equivalent of a duct-tape job on a leaky pipe, we need to do the hard work of relearning the art of respectful disagreement. The culture of contempt has conditioned us to accept as persuasive philosophically weak arguments, such as ad hominem attacks, rather than argue the substance of political ideas. Don’t like what someone is saying about immigration? Just call the person a bigot and move on. We deserve better than this, and so does the world. We cannot serve our country as informed citizens if the only skill we have is name-calling. Our country and our world deserve our ideological best, which entails debating, not debasing.
“If we say we’re Catholic we need to prove it. America’s public life needs people willing to stand alone, without apologies, for the truth of the Catholic faith and the common human values it defends.” - Archbishop Charles Chaput
Though modern politics attempts to force us to go right or left and always don a party affiliation, neither political party fully embodies the teachings of the Church. We must remember that we are Catholics first, not red or blue, elephant or donkey. It’s unlikely that the Church will ever fit into a convenient political box. Despite this incongruity, we must be courageous and forge our own political path, consulting our Church and examining our consciences.
[N]either political party fully embodies the teachings of the Church. . . .[W]e must be courageous and forge our own political path, consulting our Church and examining our consciences.
The reality that the Church isn’t perfectly in step with either political party doesn’t allow us to opt out of politics. Whether we opt out by not voting at all or by trying to keep the Church out of the election booth, neither is consistent with our duty as Catholics. We have an obligation to witness to the Church through our civic engagement. We also have a duty to follow the Church’s teachings as expounded upon. No aspect of our lives can or should be separated from our Catholic identity, and I firmly believe that we will be called to answer for our political choices at the end of our lives. We should vote according to our conscience, all the while recognizing (albeit with difficulty, sometimes) the Church’s teachings. As Archbishop Chaput explains,
"Conscience has the task of telling us the hard truth about our actions. The church has the task of expressing God’s love and leading us to salvation . . . Some Catholics may find themselves sincerely unable, in conscience, to accept a point of Catholic teaching. When that happens, the test of a believer’s honesty is his humility; that is, his willingness to put the matter to real prayer and the seriousness of his effort to accept the wisdom of the church and follow her guidance. If after this effort he still cannot reconcile himself with the teaching of the church, he must do what he believes to be right, because ultimately, every Catholic must follow his or her conscience."
As we prepare for the 2020 election, I encourage you to survey the political landscape and take your anticipated vote to prayer. If you wrestle with a particular issue or a particular candidate, talk to a priest or spiritual advisor. Ultimately, we are all called to vote our conscience.
While the task of transforming our political climate is formidable, it is not impossible. I believe Catholics can successfully end the culture of contempt, promoting respectful disagreement and initiating dialogue on important issues. I believe Catholics can vigorously debate political issues without degrading others. Finally, I believe Catholics can be Catholics, instead of Republicans or Democrats, first. The Church calls us to transform the world by our witness. Let’s get to work.