Two news stories this past week converged on my radar as almost an unexpected rallying cry to a wiser, holier approach to religion and politics.
The first: United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech to a supposed – if many a mainstream news headline is to be believed – “hate group.” I’ve been to the same annual Alliance Defending Freedom conference, and I’ve been impressed with the devotion of lawyers there largely dedicated to doing pro-bono work for religious liberty – and out of a sense of love of God and fellow man, not hate or some hyper over-reactionary impulse, as the conventional buzz might suggest. They’ve been a great help to religious sisters, hospitals, schools, florists, and other business owners in recent years as religious freedom has hit new conflict points in the United States.
The Sessions’ address had me flashbacking to my time at the same Alliance Defending Freedom annual gathering. It was about six years ago now and most memorable was the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson giving a talk on speaking the truth in love, something he tries to consistently model on some of the most difficult issues of the day.
Speaking of Evangelicals and Catholic together, the second news story that had me disappointed in how so much commentary can miss the point, was the article in La Civiltà Cattolica by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa about an “ecumenism of hate” on the Christian Right in the United States and subsequent debates about it.
To the extent that it was criticizing political manipulations of the Gospel, I certainly stand in solidarity wanting Christians to have nothing to do with such things (as Spadaro puts it in an interview with America here.). And it certainly happens here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, and throughout the political spectrum.
I have certainly had moments in the last few months and years where I’ve worried that conservatives aren’t being rigorous enough in examinations of conscience about public policy. But, as has been remarked, the La Civiltà Cattolica article was an indictment that oversimplified and exacerbated fears more than pricked consciences.
As the article notes, Evangelicals and Catholics didn’t start to work together to elect Donald Trump. (And notably a number of prominent conservative Catholics were decidedly not for Donald Trump, early and often, for what it’s worth.) Among the leaders of early ecumenical efforts was the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, who came into the Catholic Church and conservatism out of concerns for human dignity and civil rights, among other things.
I often remember fondly the overwhelming love that gushed forth from evangelical congressmen in a particular way when Pope John Paul II died in 2005. So many had seen him as a great moral leader, helping change the face of human history and imploring a most practical love for life, and with love letters to women, in a particular way, who have suffered and who are needed for the sake of the peace of the world.
What these coalitions ought to be about – and I have seen at their best and not rare moments – are discerning God’s call to each one of us about the common good, on the front lines. Pope Francis describes the Church as a field hospital. Getting beyond only Catholics and Evangelicals together, Templeton Prize winner Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about the best ecumenical work in the world not happening in discussions but serving and aiding in some of the most painful circumstances men know.
On the right in the United States, in work that does not make for as exciting or explosive headlines as smearing a good and effective group of people such as the folks at Alliance Defending Freedom, a focus on the revival of civil society has the likes of Republican Utah senator Mike Lee, a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and Yuval Levin, who is Jewish, along with Arthur Brooks, a Catholic, working together on public policy.
Jennifer Marshall, a Presbyterian, who is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation has spent more than a decade now focusing conservatives on higher-level front-line strategic initiatives very consciously under the banners of social justice and poverty. Marshall is a conservative because she believes there’s a foundation there rooted in love of the Creator and our duties of stewardship in gratitude that can help maximize human potential and raise people up.
Among Catholics one of the most encouraging programs of recent years impacting public policy and both secular and religious leaders is the Leonine Forum, focused on Catholic social teaching and what that looks like practically, based in Washington, D.C., and currently expanding to other cities. And I’ve just only started to name leaders who have made and are making an impact.
Trumpism, so to speak, which is a lot more complicated than most analysis allows for, had made it ever-easier to lump all elements of more-right-of-center American activism together. What you’re talking about though, is a combination of newcomers to voting, along with Republican stalwarts, and conservatives trying to make the best of a mess of a situation.
That situation is one that is born of a bipartisan reflex lately looking to national politics and the presidency in a particular way to solve problems that belong to the care of so many other levels of society. It’s a reflex that often takes the onus off each one of us and our roles and power in fixing the mess in front of us.
Solutions are frankly, more in keeping with the no-complaints sign Pope Francis reportedly put on his door at Casa Santa Marta the other day. (As Pope Leo XIII said to Katharine Drexel: “What about you?”)
The controversy will continue about the so-called right and what Vatican advisers may think and how that might relate to the pope and what he thinks about the American scene. Something much more constructive might be to listen to the pope as he talks about the Gospel and issues pleas to live the Beatitudes sacramentally.
If we do that, we’ll see a difference in our politics. And keep in mind that some of those people you might be tempted to conflate with “hate” might just be potential allies – brothers and sisters in Christ; creations of our common Creator – in leading that revolution of tenderness for which the pope keeps imploring.