[Editor’s Note: Holly Taylor Coolman is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College in Rhode Island. Her areas of expertise include Christology, ecclesiology, Christian theologies of Judaism, and Jewish-Christian Relations. She is currently running for state representative as a Democrat and spoke to Charles Camosy about what it’s like to be a theologian running for public office.]
Camosy: So you’re a Catholic theology professor running for public office. I imagine you get quite the reaction to this whenever you’re introduced this way.
Coolman: I realize that it may sound strange at first, especially if you’re thinking of the stereotypes of an absent-minded professor and a slick politician. For me, though, one has led naturally to the other.
In the last thirty years in the classroom (I began as a high school teacher, then went back to graduate school), I have had to hone skills of conversation: Listening well, seeing exactly where differences lie, stating my own opinion clearly, and looking for ways forward. When politics is at its best, these habits are at the heart of the work.
But if there is one thing we know, politics is not at its best, right?
Right. In many ways, we are facing unprecedented levels of dysfunction. A polarized landscape has people living in echo chambers, where they caricature political opponents, and argument is reduced to sound bites. We’ve all but lost anything that could be called “public discourse.” I believe we can do better than that.
Has the campaign thus far borne out this hope? Have you been able to stick to principles which resist these toxic aspects of our politics?
I feel good about the campaign at this point. One of the most challenging questions is when, and how, to respond when other people attack me or share misinformation. But that’s something that all of us have to figure out in our day-to-day lives, too!
I had to be clear with myself from the beginning that, although I aim to win this election, winning is not all that matters, and I certainly won’t “win at any cost.” It sounds simple, but it’s easy for me to see how, even when they begin with good intentions, politicians can lose sight of that commitment.
Is there anything about your being a Catholic theologian, specifically, which makes your campaign different?
There are some fundamental ways that the Catholic tradition has shaped me and my thinking. Especially Catholic Social Thought — which I wish were much better known than it is — has deeply affected my understanding of human beings and of society.
Above all, I begin with the conviction that human beings have profound dignity, and that each individual person should be treated in a way that recognizes that dignity. Any system that undermines that fundamental human dignity has to be challenged.
Catholic Social Thought also insists that individuals are profoundly connected to one another.
The notion of the common good means that we aren’t just independent agents, navigating, negotiating, or manipulating one another, but that there is a good in which we all share. In the big picture, I can’t really seek my own good without concern for you, and vice versa.
All this has implications for the way I engage with other people, including constituents, political opponents, etc. Politics, just like other systems, falls too easily into simply using people for various kinds of gain. I’m committed to keep reminding myself that, in any encounter with any person, I’m dealing with a human being who is valuable in his or her own right.
It also highlights certain issues for me. My concern with the foster-care system in Rhode Island, for example, is connected. As a foster mother, I see serious issues that have to be addressed, and I am convinced that the children in state care belong to all of us.
I guess I would also have to add that one of the primary emphases of my own research has been theological reflection on law — especially that of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas knows the human law can go wrong, but he has a pretty lofty view of it. He sees human law not as a necessary evil but as a positive good, as a way that people are bound to one another and to the good. Law-making, for him, is a noble undertaking. I don’t think it’s completely accidental that, after years of studying and teaching about this, I am now seeking election to a legislative seat.
You are openly and fearlessly a pro-life Democrat running in the Northeast. Can you say something about this phenomenon in Rhode Island? What are the benefits and challenges of doing this?
Rhode Island is unique in that numbers of pro-life Democrats have continued to hold office. In other places, they have been mostly marginalized, or even driven out of the party. The question is what the future holds on this question.
There are definitely some Democrats who believe that a pro-choice stance should be a litmus test. To my mind, that would be a shame for a couple reasons. First, concern for those who are most vulnerable, who have the least voice, ought to include the unborn. Second (more pragmatically), it would mean, as it has already meant to some degree, the departure of a lot of people. About a third of all Democrats — 20 million or so people — identify as pro-life.
I have tried to be clear about what a pro-life stance means for me. It’s rooted in this fundamental commitment to human dignity. It’s rooted in my belief that we have to fight the temptation to exercise our own freedom at the expense of others. And it is indispensably connected to larger concerns: Everything from prison reform to affordable housing to protecting water sources has to do with respecting life. As a woman, I am deeply aware of the challenges that women have faced and continue to face. I just believe that we can find options that respect both women’s dignity and freedom and also the lives of unborn children.
Anything that you’ve learned thus far that has surprised you?
Most of the surprises have been good ones. The encouragement I have received from family, friends, and neighbors has been remarkable. To be honest, the whole thing has taught me in new ways that every good thing that happens is, in one sense or another, a collective effort.