ROME – By all accounts, President-elect Joe Biden is a sincere Catholic. He’s spoken openly about how his beliefs have sustained him through personal pain and loss, and while there may be debate in some circles about how coherent his politics are with his faith, few contest whether he has faith in the first place.
In the wake of Wednesday’s chaos at the capitol, Biden may need that faith more than ever.
Yes, the mob that stormed the Capitol Building was turned back, as were challenges to the outcome of the 2020 election. In two weeks – on my birthday, as it happens – Biden will become the second Roman Catholic president of the United States, with a joint session of the Senate and Congress having certified his victory at around 4:00 a.m. in Washington.
But it would be naïve to think those results mark “closure” or “finality” in anything other than an electoral sense. Arguably, not since Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861 has an incoming American president taken office facing such a divided nation. If Biden is to govern, he’ll need to find a way to begin putting the pieces back together, and drawing on the resources of the Catholic Church may be among his better options.
Let’s not underestimate the magnitude of the challenge.
Not only did the rampage at the capitol yesterday capture the rage of some Trump supporters, but it’s also generated a baying for blood among members of Biden’s own party, many of whom now seem to be engaged in a contest to see how much retribution they can demand be imposed on Trump and his enablers. Once Trump leaves office, in all likelihood there will be calls for criminal sanctions. However warranted, such moves also will certainly further exacerbate the divides.
Somehow, America has to work out a new modus vivendi.
On the left, there needs to be an acknowledgment that one can support much of the Trump policy agenda, and can share Trump’s skepticism of elites and establishments, without being an enemy of democracy or a racist bigot. On the right, there has to be a willingness to accept that “American” and “pro-Trump” don’t mean the same thing, and, for that matter, that “God-fearing” and “Republican” aren’t identical concepts either.
The snark, the dismissiveness, the presumption of righteousness and superior wisdom, has to end. If you can’t grant that constituencies representing vast swaths of the American population even have a right to be heard, then force becomes the only option, and we saw yesterday where that ends.
Inevitably, Biden will have to lead the way in this national reconciliation project. His greatest asset in doing so may turn out to be his Church – having seen him through personal tragedy, Catholicism may be poised to aid him in his defining public test.
To begin with, Catholicism is the lone major religious group in America where both sides of the nation’s political divide are roughly evenly represented. Overall, exit polls from the November election show that Catholics were almost evenly split between Biden and Trump, and those realities are readily apparent on Catholic social media platforms as well as traditional Catholic media outlets.
On a personal level, I’ve got American Catholic friends who are passionate Trump supporters and friends who are equally fervid critics, and both groups are composed of people with great minds and even better hearts. We live in a polarized world, and these friends of mine are certainly capable of looking on the other side with skepticism and even derision, but that’s them at their worst, not their best.
Imagine if the Catholic Church in America took on as a national pastoral priority to promote a campaign of healing – not “dialogue,” in the sense of fostering political debate, but the pursuit of friendship across tribal lines. Catholics are one-quarter of the national population, and when Catholicism in America moves with unity and purpose, the cultural landscape can shift.
Imagine if every Catholic parish in America were to become intentional about creating spaces where members of the competing tribes could come together and do something constructive – launch a soup kitchen, for instance, or build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or reach out to elderly Americans living in isolation and fear due to the Covid crisis, or to help meet any number of other urgent needs.
Over time, they might discover that someone’s opinion on whether Dominion Voting Systems machines did or didn’t delete Trump votes isn’t really the defining feature of their humanity.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., seemed to hint in that direction in his comment on yesterday’s events, reminding believers they’re called to “acknowledge the human dignity of those with whom we disagree and seek to work with them to ensure the common good for all.”
One hopes that, in the aftermath of yesterday’s events, Catholics at the grassroots and at the top will take up this challenge, beginning with a pledge to avoid using the kind of public tone that stokes division. It was a Seventh Day Adventist, Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who closed the certification process with a prayer relevant for Catholics too: “These tragedies have reminded us that words matter, and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”
Among other things, Catholic “influencers” out there — those with large Twitter followings, or TV audiences, or who help shape the conversation in other ways – would need to accept that yesterday was a reductio ad absurdum on a culture of acrimony, and that coming up with the best zinger of one’s ideological opponent in 280 characters is not a manifestation of virtue. Ordinary Catholics also would have to stop rewarding such displays with their eyeballs and their pocketbooks.
Can all that happen? Maybe, maybe not, but if it proves impossible in the Church, where our very identity is supposed to be rooted in being “catholic,” i.e., universal, what hope is there for the broader culture?
Maybe it’s providential that America is getting a Catholic president at a moment in which the ability to embrace diversity without division is especially crucial. In any event, if ever there was a potential “Catholic moment” in America, this would seem to be it.
Let’s hope we make the most of it.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.