For the first time in American history, no branch of our federal government will be led by a Protestant. The president will be Catholic. The Speaker of the House is Catholic. The Senate Majority Leader will be Jewish. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is Catholic (and the Court as a whole is majority Catholic). These curious facts are, in one sense, just that – curiosities of little political or religious significance. They are coincidental. Trivial. Political accidents, especially given the weak attachments – at times downright opposition – of prominent politicians to the teachings of the faith they claim to follow.
But in another sense, these facts are emblematic of a major shift in American public life, which has been evident for several decades. Mainline Protestantism once acted as the primary ballast in American public life – helping to steady us amidst the choppy waters that attend life in a democratic republic. That ballast is gone, and the long-term effects on American life can be felt all around.
We see the effects in our political life, of course: not primarily in the denominational composition of our government (most of Congress, like a majority of Americans, remains Protestant), nor even in the incessant political skirmishes over moral-political questions – abortion, marriage, various social-justice issues, etc. – that we know as the “culture wars.” The intractability of those disputes belies the loss of a more fundamental consensus about the lens through which we ought to interpret politics.
Certain basic religious convictions once transcended our partisan political divides and formed a shared framework for interpreting and adjudicating our political disputes. Our politics played out under the aegis of these shared, fundamental commitments – moral commitments, yes, but more importantly, metaphysical commitments. Politics was not what bound us together most deeply, so our political disputes – even at their most violent – could be judged against some higher, shared point of reference.
So it was that, even after four years of civil war, Lincoln could say of both North and South, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Even at a moment when so much blood was shed in dispute over what was right, there was a near-unanimous acknowledgment of something greater than even blood or tribe or state or country. More than that, there was widespread agreement about many particulars of that Something. . .that it was not just a Something, but a Someone: the God of the Bible.
That shared devotion did not prevent the Civil War, of course. But even when politics devolved to bloodshed, there remained something more fundamental, something accepted as prior to politics. And that foundation – Christianity broadly, and Protestant Christianity in particular – was sufficiently strong to support the great efforts at national reconciliation, which followed the war and continued up through the Civil Rights Movement.
As I said, the ballast once provided by Mainline Protestantism is largely gone, and our current predicament is partly the result of the inadequacy of “mere politics” to function well in a metaphysical vacuum. (Not that such a vacuum ever really exists.)
There was a time when some hoped that the Catholic Church could step into the space once occupied by the Mainline Protestant churches. This was the hope articulated by a then-Lutheran pastor, Richard John Neuhaus, later a convert to Rome: a Church universal enough to counter the entropy of American pluralism and with sufficient doctrinal durability to avoid the fate of the Mainline Churches, could provide a new “religiously informed, public moral philosophy.” Such a Church could provide the ballast for our public, political life. Such a Church could help define and expound the fundamental things we agree upon, which are prior to the political things we don’t agree on.
That vision of a Catholic Moment has, I think, manifestly failed. At the very least, it has failed thus far and there are few who still see much hope for its revival. Why this vision failed, and if it was ever a viable (however unlikely) project, are both fascinating questions about which a great deal has been said and remains to be said. Political success, of course, is not the fundamental mission of the Church. Reducing religion to its political utility is diabolical. At the same time, the Church can no more trivialize politics than she can trivialize human nature.
Unfortunately, that Catholics today have achieved an unprecedented degree of governing power at the federal level means next to nothing. As I have written before, these days, the fact that someone “is Catholic” tells us next to nothing about their political or even religious beliefs. American Catholics, even at this high-water mark of our political heft, lack the substantive unity to use our collective weight in a meaningful, or at least politically stabilizing, way. We have achieved something of the appearance of the Catholic Moment Neuhaus hoped for, but none of the substance.
If Protestantism no longer provides the ballast for this republic, and if Catholicism is not – at least, not presently – up to the task, then one of two options remains. Either our politics will continue to careen towards disaster or something else will, if it has not already, fill the void.
Yesterday’s events at the United States Capitol underscore the urgency and gravity of the situation. What will happen in the coming days and weeks and years is impossible to tell. I believe our nation is far from the state it was in 1860. I pray that I am right about that – and it remains true.
But even if I am right, I worry. For our nation to flourish, it must first begin to heal; for it to heal, we will have to find some deep source of unity which is stronger that the politics that divide us. The list of deep commitments that can bind us that way is not large. And few of those are well-suited to human flourishing or the common good.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.