G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, philosopher and Christian apologist once wrote, “I never discuss anything else except politics and religion. There is nothing else to discuss. . . Nothing of importance can be separated entirely from its social effect, which is politics, or from its ultimate value, which is religion.” With our legislative session in full swing, I can relate well to those words of Chesterton.
Sometimes, when people ask what I do for a living, I explain that I specialize in “uncomfortable dinner party conversation”—religion and politics and the space where they intersect. I suppose some would say those things should not intersect and, to the extent one thinks they do, that should be kept private and out of public discourse. But faith isn’t something we put on and take off like a costume. It’s not something we simply believe or do within the four walls of a church. Faith is integral to who we are. When we enter into discussions about important social matters, we bring our entire selves whether Catholic, Presbyterian, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, etc. In so doing, we make ourselves a gift to others. It’s a gift I deeply value when I discuss abolishing the death penalty with a Jewish colleague or how to address issues of homelessness with a Methodist or what does “human dignity” entail with someone who isn’t religious.
Mature persons are able to interact, dialogue and disagree in a manner that builds up society. They join willingly in a shared mission of truth-seeking marked by genuine love of neighbor. But is this what most of us think of when we reflect on the current state of political discourse?
The good news is that within the halls of our state Capitol, I think the political climate is better than what most people would imagine. Impressions aren’t always accurate. By the same token, it’s no secret that civil discourse in our country isn’t marked by a high degree of virtue and respect. And this is poisonous to our very existence.
When we think of how elements of society debate and disagree about serious social and moral issues do we witness interactions reflecting humility, mercy, hope, justice and love? Lacking those virtues, debates turn into ever-widening divisions where individuals and groups fall into echo chambers where humility dies and destructive ideologies sprout a social poison. That toxicity grows, slowly inching from saying one’s opinion is not to be valued, to one’s right to an opinion is not to be valued, eventually moving to the individual holding that position is not to be valued. It’s a recipe for the dehumanizing of broad categories of people.
But as obvious and dangerous as this cancel culture mode of engagement has become, I think there’s an even more dangerous temptation into which many of us can fall—hopeless indifference. I would gather we know a fair number of people who, when they look at politics and our social fabric, feel defeated. Not in the sense that “their side” is losing or what they value is being devalued by broader society. I think it’s a defeat in the sense they begin to believe that what they do, or don’t do, to help build a healthy society, especially in the realm of politics, doesn’t matter because they can’t really make a difference. And, if one person can’t make a difference, how important can this be for me as an individual?
That indifference can grow and eventually bring one to the point of refusing to make judgments about justice and mercy, good and evil. Why stand for anything?
In Dante’s “Inferno” there’s a scene where Virgil leads Dante to the Gates of Hell where Dante hears the suffering cries of the uncommitted souls—those who in life didn’t make conscious moral choices. They are denied entry to both heaven and hell because, in a sense, they are the persons who in life were never alive.
Our decision to be invested concretely in the just structuring of society through political engagement has a transcendent dimension. Caring about important social issues matters and taking action impacts not just those around us but our own souls. It grows love in our hearts and that love is impossible to contain. It bursts forth and transforms the world one loving act, one relationship at a time. Instead of seeing social ills as unsolvable problems, the loving heart sees endless opportunities to serve as an instrument of God’s grace.
Love of neighbor naturally feeds a sense of solidarity and reminds us that we are one human family bound together. We are not individuals who simply choose to interact for our own benefit. We are more. We are social by our very nature and inextricably connected as we weave through the myriad of challenges of ordinary life. That’s a beautiful and boundless gift. But it’s one we too often neglect and, because of that, I fear we are in danger of forgetting how to love.
As religious and social institutions decline and convenience drives us further away from each other, the tangible reminders of our interconnectedness are fading. Our sense of shared responsibility for the common good wanes and power becomes operative. But exercises of power don’t in and of themselves produce justice, let alone mercy. And that’s especially true for the vulnerable.
In the Catholic Church’s document “Lumen Gentium,” there is a passage that says, “God . . . does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people. . .” This doesn’t refer to simply a time in the past or an anticipation of the future. It’s about the here and now.
As our lawmakers go about the work of policymaking, we need to pray for them and encourage them in this difficult task. But we, too, need to ensure we are bringing our voices into that process sharing the best of ourselves, advocating for what is true, good and beautiful, and giving voice to the voiceless. We can elevate civil discourse in this country and rediscover the great gift it is to be bound together. It’s good for all of Montana, but most importantly, it’s good for your
This article originally appeared in the February 25, 2023 edition of the Helena Independent Record.