Joe Biden and John Boehner: Our Faith Inspires Political Compromise

Millennial co-founder Christopher Hale has a new article at Time. He writes:

Biden and Boehner’s invitation to Notre Dame wasn’t without some controversy. Both have political positions that stand in profound contrast to the Church’s teachings, including Biden’s support for abortion rights and Boehner’s support for budget cuts for programs that serve the poor. Yet unlike the reaction to President Barack Obama’s 2009 address at the university, when 83 American bishops protested it because of president’s support for abortion rights, many leading Catholic bishops in the U.S. remained quiet on Notre Dame’s decision to honor Biden and Boehner, and some privately supported it….

I spoke to the two political leaders about how their faith inspires their work in politics….

Biden, the first Catholic vice president, told me that he credits his faith for helping instill in him this desire to collaborate with others….

Like Biden, Boehner says that his faith inspired him to go beyond partisanship to work for the common good. Boehner told me that’s one of the main reasons he decided to invite Pope Francis to address Congress last September. He said he sensed that the nation could “benefit profoundly from the experience of hearing directly from the Holy Father in the chamber that is the symbol of our democracy.”…

Civility and compromise are often mocked and misunderstood in modern political discourse. Ideologues try to suggest that it is somehow abandoning one’s values. But here’s the truth: compromise is a fundamentally American value. The nation’s Constitution itself is a document of concessions between competing people and interests.

You can read the full article here.


Our Candidates, Ourselves

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Following last night’s defeat in the Indiana primary, Ted Cruz has officially ended his 2016 presidential campaign. And even though Sanders beat out Clinton in the Hoosier state, his Democratic opponent appears to be on a clear path to securing her party’s nomination.  It would seem that we are finally nearing the (welcome) end to a particularly contentious primary season.

On the Republican side, the field at one point swelled to 19 candidates, most of whom did not hesitate to insult one another when it helped their own cause. Although things started out more civil on the Democratic side, Sanders and Clinton have proven increasingly willing to attack one another as the primaries wore on. In recent months presidential candidates have slung a colorful array of insults at one another including “jerk,” “pathological liar,” “serial philanderer,” and “spoiled brats without properly functioning brains.” Their vitriol has been matched if not surpassed by some of their supporters in the crowd and back at home.

With every new election cycle, people lament the negative tone of the candidates’ campaigns. However, there is relatively little reflection on what gives rise to and sustains this toxic campaign culture election year to election year. Why do political contests inspire such passion, even downright nastiness? Why does one person’s preference of political candidates lead them to attack other candidates and fellow citizens with such fury?

NPR’s “This American Life” aired a story a couple of months ago that may provide some insight into the matter. The story was one of two included in an episode about people whose actions defy common expectations entitled “That’s One Way to Do It.” It centers around an articulate, charismatic high school student named Alex Chalgren. Alex lives in South Carolina with his two adoptive parents, who are both devout evangelical Christians. Like most people in his community, Alex is politically conservative. What distinguishes Alex is his enthusiasm for Donald Trump and the fact that he is the South Carolina Director for Students for Trump.

Also, he’s black and gay.

This is how Alex fits within the theme of this “This American Life” episode. His dedication to Trump’s candidacy raises the question, Why would a black, gay man fervently support a candidate who has made overtly racist and anti-gay statements? Zoe Chace, the journalist who interviewed Alex, came up with this theory: “He was using Trump to reconcile two very irreconcilable things about himself—deeply conservative, super-gay. Trump, for some reason, is Alex’s safe place.” When Chace shared her theory with Alex in a follow-up interview, he responded, “Yeah… I guess you would say that.”

Although Alex is different than most on account of the perplexing disconnect between his political allegiances and certain aspects of his identity, he is no different than the rest of us insofar as we all seek identity markers—things outside ourselves that express who we are, or perhaps who we want to be. This struggle for self-definition is something I have observed in my college students and the dorm residents I have gotten to know in my capacity as Resident Minister. It is also a struggle I have grappled with myself.

College is often regarded as a time for self-exploration. While this language tends to evoke images of joining clubs, pondering the meaning of life, and new social and romantic encounters, the reality is that for many students the collegiate process of identity formation is more of a trial by fire than a series of whimsical new experiences. For today’s students, especially at prestigious universities like the one where I teach, the pressures to present the right image are legion, and they can be crushing. By virtue of attending a competitive university, many feel compelled to project the appearance of effortless perfection lest they fail to measure up to their peers. Driven by aspirations to high-profile careers, they feel pressure to present themselves as brilliant, accomplished young entrepreneurs when (if they are allowed to be honest with themselves) most are still figuring it out what they want for their lives. All this is to say nothing of the constant demands of carefully curating an online profile and managing a paralyzing fear of saying something—anything—that might offend someone else.

I do not make these observations of undergraduate life with the least bit of condescension. I know personally what a struggle it can be to attain and maintain integrity in one’s identity amidst the throng of voices telling us who we ought to be. For me this struggle reached a fever pitch not so long ago.

About this time last year I completed my doctoral degree and was actively (read frantically) seeking a full-time teaching position. Even though earning a Ph.D. is certainly something to be proud of (and I was), I could not help but feel that completing my degree was a hollow victory if it did not lead to a faculty appointment. A tenure-track appointment is still generally regarded as the gold standard for success in the academic world. It comes with a readily recognizable title and status that indicates to other academics that one is a legitimate scholar. This status was my Donald Trump, my perfectly curated social media persona, my safe space. For me it held a powerful allure and an assurance that, should I obtain it, I would become and be recognized as the person I yearned to be.

However, as is the case with any external marker—whether it be one’s political affiliation or online persona—this assurance was an empty one. The desire to define one’s identity by such external markers is a persistent one, perhaps even necessary, but it can also be a great temptation. The temptation lies in the fact that we can come to identify so fully with a political candidate or a job title that we lose sight of who we are most essentially.

I believe that this is what is happening when we witness such deep-seated antagonism among political candidates and among their supporters. If we stake our whole identity on a particular person or issue and someone challenges that person or issue, we react defensively because at that point it is not just an attack on an issue—it’s an attack on us. When people feel personally threatened, that’s when things start getting nasty.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, makes a distinction between primary and secondary identity that my students have found extremely helpful in sorting out these kinds of issues. According to Ignatius, our primary identity is that of beloved sons and daughters of God. Any other way of identifying ourselves—Republican, Catholic, star student, tenured professor, friend, mother—is a secondary identity. Inevitably we will incorporate these secondary identities into our self-image, and that is well and good. However, problems arise when we confuse a secondary identity for our primary identity. In other words, when we cease to think of ourselves first and foremost as beloved children of God and others as our brothers and sisters in Christ, it becomes all too easy to feel threatened by those who differ from us and to be divided by those differences.

Looking back, I recognize this sort of identity confusion at the root of my anxiety about getting a job. I felt that if I did not secure a university post I would have failed in some way; I would have been less of a person somehow. I was looking to a job title for my source of self-worth when I should have been looking to my Creator. That is, I was allowing a secondary identity to usurp my true primary identity as a beloved child of God. Only when the position I coveted eluded me was I compelled to look deeper for a more enduring source of self-worth.

In the end, I was blessed to be offered the sort of faculty position I desired. However, the greater blessing may lie in the fact that it was not offered to me sooner. Had that happened, I may very well still be looking to the wrong things for my sense of self-worth. The challenge for me now is not to fall back into that same deluded thinking.

We all yearn for the security of knowing who we are. If we have staked our identity on the wrong thing, we can devolve into shallower version of ourselves when our sense of self is threatened by a political opponent, a social rival, or unemployment. However, if we recognize ourselves for who we truly are—beloved daughters and sons of God—no confrontation or circumstance can shake that sense of core identity. When we are who God calls us to be, we are freed up to give ourselves and others the love we deserve, not because we have earned it, but because God loved us first.


Maintaining Friendship and Civility When Politics Gets Personal

Following the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, much ink has been spilt over his friendship with those who rarely agreed with him on matters of religion, politics, and jurisprudence. Scalia’s sharply worded opinions and staunchly held beliefs not only put him at odds with some of his fellow justices, but to many critics on the outside, made him entirely unpalatable. It took many by surprise when they learned that the conservative Scalia and the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg were, as she described, “best buddies.” Their odd couple friendship serves as a model for a nation that is too often divided by partisan politics and provides a much-needed witness, particularly during this election cycle.

Over the past two decades, there’s been an emerging consensus that something is seriously wrong with our political discourse. Disagreements over matters of politics have caused divisions among families, friends, and neighbors. A 2012 Knights of Columbus-Marist poll revealed that 8 in 10 participants surveyed agreed that they were “frustrated” with the tone of our politics. And this was four years before the current primary season, which has proven to be a spectacle like none other. A quick review of any of the recent primary debates reveals little discussion on policy specifics, but rather a staged affair of name-calling and personal mockery. It’s no wonder that many of us, particularly millennial Catholics, often feel politically homeless and want to distance ourselves from the whole process. Many of us find ourselves wondering if there’s a way out of this current gridlock.

Once, in an interview when asked how he maintained such amicable friendships with those with whom he disagreed on the Court, Scalia answered, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can’t separate the two, you’d better get another day job.” It seems to me what Scalia understood—and what we’re lacking an appreciation for today—is that not all politics is personal, or at least it shouldn’t control the way we shape our relationships with those around us.

The model Scalia sets for us is that we must first aim to seek an understanding of the individual person rather than dismissing them for their ideas. In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt recalls a conference he organized in 2007 trying to understand why Washington was so divided:

“The most poignant moment of the conference came when Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, described the changes that began in 1995. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, encouraged the large group of incoming Republican congressmen to leave their families in their home districts rather than moving their spouses and children to Washington. Before 1995, congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night. Cross-party friendships are disappearing.”

Such a predicament isn’t limited to Washington. It’s seeped into our everyday lives and we as a nation are poorer for it.

Moral disagreements are, of course, inevitable. And robust intellectual disagreement is healthy—in fact, it’s been essential since our nation’s founding (Skeptics should give a listen to the cast recording of the new hit musical Hamilton where the founding debates over the national debt, the location of the capital, and much more are played out in rap and hip-hop—but seem as timely as ever). But of course our founders hoped that disagreement would also be tempered by a spirit of civility and respect.

This is why Lincoln was optimistic that a divided nation could eventually be brought together by the “better angels of our nature.” It’s also why leading conservative Robert P. George of Princeton and leading progressive Cornel West can co-teach college courses together and George can describe his professional relationship and friendship with West as “the best thing that’s happened in my academic life the past decade… It’s the best thing in the world, because you have these two cats who want to get at the truth” and why he says the best piece of advice he can give his students is “Cultivate friends you disagree with.” It’s also why recent popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all cultivated meaningful relationships with individuals of others faiths and no faith at all.

Open minds demand open hearts. It requires befriending those with whom we are naturally inclined to disagree and with those whom we might be afraid to engage. It requires leading with a spirit of genuine charity that will ultimate produce a more civil engagement—that will likely require more listening than talking.

Such is a task for the entire nation, but especially Catholics who seek to be faithful citizens. It’s one that is all the more fitting during this Year of Mercy, but ultimately, one that is imperative at all times.

Christopher White is the associate director of Catholic Voices USA.