U.S. political reporter Joshua Keating used to write a bleakly funny column called If It Happened There, where he described events in the U.S. the way our media talks about other countries. (“Despite decades of exposure to the outside world through trade and globalization, Americans have resisted adopting internationally popular sports like soccer, cricket, and kabaddi, preferring instead a complex, brutal, and highly mechanized form of rugby confusingly called football.”) In the U.S., like almost nowhere else, we can get away with thinking that our view of what’s normal and important is the only one that matters. The genius of Keating’s approach, imagining a skeptical global eye on U.S. ways of proceeding, is to remind us that isn’t true. (Being part of CTEWC does this for me too, in the best way possible.) If I were to report from the U.S. in Keating’s style for a global audience, I might say something like this:
The United States, a sprawling nation in North America, has prided itself on its commitment to democratic ideals since its bloody struggle with colonialism. In 2020, it finds these ideals sorely challenged. The country elected reality TV star Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 despite his failure to garner a majority of votes, thanks to an anti-egalitarian provision in the nation’s antiquated voting system. With an election again approaching that could replace him, the president has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. He has incited his supporters to threaten violence against people exercising their right to vote, and prides himself on violating the rights of asylum seekers. The president is the single largest source of deadly misinformation about the coronavirus, which has ravaged this nation where inconsistent health care access is broadly accepted as a way of life. Rather than challenge his violations of democratic norms, members of Trump’s party have fallen in line, openly discussing voter suppression as an election-winning strategy. Compounding all these problems is the fact that as more voters access news online, the free press the U.S. historically viewed as crucial to its exercise of democracy is increasingly sidelined. Deliberate misinformation from internal and external actors can be amplified through the shadowy algorithms of the tech conglomerates whose wealth helps makes the poverty-ridden U.S. one of the most unequal nations in the world. Young men, in particular, are increasingly radicalized by information available online, leading in one recent case to a deadly terrorist attack.
Let me be honest about a personal shame. Even though I know what I just wrote is true, hurting my fellow U.S. people right now, and threatening stabilities I myself hold very dear, there’s still something in me that can’t read the paragraph above as anything but a parody. This is how convinced you can be, if you grow up in the U.S. benefiting from lots of privilege, that this country is special and unique, that voter suppression, propaganda and threatened coups are things that happen elsewhere.
Servant of God Dorothy Day had a word for this kind of idolatry: Americanism. The 20th century U.S. activist saw clearly how tempted many of us are to identify our nationality with other things: warmongering, capitalism, and even Catholicism. The false belief that the United States is special and different tempts us to count others’ lives as less than our own. I don’t think I do that, at least not consciously. But I do convict myself of idolatrous belief that the U.S. is special, different, unique. Confronted with evidence that many of my fellow citizens, and many of our elected leaders, are busily working to sacrifice democratic ideals to their own interests, I could with perfect justice think “That’s not supposed to happen.” What I think instead, too often, is “That’s not supposed to happen here.”
Day herself would probably not share my alarm at seeing U.S. democratic institutions so compromised. She supported the efforts of disenfranchised U.S. voters, including white women and African-Americans, to win the vote in order to exercise voice in their community. But Day did not vote herself, preferring not to support a federal government she viewed as irreparably committed to the sin of war and to programs that undermined our personal duty to help others in need. She rejected the idea that U.S. freedoms of assembly, press and religion justify idolizing one nation and dividing the world into two sides. Day is not the most comforting companion in a time of eroded democratic ideals; but one thing she deeply embodies is personal responsibility.
Feeling deeply conscious of my own failure to support democratic institutions in my country in every way I can, I offer an examination of conscience for Catholics in democracies. It will betray my limited U.S. perspective. God willing, I hope to return to it in years to come when the state of U.S. democracy has improved to the point that I’m tempted, once again, to be complacent.
EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE FOR CATHOLICS IN DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS
As an individual
Is my support for democratic institutions minimalist? Do I believe I have done enough to love my neighbor because I voted?
Do I help others exercise their right to participate in democratic institutions (staffing polls, giving rides) even if they do not prefer my candidate?
Do I attempt to understand why my neighbors choose not to participate in democratic institutions? Am I aware that members of my community may wish to participate, but be unable to due to legal or practical barriers?
Do I hold elected officials to a higher standard than I do myself (in terms of character, ideological consistency, or efficacy) and if so, can I justify this?
Do I judge my own projects on intention, while judging government endeavors on impact? If so, why?
Do I violate my own standards of conduct when criticizing opponents (for example, using insults based on appearance or age that hurt others besides my opponent?)
Do I allow expressing opinions to substitute for action?
When I vote or take action, do I consider the common good, or simply my own self-interest?
When possible and safe, do I engage in small-time, embodied politics (school board meetings, block clubs) as well as the issues that occupy greater public attention?
Do I select environments (neighborhoods, parishes, social groups) where I know everyone thinks like me on every issue?
When I challenge someone on a political question, do I do so in a way that respects their human dignity?
Do I avoid challenging others on political questions because I have not put in the effort to learn how to do it constructively?
Do I inform myself about threats to democracy in countries other than my own?
Do I strive to learn from those peacefully defending their democratic institutions in countries other than my own?
As a Catholic
Do I take the traditions of my faith into account when making up my mind on a political issue
Am I well informed about Catholic social thought and of the Church’s consistent ethic of life? Do I expect my Catholic communities to help me in fully understanding these teachings through preaching, adult faith formation, RCIA and more?
Do I expect my Catholic institutions to adhere to the teachings of the Church in their ordinary practice—for example, by respecting workers’ rights and paying just wages?
Have I allowed Catholic institutions to be used in ways that undermine democratic institutions (for example, promoting narrowly focused views of how to vote, or diverting funds from public schools?) Do I support use of Catholic institutions in those ways when it serves my own interests?
Do I pray for those with whom I differ? Do I struggle to see each particular, unique one of them as a beloved child of God?
* * *
I know many of us across the globe are facing the same threats to democracy, civil freedoms and accurate information. How do you see these problems emerging in your own context? Where do you see signs of hope? And what questions would you add to my examination of conscience?
Day, Dorothy. “On Pilgrimage – November 1956.” The Catholic Worker, November 1956.
———. “The Message of Love.” The Catholic Worker, December 1950.
———. “We Are Un-American: We Are Catholics.” The Catholic Worker, April 1948.
Gerson, Michael. “Opinion | The GOP’s Agenda under Trump: Voter Suppression, Pandemic Denial and a Personality Cult.” Washington Post, October 19, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-gops-agenda-under-trump-voter-suppression-pandemic-denial-and-a-personality-cult/2020/10/19/49000fe6-1235-11eb-ad6f-36c93e6e94fb_story.html.
Guardian staff and agencies. “US Supreme Court to Decide on Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ Asylum Policy.” The Guardian, October 19, 2020, sec. US news. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/19/us-supreme-court-remain-in-mexico-asylum-policy.
Itkowitz, Colby. “Trump Won’t Commit to a ‘Peaceful Transfer of Power’ If He Loses.” Washington Post, September 23, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-transfer-of-power/2020/09/23/be6954d0-fdf0-11ea-b555-4d71a9254f4b_story.html.
Keating, Joshua. “How Would the U.S. Media Cover the Super Bowl If It Were in Another Country?” Slate Magazine, January 31, 2014. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2014/01/if-it-happened-there-how-would-we-cover-the-super-bowl-if-it-were-in-another-country.html.
Klemko, Robert, and Greg Jaffe. “A Mentally Ill Man, a Heavily Armed Teenager and the Night Kenosha Burned.” Washington Post, October 3, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/10/03/kenosha-shooting-victims/.
n.a. “Trump Fueled 38% Of Pandemic Misinformation, Conspiracies: Study.” Kaiser Health News (blog), October 1, 2020. https://khn.org/morning-breakout/trump-fueled-38-of-pandemic-misinformation-conspiracies-study/.
Rivero, Cristina, and Chiqui Esteban. “How the Electoral College Works.” Washington Post, August 24, 2020, sec. Politics. https://www.washingtonpost.com/elections/2020/08/24/how-electoral-college-works/.
Ronayne, Kathleen, and Michael Kunzelman. “Trump to Far-Right Extremists: ‘Stand Back and Stand By.’” AP NEWS, September 30, 2020, sec. Election 2020. https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-joe-biden-race-and-ethnicity-donald-trump-chris-wallace-0b32339da25fbc9e8b7c7c7066a1db0f.
Smith, Robert Elliott. “My Social Media Feeds Look Different from Yours and It’s Driving Political Polarization.” USA TODAY, September 2, 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2019/09/02/social-media-election-bias-algorithms-diversity-column/2121233001/.