Today is election day. I feel a little nauseous about the whole thing, honestly, and am mostly trying to avoid political posts/news/facebook opinions. It isn’t that I’m not interested in who wins…on the contrary, I’m very much hoping for a certain outcome. It’s just that over the course of this election cycle I have found myself increasingly out of step with all things political. I’ve felt, for the first time, that not only do my political ideologies not align with one party or the other, but also that the fervor and occasional fanaticism that accompanies politics in America isn’t a thing that I can throw myself into, anymore.
For a long time, perhaps for the entirety of the past year, I’ve thought that I am just suffering from disenchantment, from disgust at the way people on either side of the political spectrum treat each other. But in the past few weeks I’ve stayed silent on all things political, reading posts from friends here at Patheos and elsewhere in the blogosphere, ruminating over just what it is that has been gnawing at me. Last week I was catching up on Season 3 of Downton Abbey and something Lord Grantham said crystallized my present unease with all things political.
“There seems to be something of the Johnny Foreigner about Catholics.”
I paused the show at that point to try and untangle why this line struck me as so insightful. It seemed to me the truest thing I have ever heard said about Catholics, and suddenly lots of things fell into place at once.
I had read once, before I converted, that there was a great debate over John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency, because so many Americans doubted that a Catholic could ever be a suitable president. At the time I dismissed it with a chuckle as a remnant of the stoic Puritan strain that much of our country was founded on. But now, I think that there is great wisdom to that question.
I grew up an Evangelical in the Bible Belt, and as a child I didn’t know any Democrats, because all the people I knew were Christians. In the Protestant South, politics and faith are inextricably intertwined in a way they haven’t been in decades past. It’s one of the reasons Santorum got such a surge from the Evangelical movement in the South. I heard it said that “even though he’s a Catholic, he must be a Christian, because he’s such a solid Republican.” (Overlooking, of course, that sticky issue of birth control that deeply divides Protestant from Catholic.) Likewise, it’s very unusual to find a Democrat in the South (at least where and when I grew up) who does much more than pay lip service to a belief in God. Certainly someone who votes Democrat could never be considered to be “saved.”
That strange and sacred marriage of politics and faith is one of the (many) reasons Catholics are looked at askance in the South. We don’t fit in anywhere. We’re against abortion, but also against birth control, which even to the most conservative of Protestants is positively medieval. We’re generally also against the death penalty, or at least favor serious reform in its use. We’re extremely pro social charity, but are deeply divided on whether that should be facilitated by the Church and private institutions or the government. We’re generally in favor of relaxed immigration laws, or at least the cessation of deporting established illegal immigrants. And yet we spend plenty of time fighting among ourselves about those issues, publicly and privately, and even, most unfortunately, we accuse each other of not being “truly Catholic” if disagreements arise that we think cannot be overcome.
But this is where the meaning of the word “Catholic” resonates. Catholicism is universal…it’s for all of us, not just the socially conservative or the social justice advocates. No matter what our political views, our highest loyalty will never lie here, in this land. We will never call ourselves Americans first. We will always be Catholics first, and our loyalty will be to the Church, to our Papa Benedict across the Atlantic, to Christ. We are bound together by something much greater than politics, something much greater than religion, even. We’re bound together by the Eucharist, and the graces therein are what allows us to come together every Sunday and worship with each other in spite of our great and sometimes overwhelming differences. It’s what allows me to disagree with Mark Shea, who believes that a vote for a lesser evil is still a vote for evil, and still call him my friend and my brother in Christ. It’s what allows me to disagree with Leila occasionally and still respect her, love her, and call her my sister in Christ. It’s what allows me to disagree with Jackie on almost everything and still think that if we were to ever meet in real life, we’d have a grand time, because she’s sweet and funny and my sister in Christ. It’s what gives me hope in the end, on this election day. No matter how the race ends tonight, my allegiance will always lie elsewhere, with Christ’s unshakeable Church, and with her motley collection of sinners and heretics who have graciously and lovingly welcomed me, a sinner and heretic. We will always be Johnny Foreigner, no matter which country we reside in. And honestly, knowing that gives me more peace about politics than I’ve had in ages.