Near the end of G. K. Chesterton’s play “The Judgment of Dr. Johnson,” the hero, 18th-century writer and curmudgeon Samuel Johnson, is talking to the (fictional) American revolutionary John Swallow Swift. Swift has just learned that France has entered the war on the side of the Americans, and prophesies that this is the beginning of the triumph of republicanism all over the world. Johnson replies:
it is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile, and it may be that the future of mankind is all your own. Only I will say this. Suppose that you have deposed your tyrants and created your republics, suppose that a hundred years from now the earth is full of your free parliaments and free citizens. You have often reminded me that Kings are only men. Suppose you have discovered by that time that citizens are only men. Suppose that those wielding power should still be bad men. Suppose your parliaments are as unpopular as monarchies. Suppose your politicians are more hated than Kings. . . . If in that far-off day you are thus disappointed and embittered, I ask of you one thing. Do not in that day turn upon the people and curse them, because in your own whims and fancies you have chosen to ask of them more than men can give. Do not be like poor Gulliver, your great namesake, Jonathan Swift, who saw so clearly where the world was going, and turned on men and called them Yahoos. . . . Do you in that day of disillusion still have the strengths to say: these are no Yahoos: these are men; these are fallen men; these are they for whom their Omnipotent Creator did not disdain to die.
It seems to me that we are now in just such a “day of disillusion.”
A dark Epiphany
Last Wednesday, on the day on which Christians traditionally celebrate Christ’s manifestation to the world and the vain attempt of the powers of this world to snuff out his light, a mob of misguided partisan fanatics stormed the legislative building of one of the world’s most venerable republics.
From the standpoint of American civil religion, this was the abomination of desolation. Not least because those who committed the act seem to have thought they were acting as patriots and striking a blow for liberty and democracy. The spectacle of buffoonish rioters frolicking in the hallowed chambers of American government is horrifying.
C. S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength, distinguishes between “Britain” (the often sordid reality) and Logres (the ideal of what Britain could be, the mythical core from which Britain draws its life), and then clarifies that every nation has a similar contrast. However we may wish to name these aspects in the case of America, on Wednesday the American “Britain” triumphed over the American “Logres.”
The patriotism of condemnation
And the obvious way to strike back is in the language of outraged civic religion. Suddenly all my progressive friends are talking about the evils of sedition and treason. The rather archaic word “insurrectionist” is now everywhere.
And justifiably so. The protesters who stormed the Capitol attacked police, killing one and badly injuring another by squeezing him in a door. Both attacks, from the pictures/videos I’ve seen, seem to have been deliberate and even gleeful. They set up a noose on the Capitol grounds. They smashed windows to get into the building and attempted to get into the House chamber. Given the death threats on social media against Pelosi, Pence, Romney, and the media, it’s a very good thing that the members of Congress and the journalists sheltering inside the House and Senate chambers were evacuated before the mob burst in. One rioter was photographed with zip ties which he presumably intended to use to tie up prisoners.
This was clearly far more than a protest. It was an act of violence against the legislative branch of the United States.
And yet, I think that my progressive friends are far too quick to dismiss the comparisons conservatives make between Wednesday’s attack and the protests that occurred this past summer in the name of Black Lives Matter. The protesters in Seattle, for instance, took over a police precinct for a while and set up an alternative kind of polity based on consensus and egalitarianism. It didn’t last too long and it had problems from the beginning, but I thought at the time it was a noble experiment and unworthy of the scorn and anger heaped on it by many. Clearly, however, it was a kind of “insurrection.” By the standards of American nationalism, it was understandable that many people saw it as an act of sedition and treason.
The fundamental difference, as I see it, is that the protesters in Seattle really did have a vision of a more peaceful society and attempted to implement it. While there were acts of violence, there was also clearly a serious effort to minimize violence and to maintain peace and order. Violent as the BLM protests often became, what drove them was a protest against violence and injustice and a hunger for a way of organizing society no longer based on the “sheepdog/sheep/wolf” paradigm so beloved of many conservatives.
I worry, in other words, about using American civic piety as the primary moral framework for responding to Wednesday’s insurrection, because by that standard an insurrection motivated by protests against racial justice is also to be condemned. This is precisely, of course, what conservatives have been saying for some time now–that the progressive critique of America as fundamentally racist is fundamentally unpatriotic and that people who accept it “hate America.” Progressives now seem to be trying to prove their patriotism by using its panoply of rhetorical condemnation against their enemies. But is that really the way to show your commitment to the American “Logres,” to the American ideal of a virtuous republic with justice for all?
When people on both sides define their patriotism largely by their hatred for those on the other side whom they see as unpatriotic, we have a problem. To my mind, the youthful idealists of the Seattle “CHOP” were far more patriotic in the way that really counts than the respectable white progressives who are now gloating at the prospect of “insurrectionists” being locked up for years in prison.
The day of disillusion
We are now, as Chesterton’s Johnson warned, in a time of disillusionment with democracy in which people on both sides of our society’s ideological divide are tempted to forget the humanity of the other. (Let’s be honest: it’s not equal. People on the right have passed “temptation” long ago and are reveling in dehumanization. Progressives are still at the stage of being tempted, but many have succumbed and many more are well along in the process of succumbing.)
Right-wingers claim to defend democracy, and the more fanatical among them are warning that the Democrats, having rigged one election, will rig all of them in future. But this is a form of aggressive denial directed at the clear demographic fact that Republicans have not won a majority of the popular vote in a Presidential election since 2004, and haven’t flipped the Presidency by a popular majority since 1980. It’s weird to pose as defenders of the common people against the elites while regarding a slim majority of your fellow citizens as the enemy.
Progressives can claim to speak for that slim majority, but they also have to deal with the fact that tens of millions of their fellow citizens voted the “wrong” way. And I’m hearing progressives get increasingly desperate about this, and increasingly contemptuous of those millions.
I became Catholic in part because the Catholic Church seemed to me to be unique in its ability to transcend liberal/conservative dichotomies. If I wanted to be a good progressive or a good conservative, there were plenty of options in Protestantism for me. But the Church offers something different, something both harder and less stressful.
And it offers, I think, a much healthier perspective on current events than does American civil religion with its talk of sedition and insurrection and the horror of seeing wacky people in buffalo costumes wave spears in the hallowed halls of the Capitol.
In Catholic ethics, the fundamental principle is the dignity of the human person as a reflection of God’s glory. This dignity is inalienable. It cannot be lost by adherence to absurd conspiracy theories that lead you to tattoo your body and wave spears with American flags on them and dress up in buffalo costumes. It cannot even be lost by the things that really corrupt and destroy our moral character: by racism, by hatred, by dishonesty, by narcissism, by predatory lust.
Those of us who believe in the dignity of the human person and the fullness of Catholic social teaching have no choice but to fight with everything in us against the abominable perversion of the common good represented by Donald Trump and the movement he has inspired. We must speak the truth to our friends and neighbors even if they hate us or threaten us with violence. We must not draw back or let up. We must be willing to be accused of “virtue signaling” and “elitism,” to be called “Communists” or “leftists” or even, horror of horrors, “woke.”
But we must do this always out of the conviction that we are dealing not with “garbage people,” not with “shit,” not with subhuman monsters, but with people. Fallen people, bearing whether they wish to or not the inalienable stamp of God’s image.
And for all of them, for all of us, the Omnipotent Creator did not disdain to die.
For Donald Trump, fuming in the White House as the day of his loss of power draws near, and comforting himself that thousands are willing to commit crimes for him.
For Jake Angeli, the “Q shaman” in the buffalo costume, facing both the legal consequences of his actions and the bizarre fury of his comrades who have decided he is really an antifa impostor.
For Ashli Babbitt, who went to Washington to fight for Trump and was shot dead by a Capitol policeman while breaking through a window.
For the policeman who shot her, suspended and under investigation and no doubt, if he is a decent man, haunted by the question whether he made the right decision in a moment of extreme stress.
For Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer beaten so badly by the mob that he died of his injuries.
And for Lisa Montgomery, who has all but been forgotten–a woman abused and tormented her whole life who committed a terrible act when almost certainly not in her right mind, and who is due to be sacrificed on the altar of American justice on Tuesday as part of Trump’s closing orgy of death.
Certainly we may be sure that for her too the Omnipotent Creator did not disdain to die.
And we must act accordingly.