The boys of Covington Catholic High School stole the show at this weekend’s March for Life in Washington, DC when they surrounded and mocked Vietnam Veteran and indigenous elder Nathan Phillips while he was in the midst of a sacred ceremony. What stuck out in my mind was the response from the Cincinnati Diocese, who called the incident “unfortunate and regrettable.”
That’s the kind of language that public relations officials use when they don’t want to concede fault but they don’t want to be accused of condoning something that is getting a lot of negative media. Roman Catholic public relations officials have had a lot of practice with this kind of wordsmithing because of their rapist priests. But the language is fitting. Because what the boys did was entirely in keeping with the theology they have been taught. It was simply a socially unpalatable way of expressing it.
The most fundamental theological claim of right-wing Christianity whether Catholic or Protestant evangelical is the exclusivity of Christian truth. That’s why it was considered appropriate a century ago to take native children away from their families and put them in Christian boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking in their native languages. That’s why Catholic theologian Juan Gines De Sepulveda told the Spanish court in the early 16th century that enslaving natives in the lands discovered by Christopher Columbus was entirely in keeping with Jesus’ declaration that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”If Jesus is the only truth and indigenous spiritualities are perversions of truth that keep their practitioners from submitting to Christ as Lord so they can gain admission into heaven, then mocking indigenous spiritual ceremonies is actually doing indigenous people a favor because the sooner they give up on their false religion, the sooner they can accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior. Nobody would say this outright because it’s boorish and unpalatable, but when you’re a 16 year old kid who has been propagandized continuously with the understanding that only your people have the truth and other religions are false, then you’re not going to think there’s anything immoral about mocking another religion.
Right-wing Christianity has plenty of room for people who aren’t white as long as they leave behind any aspect of their culture that makes truth claims that are out of conformity with Christian exclusivity. But when culture is stripped of all of its truth claims, it’s reduced to trinkets, Halloween costumes, or a brand of beer. A sacred indigenous ceremony becomes a corny football chant. So it’s unsurprising that teenagers who have been taught that only their religion is true would see other people’s religious ceremonies as lampoon entertainment.
I’m sure the boy with the smirky smile has done a lot of community service in his town. I’m sure he knows his catechism and probably lives a relatively moral life (in the limited sense in which morality is defined in right-wing Catholicism). But his smirk is the fruit of being told that only his people have the truth. If his contemptuous hubris bothers you, then you need to question the theology undergirding it.
You cannot tell teenagers that everyone else is wrong and expect them to treat other cultures with respect.