The U.S. Capitol Building was sacked last week by an angry mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters.
Let that sink in. The U.S. Capitol was sacked, on live television. Rebel insurrectionists carrying Confederate flags and fascist paraphernalia – some of them armed with explosives and flex cuffs – stormed the Capitol grounds, smashing windows, ransacking congressional leaders’ offices, stealing lecterns and smashing a display dedicated to the late Congressman/Civil Rights activist John Lewis.
The fall of the U.S. Capitol is something you’re only supposed to read about in history books; the British invaded Washington D.C., and torched the pre-domed Capitol Building and the White House during the War of 1812. A sacked Capitol building is a staple in political fiction and video games, but it’s not a sight you expect to see broadcast on CNN or livestreamed on Facebook.
Last Wednesday’s cataclysmic scene is an eye-opening inflection point for the kind of toxic hyper-partisanship that has come to dominate much of our national political discourse. Yes, there are extremes on both sides, but it’s the Far Right – the racist Alt Right, if you will – that brought actual insurrection to the nation’s capital.
That the violence was stoked by the sitting president of the United States makes it feel like such a surreal turn of events. But it’s actually not surprising when you consider Trump’s divisive rhetoric and countless falsehoods over the last four years, along with the racist dog-whistle politics and misinformation that finally prompted Twitter to permanently kick him off its platform.
But President Trump could not have incited a mob to storm the Capitol if he had not been enabled by an army of self-serving politicians, weak-willed White House aides, cynical commentators in partisan media, and by Christian leaders who failed to see the big picture when they made excuses for the president’s rhetoric or looked the other way on his behavior.
American right-wing talk radio and media outlets like Fox News helped to lay the groundwork for this “post-truth” era in American history by conditioning millions of people to see politics as a high-stakes, zero-sum game where objective facts took a backseat to ideology and partisan aims. The likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity convinced listeners to live in their echo chambers and view everyone else with suspicion.
You expect that kind of manipulation from people who can’t see beyond the horizon of politics because they have sold their eternal soul for temporal power, influence and riches. But you expect better from Christians – including preachers, pastors, bishops, lay leaders and pro-life activists – who are supposed to be a leaven in society. The political vocation of Christians, no matter their state of life, is to exercise their prophetic office and stand for truth and justice, regardless of the cost to one’s political career or standing.
But too many of us have failed in that noble calling. We may have sacrificed too much – our integrity, namely – in some of our well-intentioned efforts to have pro-life judges appointed to the federal judiciary and for public policies at the federal level concerning conscience protections, taxes, school choice, gender identity and sexual orientation, to name a few.
Those are all important issues – especially the right to life for the unborn – and we as Catholics are going to have to be vigilant to protect our rights as more progressive elements of the Democrat Party under the Biden Administration seek to expand abortion and demonize Christians who have a Biblical understanding of the human person and sexuality. Whether the party in power is Democrat or Republican, we Christians have an obligation to work for the common good while holding the powerful to account and fighting back against unjust laws and public policies.
But how we do that is important. Charity is just as important as justice, lest you win an argument but lose a soul, as Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say.
The present moment should challenge all of us Catholics in the United States to reaffirm our commitment to democracy and representative self-government. The proper response to political or electoral setbacks is to work harder; make more effective arguments in the public square, get better organized, mobilize voters, run good campaigns, volunteer at phone banks, hold signs, write letters to the editor, and knock on doors.
If you lose an election, don’t cry “Rigged!” without evidence and try to disenfranchise millions of Americans who didn’t vote the way you wanted them to. That’s no different from a young child yelling, “Unfair!”, and throwing a board game in the air because they lost. As a parent, you teach your child that losing is part of life, and to try harder next time.
With that in mind, I would hope that most Catholics – regardless of their political persuasion – can condemn last week’s invasion of the Capitol Building because that mob of insurrectionists – they are not patriots – tried to undo a democratic election. Ends don’t justify means. Even if you think Donald Trump should have won on Election Day, what happened last Wednesday is unacceptable. Five people died and many more were injured.
Catholics who make excuses for that kind of mob violence, who throw their lot in with anti-democratic elements like racists, fascists and white nationalists, betray Christ and the Gospel. They bring discredit on our faith and our church, and they forget that you reap what you sow. The mob violence that you like today makes it easier for a mob that you don’t like taking away your freedom or life tomorrow.