C.C. Pecknold is assistant professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. He is most recently the author of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade 2010). His article is written to Catholics but is certainly applicable to all Christians (and perhaps even to non-Christians). Follow the link at the end to the remainder of his thoughts.
One of our greatest living philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, recently gave a lecture at the University of Notre Dame titled “Catholic instead of what?” MacIntyre always has a way of provoking thought, of unsettling our categories, and helping us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. This brilliant lecture was no exception. He began by observing that Catholics have always understood themselves in contrast to something else. That is a particularly good starting point for any post-election analysis since Catholics have been increasingly reduced to a political caricature of what they are against (contraception, abortion, redefinition of marriage).
MacIntyre stressed that Catholic Christians have always lived the Christian story in such a way as to unfold its communal learning before the whole world, largely in terms of affirmations and denials. For example, Catholics have always believed and affirmed “that God exists, that the Word was made flesh, that the bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes Christ’s body and blood, that the pope and the bishops teach with apostolic authority.” But Christians also disbelieve, as often in response to confused internal claims (such as heresies) as to external claims (counter narratives). In each particular time and place, Catholic Christians have disbelieved anything that provides grounds for rejecting the Catholic faith. That is, MacIntyre stresses, “a reflective Catholic is always a Catholic rather than something else. So Augustine was a Catholic rather than a Manichean; Pascal was a Catholic rather than a skeptic or a Cartesian; Maritain was a Catholic rather than a materialist Bergsonian, etc.”
MacIntyre was asking, as he so often does, what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a secular culture. But the context of his comments suggested an even more timely question in the post-election season – one akin to the one he asked in 2004 by reflecting on why he would not be voting – what does it in mean to be a Christian in a liberal democratic culture such as ours? What does it mean to be a Christian in a thoroughly polarized political climate, with a “vulgarized liberalism” on one side, and a “vulgarized conservativism” on the other? I am prompted to step back from our fractious political climate for a moment to assess: where are we now? How do Catholics understand themselves in the wake of the last election?
In response to a quite important policy question concerning the HHS mandate, MacIntyre had the good sense to affirm the Bishops in their fight. It is the Bishops, after all, who have led us to ask ourselves (more than anyone else) the question: “Catholic rather than what?” Yet MacIntyre also paused at the dangers implicit in the fight. Is it possible for Catholics to simply become coopted, subsumed, reducible and redefined by politics? He gave this important caution: “If we are going to think well about politics as Catholics in the United States now, there are a lot of things other than politics that we have to start thinking well about [too].” And I think one of those things that Christians need to think well about are the narratives that shape how we ourselves think about the shape and scale of our politics. In every age, Christians have found their own narrative to be at odds with other narratives that in some way deform or divide the fundamental unity of Christian faith. At times, Christians can be subtly coerced, often by the psychological force of the general will of the culture they inhabit, to make affirmation and denials that do not flow from their own substantial commitments as Christians, but which mirror affirmations and denials of another narrative.
Currently the literature is awash with accounts of why Christians are more aligned with Republicans, or why Christians are more aligned with Democrats, but I must admit that I find both suggestions equally worrisome. To say that a Christian must be a Republican rather than Democrat, or a Democrat rather than Republican – while having some intellectual cogency with respect to the hierarchy of moral truths under consideration – seems also to be a sign of a very deep confusion worthy of reflection. It should signal a warning: the deepest commitments of Christians are being parceled out for other purposes, deformed and divided for political ends which undermine Christian faith.