Uh oh. It’s about to get political up in here.
Some people might find this hard to believe, but I used to have the following bumper-sticker hanging in my dorm room at college: “Jesus is a Liberal”. I still remember the day after I moved in when a red-blooded Kansas conservative wearing a cowboy hat walked into my room to introduce himself, saw the sticker, and demanded that my liberal city-boy butt take it down. It was like a caricature of American politics in 3-D.
At the time, I truly believed, in the literal meaning of the word without its current political connotations, that Jesus was a liberal. He wanted change. He didn’t want to “conserve” the status quo; He wanted to become the new status quo. He wanted dramatic conversion of the world from what it was to what it could be. That’s why I loved the sticker and why I hung it proudly in my dorm room. Well, that and the fact that most conservatives really annoyed me. And still kind of do.
I still believe all of the reasons why I had that sticker, except for the last one. I know now that Christ doesn’t want the world to become what it could be; He wants it to become what it once was. And hence the need for the death of progressivism.
I found myself going into college the son of a liberal father, the product of a Jesuit high school, and a smart kid that was almost well-read. None of these were bad things, necessarily. Conservatives can enjoy the view as much as they want from their high horse, but the liberals and Jesuits have one thing right: drastic change is needed in the world. There are too many people whose rights are denied. There are too many people whose needs are not met. There are too many people living in sub-human conditions. And something, no, somebody, needs to change it.
It just turns out that that somebody is us.
There is beauty in the liberal viewpoint. The world is not as it should be. Assuming that everything will work itself out if we let people live their lives, assuming that personal choices are the only factor that impact people’s wellbeing, assuming that people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when life gets them down: that’s all fine and dandy, but it ignores a lot of harsh realities of the society and culture we live in. Of course, the above statements are an oversimplification of the conservative worldview, but I don’t think an unfair one. Conservatives are shockingly optimistic. They believe in the strength of the individual and the right to make life what you want it to be. Liberals are optimistic as well, albeit in a different way. They think that, while people are prone to corruption and selfishness as individuals, together we can protect everyone. If only there were an ideology that could encompass both of these ideals.
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.
The Catholic Church espouses what I believe to be the best of both of these political lenses. On the one hand, the Church says that you are responsible for you and yours. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “He who doesn’t work shall not eat.” We are called first to personal virtue, to be the laborers in the vineyard, to be the servant who works to double the money bestowed upon him by the master. After all, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” But on the other hand, we are to have a borderline irrational care for each other. Christ Himself says that He would leave the ninety-nine in search of the one (which never seemed to make much sense to me). But that’s the kind of love we should have for all of our fellow men. It is not enough that most people’s dignity is protected; we should strive for all to have that, even if it means I don’t get everything I “deserve”. We are called to give preferential option to the poor, to be the voice of the voiceless and defender of the weak. We are called to change the world if the world will not care for its people.
When asked what was wrong with the world, G.K. Chesterton responded, “I am.” How true. The reason that there is so much discord between the political parties and ideologies of America is personal sin: mine and yours and Obama’s and Romney’s and everyone’s in between. We have given in to personal pride and agendas and lost sight of the vast common ground available when the world is seen through a Catholic worldview. In my mind, there is one thing that keeps us blind to that commonality.
No one likes talking about the Fall.
You see, until both sides stop and recognize the fallenness of man and its implications, nothing will really change. Conservatives often have this idea that people are in their own messes because of their own choices or the choices of their parents. But the Fall contradicts this. We are all our brother’s keeper. Our sin has astonishingly long-reaching and long-lasting effects. My lustful thoughts affect peace negotiations in the Holy Land. My buddy’s drunkenness impacts the civil war in Syria. My great-great-great-grandfather’s gluttony contributed to apartheid in South Africa. This the Church holds, and always has. The Fall impacts everything, as does every sin since it: our relationships with God, ourselves, each other, even nature. If this is ignored, we will lose understanding and compassion for our fellow man that is necessary in all political ventures.
But the ignorance of the Fall has just as many negative implications the other way. The idea of liberal progressivism is mistaken on its basic premise. The world doesn’t need to go forward. It needs to go back. It needs to go back to the way God meant it to be before we screwed it up, back to a time when people and creatures and God were living in union and harmony based on Natural Law, which is rooted in God’s Divine Law. You see, when you are doing a math problem and you make a wrong step, you can’t get the answer right until you go back to where the mistake was made, no matter how good the other steps look. When you are sailing a ship and your course is off, even if by a degree, forging forward will result in failure unless you correct the original error.
We know from Genesis that God wanted us to have dominion over the earth. He made nature good, but allowed us to play a part in caring for and improving upon his creation. He gave us a garden and asked us to tend it, improve it, make it our own. That we can make progress on, and have over the centuries. But relationships: those He made perfect. Those needed no changing, no improving, no refining. They just needed to be lived. And we messed it up. We’re still messing it up.
The common ground liberals and conservatives should have is often missed. It can be found through the Catholic lens. Let’s look at the question of homosexuality, for instance. Before taking on the issue of gay marriage, people of all political persuasions, if Catholic, would (should) look at the real problem: gay people have been mistreated and abused and degraded for way too long, and something needs to be done about it. Period. We are responsible for the pain those people have experienced and should rectify the situation so that they are receiving the dignity due to them by virtue of their humanity. That is what the Catholic believes, first and foremost. But they believe that with a full understanding of what it means to be human, and that includes an understanding of the fallenness of our nature. In the political world, this is often forgotten, and that is where we get into trouble.
Without the Fall, Conservatives are often left without the appropriate compassion and understanding of homosexuals. To this, the Catholic would (should) respond: Yes, they are gay, and that is a result of the Fall and all human sin. But, in a sense, so what? How are they that different than you? You’re a drunk, or you’re inclined to look at pornography, or you have an ‘orientation’ towards overeating. Gay people are not really any different than you. Their cross is just unique to them, just as yours is unique to you. Progressives, on the other hand, would say we need to give gay people every right and privilege possible in the name of forward progress, that our thinking on this issue is narrow and dark and we must forge onwards into the (Next) Age of Enlightenment. But in reality, forging forward will do us no good. We need to go back and look at the problems of human relationships: sex is broken, and broken in many ways, and we should not hate people because of their particular brokenness. We should work to reestablish the bonds we were meant for by sharing our broken hearts, by bringing ourselves into closer connection with each other and our God. If we were not fallen, then yes, gay marriage would, in a lot of ways, make sense. But since we are, the solution must come at the source of the problem, and the source of the problem is not forward but back.
Other issues are much the same.
You see, we are our brother’s keeper. We are all responsible for the mess the world is in. After all, we are the reason the world is this way. Where most Conservatives go wrong is by not showing an appropriate care and concern for their fellow man, and I can see why that would turn so many people off to the conservative ideology in general. Where Liberals have gone wrong is that they have a great energy to make change, but they are using that energy to fuel them in the wrong direction. The only way we can overcome our own selfishness and brokenness is together, in community. We can become something greater when we walk as one body in the same direction.
But that direction is not forward.
Catholicism is a religion, not a political ideology. But without an understanding of Catholic worldview, we go too far in opposite directions. We either forget about our hand in our fellow man’s struggles, or we think that the world needs to run forward, away from all the bigotry of the past. No. We must care for each other, each individual person, while working together to return our relationships to the state of union and connection that God intended for us. Progressivism must die so that the seeds of harmony and care that grow from it’s branches can be reborn more beautifully. We must regress to the way we once were. Conservatism must expand it’s horizons so that we can connect with all people in the ways God intended. This is what the Catholic believes. This is what the world needs to know. I wonder if it will have eyes to see and ears to hear.