Civility and Civil Disobedience — a New Low
The polarization of U.S. society sank to a new low this month when White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by restaurant owner Stephanie Wilkinson to leave The Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, because Sanders worked for President Trump. Wilkinson told The Washington Post, “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
Other White House officials also were refused restaurant service, were accosted in a movie theater or had their homes turned into protest sites.
Fueling the protests, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told supporters, “If you think we’re rallying now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you see anybody from that [Trump] cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Waters was denounced by leaders of both parties. But barely a year after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was nearly killed by a shooter during practice for the Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in Arlington, Virginia, the polarization in the country has only grown worse.
In a culture trapped in an echo chamber of angry partisan websites and mainstream media and at a time when the digital continent is filled with trolls, vitriol, shaming and virtue signaling, directly accosting elected officials is the next step.
The level of disagreement is revealed in a new Rasmussen poll that found 31% of likely U.S. voters say it’s likely that the United States will experience another civil war sometime in the next five years. The poll also found that 59% of all voters are concerned that those opposed to Trump’s policies will resort to violence.
Political violence has been seen before in the United States, on both sides of the political spectrum. The protesters argue that their actions are justified by Trump’s own often inflammatory language and that his policies — above all, over immigration — are pushing the country into this partisan strife. They see their actions as a form of civil disobedience. Yet they might take some lessons in how to be authentically civil, while opposing actions or policies deemed unjust.
Unquestionably, the president’s policies have sparked considerable, and at times necessary, opposition from across the political and religious divide. Not every voice is unreasonable or uncivil. The U.S. bishops and some evangelical Protestants, for example, have spoken out against the separation of children from their parents at the border. The bishops issued a strong but civil statement that called for an end to family separation and comprehensive, sensible immigration reform. These declarations are in sharp contrast to the uncivil behavior that has become so commonplace under the guise of civil disobedience or the “resistance.”
One of the darkest moments in the history of the nation occurred 50 years ago. In 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and the important struggle of the civil-rights movement, a divided and doubting America witnessed the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y.
The anniversary of King’s tragic death serves as a reminder of where fevered rhetoric can lead but also what real civil disobedience should look like. In 1957, King wrote about the power of nonviolence. The nonviolent resister, he wrote, “does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. … And so at the center of our movement stood the philosophy of love.”
What can Catholics do? First, even when we might disagree over politics or policies, we can offer to a divided America a clear moral vision founded on the truth and love that flow from life in Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI understood this when, speaking at the White House in 2008, he declared, “Democracy can only flourish, as your Founding Fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.”
This is an era in which there are no moral truths, when sexuality, gender, family bonds and the value of human life are deemed fluid and subject to the whims of the times. We as a society have lost our ability to talk to each other, to have shared cultural values and a common moral vocabulary, and to see those who hold contrary political views as persons, made in the image and likeness of God.
Just as we must bring a clear moral vision for the country, we must also stand as proof that we have not forgotten how to love.
In his address to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in May, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, echoed King’s 50-year-old advice and gave a poignant lesson to all those claiming to be civil in their civil disobedience.
“We have no permanent enemies,” he said, “but only confused brothers and sisters who have yet to encounter the Lord of Life and to experience his unconditional love and amazing grace. We are called to renew our nation, not primarily by enacting laws, but by announcing the joy and hope of the Gospel of Jesus to individuals in desperate need of its Good News. It is our task to reclaim our culture, one mind, one heart, one soul at a time.”
That is true civility — and true obedience to Christ’s command to his followers: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).