Since the election a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been searching for the right words to express the way that I feel about things. I wrote a lengthy (and now deleted) post on Facebook the Wednesday morning after the election expressing my frustrations and fears. Since then, I have dropped my use of Facebook (I’m quoted in this NPR story about this phenomenon) almost entirely and have radically scaled back my consumption of news. In large part this is due to the election, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, I have had (we ALL have had) a longstanding problem with the use of social media. Put simply: social media is dehumanizing. I used to think that social media was simply a neutral tool that could be used for bad or good, like any other tool. But now I am convinced that the very form of social media itself trends toward making us less human. So rather than writing a quick post on Facebook or sharing 18 articles and 23 memes every five seconds, I’ve opted to give myself time to think and process. This is what I have come up with:
We are called, as humans who live together in society, to the twin pillars of what is commonly called Catholic social teaching. Those pillars are 1) Solidarity and 2) Subsidiarity. The principle of solidarity is a direct refutation of the individualist impulse. It asserts that we are all in this together and that we have unchosen obligations to our neighbors. We really are our brother’s keeper. Usually these obligations are understood hierarchically (first to my family and then to my community and then to my city and then to my State and then to my country and then to the world), but they each exist. We are not each totally autonomous individuals, nor is society simply a collection of individuals. Rather, we are essentially relational and communal beings. In this we reflect the community of the Trinity, and in the roles we play in our various associations we reflect the economy of the Trinity. Solidarity means that our relations with others should not be understood primarily as transactional or self-interested.
The principle of subsidiarity is the notion that the smallest competent authority should make decisions. That is, decisions that can be made by individual families ought to be made by them. Beyond the family, the decider is the community and then the city and then the State and then the federal government. Subsidiarity requires a wide distribution of authority and power and it resists the totalizing and homogenizing power of large, central deciders. As G.K. Chesterton famously said: “Big business and state socialism are very much alike, especially big business.” For a picture of subsidiarity in action, observe the organization of the peoples of Middle Earth in Tolkien’s legendarium. Mordor, ruled by Sauron, is a unitary state governed by a mechanistic malevolence that directly controls its subjects and makes all things the same. At its worst, centralization creates slavery. In contrast, the free peoples of Middle Earth are united under the banner of the high king, but each smaller kingdom, community, and nation are free to order its own affairs.
So what are the implications?
1) We focus way too much on ourselves and on the presidency. Both mass and social media have connected us with people and events well outside of our own communities. While that can be a good thing, it also means that we don’t know our neighbors, haven’t attended a backyard barbecue in a while, and couldn’t name a member of the city council if our lives depended on it. Both subsidiarity and solidarity call us to form thick communal ties, which requires embodiment and incarnation, not just a screen. I want to get to know my neighbors better, to figure out what is going on in my community, to talk to strangers in line in the grocery store, to spend time with our church family. So, to that end, I am taking a long, extended break from national news coverage, blogs, and social media. I really want to give this embodied life a try. I may very well find that real life is better than life on a screen.
2) In some respects, I am grateful that Trump won the presidency. I cannot imagine his Department of Justice, especially under Senator Sessions, continuing to push the progressive social engineering scheme. If New York or California wants to adopt legislation that requires their schools to accommodate men in the women’s restroom and vice versa, that is up to them. But the principle of subsidiarity would resist a uniform national policy. At the very least, perhaps it would be beneficial for a few States to try it out before passing it on everywhere. I am further grateful because I believe that a Trump DOJ would halt federal efforts aimed at reducing the broad constitutional right to the “free exercise of religion” to the comparatively narrowed “freedom of worship.” Further, I am partial to his (and Bernie Sanders’s) view on trade, though not necessarily for Trumpian reasons. He may be (and I certainly am) concerned about the plight of factory workers who have lost their jobs as the factories moved overseas, but he truly does believe that rolling back free trade deals will be good for the economy. On that point, I am agnostic. While the economy is a nice thing, I would be perfectly happy to see us all do with less if buying American-made goods meant we might develop thicker communal and national bonds. I am not a nationalist (if that word means an unreasonable love for one’s country), but I am patriotic (I have a reasonable amount of love for my country) and I would rather not see the further erosion of a distinctly American ethos by the sea of globalism.
3) However, despite the handful of things that makes me grateful for the new Trump presidency, I am mostly saddened by this turn. Trump himself is an odious character, a confessed sexual predator, and a narcissist. Furthermore, he surrounds himself with folks like Steve Bannon who cater to the so-called alt-right coalition of white supremacists, ethno-nationalists, anti-semites, and semi-fascists. This intentional race-baiting is the opposite of solidarity. It is the pitting of one member of the community against another in the hope of reaping some kind of personal reward. By stoking racial resentment and racialized fears, Trump tacitly encourages his supporters to act in a racist manner. The violence that will inevitably erupt will allow Trump to impose “law and order,” and so will achieve the status that being a strongman brings.
I have written a good bit in the past few years about the erosion of religious liberty in America, and that erosion continues, indeed accelerates. Religious liberty has never has an enemy as powerful and relentless as the Obama administration, and the situation is unlikely to improve when Hillary Clinton takes office. But as bad as the outlook is for freedom of conscience, it’s even worse for people in America who just happen to be black and therefore are utterly vulnerable to being stopped by the police for any reason or none — and shot for any reason or none. People who in effect have no rights, only good luck or bad luck. Alton Sterling’s luck was bad. Philando Castile’s luck was bad. And they had nothing to rely on except luck. I think it may be time for me, and perhaps for others, to put the religious-freedom issue on the back burner for a while — not to ignore it, not to pretend that it doesn’t matter, not to cease to care — but to recognize that there are needs greater than ours, that require more of our immediate attention than we’ve been giving them. I don’t know; I’m not sure what to do, how to do triage here, how to weigh the dangers of a slow avalanche versus a fast one. But I am feeling very strongly that I have neighbors for whom I have not done enough.
I think that is spot on. And as Trump takes power, it seems to me even more important to be in solidarity with those racial, ethnic, and religious minorities that will undoubtedly be under greater scrutiny and less protection. At church this past Sunday, the pastor who was preaching (he is the only black pastor on staff) spoke about the importance of our identities in Christ being more important than our political identities. I want to take that one step further: this Trump presidency, for me, represents a real need for those of us in privileged positions (like me) to get to know and listen to actual black and brown people (and refugees of all kinds) whose experience is probably different from mine. This might mean teaching ESL at church to refugees. It might mean reaching out to our neighbors across the street and having them over for dinner. I don’t know (this is something Amanda and I have been talking a lot about) what we will/can do, but we want to try.
In the end, I am praying for our country, I am praying for the President-elect, and I am searching for opportunities to labor with my neighbors in the creation of a more beautiful and just society.
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.