In a rare political speech on Thursday, former president George W. Bush had blunt words for America: Remember your identity or lose your freedom.
Bush spoke Oct. 19 at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World” event at the Lincoln Center in New York. Almost nine years removed from the nation’s highest political office, Bush offered a reflection on the current state of the country. At the heart of his reflection was a diagnosis — and a powerful wake up call: “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.”
Bush’s words ring true in a country still deeply divided one year after a contentious presidential election that polarized families, friends, and neighbors. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, 80 percent of respondents categorized the U.S. as “mainly divided” or “totally divided.” From birth control to gun control, from questions of undocumented immigrants to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, America is fractured. And that division has become vitriolic, manifesting itself in insults spewed across comment boxes and hostile clashes in the media.
After exploring a litany of symptoms — from bigotry and nativism to fake news and gang violence — Bush offered his remedy for the polarization plaguing America: “we need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have a great advantage: To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”
But in a country so divided, what are our values?
In his address to the United States Congress in September 2015, Pope Francis laid out a set of values that he thinks define America at its best. “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as (Abraham) Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton,” the Pope said.
Catholics have an important role to play in shaping the values that define society. Deus Caritas Est, the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, teaches, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful.” The U.S. bishops, in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, note, “This duty is more critical than ever in today's political environment.” While there may be a temptation for retreat or discouragement, the bishops say, this is actually “a time for renewed engagement.”
In the early Church, Christians stood out from the rest of the Roman Empire. They took care of orphans and widows. They founded hospitals and schools. They cared for the poor. They didn’t work on Sundays. They loved their enemies. Today, the U.S. Church is called to stand out, too.
In a nation torn apart and confused about its own identity, people are exhausted from fighting and weary from talking past one another without ever being heard. People are looking for a better way. Amid the political and social turmoil, Catholics can offer that better way. They can offer what the bishops describe as “a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.” And they can do it by engaging with others civilly, by creating the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis refers to so often.
This lesson is critical for America’s future. Will the next generation be raised in a culture of encounter, or in what Bush describes as a culture of “casual cruelty,” marked with animosity and dehumanization? The former president notes with urgency that “our young people need positive role models” because “bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”
George W. Bush is right. America does need to return to her values. But first she needs to figure out what they are. And Catholics can help lay the groundwork for that, by working to create a society where people can dialogue without fear, where they discuss their different views without being attacked or demonized, ultimately a society where people can encounter truth.
As we approach the one-year mark after the most contentious election in recent history, Catholics have an opportunity to show Christian charity in their interactions with others. It’s a small gesture. But it could be the first step in helping people recognize, as the former president put it, “the image of God we should see in each other.”