I was on a shuttle at LAX not long ago when a couple sat down across from me. The man wore a T-shirt with huge letters that read F*** Biden, though in this case there were no asterisks.
Setting aside the discouraging fact that we see the “F” word adorning everything from shirts to purses to socks these days, it is worth reflecting on the sheer aggressiveness of the statement. This isn’t an invitation to discuss the policies of the president of the United States. This is a rhetorical fist in the face, intended to be offensive.
Two years ago, it could have been the same verb but a different president’s name. It’s not about the party. It’s about the anger.
I have never lived through a civil war, but it sure feels like we are on the verge of one. Instead of blue and gray, however, we are lining up in different trenches of the culture war, in which the battlefields keep changing — abortion, guns, race, gender — but the divisions remain static.
Columnist David Brooks talks about the country dividing into tribes, and loyalty to the tribe rather than any particular issue increasingly defines us. Tribal allegiances, the kind of us/them polarity that now dominates, “makes it easy to feel good about yourself,” Brooks wrote. “But it makes you very hard to live with.”
For years Americans have been grouping themselves in like-minded communities, a voluntary ideological gerrymandering. Our loyalty is not to the truth or the social good or even shared facts, but to our tribe. We’ve gone from New Testament to Old Testament. Pollsters say we don’t even want our kids dating or marrying outside our political tribe.
This antipathy is bleeding into all areas of our lives, not just politics but education and entertainment, business, and religion. “Everywhere you look, people seem to be dragging culture-war differences into spaces where they don’t belong, and in ways that make it awfully hard for us to trust one another, to live together, and to do our common work,” wrote the social philosopher Yuval Levin.
The problem with a culture war is that both sides are only satisfied with unconditional surrender. It may be an understandable military strategy, but it bodes ill for matters of politics or church. It makes it nearly impossible to talk with one another if we define the other as beyond the bounds of acceptable belief and practice.
How we got to here is a good question. The Washington Post recently profiled Angela Rubino, a Georgia resident who believes the 2020 election was stolen and is working hard to reverse it. She describes how she was radicalized by the political messaging she consumed.
“She no longer trusted her schooling,” she told the Post. “She no longer trusted traditional news. She no longer trusted election results. She no longer trusted courts, or local government, or state government, or the U.S. government, or any of the institutions of democracy she once took for granted. She was no longer sure America was the country she once thought it was.”
This kind of distrust is just as easily found on the left. It also is found in the church, where folks line up their favorite popes, bishops, and theologians while anathematizing others. Or segregating themselves into like-minded parishes. One bishop recently recounted how seminarians listen to their professors, then go to their favorite blogs as an “alternative magisterium.” We Catholics have our own tribes, checking one another for doctrinal purity while many of our co-religionists lose interest and wander away.
The danger of all this, like the man on the shuttle advocating carnal knowledge of the POTUS, is that there’s no talking with one another, much less compromise. And what binds us together, whether as a nation or a church, becomes frayed and tentative.
I wonder if we as a nation need a refresher course in our own tradition. Perhaps someone like documentarian Ken Burns could do a multipart civics lesson for Americans to help us recover the guiding principles of our nation as well as the lessons we have learned from our history. It would be driven not by ideology but by our ideals, illustrating how debate and compromise were baked into our founding documents. Our debates have not always been civil, but we have paid a high price when they are not.
Perhaps we need something similar for our Church, a primer in Church history to put our current forays into the culture wars in perspective. That our political and social divisions have spilled over into our faith is a tragedy, dividing our witness, diluting our voices, and sometimes even contradicting what we profess to believe.
Wearing a vulgar T-shirt may seem like a bold statement, but the boldness we need is in finding common ground while respecting one another’s core principles and beliefs.