Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Now that the dust from the presidential election is (hopefully) beginning to settle, we need to revisit the guidance the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has provided to Catholic voters, not to remove any of the current criteria, but to add what strikes me as a glaring omission: the rebuilding of social trust.
Surveys show that Americans’ trust in institutions and in their fellow Americans is in rapid decline, especially among young people. This is a broader and deeper challenge than any candidates for political office can solve on their own, with causal connections to media, technology, gerrymandering, and the sorting of America along demographic and geographic lines.
But elected officials play a key role. It is tempting to say, and many friends and relatives have told me, that “all politicians lie.” Resting on such categorical assertions abdicates our responsibility as faithful citizens to discern what is true from what is false. It is simply not the case that Bill Clinton’s inclination toward falsehoods was shared by George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter. And there has been no recent president who trafficked in falsehoods as frequently as President Trump, nor any who weaponized disinformation as a core political strategy as pervasively as he has done. There are clear differences among candidates, and those differences matter.
And yes, rebuilding social trust is about more than avoiding falsehoods. It’s also about mutual respect, and characterizations of one’s political opponents as “deplorables,” some Americans as “cling[ing] to guns or religion,” or Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” are also corrosive to social trust. We need to evaluate candidates in terms of their propensity to speak with respect toward all Americans – that must be part of the equation.
In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the USCCB addresses solidarity by focusing on the preferential option for the poor. That’s important, but solidarity also presumes a degree of unity, or at least the semblance of a common perception of reality. We should aspire to share an accurate understanding of the world before we engage our political opponents on hard questions about human dignity and the common good. When the “is” is deeply contested, debates about the “ought” are largely pointless. And when survey data is underscored by stories of Catholics actively participating in Q-Anon and outrageous disinformation events such as the Jericho March, we have a serious problem on our hands.
So, in addition to the importance of recognizing the truth of the Church’s moral teaching – reflected in policy issues that have long been addressed at election time – the bishops should speak out about truth more generally. Weaponizing false information to divide Americans is morally unacceptable. Tackling the many pressing challenges facing our country is only possible if we begin to rebuild social trust. Truth matters, and it must matter to our elected officials.