Three recent news items:
– At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”
– In the Oval Office, according to the Washington Post, President Trump boasted about how easy it is to appeal to audiences with an anti-immigrant message: “Acting as if he was at a rally, he then read aloud a few made up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, like rape and murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country.” In the Post’s account, “[Stephen] Miller and [Jared] Kushner laughed.”
– At the American border, the brutal separation of confused, weeping children from parents who cross illegally is being implemented. According to the Arizona Republic: “The Office of Refugee Resettlement reported at the end of 2017 that of the 7,000-plus children placed with sponsored individuals, the agency did not know where 1,475 of them were.” Some could be lost to abuse or trafficking.
What do these incidents add up to? A political, moral and religious failure of massive, discrediting proportions.
It is often difficult to apply theological doctrines to public policy. But if there is one area where the teaching of the Christian faith is utterly clear, it is in the requirement to care for the vulnerable stranger. According to the Hebrew scriptures: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.” In the New Testament, Jesus employs compassion for an abused, reviled foreigner (a Samaritan) as the test and definition of neighbor love.
The dehumanization of migrants and refugees has been one of the most consistent themes of this president – including using the fact that some criminals enter the country illegally to fan a generalized hostility to Hispanic immigration. Can you imagine what would have happened if a White House staffer attending a policy meeting on family separation had said, “This is cruel. This is immoral. This is wrong.” They would have been quickly cleaning out their desk. The rejection of Christian teaching on this issue is pretty much a job requirement in the Trump administration.
And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. He complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” – trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.
Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, it is no longer an option for Ryan to speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.
In the name of survival, Ryan has ignored and enabled the transformation of the GOP into an anti-immigrant party. This does not reflect his personal views. But it will be remembered as the hallmark of his time in office – the elevation of survival above solidarity.
My tradition of evangelical protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew poll, white evangelical protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of Scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms – and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they not only ignore this mandate but oppose it.
This represents the failure of Christian political leadership – not only from the speaker, but from most elected religious conservatives. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.
Ryan concluded his remarks by quoting Mother Teresa on God’s call to “be faithful,” not to “be successful.” But what if one is neither? Perhaps silence is the best option.
Michael Gerson, a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and a senior policy adviser. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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