By IHE Fellow V. Bradley Lewis
As I write this, the outcome of the presidential election is unresolved, and, most likely, when the votes have been counted, resolution will be only partial. There is likely to be not only anger and recrimination, but complicated and prolonged litigation. The divisions that preceded the election will not have been mitigated by whatever kind of completion the process achieves. Anyone hoping for the sort of decisive result that would calm the passions that roil our politics will be sorely disappointed.
The durability of our political and cultural differences is testified to by perhaps the two most consequential national challenges we have faced over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The first, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought about a unity of purpose as unexpected as the attacks themselves, coming as it did on the heels of an earlier close and divisive national election, but any hope that it would endure dissipated rather quickly. The wars that followed fed divisions that led Americans to retrospectively interpret that terrible day through the lens of partisan loyalties. The, again, sudden challenge of Covid-19, this time arriving not after, but just before what already promised to be an exceptionally acrimonious presidential election campaign, has led to something similar. The main difference is the lack of any real initial sense of national unity. One might have expected that the onset of a global pandemic might cause Americans to pull together, but that has not happened. The public health crisis has been sucked into the partisan vortex, like almost everything else. Whether or not one wears a mask reveals, more than anything else, what side one is on.
Tocqueville famously wrote that the freedom with which Americans debated political issues, a relatively new phenomenon in the 1830s, was made possible by their basic agreement on religion and morality. One cannot help but think that the loss of consensus about those things, partly consequent on galloping secularization, is at least somewhat responsible for the absolutization of political conflict. Politics is thus invested with the ultimacy of religion in such a way that compromise is heresy and patriotism has dissolved into mere partisanship. Under our present vexed circumstances, it may be that the most important civic task of Christian Americans is to give witness to the saving truth that there are more important things than politics.
V. Bradley Lewis is a professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.