In Commonweal, John Gehring describes the difficulty confronting many Catholics today when they consider the rise of the “Alt-Right.” (The block quote begins with him describing an exchange at the conference “How Catholics Should Respond to the Rise of the Alt-Right,” co-hosted by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and Millennial):
“The main difficulty in engaging the alt-right as if it were just another political movement is found precisely in its anti-democratic stance,” said Winters, also a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “Normally, when we as Catholics engage those with whom we disagree, both sides accept democratic norms to shape that engagement. The alt-right derides democracy and openly states its desire to undermine democracy.” Winters added:
“Engage, but do so warily, and only when repeatedly noting the fact that the positions the alt-right espouses are not just wrong, but contemptuous of the means by which a liberal democracy sorts out the complexities of public policy, means that we value and celebrate, and which we accord to these provocateurs even if they wish not to accord them to anyone else.”
Winters pointed to the church’s intellectual and moral traditions as resources to contest the resurgence of white nationalism. “It is often joked that Catholic social doctrine is the ‘best kept secret’ in the Catholic church,” he said. “Let it be secret no more. The most sophisticated response to both these alt-right haters, and to the ever-present difficulties of democracy, is found in that doctrine. I often say and shall say again: There is no problem facing the political life of this country that is not leavened by an encounter with Catholic social doctrine.”
There is no panacea to eradicate the diseases of white nationalism and Islamophobia. The church’s manifold capacities—theological, pastoral and prophetic—will be required at different places and times. Catholics don’t all need to speak with the same voice or use the same tone. But the message should be unambiguous and urgent. The alt-right movement is built on an edifice of racism, social sin, and exclusion that must never be tolerated.
The dilemma is framed as though it were unique to Catholics (or at least those who identify Catholicism with Social Justice).
But it points to what is perhaps the most serious practical question being worked out in American politics today: whether the Left now regards the Right as so illegitimate that it can no longer speak or engage with it. Illegitimate in a moral, even religious sense. Evil.
The speaker holds out the promise that Catholic Social Teaching has the answer–a way of dealing with the morally repugnant members of the Alt-Right (just as, we might imagine, principled Catholics discovered a way to deal with the Nazi regime).
But is not the nature of the suggested solution indicative of the deeper problem? Namely that the evils attributed to an extremist few are in fact views held by a large number of Americans?
After the election–comments about a “white-lash” aside–there appeared to be a moment of reflection, where even die-hard opponents of Trump were prepared to acknowledge that something must be happening out if there if Wisconsin had voted for him. Perhaps ordinary working class people have been left behind.
Since then, the left has only doubled down. And yet it faces a problem. While it would love to say that the views it despisers are limited to a few, a significant portion of Americans has endorsed views which it finds deplorable. And it does not know how to distinguish between these Americans and the bogeyman of the Alt-right.
The magnitude of the problem is inescapable: If Donald Trump and anyone who voted for him is morally reprehensible, some 47% of the country is comprised of people whom Winters and Gehring regard as beyond the pale. That’s a lot of people.
What is to become of a polity where nearly half its members are morally exiled–in the name of diversity, inclusion, and social justice?
We are about to find out.