The Election & the Blogosphere
Now the great and historic election is behind us, and America watches, amid an economy in free fall, as the president-elect assembles his team. By the strength of its appointments and the steadiness of its demeanor, the administration-in-waiting has demonstrated its readiness to govern. Such strength and steadiness helped boost Barack Obama’s remarkable victory in November, a victory that included capturing 54 percent of the Catholic vote.
Yet not everyone in America is cheered by this triumph. Indeed, within certain embittered precincts, the penalty for having supported Obama can be stiff. As the author of a book whose title asked Can a Catholic Support Him?—and whose contents answered with an enthusiastic “Yes, we can!”—I have felt the animosity of those with an insatiable desire for political payback.
A longtime Republican who served in the Reagan administration, I nonetheless endorsed Obama last spring. Ever since, I’ve been subjected to unrelenting personal attacks launched from right-wing Catholic keyboards—blogs (and bloggers) so coarse and uncivil they make the insults of talk radio sound like actual journalism. Further, the lack of civility that rules the right-wing Catholic blogosphere has infected mainstream Catholic journalism as well. In a syndicated assessment of the 2008 election, one usually thoughtful conservative columnist employed the following descriptions of Catholic Obama supporters: “decadent,” “tribal,” “immoral,” “certainly stupid,” “mindless,” and in need of basic “adult education.” And those were all in a single paragraph! Such highly concentrated rhetorical venom is not calculated to invite discussion.
Of course, bloggers deny there is anything “personal” in such attacks. My online tormentors like to claim that their beef with me is my alleged abandonment of the prolife cause or willful misstatement of church teaching. Neither charge is true. I remain unabashedly prolife and I have never consciously misstated the doctrine of the church; indeed, I’ve publicly said that were the Holy Father to tell me I had contradicted the magisterium on any given page of my Obama book, I would tear out that page.
No, the real problem with the blogospheric reaction to Obama lay in the responses themselves, which all too often mixed the smallest dollop of substance into a big steaming stew of personal contempt. As the vilification of Catholic Obama supporters progressed over the months, it became something of a bloggers’ sport to conjure up ridiculous explanations for what was wrongly described as my “apostasy.” Bloggers asserted I was angling for a judicial spot (strange, when I had already declined appointment to the appellate bench twice); another imagined me distressed over some apparent snub by George W. Bush or John McCain (not true, unless it be distress that one governed badly and the other promised to “stay the course”). One online source even speculated that I had suffered a stroke.
Noting my continued good health, the editors of Commonweal invited this essay which I submit even as I acknowledge the wisdom of Sr. Pius’s eighth-grade counsel: “Douglas, just offer it up!” That was good advice; and indeed I have at times considered the blog calumnies hurled at me as penance for occasions when I have put on a bit of a false front. We all want to be perceived as intelligent, kindly, and well considered, and we all occasionally speak too glibly for our own good—as I did, for example, representing Obama on the campaign trail while chastising him for his criticism of Justice Clarence Thomas; or suggesting, out loud and even on camera, that his one-time pledge of support for the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) during the primary was “boneheaded.” These are not politic statements, but unlike most blog entries, they represent honest, substantive dissent illustrating how it is possible for a person to be capable of admiring both Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas, and of supporting Obama while rejecting legislation that would in any way limit religious freedom or insult the church. (My message to President Obama on FOCA, by the way, will remain what it was to candidate Obama: FOCA runs contrary to the pursuit of the common good.)
This essay is not about abortion, but at least this much must be said: blog lies to the contrary, there is no real legislative interest in FOCA. The attempt to use FOCA to drive a wedge between the church and the incoming administration is unjustified. The bishops, having stated clearly their opposition to FOCA—and rightly so—should not allow the right wing to obscure what Obama shares with the church: concern for the poor; support for the average family; a commitment to ending an unjust war; and respect for our environment. Unless the sore losers of November 4 manage to poison the well, the Holy See and the Obama administration should be working more closely together in service to others than any administration in modern memory.
Having drawn the blogs’ Machiavellian FOCA gambit into the open, I am certain now to be called, yet again, a “useful idiot” (or worse) in service to the new president. Such a prospect returns me to the subject of blog caricature and its consequences. While I may have felt personally wounded in the free-for-all that followed my endorsement of Obama, I never thought it was mainly about me. The scurrilous remarks of conservative bloggers missed the point, which was that I and millions of others who voted for Obama did so not despite our Catholic faith but because of it. When, in a meeting of faith leaders in Chicago, Obama told me that his community work years before, helping the displaced and the unemployed, left him empty until he knelt before the Cross, I believed him. As a Catholic, I understood that it is our faith that explains us to ourselves. No politics or philosophy or relationship is launched well when faith is missing; and I did not (and do not) doubt the genuineness of Obama’s Christian faith commitment.
The president-elect’s alluring gift of inspiration has been noted by many, and while conservative bloggers demean it as “mere rhetoric” or “drinking the Kool-Aid,” others of us prize it as a talent that has been sorely absent for eight years or more. From Berlin to Denver’s Mile High Stadium to Grant Park, Obama does big campaign rallies exceptionally well. At these vast assemblies, his message of working together on common ground draws deeply on the nobility of other, past leaders who called us to reach beyond ourselves. Lingering beneath his cadences are the charitable and prophetic words of Lincoln. One also hears FDR’s instruction to stand forthright against fear, and John F. Kennedy’s call to service, reminding us that “here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” Finally, there is the tearful remorse of RFK following Dr. King’s assassination (and not long before his own), reminding us of the senselessness of violence and hate.
A hate-filled blogosphere, on the other hand, feeds a politics of odium, misleading people of faith and good will, diminishing and at times obliterating our ability to know one another. Our faith urges us to presume the stranger is kind, and to seek out opportunities to manifest love of neighbor. Sadly, neighbor-love is not what has overwhelmed my in-box since my Obama endorsement. Instead, right-wing blogs and their readers have launched missiles of hate, delivering ad hominem invective of an astonishing vehemence and crassness. I am “an embarrassing shill,” “hysterical,” and “pathetic”; also “a fool,” “an Obama shill of such mystifying obtuseness that one suspects a head injury,” “a slimeball,” “an unfaithful, cowardly betrayer”; just “another so-called Christian who flashes a Bible and looks righteous to the pagans,” and so on. “I hear,” wrote one Catholic blogger, cutely summoning the gospel, “that Sen. Obama will be FedExing thirty pieces of silver to Doug Kmiec.”
Beyond mere personal affronts, the politics of odium has more tangible consequences. Last fall I had the privilege of speaking at a beautiful Catholic college, Seton Hill, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Acting on blog misinformation, the well-meaning local bishop sought to bar my appearance, placing a letter to that effect on his Web site. As it turned out, I didn’t know this until after the event—a wonderful afternoon of community and classroom discussion with well-prepared students eager to discuss how to live their faith in the light of Catholic social teaching. Only hours afterward, seated on an airplane about to take off, did I learn (through a telephone call) of the bishop’s Web post. Immediately I dialed the chancery. The bishop, surprised by the call, listened, and I believe he heard both the sincerity of my faith and the depth of my respect for the magisterium. He gracefully removed his Web posting within the hour.
Of course, by then the letter was already beginning to circulate virally, spread by the venomous right-wing blogs. To be remade by a hateful blogosphere has its price, I’ve learned. I worry that such invitations to speak at Catholic colleges, and the fruitful exchanges these invitations make possible, will be fewer. When I do speak, contingents of demonstrators often appear, carrying preprinted signs, part of an orchestrated pressure to disinvite me. In response, it is my practice to invite the protesters to join us, and they usually do. Yet civil discourse can be difficult with those misinformed by blog propaganda that you are a proponent of evil—or worse, its very embodiment. Such attitudes are not limited to placard-carrying demonstrators. One member of the U.S. hierarchy whom I greatly admire has renounced our past association, writing, “We are not friends, professor,” and answering my invocation of Christian brotherhood with a curt retort: “I do see you as a brother in Christ—a brother who is serving an evil end.” The greatest personal price I have paid is the loss of old—and the preemption of new—friendships.
The vituperation propagated in the Catholic blogging world is remarkable for its reach and speed. When a writer for America recently speculated that the Obama administration might name me as ambassador to the Holy See, I was flattered. And while I would never want my presidential endorsement months earlier to be understood as anything other than what it always was—freely given without expectation of quid pro quo—the writer’s suggestion did prompt me to seek God’s will through prayer. Might this be an invitation to be of greater service to the church? Neither God nor the president-elect had an opportunity to answer before the blogs were recycling their various calumnies, and adding now an anonymous voice allegedly saying “it would never happen.” And why not? Well, according to “anonymous,” now sounding suspiciously partisan, the Vatican would view me as a “traitor,” with my appointment being the equivalent of naming a homosexual—presumably meaning that as an insult, notwithstanding its own insensitivity and disregard of church efforts at inclusion. Facing down such ugliness can be daunting. A writer for the National Catholic Reporter threw up his hands, editorializing that “it might be less complicated to name” a non-Catholic. With all due respect, that would be the ultimate “heckler’s veto,” and it is far from the stand many Catholics took in speaking the truth of the gospel to the power of an American president over the unjustified and tragically costly occupation of Iraq.
All of the world’s overheated overstatement cannot be blamed on the blogs, of course, but the blogosphere’s megaphone quality magnifies unfortunate remarks best left in more limited, and usually more nuanced, contexts. During the election campaign, Archbishop Raymond Burke called the Democratic Party “the party of death,” an expression deeply hurtful to my octogenarian father and millions of other lifelong Democrats who still see the Democratic Party as Leo XIII saw it—the “working man’s” party. The situation worsened when bloggers exported from the student newspaper a classroom remark of Cardinal Francis Stafford at The Catholic University of America describing some of the policies of the president-elect as “aggressive, disruptive, and apocalyptic.” With admirable restraint, the Obama administration has kept its puzzlement and disappointment with these blog-spread commentaries to itself. Of course, faith calls upon us all to “turn the other cheek” to ridicule and hatred, and like the president-elect, I am resolved to do so as well. In 1920, Benedict XV put the instruction this way in Pacem, Dei munus pulcherrimum: “We are to...forgive all our enemies who knowingly or unknowingly have heaped and are still heaping on our person and our work every sort of vituperation, and we embrace all in our charity and benevolence, and neglect no opportunity to do them all the good in our power.” That, said Benedict XV, “is what makes Christians worthy of the name.” It is also the central precept of international relations, and whoever takes up the diplomatic post, whether me or someone else, is well advised to be guided by it if the world is ever to be at peace.
In a September campaign appearance on Meet the Press, Joe Biden explained that while he believed life begins at conception, he couldn’t impose that belief on others. Biden likely thought himself right with the church (though having been present for Mario Cuomo’s similar pronouncement at Notre Dame in 1984, I could have told him otherwise). Probably thinking he would at least get a holy card for his faith-based answer, he instead got his hand slapped, and was subsequently told by the archbishop of Denver not to bother showing up for Communion when in town for the Democratic convention. I know from experience the pain of being refused the Eucharist, having been denied Communion at a Mass preceding an invited lecture before a group of Catholic business people. The priest had apparently bought the blogosphere’s cynical distortion of my pro-Obama position. Cardinal Roger Mahony would later find the priest’s action to be “shameful and indefensible.”
Cardinals Mahony, Theodore McCarrick, and others have warned against using Communion as a weapon, for good reason. Indeed, even the mere threat of Eucharist denial aimed at Biden unleashed a wave of giddy right-wing blog invective, precisely when—and where—it should have invited discussion. The invective supplies no answer to those of other faiths who do not see themselves as bound by the magisterium, or who are unwilling to accept the move from a biological fact (that the human zygote formed at conception is a unique life) to a broader ethical conclusion (that we should use the force of law to protect it). These points of difference are regularly missed by bloggers who freely hurl the label “baby killer” at anyone who does not readily concede the equivalence of zygote destruction and infanticide.
Putting the ill consequence of blog name-calling aside, in a post-Holocaust world, you have to admire the Catholic faith for insisting on that equivalence, and thereby recognizing the need for absolute truth to exist. Politically, though, there remains one big difficulty: the American Constitution is not linked to a concession of absolute truth. It is the Declaration of Independence that is anchored upon self-evident truth, and the relation between the two documents is virtually unexplored in the Supreme Court. Indeed, only Justice Thomas has really thought about it seriously, hence my admiration.
Does Barack Obama believe in the truth of the human person? Not surprisingly, he values the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence—even as he argues that the deliberative democracy established by our Constitution casts suspicion upon a claim of absolute truth. The founders, Obama observes, uniformly rejected all forms of absolute authority, whether that of the monarch, the high priest, or the majority. And yet, as John Paul II told us, democracy detached from absolute truth can be little more than another form of totalitarianism. Obama has similarly observed that absolutists can be correct—as the blunt wrong of slavery illustrates. “Sometimes,” Obama notes, “absolute truths may well be absolute.”
To reconcile the pragmatism of democracy with claims of truth requires that our minds be nourished by wide perspectives discussed freely and respectfully; it requires a heart full of grace, not anger. Within our own Catholic community, we need to bear in mind one further caution from our new president: that claiming public territory outside the church requires persuasion, not intimidation or force. Translating particularistic faith beliefs into rational argument is the stuff of democracy. “I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons,” Obama said during the campaign, “but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or [invoke] God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
Of course, that is the very reason Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop William Lori were so quick to remind candidate Biden of the scientific basis for the church’s life perspective. Indeed one might ask, with the church having brought forth its scientific claim in so forthright and objective a manner as it has in modern encyclicals, is it not proper for the burden of evidence now to shift to those who, for religious or nonreligious reasons, believe unfettered abortion ought to be permitted? It is a valid question; and were the right-wing Catholic blogs not so preoccupied with demonizing me and other brothers and sisters in Christ who backed our president-elect, perhaps the question would receive some competent discussion. As it is, however, right-wing Catholic bloggers, acting as a thinly disguised political front for the GOP, remain fixated on the goal of precipitating an unnecessary war between the Holy See and America’s next administration. It is dismaying to see a few American prelates and their “anonymous” Vatican commentators acting as witting or unwitting coconspirators in this divisive action.
It’s hard to know what understanding of the United States filters upward through the Vatican to reach the pope. What’s certain is that the statement of the Holy Father that came across the ocean just after the U.S. bishops met in Baltimore in November was warmly welcomed by those assembling the new Obama administration. Speaking movingly to a conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Assistance to Health Care Workers on the theme of “Pastoral Care of Sick Children,” Benedict XVI noted that every year some 4 million newborns around the world die within four weeks after birth, often because of poverty, poor health-care systems, and armed conflict. He called this a matter of “urgent” concern. “The church does not forget these smallest of her children,” the pope said. And neither does our president-elect, which is also why he believes that aiding expectant mothers in poverty, and not condemning them, will reduce the number of abortions.
The president-elect does not share our faith, and like many modern men, he can be skeptical about aspects of the divine that we, because of the sacraments and the magisterium, are blessed to accept. But the blogs have not closed the mind of the new president and, like Lincoln, he bears “malice toward none” and manifests “charity for all.”
Obama himself has written that the golden rule tells us that we “need to battle cruelty in all its forms, [with] the value of love and charity, humanity and grace.” Even spinning a pervasive web of falsehood, the right-wing Catholic blogosphere is no match for the self-evident truth of that golden rule—nor would its bloggers want to be, were they to indulge a microsecond of charitable thought before hitting the send button.
Related: Pro-life, Pro-Obama? by William J. Gould
Read more: Letters, February 13, 2009