(CNS photo/Madalyn McGarvey, Reuters)

Since I’ve already written about the Covington Catholic students and the by-now infamous and thoroughly exhausted viral video, I was hesitant to jump back into the fray. But the latest reactions to this incident at the Lincoln Memorial—in particular, the debates over victimhood and charges of “anti-Catholicism”—are worth exploring, since they underscore the flaws in how we frame discussions of religion, race, and identity.

After a longer video segment showed the predominately white school group facing prolonged taunting from a few black men affiliated with a fringe group called the Hebrew Israelites, everyone from Catholic bishops to prominent political commentators are now arguing that the original narrative of entitled white teens harassing a Native American elder was fundamentally inaccurate. The students, according to the new takeaway, are actually the victims here; the real bullies are the PC mobs! Bishop Roger Foys of Covington, Kentucky, after an original statement in which he apologized to Nathan Phillips and condemned the students’ behavior as incompatible with Catholic values, reversed course. “We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely, and we take full responsibility for it,” the bishop wrote in a letter to his diocese. You can almost hear beleaguered white Catholics sighing in relief, now that the burden of examining this incident within a broader context of history and uncomfortable contemporary realities has been lifted.

In a New York magazine piece revealingly entitled “The Abyss of Hate Versus Hate,” Andrew Sullivan blends eloquent indignation with staggering false equivalency.

What I saw was extraordinary bigotry, threats of violence, hideous misogyny, disgusting racism, foul homophobia, and anti-Catholicism—not by the demonized schoolboys, but by grown men with a bullhorn, a small group of self-styled Black Hebrew Israelites... They scream abuse at gays, women, white people, Jews, interracial couples, in the crudest of language. In their public display of bigotry, they’re at the same level as the Westboro Baptist sect: shockingly obscene. They were the instigators of the entire affair. And yet the elite media seemed eager to downplay their role, referring to them only in passing, noting briefly that they were known to be anti-Semitic and anti-gay.

Sullivan is accurate in his description of the rhetoric hurled at the Catholic students, and at others who engaged with a group specializing in provocation that most tourists have enough sense to ignore. News coverage and most progressive commentators quickly glided over or even left out the black Hebrew Israelites’ role in this incident. As I argued in my piece last week, liberals (including me) were too quick to pile on. Social media only exacerbates a disturbing trend toward self-affirming echo chambers that reward hot takes over sober reflection.

All of us across the political spectrum can agree on the toxicity of social-media tribalism and the rushes to judgment it often fuels. This is only more reason to engage in difficult conversations that should start now.

But Sullivan’s argument falls apart with his treatment of racism and power. “Judging—indeed demonizing—an individual on the basis of the racial or gender group he belongs to is the core element of racism, and yet it is now routine on the left as well as the right,” he writes. He scoffs at the idea of defining “racism or sexism to mean prejudice plus power.” Sullivan, of course, is no right-wing ideologue, but here he echoes a pernicious myth in the conservative “post-racial” playbook. The idea that whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans can be equally racist downplays not only the factual historical weight of slavery, segregation, and federally sanctioned genocide, but also conveniently sidesteps the enduring structural barriers to racial equity, such as mass incarceration and voter suppression, that disproportionately impact people of color. In other words, when you equate personal prejudice or an individual’s bad behavior with institutional racism, you create a playing field that’s level only in the imagination. Notwithstanding Sullivan’s frustration with connecting racism to power, it is exactly the use or abuse of power that is critical in making distinctions here. Structural racism—its pervasiveness in housing, education, and financial systems—simply isn’t the same as white kids getting unfairly taunted by a few black men. This isn’t to condone the abusive rhetoric of the Hebrew Israelites, but only to state clearly that their words are not connected to a framework of culture, power, and institutions that daily denigrate the humanity of people of color.

Instead of using this national flare-up as a teachable moment to grapple with hard truths, some Catholics in positions to shape opinion and behavior are instead perpetuating a narrative of victimization. An editorial in the National Catholic Register, a publication that, it should be noted, happily publishes attacks on Pope Francis, sees in this incident and in the broader cultural milieu a “torrent of anti-Catholic rhetoric.” I acknowledge the existence of a strain of secular liberalism that denies any role for faith in public life. The creeds of left-wing orthodoxy often include disdain for the Catholic Church. And, yes, some Democratic elected officials use language and frame questions in offensive and inappropriate ways (see Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s “the dogma lives loudly in you” comment during congressional testimony from Judge Amy Coney Barrett). We need honest, measured conversations on the left about manifestations of progressivism that at best tolerate religion as a private pursuit, and at worst view it as a threat to democratic values.

But some conservative Catholics see discrimination around every corner, as if we were living in 1920s Mexico, where the Catholic Church was systematically oppressed, rather than in an increasingly diverse public square that still includes a heavily Catholic Supreme Court and a U.S. Congress where nearly a third of lawmakers identify as Catholic. Is legitimate self-reflection and criticism from those of us who are faithful Catholics also anti-Catholic? Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, rightly questioned Catholic school students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats to a pro-life march, and courageously challenged what the conservative columnist Michael Gerson has called the “Trumpification of the pro-life movement.” For this, Life Site News accuses him of being “brazenly partisan” and “trashing” Covington Catholic.

While there has been real discrimination against Catholics at various times in U.S. history, crying “anti-Catholicism!” can also be a way to cut off legitimate debate about the extent or limits of religious liberty in a pluralistic democracy. It can also, wittingly or not, allow us to avoid grappling with the church’s own failures, including its complicity in discrimination and racist structures. But uncomfortable realities can't be ignored, and comfortable narratives require vigilant reexamination. Institutions committed to shaping consciences and developing faithful citizens, especially Catholic schools, have a serious stake in doing this well. All of us across the political spectrum can agree on the toxicity of social-media tribalism and the rushes to judgment it often fuels. This is only more reason to engage in difficult conversations that should start now.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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