Today for the first time since 1814, the U.S. Capitol was violently seized. Although its hours-long occupation by rioters was nowhere near as catastrophic as that event (though one was fatally shot), this attack has the dishonor of having been perpetrated by U.S. citizens rather than a foreign enemy at war. These men and women were motivated by their unfounded, false belief that Donald Trump somehow won the election. Former president George W. Bush put it well in his statement:
The violent assault on the Capitol – and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress – was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes. Insurrection could do grave damage to our Nation and reputation. In the United States of America, it is the fundamental responsibility of every patriotic citizen to support the rule of law.
It goes without saying that breaking windows in order to trespass into the Capitol, the House chamber, and offices of representatives is illegal and immoral. One hopes that all those who committed these crimes will be prosecuted and justice served.
We live in dangerous times. Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to somehow reverse the outcome of the election he lost are corrosive towards faith in democracy, the bedrock of our form of government. As the oldest democracy in the world, I, like Bush and many other Americans, feel “sickened and heartbroken.” A steady diet of misinformation and disinformation, combined with failures in leadership, has sapped many Americans’ faith in democracy. It seems they would rather be ruled by someone who takes their side than respect the results of a free and fair election. For the sake of the short-term good in their eyes, they are willing to sacrifice the long-term good of democracy. Some of them act in bad faith, knowing that the claims of “election fraud” are lies. Others, unable to distinguish fact from fiction, truly believe it and may feel that violence is justified. Democrats were very upset in 2016 when Trump won, and now Republicans are very upset in 2020 that Joe Biden won. Well, that’s how it goes in democracy, isn’t it? We know from the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings of our Catholic faith, and the lessons of history, which Pope John XXIII called the “great teacher,” that violence isn’t the solution.
While watching news footage of the rioting and protesting, I noticed a large “Jesus Saves” banner being flown. It deeply troubled me to see it in that context. It looked like the rioters were invoking the name of our Lord to justify their actions. Lust for power and rioting. . . these are not the values of Jesus Christ! Those who broke into the Capitol contradicted the divinely-inspired teaching of St. Paul:
Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. (Romans 13:1-2 NABRE)
Maybe the people with that banner did not trespass or support those who did, but were peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to protest. I hope so, but even if that was the case, it still would trouble me to see Jesus’ name being invoked to protest democracy! While the Bible does not directly address forms of governance, I firmly believe — like nearly all Americans throughout history as well as many other Christians around the globe — that democracy is a wonderful form of governance, a blessing from God. As recent events have clearly proven, we must remain vigilant if we are to continue as a democracy. We can no longer take faith in it for granted! “A republic, if you can keep it.”
We’ve seen a number of leaders speak out in defense of democracy recently, but I confess that I’m a little disappointed that more Catholic bishops have not done so. Perhaps they want to “stay out of politics.” While to some degree that’s a commendable goal, it has its limits. Clergy certainly need to avoid giving any impression of partisan politicking (and many have failed in this regard). But the social teachings of the Church, as well as basic civic responsibility, require them to speak out on behalf of truth and justice. During difficult and dangerous times, we the people need moral leadership. The bishops, by virtue of their position as successors to the apostles, are always called upon to provide moral leadership in both their private and public capacities. It is not hard to condemn violence and attempted insurrection! Any American bishops who remain silent right now could be construed as indifferent or, worse, tacitly approving.
Several prominent bishops have made statements condemning the violence and defending democracy. Archbishop José Gomez, the president of the USCCB, condemned the violence and said:
The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of this great nation. In this troubling moment, we must recommit ourselves to the values and principles of our democracy and come together as one nation under God.
Locally, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of D.C. (where the Capitol is located, obviously), said “we should feel violated when the legacy of freedom enshrined in that building is disrespected and desecrated.” He went on to condemn those who fueled the flames: “Those who resort to inflammatory rhetoric must accept some responsibility for inciting the increasing violence in our nation.” However, like other bishops, he did not name Donald Trump explicitly.
Another prominent hierarch, who is known to be close to Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, put out an even stronger statement. Whereas Cardinal Gregory’s statement was in response to “protests at the U.S. Capitol,” Cardinal Cupich more accurately identified the problem, saying his statement was about “today’s attack on democracy at the U.S. Capitol.” Calling it a “national disgrace,” he said the attack “should shock the conscience of any patriotic American and faithful Catholic.” He defended democracy and “one of democracy’s greatest virtues—the peaceful and orderly transition of power.”
One bishop, Bishop John Stowe, the episcopal head of Pax Christi, did call out the president specifically:
We shouldn’t be surprised that when the president of the nation, who has been consistently denying that he lost an election and has been calling for his people to be out there demonstrating and when he has not condemned the kind of groups that has supported him, as horrible and as unprecedented as it is in our times, it’s not all that surprising. You reap what you sow.
This is the sort of unapologetic, prophetic words we need. I hope more and more bishops will continue to speak out in defense of our democracy. Furthermore, I believe a corporate statement in the name of, not just President Gomez, but the whole conference as a body, would provide the moral heft to send the unambiguous message that the Catholic Church in this country believes in democracy and condemns violence. Such a message should name Trump specifically as the instigator of this violence. This is important because in the past the bishops have commended him by name on issues related to abortion. If you are going to praise by name, you should also blame by name; otherwise, you display moral cowardice.
Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dannielleblumenthal/50806710523/ (Creative Commons)
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).