Cambridge, MA.—Today is Dec. 8, and so it is a month since the election that saw Donald J. Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. In contemplating the election results, the ensuing formation of the new government, and the deep despair and anxiety among many of my friends and colleagues and students, I have been tempted to join those chanting “not my president.” There is so little reason to have any faith at all in Mr. Trump, his intentions and his words, and his competence for office. It would be easy for me simply to step back, withdraw: safe in my Jesuit and Harvard tower, merely rejecting the very idea of a Trump presidency. “Not my president” becomes an attractive response.
But this “not” is no solution, whether it is hurled against Mr. Trump or against Presidents Obama or Bush by their opponents. The rhetoric of “not” is the symptom of a still deeper American problem, the increasing fragmentation of community into ever more selective and narrower sub-groups, defined by their difference from everyone else; even individuals become increasingly complex and set apart, unlike anyone else, pure in difference.
But we share a single country, and it is nearly inconceivable to imagine pure islands of difference adding up to a wholesome society. There is no opting out, since in fact we keep living next to one another, benefiting and suffering from the good and bad things we do to one another. This is our country. I am reminded here of the words of Dorothy Day:
We in America are being afflicted for our own sins, and for the sins of our country. To me that phrase, “My country right or wrong,” means that we are all responsible. We are our brothers’ keeper. It was the first murderer who said “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (The Catholic Worker, February 1971)
2017 will not be the time for us to walk away from civic responsibility, or to disown the elected government, no matter how offensive we find its policies and postures to be. We are Americans, we had an election, we elected this president; we are in this together, for better or worse. Or as Day put it in another version of the idea I cited above, as she pondered the evils ever arising around us:
It is not just Vietnam, it is South Africa, it is Nigeria, the Congo, Indonesia, all of Latin America. It is not just the pictures of all the women and children who have been burnt alive in Vietnam, or the men who have been tortured, and died. It is not just the headless victims of the war in Colombia.
It is not just the words of Cardinal Spellman and Archbishop Hannan. It is the fact that whether we like it or not, we are Americans. It is indeed our country, right or wrong, as the Cardinal said in another context. We are warm and fed and secure (aside from occasional muggings and murders amongst us). We are the nation the most powerful, the most armed and we are supplying arms and money to the rest of the world where we are not ourselves fighting. We are eating while there is famine in the world…
When the apostles wanted to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritans, the “enemies” of the Jews, Jesus said to them, “You know not of what Spirit you are.” Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of our enemies, which makes cowards of us all. (The Catholic Worker, January 1967)
Mohandas K. Gandhi himself warned his followers, would-be activists for peace and liberation, against reducing our opponents to mere enemies; the point of satyagraha—the grasping of truth—lies into turning our enemies into sisters and brothers.
Those of us who are Catholic ought also to remember that a strength of Catholic tradition is its stubborn refusal to be un-catholic, sectarian, exclusive and purist. Being Catholic cannot today be fueled by animosity to all things Protestant; being Catholic is not about retreating into a Christendom that excludes or shows contempt for other faith traditions or plans to expand by colonizing our religious others. Our religious other is never merely a non-Catholic or non-Christian; we need to learn and give words to what each person is, not just what she is not. So, too, in a church that affirms ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, a Catholic view of America will be one that affirms the right and good of a multi-religious society, one that rejects homogeneity even while not papering over deep, even intractable differences. A Catholic view of America will also refuse to give up on our social order and our political system, even when the methods and fruits of our politics are deeply disappointing.
“Not my president” is neither catholic nor Catholic. Four years, or eight years, of a deeply worrisome and partisan government may lie before us, but it is our government, in this single land we inhabit, on this single planet Earth. For now, Mr. Trump will soon become “my president,” and a Catholic response, however deep our stubborn resistance to unwise and dangerous policies, will be to resist the divisive and exclusive policies of his government—and also divisive and exclusive language entertained by some of those in deep disagreement with him.
Or, most simply: Dec. 8 is of course the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which marks, too, the role of Mary as guiding protector of the United States. Mary is gracious to all, here for all Americans, not just people like ourselves.