Epluribus unum. This motto appears in the Great Seal of the United States, the seals of top US government officials, and on US coins. While not as explicitly religious as the oft-cited motto, “In God we Trust”, this other foundational American motto not only supplies the building blocks for authentic community and human relationships, but also captures the essence of the Christian belief that ultimately, all forms of human existence, similar to God’s own existence (as Father, Son, Spirit) depend upon welcoming, relating to and incorporating human differences.
In recent weeks, voices from conservative and progressive Catholic circles have weighed into the thought-provoking essay published in La Civiltà Cattolica by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa entitled ‘Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism’.
On one side of the political and faith spectrum, the essay has been praised for taking a prophetic stance against the alliance between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals that has resulted in a detrimental politicisation of Christian faith.
On the other side, the essay has been criticised for oversimplifying the religious landscape in the United States and the manifold ways the Christian faithful relate to one another and the world of American politics.
Another angle of interpretation deserves a place at the table. I contend that the central theological insights and socio-political implications for American society voiced by Spadaro and Figueroa find a home within the hearts of Latinos and other ‘underrepresented’ communities in the US.
Given how Latinos comprise nearly half of the US Catholic Church, it seems fitting to offer a Latino response to this controversial, yet timely piece. A few observations related to the religious landscape of the United States are worth noting before engaging with specific aspects of the Spadaro/Figueroa essay.
The majority of Latino Catholics in the United States overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and this support cannot be simply explained away on the basis of politics alone. Life and faith issues related to concrete Latino experiences are crucial to understanding this vote.
On the Evangelical side, OPEN USA, comprised of over 6,000 Latino evangelical churches, also voiced its support for Clinton. This strong ecumenical support from Latino Catholics and Evangelicals for Clinton suggests that the Latino presence complicates all existing efforts to understand the relationship between faith and politics in the US, and in particular, challenges prevalent interpretations of the relationship between US Catholics and Protestants.
The Latino vote offers a clue to an emerging ‘New Ecumenism’ that overcomes age-old divisions rooted in theoretical Christian differences and builds new religious bridges around issues relating to Christian faith and the social concerns of our times. For a number of years, Latino theologians have fostered numerous Catholic-Protestant ecumenical conversations, enabling us to grow in friendship, even as we have each affirmed our rich religious diversity.
This ‘New Ecumenism’ reflects a theological vision marked by an integral approach to faith (unlike the organic link between faith and politics that Spadaro and Figueroa correctly critique when they refer to integralism) that welcomes efforts to probe political life so as to discern how human efforts can contribute to the liberation/salvation of persons from various forms of oppression, especially when it comes to political policies that threaten the lives of the most vulnerable, the poor, and the marginalised of our land.
The most valuable contribution of the Spadaro/Figueroa essay seems to me to be its rejection of human indifference, politically manifested and religiously justified.
As a member of the Latino community, I am well aware that many of us have felt as ‘aliens’ in this ‘promised land’. Perhaps it is because of this exilic experience, and of the profound realisation that we live between the earthly city and the heavenly city, that we have been more prone to embrace a holy detachment from politics, power, and religious idols.
The Spadaro/Figueroa essay echoes this in its critique of fundamentalism and integralism. But the essay also implicitly addresses another kind of human indifference. I’m referring to the kind of human indifference that Pope Francis invites us to reject because it creates “walls” rather than bridges with our neighbours.
I want to explore two salient aspects of human indifference underpinning Spadaro-Figueroa’s theo-political engagement with the status quo of American society: (1) an indifference to our neighbours that emerges from falsely linking religion and power, and (2) an indifference to our neighbours that results from failure to welcome human differences.
These two expressions of human indifference not only undermine the Christian commandment to love self, God, and our neighbours, especially our impoverished neighbours, but also prevent the ongoing fulfilment of our American vision to construct national unity out of our inclusive and rich diversity of peoples.
Interpreters of the Spadaro/Figueroa essay may question its historical generalisations, its arguments regarding ill-advised alliances between Christian faith and political leaders, and the weight given to how particular ideas and persons have influenced the American religious landscape.
But as American religious scholars and theologians, especially from underrepresented communities, have pointed out, it is hard to deny the detrimental social effects the ideological use of concepts like ‘the promised land’ and ‘manifest destiny’ have had on our nation.
Not all persons and communities have enjoyed the benefits of full participation as members of a land comprised of free persons, a home where all can be brave. When Spadaro and Figueroa speak of “anaesthetised consciences”, I cannot fail but to acknowledge how anaesthetised I and others around me have become to the ongoing public ‘lynchings’ that occur within our American body.
The cause of this human numbing is complex, but almost always tied to the misuse of power.
Those who have had the privilege of holding office, from the right and from the left, have often failed to accurately diagnose and address deeply seated social injustices. Adding insult to injury, Spadaro and Figueroa correctly ascertain that the “temptation to project divinity on political power” ushers in an idolatry, which often in practice and not necessarily in theory, replaces the God of the Crucified of history with the gods of physically abled bodies, materially rich, and happy persons.
When this aspect of American culture prevails in rural or urban America, ‘fake news’ ascends to the public forum. The prosperity Gospel steps in and displaces the Gospel of Christ that proclaims the preferential option for the poor and marginalized.
Breaking the organic link between any culture, politics, institutions and the Christian Church does not mean opting for a secularist approach. Religion should never be exiled from the public square. As many critics have pointed out, exiling religion from public conversations is not what the Catholic tradition teaches, nor does it represent Pope Francis’s political theology.
The Pope has invited the Church to become a field hospital, for pastors to smell like sheep, and for theologians to leave their ivory towers and address conflict within and outside the Church. Such a separation would also be totally inconsistent with Vatican II’s call to read ‘the signs of the times’ and interpret these signs in light of faith and revelation.
Thus, to distinguish faith and politics and to separate them are two very different things. Religion has a constructive and even prophetic role to play in socio-political life, and socio-political life can also contribute, even in prophetic ways, to Christian traditions because the Church does not possess God’s Spirit. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills.
What Spadaro and Figueroa caution against in their rejection of integralism is the kind of belligerent, apocalyptic, self-righteous, and colonial politics uttered in the name of God. During the last election cycle, it was not uncommon to hear Catholic supporters of President Trump, and even a number of priests and bishops, justify theologically why Catholics should support Trump over Clinton, solely because of Trump’s stance on the issues of life in the womb and religious freedom.
The orthodoxy of other Christians was put into question, including that of many Latino Catholics who instinctively refused to reduce the defence of life to a particular stage and refused to conceive religious freedom in a narrowly defined way.
Policies adopted since Trump’s election have vindicated the Latino value voters, given the various threats now posed to human lives (especially to undocumented families and refugees coming from Muslim majority nations) and the life of “our common home” . Spadaro and Figueroa get it right in suggesting that theocracy, even in its more subtle contemporary political expressions, must be rejected.
Fear and rejection of others characterises contemporary American life. Fear, argue Spadoro and Figueroa, inevitably cultivates cultural warriors and the need for “walls” to separate us from those whose life stories we do not understand or want to engage. Fear leads to indifference and indifference leads to dehumanisation. In turn, dehumanising others anaesthetises us to violence, sometimes even in the name of God.
When difference becomes division, others who differ from us are no longer welcomed as our brothers and sisters. The opposition between us and them creates a fertile ground that justifies ‘deporting’ from our midst those who do not think like us, do not belong to our racial, ethnic, or political group, do not share our legal status, and above all things, those who do not believe like us. As Spadaro and Fegueroa aver, under such alienating human conditions, belligerence can acquire theological justification.
Sadly, few would question that America today is a deeply divided and fearful nation, polarised along political and religious lines.
Trump did not create this polarisation but his call to “Make America Great Again“ has become nothing less than a camouflage call for many of his followers to Make America Indifferent Again; and this political rhetoric especially impacts the lives of persons and communities that have long struggled to gain socio-political recognition within this land.
The slogan feeds on existing and nostalgic fears within America that its cultural and Christian values are under attack. Persons and communities whose distinct personal and cultural differences have not been or cannot be melted away become targets of a false patriotism that promotes the ideology of ‘American’ sameness (which is not to be confused with unity).
“Which feeling underlies the persuasive temptation for a spurious alliance between politics and religious fundamentalism?” This question, and the remarks that follow conclude Spadaro and Figueroa’s insightful essay on the status quo of American political and religious life.
Spadaro and Figueroa argue that “fear of the breakup of a constructed order and the fear of chaos” spurs this alliance. “The political strategy for success” they point out, “becomes that of raising the tones of the conflictual, exaggerating disorder, agitating the souls of the people by painting worrying scenarios beyond any realism”.
Anyone familiar with the campaign rhetoric and the words of our tweeting president know that Spadaro and Figueroa are not far from speaking truth to power. The truth that Christ’s body knows no border and fears no borders is not an alternative fact. This truth should enable us to build bridges across party and political lines, diminish irrational fears, lower the tone of conflict, and challenge political talk that threatens our political and social order.
What we most need at this unprecedented time in American history is a transfusion of Christian ecumenical love into our veins capable of offering us new life so that each of us regardless of creed, race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and political affiliation can participate in the great project of making us one nation out of the plurality of peoples that comprises these United States of America.
Miguel Diaz is a theologian based at Chicago’s Loyola University and is a former US ambassador to the Holy See.