Consider with me some events that have dominated U.S. public life in recent months. If ever there were a season deserving the label “the summer of our discontent,” the summer of 2019 emerges as my chief candidate. Anybody who cares about ethics in public life and who is not experiencing severe discontent is simply not paying attention. Although there is space here to consider only two recent items of political theater, many developments have evoked discouragement among observers concerned about basic standards of democracy: equity, respect, and the rule of law.
For ten days in mid-July, the news cycle was utterly dominated by President Trump’s relentless verbal assault on four first-term members of Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Ayanna S. Pressley (MA)—all liberal Democrats and, not coincidentally, women of color. Trump’s racially-tinged attacks included relentless Twitter broadsides (Go Back Where You Came From) and provocative public appearances, including a North Carolina rally in which he presided approvingly over a crowd chanting "Send Her Back!" Notwithstanding feeble and belated attempts to rationalize or walk back some of the invective, Trump’s prolonged outburst constitutes an especially egregious attempt to rouse his base by playing the race card. This blatant demonization of people of color shocked those of us who eschew grossly emboldened displays of covert belief in these and other racist tropes.
That disheartening episode faded from the headlines only when it was eclipsed by another public spectacle with its own problematic features. Special Counsel Robert Mueller appeared on July 24 in front of two Congressional committees to (reluctantly) testify on his 448-page report regarding Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and evidence of subsequent obstruction of justice. Witnessing the partisanship on display during the congressional hearings and tracking the public discourse before and after the nation heard the Mueller testimony provided abundant grounds for even further discouragement. The nearly seven hours of the Mueller hearings turned a few heads, but probably changed very few minds regarding the conduct of the Trump campaign and administration. Tracking public discourse and news coverage confirms what we already suspected: ours is no longer a nation characterized by the search for truth and pursuit of justice, rather it has become a place where people by and large talk past one another, seeking confirmation of their own biases and self-interest at every turn. I readily admit my own participation in the “new national pastime” of keeping score of political points for or against Trump and other public figures. Many of us find the political jousting so compelling that the search for truth—the integrity of our electoral process, cybersecurity, constitutional principles—is eclipsed by the pursuit of partisan advantage.
And so we witness the devolution from conversation to accusation, from protocols of respectful dialogue to the culture of taunting, from fair-minded consideration of factual evidence to the desperate search for the most effective strategy of spin. We are all-too-aware of the vicissitudes of American political history to subscribe to a simple narrative positing a putative fall from a past Golden Age of comity, but surely something new is unfolding in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. Consider just a few of the pressing national questions that seem to elude rational assessment: Did the Mueller report really exonerate the President? Do the four Congresswomen verbally attacked by Trump have the best interests of the U.S. in mind? Are our current border-control procedures and migration policies characterized by prudence or by cruelty?
That final question reminds us that, as disturbing as the Trump-Mueller examples of national pathology may be, numerous other areas of public life and government policy betray the US heritage of fair-mindedness. It appears that political tribalism, always a corrosive social force, may be robbing us of our ability to conduct meaningful dialogue about justice and the common good, a subject of especially strong concern to all ethicists.
What particular contribution may theological ethics make to our national plight? We draw from traditions of reflection that have long considered how to create conditions for human flourishing and corporate wellbeing. The discipline of ethics has for millennia pondered the virtues that foster social peace: integrity, fairness, and restraint in the use of power. Perhaps as importantly we have arrived at a marked appreciation for the complexity of contemporary social realities—a realization that recognizes and engages the importance of tolerance, mutuality and dialogue.
One recent trajectory within Christian moral reflection is the enterprise of public theology. Although by no means a new undertaking (even first-century Christian communities debated the proper stance of the faithful toward government authority and life in a pluralistic setting), public theology has encouraged a more conscious grappling with the challenges of society-wide encounter, including the embrace of principles and virtues of good citizenship. John Courtney Murray, S.J., one of the architects of American public theology, wisely called attention to the theme of respectful deliberation and consensus-building as the hallmark of a healthy society; applying some of his priorities to the present social and political context may just spark creative steps fostering the dialogue we desperately need to revive our union. By pointing to public theology as a promising framework, I am not imagining an easy solution to problems old or new, but simply proposing dialogue, a sometimes-overlooked tool for addressing the polarization that everybody seems to decry but few feel empowered to engage.
In the end, nobody will deliver us from the poisoned environment we inhabit except ourselves. While I sometimes dream of a ”Cosmic Fact-Checker from Beyond” adjudicating rival claims and loosening those dug-in heels on all sides (especially the heels of those I consider my personal opponents), I know that the way forward is through respectful dialogue and democratic deliberation. Is it unrealistic to expect such progress in an unfavorable climate? Should we not be wary of a “Catch-22”, whereby amelioration absolutely depends upon the very conditions we lack and the very steps we are disempowered from taking? Maybe so, but just as winds do change for sailors, as well, the prospects for national renewal are not doomed to perpetual stasis.
My own hunch is that the erosion of public trust, while serious in its manifestations, is not a permanent feature of the landscape for a people with strong traditions of public service and magnanimity. While democracy is indeed fragile, the people of the USA have time and again demonstrated the ability to rise to the occasion and participate in a revival of virtue. Though it was far from easy (and healing the trenchant wounds of racial injustice is maddeningly and scandalizingly incomplete), reknitting the Union North and Confederate South in the wake of the Civil War emerges as one example when deep discord was addressed with enlightened laws and institutional arrangements that (despite their flaws) lighted the path to social justice. American history contains much encouragement regarding the project of holding power accountable. For all the vice demonstrated in the national story, we have resources—commitment, dialogue, and experience—to rise above the present quagmire of rank partisanship and bullying.
Will “the summer of our discontent” turn into a springtime of civic renewal? With stakes high and the conditions challenging, let us use the power of our discipline to instruct and model what justice and the commonweal require.