The Knights of Columbus want our help to mend the tone of America’s politics. Fr. Gordon MacRae asks TSW readers to make their voices heard and sign the petition.
More than once on These Stone Walls, I have waded into the treacherous waters that polarize America, and especially American Catholics. The result has been a few calls for more civility in civil discourse in posts such as “Holy Hostility Batman! When the Gloves Come Off on Catholic Blogs,” and “Sticks and Stones: My Incendiary Blog Post on Catholic Civil Discourse.” They both described, in different ways, the scandal that occurs when dissenting Catholics wage a war of words. The polarization of Catholics, however, is but a family squabble when compared to the great abyss of entrenched views on both sides of the political divisions now driving American politics.
How politics became so cynical and divisive is a story unto itself, and I have a theory about its origins that I’ll describe below. In the last few decades, we have traveled far down the slippery slope of media fueled divisions. Have we traveled beyond the point of no return?
The Knights of Columbus don’t seem to think so. I hope you’ve all seen their full-page ads that ran in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today in July calling for the restoration of civility to American politics. The ads, and the website and petition they promote, are sponsored by the K of C and I couldn’t be prouder of them. The striking full-page ad depicts the U.S. Capitol Building with a massive crack down the center of its dome. Superimposed in large letters is this quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The quote was a part of Lincoln’s Presidential Inaugural Address. He was actually quoting the Gospel of Mark (3:25), and of course the Knights of Columbus know that. But there was something highly symbolic in attributing the quote to the U.S. President known best for bridging the abyss between the North and South. Lincoln unified a country torn by civil war, a presidential feat I wrote of in “The Last Full measure of Devotion.”
The full-page Knights of Columbus ad issues a plea to “Help us mend the tone of America’s politics.” At a time when it is most tempting to assume one side against another at the very apex of political division in America, I think the ad and the cause it promotes reflects a very special sort of patriotism. I ask all TSW readers to click on “Civility in America” at www.CivilitylnAmerica.org and lend your name to the petition. If you link to it from TSW, we might even merit the attention of the Knights of Columbus and some of its million-strong membership. I have a personal interest in the success of the Knights’ patriotic venture, and I’ll get to that below.
ATTACK ADS ARE AN ATTACK ON DEMOCRACY
The timing of this movement couldn’t be better. According to the website, the Knights of Columbus and the Marists co-sponsored a poll that clearly demonstrates that the majority of Americans – 78% – are frustrated with the tone of the political campaigns now in full swing leading up to the presidential election. 74% believe this negative campaigning is only going to get worse. 64% of Americans say that negative “attack ads” hurt the political process.
Major candidates, their parties, and political action committees (PACS) are going to spend a record-setting $6.5 billion on television and cable TV ads in this election year, and that doesn’t even include newspapers, magazines, and all those unsightly billboards. A rapidly growing percentage of those ads are negative. Political attack ads draw politics away from the notion of civil service and into the arena of winners and losers in which the former triumph while the latter feel disenfranchised. These attack ads stifle bi-partisan cooperation for the good of all for years to come. They reduce politics to the service of a party or a platform instead of to the service of America and its people. We need to send a strong message before this downward spiral of toxic rhetoric in the name of politics gets any worse.
How did it ever come to this? When did candidates for national office stop promoting what they can offer to America and reduce their campaigning to little more than attacks on their opponents? Whatever happened to President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech that first introduced me at age ten to the very essence of the political process and the patriotism it requires? “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” America is bigger and better than the incessant sniping our political process has since become.
The Civility in America petition speaks loudly and clearly that many Americans want a political process that reflects the best of democracy before it’s too late. The Knights of Columbus deserve our support in this effort. When I had a friend log onto www.civilityinAmerica.org to add my name as I began writing this post, there were about l8, 000 signers. You could help substantially increase that number by placing your name on the petition and by sharing a link to this post with others. There’s nothing to join and nothing required beyond placing your name to a glorious cause for decency as the American presidential election enters its final months.
FROM A CHAPTER IN MY OWN HISTORY
Our friend, Pornchai, sometimes rolls his eyes when I launch a TSW post down the path of history. On my last birthday, he made a card that was signed by dozens of prisoners. On the front in bold letters was “Now we know why you like history so much!” Then on the inside it read, “It’s because you were there for most of it!” Well, this one time Pornchai is actually right. I really was there for what I now believe was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in America. So go ahead and roll your eyes as I once again meander down the path of history.
We took some major turns down the road toward political cynicism in 1972. I was 19 years old then, and Father Tony Nuccio, CSS – the very best of friends – invited me to visit Valladolid Council No. 70, the Lynn, Massachusetts Knights of Columbus council where he served as chaplain. It was a far cry from my usual haunt at age 19, and my attitude betrayed me. I’m surprised, today, that Father Tony didn’t pull over and dump me on the nearest curb. His patience with me seemed boundless.
Life in 1972 felt bleak for a 19-year-old man. The war in Vietnam seemed to rob most young men of direction and hope for a future by 1972. The next two years would see a cascade of pessimism about American life and politics that deeply affected a generation. Let me outline just a few of the major events from 1972 to 1974 that helped shape my entry into adulthood. These events helped push America down the slope toward the “me first” sort of pessimism I wrote of in “Marking 30 Years of Priesthood: If I Knew Then What I Know Now.”
In 1972, a year after my required registration for Selective Service for what seemed like an ever more dubious war, North Vietnam launched its biggest attack in four years across the demilitarized zone. America responded by resuming the relentless bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong after a 4-year lull.
Four years earlier, in 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot and killed as he campaigned for the presidency. That same year, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. In 1972, the nation gasped in horror again as Alabama Governor George Wallace was shot and crippled while running for president. A month later, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office complex in Washington, DC. By the end of 1972, the Paris Peace talks failed, and the United States resumed the full scale bombing of North Vietnam.
One month later, on January 22, 1973, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade radically altered my generation’s respect for human life. Everyone my age was preparing for Vietnam when a pact was finally signed in Paris at the end of that January. By the end of March, 1973, all U.S. troops left Vietnam in the hands of the North Vietnamese. For the first time in its history, America defaulted in the clear resolution of a war, and it was driven as much by chaos back home as by the war itself.
In May of 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities opened televised hearings to investigate and prosecute what had simply become known as “Watergate.” The nation was scandalized as White House Counsel John Dean revealed on live TV that United States Attorney General John Mitchell had personally ordered the Watergate break-in and orchestrated a massive attempt to cover up White House involvement. All the President’s men began to fall in national disgrace like dominoes.
In October, 1973 Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace after pleading no contest to charges of tax evasion. Then the Attorney General resigned, and his top deputies were fired by President Nixon for seeking a judicial ruling about the “Watergate tapes,” White House conversations declared by the President to be protected by Executive Privilege.
By May of 1974, when I was 21, impeachment hearings commenced against President Richard Nixon. The Supreme Court ordered the White House to turn over to a Special Prosecutor 64 tapes of White House conversations that would tarnish the tone of politics for decades. On August 9, 1974 – for the first time in history – the American President resigned in disgrace, and all of this played out on television sets in living rooms across America. The age of cynicism in American public life was thus born.
We may never know whether political and religious scandals and cynicism are driven by the age of individualism or the other way around. Without doubt, however, the forty years hence from 1972 to 2012 saw the diminishment of concepts such as patriotism, Catholic identity, and, clearest of all, family values in American life. The rights, wants, and needs of individuals somehow came to trump the common good.
But as this was all unfolding in my world, one courageous and self-giving priest, Father Tony Nuccio, dragged me off to the Knights of Columbus despite my jaded outlook. The Knights transformed that outlook with the quiet, determined witness of men committed to their families, their faith, their community, and their country. A vocation to priesthood was nurtured and honed by these men of courage and true patriotic spirit. Through all the upheaval of the 1970s, the Knights of Columbus of my home town demonstrated for me what the true duty of a Knight was and still is: faithful, patriotic, Catholic witness.
I’m proud to see they have stayed that course. Let’s stand with them. Please visit www.CivilitylnAmerica.org and lend your name to this outstanding patriotic gesture to restore civility to civil discourse. Let’s awaken the sleeping giant of on-line Catholic action by sharing this post. We can help make a difference in the tone of our politics. The whole world is watching.