The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed many victims, beginning tragically with the death of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors. Some of its harms are more intangible but equally real.
Precautions needed to contain the spread of the virus — masks, social distancing, the closing of public venues — also tend to isolate us from others. And that can leave us with no trusted person to tell us when one of our bright ideas is incredibly stupid.
For me, as for many married people, that person is my spouse. For others, it can be other relatives or a friend, neighbor or fellow parishioner. But when deprived of their usual close connections with those who can offer a different perspective, people starved for love and acceptance gravitate toward those who see things exactly as they do. And that can help create the kind of tunnel vision that leads to violence.
This, of course, can happen without a pandemic. Studying those who incite violent protests at both extremes of our political culture, social commentator Mary Eberstadt cites many broken families and fatherless homes in their backgrounds. They find a new family in a tribe that nurtures internal solidarity and contempt for other tribes.
And that helps lead to some incredibly stupid and destructive actions, from the storming of the U.S. Capitol by the “Proud Boys” and others to antifa’s riots in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle a few days later — protesting the inauguration of President Joe Biden, as it turns out.
With less overt violence, but broader tragic consequences, the polarization of our politics has become self-sustaining. In recent years, politicians have interacted chiefly with members of their own tribe. The bipartisan cooperation once seen in Congress, and even the personal friendships that used to cross party lines, seem largely a thing of the past.
And if I never get to know my opponents, it is much easier to treat them with contempt. If my side loses an election, it must be fraud; if my side wins, I must complete the punishment of those who lost.
At his inauguration, President Biden called for unity, civility and cooperation in building a better society. That is a welcome message, which is in considerable tension with stances he has taken on abortion and religious freedom.
One of the most divisive of these is his newfound opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which saves Americans from having to subsidize elective abortions with their taxes. The amendment, first enacted in 1976, has been approved each of the past 45 years by congresses and presidents of both parties.
In a country about evenly divided between those who identify as pro-life and pro-choice, it has said to pro-life Americans: “We have some minimal respect for you and your convictions. While the law allows abortion as a private choice, we will not force you to support it as a public good.”
In fact, even some abortion practitioners have called abortion an act of violence. And even many “pro-choice” Americans oppose public funding of abortion.
Rejecting Hyde undermines that minimal respect and that regard for the will of the people. As the act of a president said to be a “devout Catholic,” which can only mean a Catholic who accepts Catholic teaching, it seems to show disrespect even for himself.
This is a great danger in what is almost a one-party government. No one close to you will point out which of your bright ideas is divisive, stupid and even violent. The Catholic bishops have rightly urged the president to listen to the better angels of his nature, and we should join our prayers and efforts with theirs.
Richard Doerflinger worked for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.
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