A former colleague of mine in Congress recently told me that he now describes himself as a nondenominational Protestant rather than an evangelical. His reason? He has met too many evangelicals who view their faith as serving their politics. He believes this subordination is not only exacerbating the political divide in our country, but tearing evangelical churches apart and undermining their Christian witness. What he said next shocked me: Hope for our nation’s healing now lies in the Catholic Church.
For many Americans, political partisanship is now inextricable from social identity. Research shows that partisanship can grow so powerful that it not only determines people’s policy preferences, but can change their professed religious identity, class identity, and even sexual orientation. Our culture tells us that partisan identity is absolute: We must join a team, and then conform completely or risk banishment as a heretic. But it is not love for one’s own that holds each team together—it is contempt for those on the outside. Political partisanship is becoming a sectarian fundamentalist pseudo-religion.
Something especially pernicious is happening on the sectarian left, where it is not much of a stretch to see reflections of the French Revolution. Roger Scruton, in a 1989 essay titled “Man’s Second Disobedience,” says the Revolution was not a reaction against abuses of power, but “a war against religion,” a rejection of the transcendent God of Christianity and the sacredness of the human person—a rejection of the human as imago Dei.
This rejection played out in the late eighteenth century in ways that are eerily familiar to us. Absent a God-given basis for human dignity, life could be discarded for the “public good,” which was defined by the revolutionaries’ party. Today, lives are discarded through abortion and assisted suicide, two ostensible public goods. The revolutionaries’ unattainable ideals served not to secure justice but as a “delegitimization of rival powers.” Likewise, the term “equity” is used today as a cudgel to tear down dissenting institutions, organizations, and individuals. The French revolutionaries claimed that only they could speak for the “people,” and that those who protested “merely ‘betrayed’ their collectivized identity.” Today, pro-life women are called traitors to their sex and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is accused of hating his race.
The revolutionaries displayed “contempt for compromise,” believing that “opposition [could not] be met: it [was] not the object of negotiation, and [could] be the beneficiary of no agreement. Opposition [was] to be destroyed.” But even destroying the political process was not enough. The revolutionaries, Scruton says, “infect[ed] all public processes with the sense that they [were] without justification.” In late eighteenth-century France, terror reigned. Tens of thousands were put to death and millions more died in the destruction of French society and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars.
Though we’re not necessarily headed for the same fate, we nonetheless face the urgent task of discerning the faithful Catholic response to the rise of the sectarian left.
During my two decades of public service, I have looked for guidance to the patron saint of politicians, statesmen, and lawyers: St. Thomas More. After a long career as a parliamentarian and court official, More was chosen by King Henry VIII to serve as lord chancellor of England, the highest position in government below the king. When Henry was denied a marriage annulment by Pope Clement VII, he rejected the pope’s authority and declared himself head of the Church in England. Thomas More could not assent, and so he resigned his position. He gave up not just his honor and power, but his livelihood. The king, however, coveted More’s influence and pressured him to sign the Oath of Succession renouncing the authority of the pope. More refused. The following year he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. As he put his head on the execution block, More reportedly said, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”
In this statement, St. Thomas More gives us our Catholic response: “Be Catholic first.” Not sometimes, or most of the time, but every day, in every situation, big and small, in public and private. The world would have said that More had many legitimate reasons to set aside his Catholic conscience, just this once. Most of the bishops in England had gone along with the king. For More, going along would have allowed him to maintain his extraordinary influence over the king’s rule. He would have been able to continue providing for his family. But More understood that we must never place any values, organization, clique, or individual, or our own power, wealth, honor, or pleasure above our faith.
We must also understand that “Catholic first” does not preclude other obligations. We have a duty to civil authority. Even as he is about to be executed by the state, More proclaims himself “the King’s good servant.” In the play A Man for All Seasons, More declares, true to character, “I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” As Robert Bork wrote, More believed that “if an acceptable mix of freedom and order [is] to be maintained, obedience to law must be accepted as a primary moral duty.”
Thomas More’s understanding of civic duty is not a sixteenth-century relic. The Catechism states that “every human community needs an authority to govern it” (§ 1898), and “the duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect” (§ 1900). The Church also declares support for “the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men” (§ 1904).
The teachings of the Church and the example of More led me into turbulent waters during my time in Congress. As the Democratic Party became more radical on abortion, family, and religious liberty, and more zealous in punishing heretics like me, I continued to run and serve as a Democratic member of Congress in hopes of changing the party from the inside. Although I watched plenty of my colleagues, on both sides, choose party and power over their professed faith, I refused to back down. More than once a constituent told me, “I know, you vote Catholic.”
In 2018, after fourteen years in Congress, I faced a brutal challenge in the Democratic primary, fueled largely by millions of dollars from pro-abortion groups, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Soros family—so great a threat did they perceive my lone voice to be. I very narrowly won that election, 51–49. Though I knew my challengers would be after me again in two years, I remained active and outspoken in Congress, protecting life, speaking up for religious freedom, and standing alone in my party against transgender legislation that threatened women’s sports.
By 2020 I was a leper among Democrats. People who had previously supported me fled. I was outspent more than two to one in the Democratic primary, and my opponent was endorsed by five presidential candidates, a number of my Democratic colleagues in the House, and the mayor of Chicago. Three days before everything in Illinois was shut down because of Covid, I lost the primary election by a very slim margin. I certainly did not want to lose the honor and privilege of serving my constituents and my country, but I never regretted my choice not to become a sectarian Democrat.
This year, some Republican officials asked me to run for Congress in their primary, and a group of my supporters tried to convince me to run in the Democratic primary. I turned down both sides and considered running as an independent, to offer an alternative to sectarianism: a commonsense agenda for the common good.
I have decided not to run this year. But I am not giving up the fight for our republic. I continue to believe that we all have a duty to our country, the rule of law, and the republican government established in our Constitution. Our government was designed to force deliberation and compromise because the framers believed these were necessary to maintaining freedom and democracy while keeping a diverse country united. They believed that if the people’s representatives rejected conciliation, the American republic risked collapsing into either tyranny or anarchy.
We are already seeing both threats emerge. Though the policy divide on many issues makes legislating difficult, sectarian partisanship makes it virtually impossible. The power vacuum created by congressional gridlock and legislators unwilling to do their jobs is filled by presidents who act beyond their constitutional writ, and by an unelected administrative state and activist judiciary. This is not the republic of our Constitution. In addition, both sides question the legitimacy of elections, lawmaking, and the actions of elected officials. The questioning has been used to justify the abuse of institutional power inside government on both sides. It has also inspired mob activities on the outside, including the rioting and looting in many cities in 2020 and the January 6, 2021 incursion at the Capitol. If nothing changes, if both sides continue to be led by sectarians, will we be able to keep our republic?
I know that there are thoughtful Catholics who believe our republic is not worth saving. And there are those who believe the left is so dangerous that the only faithful response is to join the sectarian right. The Catechism does call us to “voice [our] just criticisms [of what] seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community” (§ 2238). Even “armed resistance to oppression by political authority” can be legitimate (§ 2243). But five conditions must be met, including: “it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution,” “all other means of redress have been exhausted,” and “such resistance will not provoke worse disorders.” We need to ask ourselves whether these conditions have been met. I would also ask: If we do not want the republic of our Constitution, what type of system do we seek? What will be the human cost of achieving it? Is it achievable at all, or is it a utopia?
Some claim that we can faithfully fuse our partisanship with our membership in the body of Christ. But political messianism is problematic. Neither major party is perfectly conformed to our Catholic faith. In the policymaking arena, partisan agendas will always take precedence over Catholic common-good policies. In addition, if we fuse our partisanship with our faith, political victory will seem a divine imperative; with stakes so high, legal and moral constraints become easy to ignore. Such idolatry creates a danger for our country, the Church, and our souls. Just as my colleague observed in evangelical churches, political divides in the Catholic Church distract us from our work for Christ.
However difficult times may be for faithful Catholics, there is no comparison between America today and the brutality of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. We should learn from the example of those early Christians. Rodney Stark wrote, “The primary means of [Christianity’s initial] growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the ‘good news.’” In those first centuries, Christianity did not grow through a political movement. Jesus said, “all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”—not “by your political victories.”
A favorite aphorism of Roger Scruton was: “Good things are easily destroyed but not easily created.” Legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn put it more colorfully: “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” Right now, we have plenty of the former and very few of the latter. Jesus, the carpenter, needs a lot more carpenters. He needs more of us to live His message and counter the hopeless political and social agendas on offer today.
Though it can be helpful to put the right person in the White House and send the right people to Congress, winning elections is not the way to build the Kingdom. Almost five centuries ago, St. Thomas More was willing to lose much more than a political office. In the eyes of the world, he looked foolish, perhaps naive, about politics, power, and influence. But in 1929, G. K. Chesterton wrote: “[Thomas More] is important today, but he is not as important now as he will be one hundred years from today.” Chesterton was right. Even in these days, when political victory by any means is exalted, More’s enduring witness has never been more powerful.
Daniel Lipinski served in the U.S. House of Representatives, 2005–2021, and is a political scientist.