Gospel Amnesia in Politics: A Review of Stephen White's "Red, White, Blue, and Catholic"

Many of us seem to be polarized by ideology and demagoguery. Catholics, and others in the Judeo-Christian tradition often subvert the faith to political ideas. Whether on social media or in certain company, these days one cannot say that the human person is created as male and female without being accused of perpetuating a false gospel of gender binaries. Nor can one say “we should feed the hungry and care for the poor” without being labelled a “socialist / communist / liberal / progressive.”

“The false divide between orthodox faith and social-justice work is pernicious, a sign of dysfunction in our politics” Stephen White, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes in his just released book, Red, White, Blue, and Catholic. But White is not despairing; he believes we can begin even now to be stronger, well formed citizens of this great country. This is the driving force behind his book: A call to citizenship informed by a strong Catholic faith.

A quick read, Red, White, Blue, and Catholic is a six-chapter primer on Christian citizenship based on Catholic social teaching, the components of which are: human dignity, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good. Contra to popular assumptions, Catholic social doctrine is not socialism. Stephen White makes this clear; he does a superb job grounding the Church's social teaching in the Gospel.

White begins with an assessment of how Catholics are doing in exercising their citizenship: not well. They are nearly as politically polarized—and voting no differently than—the rest of society. There is no longer a distinct Catholic vote, White claims, and gives evidence for it. But citizenship is much more than voting and certainly more than the reductionist idea of a consumer who comes out every election cycle to “vote” according to their appetite. This is a point White returns to over and again in the book. Fundamentally, White is concerned with helping his fellow Catholics broaden their understanding of citizenship, knowing and acting upon the social doctrine of the Church, and exercising our well-formed citizenship for the sanctification of our country. “Most of how we live as Catholic citizens doesn't happen in a voting booth.” Citizenship happens every day; it is built up through mundane acts in the home, school, work, marriage, chaste living, entrepreneurial pursuits, religious beliefs, and more. In other words, citizenship is based on our virtues—good habits built up over time in decisions great and small.

The shaping of our nation happens every day in this same way, little by little as we live our lives as Christian disciples. Thus citizenship, “is about participation and membership in a community. It's about belonging to a community, acting for the good of that community, taking responsibility for that community, loving that community.” White makes it clear that this is not a top-down model. Caring for the well being of others, including immigrants, and being willing to take some responsibility for the needs of our fellow man, whether they are immediate and local, fellow citizens belonging to one's own country, or people across the globe, is not a “liberal” platform action point. This is where conservatives of the Judeo-Christian tradition have been robbed, and the command to “love thy neighbor” co-opted by progressives.

More than being robbed, we have forgotten our patrimony. I'm convinced our slack and gelatinous citizenship is a result of gospel amnesia: forgetting who God is, what he has done in salvation history, and who we are in light of him. “Christ...fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). “At the heart of good citizenship is love.” Which is why if one is afflicted with gospel amnesia, the capacity to truly love is handicapped. And we end up with social and political polarization. We're so polarized that “we find ourselves defending straw-man arguments we don't even believe,” White says. What will bridge our political divide as a people, White claims (correctly, in my assessment), is a solid understanding of Catholic social teaching. This is so because these principles, White states, encompass the vision of the Church for the right ordered society. But although a firm grasp of Catholic social teaching is essential for a well formed citizen, the sine qua non of a well formed citizenship is friendship with God; it is the opposite of gospel amnesia, it is living every day with Christ at the center.

Red, White, Blue, and Catholic is not a deep dive into the theology of Catholic social doctrine, nor is it a politically philosophical treatise on citizenship. As important as such treatments are, those are not what this book is intended to be, and readers expecting a highly intellectual approach to the subject are bound to be disappointed. Stephen White's primer on Catholic Citizenship meets a need lay men and women across America desperately need. Its purpose is to serve the Church and the lay faithful by filling the gap for the uncatechized and under-catechized Catholic. It seems to me—and I speak as a new convert—that the lack of doctrinal catechization after the Second Vatican Council went hand-in-hand with a lack of Catholic citizenship catechization.

Stephen White's primer is great for parish reading groups. This is where reconstruction of our republic will happen: People gathering to learn the depth of the Church's doctrine coupled with deliberate formation in how to exercise citizenship through a distinctly Catholic lens.

At the end of his apostolic journey to America, as he bade farewell to our country on September 19, 1987, Pope John Paul II said this about us:

The best traditions of your land presume respect for those who cannot defend themselves. If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person:
• feeding the poor and welcoming refugees;
• reinforcing the social fabric of this nation;
• promoting the true advancement of women;
• securing the rights of minorities;
• pursuing disarmament, while guaranteeing legitimate defense; all this will succeed only if respect for life and its protection by the law is granted to every human being from conception until natural death.
Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival-yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn.
With these sentiments of love and hope for America, I now say goodbye in words that I spoke once before: "Today, therefore, my final prayer is this: that God will bless America, so that she may increasingly become - and truly be - and long remain one Nation, under God, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all."
May God bless you all.
God bless America!

This is the kind of formation Stephen White had in mind when he wrote Red, White, Blue, and Catholic.


Luma Simms