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Know Thyself, America
Whatever the issue, we can’t have a national conversation without confronting who we are.

Archbishop Jose Gomez

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Kathryn Jean Lopez

I confess I’ve been doing some yelling at the TV. I keep hearing that we have to have “a national conversation on violence” in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. In fact, we can have no such conversation until we confront who we are as a nation today. 

Earlier this summer, violence of the most intimate sort was the topic as legislation to protect children born alive during the course of late-term abortions was debated in Florida. During the testimony of Alisa LaPolt Snow, a representative of Planned Parenthood, one of the legislators asked her: “If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?” Ms. Snow replied that “any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician.”

We live in a country where such a thing can be said, in public, by a representative of an organization whose name is a household word, and it barely makes news. That’s what 40 years of legal abortion and the euphemisms surrounding it will do to a country. 

The Florida bill did pass, after being in the works for years. Partly this was because of conscience pressure emanating from the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia, but Pam Olsen, a pro-life activist in Tallahassee, also credits the way the bill was presented to the legislature: “Being a stand-alone bill, in this session, helped legislators understand the horror of not protecting these babies and helped get this through both chambers.” Focus is no small thing; here, it led to a bit of moral responsibility in a case where it was sorely needed.

There was a similar struggle when the Texas legislature debated its now-famous bill that puts protections in place for the unborn starting at 20 weeks. These are babies capable of feeling pain. It’s barbaric that we would consider this a mere matter of family planning, as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to in a recent interview. The debate wasn’t about “women’s freedom,” as opponents of the bill contended, but about human rights. 

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Whether our media focus is on George Zimmerman or Wendy Davis or Rick Perry or Planned Parenthood, the boiling that is made manifest in protests and in intemperate and incoherent remarks is an avoidance of addressing fundamental questions of purpose and identity. 

We see this, too, in the immigration debate. Much of the media coverage seems to be about whether Marco Rubio hurt or helped his presidential chances by pushing a bill through the Senate that may die in the House, or about John Boehner getting heat from both “comprehensive reform” proponents and “kill the bill” opponents of the Senate bill. Meanwhile, the debate skirts the issues we need to be confronting if we actually want to do better.

In a new book, Immigration and the Next America, Jose Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles, tries to guide an examination of the national conscience. You can’t move forward, you can’t do better than you’re doing, unless you know what you’re dealing with. On immigration, he says, “We can’t truly resolve the political issues of immigration unless we have some common agreement or shared understanding about our country’s identity and purpose.” 

Politics, he adds, “is a conversation about how we ought to order our lives together. At least that’s what politics should be. But in order to have that conversation, we need to agree on basic terms. In order to know what we ought to do, we need to have some shared understanding of our past and the historical project of this great nation.”

Immigration, he believes, “has become a kind of flash point” for “deeper anxieties.” 

“We could point to almost every area of American life,” he writes at another point in the book. And, indeed, the same problem lies underneath all our debates about abortion and guns and race and just about everything else you hear people yelling about past one another on TV talk shows. 

Gomez points to our lack of “moral consensus.” There used to be one: “America was ‘one nation under God,’ with an exceptional identity and responsibility among the family of nations. For most of our history, we were confident that American institutions should shape moral character and instill the civic virtues required for our democracy to function. Virtues such as religion and family; individual freedom and responsibility; the work ethic; the rule of law; equality of opportunity; honesty, fair play, and the common good; the sense of politics as public service.”

There’s plenty of rhetoric today about fairness, tolerance, equality, transparency, and the common good, of course, but most of it tends to be at the service of ideological campaigns, often in contrast with those institutions we have relied on. In this reality, it’s largely impossible to have a productive conversation. 

In reintroducing America to Americans, Gomez proposes looking not just at the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, who “understood that our democracy’s strength depends on our citizens’ freedom to live according to their faith,” but also at “the rest of the story of America’s founding.” It’s a story of “Christian mission” in the late-15th and 16th centuries, at “the heart and soul of the Age of Discovery.” In documenting “atrocities of conquerors in recent years,” for which we indeed “should feel remorse,” Gomez writes, we’ve managed to lose “a crucial thread to our national story”: namely, that “the deepest motivations for America’s founding were religious and spiritual.” Only in remembering this, in understanding that it is what undergirds America’s exceptionalism, can we make any progress. Whether we’re talking about the Zimmerman case, abortion, immigration, or any other issue that tears at our souls, our calls for conversation are pointless until purposing amendment of our own lives has priority over pulverizing your opponent. There is no reform, and no redemption, without self-knowledge.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.



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