The dangerous irrationality of faith shaming

Like many Americans (at least those who tend to avoid HGTV), I had no idea who Chip and Joanna Gaines were. But Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur did.

On Nov. 29, she published the sort of blog-like post that appears often in the digital age. The gossipy piece suggested that because the Gaineses belong to an evangelical church that does not support same-sex marriage that they may be intolerant toward gay and lesbian couples wanting to appear on their show, “Fixer Upper.”

This article was a specimen of poor journalism. Aurthur didn’t talk to the Gaineses. She didn’t conduct an investigation into whether HGTV has policies that exclude gay and lesbian couples from certain shows.

But composing an excellent piece of journalism was never her intention. She wanted to write an article that generated hits for Buzzfeed. And she, like many journalists of a particular generation, sought to advance a cause.

She wanted to expose what she saw as bigotry among a mildly famous couple. The Gaineses would either have to admit that they did not support same-sex marriage, potentially losing their jobs in the process. Or, they would be forced to join the side of same-sex marriage advocates, distancing themselves from their evangelical church.  

Bringing shame

This cycle of “faith shaming” has been performed a number of times in recent years. In Indiana, an interview by a local news station about a pizza place’s refusal, out of religious principles, to cater a gay wedding resulted in threats to the owners. They shut down the family business because of the coercion they were encountering.

This kind of public shaming doesn’t even need to involve religion. In 2014, the CEO of the Mozilla software company, Brendan Eich, stepped down after it was revealed that he had donated money to support Proposition 8, the ballot initiative and constitutional amendment that formerly banned same-sex marriage in California. Strictly speaking, Eich never revealed the reason that he had supported this proposition to ban gay marriage in the state. But his departure was precipitated by activists who demanded his resignation, a forced parting that the cultural blogger Andrew Sullivan (himself a gay man) would call “absolutely McCarthyism.”

And it is here that Sullivan properly diagnoses the problems with faith shaming, although he does not use this precise term. Shaming of this sort should not exist within the United States because it is fundamentally a mob mentality rather than the use of persuasion to convince one’s interlocutor of a position.

Catholics should by now be aware that their religious perspective is not fundamentally held by American society. No-fault divorce is the law of the land. Contraception is available wherever one purchases shampoo. Abortion, although increasingly viewed negatively by young adults, remains the law of the land. The death penalty is still practiced in many states with evangelical fervor, and immigrants often are treated as political footballs rather than human beings in need of care. There may be countries where Catholic teaching is applied across the political spectrum, but the United States has never been one of them.

To be a Catholic who supports the Church’s social doctrine in the early 21st-century in the United States is to recognize that one’s arguments, even those based from reason rather than divine revelation, may have little effect upon the public sphere. But this does not mean that a Catholic should be wary of living out a minority position in the world.

Force vs. reason

And here is the crucial problem with faith shaming. It seeks to either eliminate those with a minority position from any kind of public role in society or to force them to change their position. It is a fundamentally irrational approach that does not seek to martial arguments. Faith-shaming forces the minority view (even if it’s a large minority) to bend its knee before the majority’s position of power. Faith shaming is simply an ideological use of force and not reason.

But what is a Catholic to do in an era in which such shaming becomes the prominent way that public disagreement is conducted? Here are three strategies that a Catholic might employ in this context:

1) Reason and revelation: The United States is not a nation that places religious knowing at the heart of its political life. Thus, if a Catholic wants to engage in public discourse against abortion or same-sex marriage, the argument cannot begin from claims of divine revelation. For example, the Catholic argument against abortion is often dismissed by opponents as “forcing Catholic faith” upon the country. But such an argument does not emerge solely out of revelation as the doctrine of the Trinity does. A Catholic who contemplates the creation of the human being in the image and likeness of God will see the dignity of every person. But this human dignity should be recognizable by all people of good will. It becomes harder to dismiss a position in the public sphere as “simply one’s faith” if a Catholic develops a reasonable account for why this position is held. Revelation itself can in fact purify our reason so that we can begin to see the rationality of creation anew.

2) Charity and disagreement: Public shaming, including faith shaming, seems to presume that those who hold a minority position are intellectually inferior, angry people, who seek to get their way no matter the cost. Catholics can solidify this assumption in the public’s minds by presenting Catholic teaching in a militant way. But this is a fundamentally non-Catholic approach to public engagement. One’s interlocutor is never an enemy. He or she must be treated with charity, with love. One must strive to understand the point of the person who disagrees with you, even recognizing where he or she is coming from. This is not relativism. Nor is it simply a practical strategy for a minority religious community to survive. Instead, it is the heart of evangelization, where every human encounter should be filled with the love of Jesus himself.

3) Prudence and martyrdom: We’ve all met people who have never backed away from a fight of any sort. But this is a bad strategy for evangelization. The patron saint of Catholics in modern American public life should be St. Thomas More. St. Thomas, as chancellor to the king of England, did not enter the court and castigate the king for his separation from Rome. He remained Catholic but sought to conduct his position in a way that was honorable to his own love of England, together with his commitment to the Church. He resigned from the court when the Church of England separated from Rome, but again, he kept to himself. Only when he was asked to take an oath of loyalty to the recently crowned Queen Anne Boleyn and to King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England did he publicly reveal his position, a decision that resulted in his martyrdom.       

Prudent engagement

Catholics should follow the prudence of St. Thomas More in their own public life. Not every political position that one has should be expressed on Facebook. Not every social teaching that one upholds should be blasted out on Twitter. No one has an obligation to put one’s conscience upon display for all to see.

At the same time, there may be an occasion when Catholics must recognize that losing is actually winning. Martyrdom need not be sought after lustily, especially for those of us with families to care for. But, at times, we will be forced to express our minority position in a public way that could result in the loss of friends, of jobs, and of public standing in the world.

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If a Trump administration, for example, requires that every one of us refuse to house the immigrant, we may need to step forward and offer our no. If the Church is required to marry same-sex couples or risk losing their tax exempt status, then the status must be given up.

But until then, we must fight a culture of public shaming, faith or otherwise, by living in solidarity even with those with whom we disagree. In the end, that will be more evangelizing than anything else we could do. To re-introduce rational discourse and friendship to the public sphere, making such shaming the McCarthyism of our time.    

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.

The Pope Francis Alternative
Since taking office, Pope Francis has consistently called for a culture of encounter, fostered through open, charitable dialogue. His prescriptions for positive engagement between people of faith and society were evident throughout his September 2015 visit to the United States. Our Sunday Visitor has compiled the following excerpts from his major addresses, as he explicitly addressed the U.S. situation and context:

The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject. ...

Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.
Address to the Joint Meeting of Congress, Sept. 24, 2015

I know that you face many challenges, and that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.

And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.

Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).

The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.
Address to the bishops of the United States, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, D.C., Sept. 23, 2015

Please, you should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood. You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully — as those who came before you did with such fortitude — to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within. Do not forget what took place here over two centuries ago. Do not forget that Declaration which proclaimed that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that governments exist in order to protect and defend those rights.
Address on Independence Mall, Philadelphia, Sept. 26, 2015