The anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot that humiliated Congress and horrified a good portion of our nation has gone more or less as one might have predicted during these divided times.
The two political parties went to their respective corners, one to commemorate the anniversary and the other to criticize the commemoration.
That our country is divided is undeniable. What seems to unite both left and right at this moment is distrust and despair.
They share a growing distrust of American institutions — the three branches of government, the fairness of elections past and future — and a growing sense of despair that this divide may not be bridgeable.
A recent poll suggesting that a minority of Americans believe violence is justified to achieve their ends adds to the current whiff of apocalyptic fever.
Too often the news media can be complicit in adding to this fever. Journalists tend to paint in black and white, contrasting two extremes as a way of seeming balanced, while adding to the impression that we are all divided into two implacable, irreconcilable camps.
This binary way of seeing ourselves and our nation is fundamentally distorted, according to Noelle Malvar, a senior researcher with More in Common USA. In a recent interview with Kevin Loker of the American Press Institute, Malvar argues that “divisions among the majority of Americans are not as extreme as we think.”
Research by her organization compares how much Democrats and Republicans think they disagree with how much they actually disagree.
She calls this a “perception gap,” and studies show that both sides think that “almost twice as many people on the other side hold extreme views than really do.” Worse still, those of us who consume a lot of news media tend to be “almost three times as inaccurate” as those who consume less.
Unchecked, of course, this kind of misunderstanding of those with whom we disagree can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, each side exaggerating the extremism of their opponents and justifying their own.
While the church was relatively quiet in marking the Jan. 6 anniversary, perhaps it can play a role in addressing the perception gap that worsens our divide.
The glory and frustration of being an attentive Catholic, after all, is that we do not fit neatly into the binary political categories that so often Americans are shoved into.
We Catholics are pro-life and supportive of social justice. We support the right to private property as well as unions and workers’ rights. We uphold a nation’s right to defend itself and we defend the rights of the immigrant and the refugee.
Ideally, being a Catholic is to be both/and rather than either/or. While political ideology can trump the teachings of the church for some of us, Catholics do not fit neatly into the boxes that the media or popular perception may want to place us.
And for that reason, I wonder if the church can play a mediating role in the midst of our division. It can provide a meeting ground where Catholics and others who identify with either party can meet the other.
In 2020, the bishops’ conference promoted a program called “Civilize It,” hoping to ratchet down the anger in the political discourse. It provided prayers, resources and even a pledge.
To build on that initial effort, parishes and dioceses could bring people together for acts of service. In a soup kitchen, a pantry, eucharistic adoration, a pro-life prayer vigil or a homeless shelter is where diverse Catholics can stand shoulder to shoulder.
Our differences are real, but not as huge as we fear. What we need to pay more attention to is what binds us together.