Already by the winter of 2017, I had spent nearly two years as a secular, “conservative” political commentator on various internet platforms. I observed and took part in many of the discussions that dominated the first years of the Donald Trump presidency in the USA, learning about “fringe” views which had for decades been exiled from the realm of acceptable discourse. These issues varied on a surface level — immigration, national identity, sexual politics, what have you — but the questions they forced me to ask myself about the basic orthodoxies I believed without a second thought were what really impacted me.
After I converted to Catholicism in the spring of 2018, I realized not only that many of my core assumptions about the world were incorrect and leading me to secondary errors, but also that I had to examine how far I was willing to go in terms of how I evangelized and applied Catholic principles to related political and social questions. I knew from past experiences in controversial political discourse that the normal, acceptable, conservative Catholic voices who briefly welcomed me would not tolerate me for long.
Sure, they might risk offending someone by speaking about birth control being immoral, or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but I quickly realized that there were some very Catholic things I would have to avoid discussing if I wanted to become a ChurchPop darling. To speak about how feminism is anti-Catholic, how NFP can be used in a sinful manner, or how dressing modestly is about more than just covering a few key areas was unacceptable.
My experience in secular politics was not at all different. Regrettably, I more than once in those days found myself on the side of pearl-clutching David French–Ben Shapiro “principles” conservatism, which is nothing more than post-Enlightenment rationalism and relativism (sometimes!) given a religious paint job. At any rate, the key takeaway is the same in both spheres: progressives understand that to get anything done, you must be willing to shift the Overton window farther on your own side. To put it in the words of the notorious heretics of the Trump era — call it the Alt-Right, Pepe Twitter, white supremacists, Nazis, whatever — “stop punching right.”
It’s taken me years, but I’ve come to believe that they’re both correct. My conversion to Catholicism was initiated by realizing that I had no positive good to fight for when faced with the evils of the world. In like manner, I now believe that Catholics need to get real about offering something more than a few limp punches to the dragon currently pinning us on our backs if we want things to get better. While the left is offering a utopian political system, sex, drugs, and freedom from responsibility, we’re coming back with “Maybe we can stop people from killing their own children, and they can keep the rest”!
Enough is enough. Where is our vision, our creativity, our willingness to build societies that bring the common man to greater virtue and glorify God? We can offer eternal life, yet in our fear of “pushing people away,” we end up offering stones for bread. Instead of being scared that any reading of the signs of the times will lead us to “the ends justify the means” or liberation theology, we need to understand political strategy and wield it well. We need to make room for a vision of Catholicism and the social reign of Christ the King that is required to end only at the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy and a given individual’s state in life — not at an invisible fence put up by people who hate us, electrified with despair disguised as sorrowful piety and fear of giving scandal.
Many people take issue with the very possibility of Catholics becoming excessively interested in political things, and I agree with them, insofar as they’re referring to red states and blue states, ballots and primaries, and the rest of the horse race. That was never what I meant by “I’m into politics,” even as twelve-year-old engaging in coffee shop discussions with my dad. What always interested me was — and is — what I call civilizational politics. I’d define that as everything you’re not supposed to talk about at Thanksgiving dinner — religion, ethics, philosophy, and political thought. It is quite clear that all of these things are intrinsically linked, both to each other and to our lives. The unwitting neo-quietists are quick to remind us that “[His] kingdom is not of this world.” They’re right, much to the disappointment of the Jews who longed for an earthly warrior Messiah. Unfortunately, they seem to forget the small fact that Christ actually came to live in this world — as a divine person, but also as a man.
No one escapes participation in civilizational politics, and this certainly includes Jesus Christ, who submitted Himself to torture and death at the hands of His earthly rulers. His Passion and Resurrection were ultimately spiritual acts, but they took place in a real world, which included politics, debate, and both moral and immoral violence. Make no mistake: disavowing “extremist” Catholics who push the Overton window farther than one would like it to go, or extorting others to “just pray” instead of praying and taking action, does not represent viable methods of opting out of the polarized world we find ourselves in.
Not all of us have the logistical ability to witness to the Catholic faith, whole and undefiled, including those teachings that polite society and the present pope would rather we forget altogether. But we must remember one thing: even as we can approach these problems with political tools, we are using these lesser means to witness to truth Himself, and He did not tell us to be genius apologists or nice, non-threatening, soft evangelists. He told us to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
If you’re not able or not willing to do it, fine. But please, get out of the way of those who are trying. We win in the end. Let’s start acting like it.
Stefanie Nicholas is an unexpected Catholic convert from a (very lapsed) Greek Orthodox background. The history of the Crusades played a positive role in her faith journey, and she believes firmly that the Rosary will save the world. Readers can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @StefMNicholas.