Very little is certain in the aftermath of the federal indictment against former President Donald Trump by prosecutor Jack Smith. We do not know if Trump will be convicted of any of the charges or if he will find a way to incite further violence. More broadly, we do not know if President Biden himself will be caught up in the criminal investigations around his son or, of course, who will win the 2024 election.
But one thing seems almost inevitable: The Trump indictments will not bring about any kind of reconciliation in the United States.
One thing seems almost inevitable: The Trump indictments will not bring about any kind of reconciliation in the United States.
To be sure, many would hope so. David French speaks for many in his recent essay for The New York Times:
Millions of Americans believe today that Joe Biden stole the presidency. They believe a series of demonstrable, provable lies, and their belief in those lies is shaking their faith in our republic and, by extension, risking the very existence of our democracy. There is no sure way to shake their convictions, especially if they are convinced that Trump is the innocent victim of a dark and malign deep state. But the judicial system can expose his claims to exacting scrutiny, and that scrutiny has the potential to change those minds that are open to the truth.
It is possible that that scenario will come to pass. But it seems more likely that the indictments will only harden pre-existing divisions. If they change anything, perhaps yet more Americans will abandon the battle lines for the sidelines as disaffection with U.S. politics continues to rise.
And so, far more is at stake in this situation than our republic. Truth itself is under debate.
We live in a culture with a remarkably cavalier relationship to the truth. As I noted after the ouster of Liz Cheney, the G.O.P. has a problem with a selective embrace of the truth: “…affirming the truth about moral law when it satisfies its base among social conservatives, but denying plain facts when it suits their electoral narrative.” As Aaron Pidel, S.J., argued in America with reference to Pope Benedict’s famous “dictatorship of relativism,” the Democrats and the U.S. left more broadly have also espoused the social construction of truth in the past, but notably during the Trump administration had very robust notions of truth and justice.
Now few of us turn to elected politicians for robust epistemologies or philosophies of knowledge. But it does seem that many voters are not in on the joke. And that is where the sheer contradictions of such hypocrisy becomes devastating; for how can we sustain a society that proclaims truths in some corners but in others denies its very possibility? Perhaps that’s simply the move of Pontius Pilate: asking “What is truth?” one minute and the next minute pretending to have one’s hands tied by unrelenting social realities.
Politics is often predicated upon the belief that we can “make” the truth, whereas it is far more accurate to say we discover or uncover the truth. Yes, we always do so partially and unevenly. Yes, the truth takes on many social expressions that are imperfect. But the truth is not something we make.
How can we sustain a society that proclaims truths in some corners but in others denies its very possibility?
Politics helped to cause this problem, but it is not going to fix it. The New York Times editorial, for instance, responds to the latest Trump indictment in literally religious language: that Trump “desecrated his office,” betrayed his “sacred responsibility,” foreseeing an apocalyptic judgment that will “hold him to account.” But that language is nothing more than a dead metaphor at this point. Politics depends upon something greater than itself, and that “greater than” is in short supply in our culture today.
There will be no quick fix to these problems. Obviously all people of good will need to do what they can where they are and with their gifts to rebuild the credibility of truth. It will likely turn out that such advocacy for truth ought to be expressed in actions more than words, and in the cultivation of moral, decent communities. That is because truth will have to be seen to stand up to divisions, hatred and narrow self-interest in the name of something better. Only then will truth appear as a third term beyond individual combatants to give them something about which to fight.
Moreover, with the political parties unable to control commanding majorities at election time, it is at least worth asking whether a sober, moderate party could build a majority coalition of voters durable across election cycles—a humble party that would seek to address the real problems of our nation and world.
But I also think that Christians can play a special role in this renewal. Because we know that the truth is not only real, but a person. To know the truth is to be drawn into the mystery of community, love and responsibility.
The role of truth in society is one of the ongoing legacies of the Second Vatican Council. The council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (“Dignitatis Humanae”), for example, grounds religious freedom in the conviction that “all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.”
To know the truth is to be drawn into the mystery of community, love and responsibility.
The relationship between truth and democracy was of vital concern for recent popes. Pope John Paul II, the earnest defender of the freedom of Eastern Europe against Soviet communism, was nonetheless keen to see democracy guided by truth, not by ideology: majority rule was no excuse or pretext to evade justice and the common good (“Centesimus Annus,” “Veritatis Splendor,” “Fides et Ratio”). Pope Benedict spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism” on the eve of his election as pope. More generally, he spoke of the mutual purification of faith and reason, one that promoted a “healthy secularism.” Pope Francis has emphasized that democratic sovereignty always must be conformed to the good of the poor and the earth, the marginalized and rejected (“Fratelli Tutti,” “Evangelii Gaudium,” both of which were anticipated by Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio”). The deep truths about human nature, including that we are fallen but made for each other, cannot be evaded or rejected for long without profound consequences.
A belief in God would not fix all of our political woes. In fact, belief in God is often thought to be a cause of those woes. Truth has a bad reputation in politics, because in the Western imagination the political deployment of truth throughout history has often been tied up in narratives of bigotry and intolerance.
But truth should lead to humility, not to pride. Not only does U.S. society need more examples of truth-seeking that leads to community and responsibility, but Christians should recognize such witness as carrying their cross.
I would love for David French to be right. But Christians and people of good will should not hold their breath. It seems clear that no indictment is going to change many people’s minds. Nor should we expect politics to fix a problem just because politics has created it.
The late Jesuit ethicist and former editor in chief of America, Drew Christiansen, S.J., wrote in 2020 that “the American myth today faces existential challenges that no longer only come from the fringes.”
Politically, we can recover from this moment. But spiritually, it is not clear that we want to.