The Internet is haunted by readily memeable misquotes and misattributions of quotes. Among the ever-growing detritus of fabricated and seemingly sagacious sayings is a quote wrongly attributed to the eighteenth-century radical French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, which reads something like this: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This quote, which was invented by one of Voltaire’s biographers, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in the early twentieth century, nonetheless encapsulates the seemingly noble idea of freedom of speech, which, for better or worse, was one of the foundation stones of not only the emergent French Republic, born at least in spirit from the pen of Voltaire, but one of the key cornerstones of that odd and wild child of the Enlightenment, the United States of America.
While the first French Republic was born in “rivers of blood,” and would only last as long as a brief whisper—France would go through several monarchies, dictatorships, and republics before settling on their current Fifth Republic, ushered in by Charles de Gaulle in 1958—the great republic of the United States would survival one ugly civil war and several culture wars without a major formal change in government, perhaps suggesting, in comparison, a sturdier foundation.
Throughout these 242 years of the Red, White, and Blue, freedom of expression and speech has been, at least officially, the sine qua non of American civil discourse.
However, American Catholics have always sat uneasily in a liberal society that enshrined into law certain rights that the Church has often opposed.
In the late nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII dedicated several papal documents to American Catholics, pressing upon them the need to be patriotic citizens without succumbing to liberalism, or what Leo called “Americanism” in his 1899 letter Testem bevolentiae nostrae. Indeed, much of American Catholic political writing—especially after Vatican II—has been an effort to come to terms with what it means to be a Catholic living in America.
Regardless of what political and theological position they took on the matter, American Catholics developed a modus vivendi with the fact that, in the United States, free speech was to be granted to any and all political positions and, despite periodic outbursts of anti-Catholic prejudice, this allowed Catholics to participate fully in civic life.
However, as we round the second decade of the twenty-first century, it has become increasingly clear to religious conservatives—including Catholics—that political forces of a different kind seek to deprive them of their free speech rights and question their suitability to hold public office.
Since the Trump presidential campaign began to gain steam, the illiberality that long characterized the political left has grown more explicit as they increasingly target cultural conservatives and the few remaining liberals who still defend the First Amendment.
Well aware of a fleet of pro bono New York lawyers and Obama-appointed radical judges to support them, along with a dishonest and even malicious press to run cover for them, leftists have begun to employ bullying tactics and even violence against conservatives or anyone who might be mistaken for one.
While run-of-the-mill Republicans and conservative public figures are their usual targets, the radical left set its sights on pro-lifers at this past weekend’s 46th annual March for Life, specifically targeting a group of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky.
The nature of this altercation as well as the attendant reaction to it by the press—including a number of prominent conservative figures—should heighten our awareness of how Catholics in particular and pro-lifers in general will increasingly be the target of violent and aggressive leftist mobs.
The boys from Covington Catholic, while waiting for their bus, were initially harassed by members of the radical black supremacist organization—the Black Israelites—a group that believes that not only were the ancient Hebrew people of the Bible really black Africans, but that the black race is a master race and responsible for all of world civilization.
As is evidenced by copious video footage (WARNING: foul and racist language), the Black Israelites began to taunt the Covington Catholic boys, subjecting them to racist abuse.
A fabricated and heavily edited version of one video recording the encounter quickly made the rounds on the Internet and social media while leftwing pundits immediately went to work viciously attacking the school boys and threatening them with violence and even murder.
Even our friend Fr. James Martin, SJ, joined in the fray.
However, while we might expect such irrational and disturbingly violent behavior from the left—including and especially the Catholic left—what was most upsetting was that a number of conservative figures—including conservative Catholics—quickly joined the ban wagon, excoriating the boys as racist.
As evidence came forth proving that the teenage boys were, in fact, innocent and themselves the victims of racist abuse from both the Black Israelites and Nathan Phillips, many—but not all—media outlets have tacitly admitted some wrongdoing.
Two of the most prominent Christian conservative figures who initially went after the Covington boys, Rod Dreher and Princeton University’s Robert P. George, have apologized for their rashness, while others have not. Overreacting and assuming guilt was not limited to public figures. Even school administrators and the Covington Diocese assumed the worst of these students when they issued a joint press release accusing the boys of wrongdoing while simultaneously promising an investigation and further “appropriate action” including possible expulsion—thus putting the cart before the horse in an irresponsible (and libelous) attempt at damage control. If there was ever a time for a full-throated defense of the presumption of innocence, it is now. Too many innocent people have already had their reputations destroyed by unscrupulous leftwing activists.
There are, in the end, a number of important takeaways from this event:
- The left has become incredibly radicalized now more than at any time in American history. This extremism is evident in their willingness to use the courts to bully critics into submission, pressure corporations to withhold advertising or services to silence opposing viewpoints, and increasingly call for and even mete out violence against conservatives in general and Christians in particular.
- Catholic youth are no longer immune to this hatred and will not be spared for being pro-life or civil.
- The mainstream media will expend every ounce of its energy to lie and defame conservative Christians unless and until their malpractice is widely exposed by competing sources of news and protested by an outraged public.
- Some conservative public figures who should know better are susceptible to groupthink while certain church officials, including Catholic bishops, give the media too much credibility by accepting uncritically biased and unverified press narratives—even against members of their own church.
We cannot afford a strategic “Benedict Option” retreat. With the rise of public incivility and conflict reminiscent of the civil unrest of the 1960s and early ’70s, the time has come for Catholics to fully comprehend the nature of the threat, organize their own defense, assert their civil liberties, and fight back.