I confess I've been doing some yelling at the TV. I keep hearing that we have to have a "national conversation on violence" in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. We're having no such conversation, at least one that means anything, until we confront who we are as a nation today.
Earlier this summer in Florida, violence of a different sort was the topic, as legislation to protect children born alive during the course of a late-term abortion was debated. A similar debate was recently held, among much public comment, over a bill that would protect fetuses 20 weeks or older. It's barbaric that we'd consider this a mere matter of family planning, as a former Speaker of the House seemed to say in a recent interview. But that's what happens after 40 years of legal abortion and the euphemisms that come with it.
Whether our media focus is on Zimmerman or Planned Parenthood, the furor that's made manifest in protests and controversy is an avoidance of addressing fundamental questions of purpose and identity.
We see this, too, in the immigration debate. While much of the media coverage seems to be whether Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hurt or helped his presidential chances by pushing a bill through the Senate that may die in the House, the debate skirts the issues that we need to be confronting.
In a new book, "Immigration and the Next America," Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez tries to further the assessment of the national conscience. On immigration, he says, "We can't truly resolve the political issues of immigration unless we have some common agreement or shared understanding about our country's identity and purpose."
Politics, he adds, "is a conversation about how we ought to order our lives together." At least, that's what politics should be. But in order to have that conversation, we need to agree on basic terms. In order to know what we ought to do, we need to have some shared understanding of our past and the historical project of this great nation.
Gomez points to our lack of "moral consensus." There used to be one: "America was 'one nation under God,' with an exceptional identity and responsibility among the family of nations. For most of our history, we were confident that American institutions should shape moral character and instill the civic virtues required for our democracy to function. Virtues such as religion and family; individual freedom and responsibility; the work ethic; the rule of law; equality of opportunity; honesty, fair play, and the common good; the sense of politics as public service."
There's plenty of rhetoric about fairness, tolerance, equality, transparency, and the common good, of course, but most of it tends to be at the service of ideological campaigns, often in contrast with those institutions we've relied on. In this reality, it's largely impossible to have a productive conversation, period.
In reintroducing America to Americans, Gomez proposes looking not just at the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, who "understood that our democracy's strength depends on our citizens' freedom to live according to their faith," but "the rest of the story of America's founding." It's a story of "Christian mission" in the late 15th and 16th centuries, at "the heart and soul of the Age of Discovery." In documenting "atrocities of conquerors in recent years," for which we "should feel remorse," Gomez writes, we've "lost a crucial thread to our national story," that "the deepest motivations for America's founding were religious and spiritual." Only in remembering this, in understanding what undergirds America's exceptionalism, can we make any progress. Our calls for conversations are pointless until pulverizing the opposition stops being the No. 1 priority. And there's no reform without self-knowledge.