A friend of mine, who is also a theologian, was asked to give a brief speech at a rally organized to publicly protest Donald Trump’s boarder wall initiative and Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on February 15, 2019. The specific purpose of the event, according to the organizers, was to protest “a vanity project arising from Trump’s racism and xenophobia” and Trump’s “fake national emergency.”
My friend had some reservations about whether or not he should accept the invitation to speak, and he asked if I had any thoughts. Moral theologians and ministers are asked to participate in these kinds of events fairly often—of course, some are asked more than others.
Should a moral theologian speak at these kinds of events? Moreover, beyond fundamental considerations (like the worthiness of the political or social outlook being advocated), what is at stake if one chooses to be involved? Are there any principles or guidelines for deciding if one can participate, how one should participate, and what should be said? In the case of my friend, he would be introduced as a professor of theology, the name of his Catholic university would be given, and his topic was to be “the moral implications of Trump’s fake national emergency.”
Below I’ve written out something like an examination of conscience, based on the thoughts I sent to my friend. It is divided into three parts. First, I describe the circumstances. Second, I describe three kinds of temptation (to hate, to lie, and to vainglory). Third, I recommend a spiritual discipline that might be useful to theologians and ministers who have been asked to speak at a public protest.
1. The Circumstances.
Someone is confident that what you’ve concluded about Trump’s border wall is correct (the organizers know you’re opposed to the wall, explicitly or through inference, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked). And the organizers either (1) suspect that how you think about these kinds of things in public would be useful and/or encouraging to folks who share that same practical opposition to the Trump’s border wall initiative; or, (2) the organizers suspect that your credibility within the community, i.e., who you are (a “professor,” a “theologian,” a “faculty person from Locally Prestigious Catholic University,” etc.), will be useful and/or encouraging to folks who share that practical opposition to the Trump’s border wall initiative.
Whatever you say in your 5-10 minute speech, if you accept the invitation, your conclusion has been established for you in advance: the explicit purpose of the protest rally is to collectively express opposition to Trump’s border wall initiative and the occasion is Trump’s exercise of his authority to declare a national emergency (including Trump’s admission that his main motivation is to circumvent the limitations imposed by congress).
So, you’ve been asked to briefly speak/teach on a conclusion and not on principles, method, or an open topic. And you’ve been asked to do that in a circumstance where:
(1) a passionate and poetic affirmation of the established conclusion will be met with uproarious applause, even if your rationale or discussion is nonsense—in fact, you’ll be met with applause even if your remarks are bloodless, artless, and incoherent, so long as you’re able to publicly endorse the established conclusion.
(2) a passionate and poetic opposition to the established conclusion will be reviled, even if the rationale is honest and precise and compelling;
(3) the nuances and complexities that arise from principles and disciplined method—in a 5-10 minute speech—could easily be met with confusion, misunderstanding, may not be well received, or may be held in suspicion simply because nuance and complexity make rally-style protest difficult.
2. You Face At Least Three Temptations in This Circumstance
Temptation 1: To sow discord through excessively contentious speech and tale-bearing. Specifically, this circumstance can lend itself to dehumanizing and exaggerated caricatures of the people with whom you disagree (Aquinas calls this “tale-bearing,” ST II-II, q. 74) and a manner of rhetoric that is excessively acrimonious (Aquinas calls this “blameworthy contention,” ST II-II, q. 38). This manner of speech can undermine the concord of the common good by directing the will of those gathered toward lesser or partial goods, and away from what is ultimately good (Aquinas calls this the sin of “discord,” ST II-II, q. 37).
Why would this be a problem for those who know their cause is just? Well, honest people of goodwill can reasonably and fiercely disagree on whether or not building a wall along the southern US border is good public policy and reflects the virtue of “pious regard for kinfolk, fellow-citizen, and country.” On that point, for example, I consider the building of a wall along the southern board to be ridiculously impractical and to present an unnecessarily dangerous threat to the wellbeing of migrants and asylum seekers. Moreover, drawing upon St Thomas, I consider the publicly stated Trump administration rationale to be motivated by malice, viciously nationalistic, and contemptuous of the common good. Nevertheless, in principle, since building a border-wall is not an intrinsically evil act, it is possible that the moral object and moral intent of some border-wall advocates is different from the one held forth by the Trump administration.
Likewise, honest people of goodwill can reasonably and fiercely disagree on whether or not president Trump was faithfully executing the responsibilities of his office when he declared the national emergency. (I do not think it was a faithful use of that executive power, but I am not a jurist—nevertheless, it’s worth noting the immediate bipartisan outcry, the surge of diverse legal challenges, and that the most vocal public support of the emergency declaration comes from figures who are paid to voice their support).
Temptation 2: To lie. This is a circumstance rife with temptation to intentionally formulate question begging remarks (i.e., petitio principii, to assume as evidence for your argument the conclusion you’re trying to prove).
There are at least two ways one might encounter this temptation. For example, on the one hand, let’s say your public endorsement of the established conclusion is not grounded in sound principles and disciplined method—either because you know your rationale is flawed or because you haven’t actually worked out an honest rationale, and you are aware of that fact—then your public endorsement of the established conclusion of the protest rally will be a lie, a vicious indifference to truth, which is a sin.
On the other hand, let’s say you’ve worked out an honest and methodologically disciplined rationale, but intentionally withhold your true reasons and give alternative reasons more in-line with the ethos of the rally—reasons which you don’t actually know to be true. That would also be a lie, a vicious indifference to truth, which is a sin. For example, if it is a non-religious public protest and your true reasons are theological or devotional, but your remarks outline a wholly secular rationale that does not reflect what you personally know to be true (such as a legal rationale, sociological rationale, or a historical rationale, etc.).
Temptation 3: To vainglory. Passions stirred by communal purpose, the heady draft of uproarious applause, and the vision of one’s self being seen at the podium before onlookers who have been moved by your words to tears, or laughter, or determination, or solidarity—the desire to be seen and to be honored is very tempting in this circumstance. Let’s say you honestly regard the established conclusion of the protest rally to be true—even then, the principle motivation of your public endorsement of the established conclusion could still be something other than the truth of the outlook you’re endorsing.
For example, your main motivation and goal for your speech at the rally could be to convey a certain impression of yourself to the onlookers and cameras. You wouldn’t be trying to deceive anyone, but what you really care about is what people think about you: that you are an intelligent, pious, passionate, and humble poet. This would fall short of lying, of course—however, because a pretense about one’s self is the main concern of this public speech act (and not the communication of what one believes to be true), then the exercise would come very close to what Harry Frankfurt defines as “bullshit.” A simple test for one’s self would be to pause when you find yourself replacing plain statements of complex truths with not-entirely-true-and-somewhat-simplistic rhetorical flourishes—that is to say, inspiring and stirring rhetorical flourishes that have you performing a caricature of yourself instead of performing the truth.
3. Chose the Path of Mercy
As I see it, given these three temptations, your best option is to follow the example of Christ (Matthew 9:35-38) by choosing the path of mercy:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
The path of mercy involves, first, honestly looking and recognizing the actual needs of the particular persons to whom you will be speaking. If you do not recognize a need, if you find yourself inventing or projecting a need, or if you see a need but you are not moved by compassion (feeling their lack as if it was your own), then you should decline the invitation—because your heart is not in the right place.
If you recognize a need and your heart is moved, respond to the need to the extent that you are able and in a manner that is appropriate to the circumstances. Two of the spiritual works of mercy seem particularly relevant: to provide speculative knowledge to the ignorant and practical knowledge to the confused.
In other words, if called upon to speak: teach what you know, according to the need, in a manner that is appropriate to the circumstance, and with the goal of communicating what you understand to be good, true, and beautiful. Tell the truth, in manner that is beautiful, so that those who are gathered will better know the goodness of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Here would be a good place for concrete suggestions or examples of what this could look like. Here are two: