Religion and the perils of being comfortable

We are, by habit, creatures of comfort. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, most Americans sought refuge in all kinds of comfortable things: favorite foods, familiar television shows, the warmth of family. Such desires were understandable given that an unknown virus was raging outside our locked doors —  a disease that, so far, has killed nearly 800,000 Americans.

In politics, too, we are creatures of comfort. We often surround ourselves with like-minded people who think like we do. For many, if you like guns, you enjoy living in rural communities; if you are gay, you like living in metropolitan areas. Even places where we shop have become victims of our polarized politics. Polling shows that Democrats like to purchase their lattes from Starbucks and buy arugula at Whole Foods; Republicans prefer getting their coffee and doughnuts from Dunkin’ and dining out at Cracker Barrel. In 2020, party-line voting was at an all-time high with 94 percent of Democrats backing the Biden-Harris ticket and an equal percentage of Republicans pulling the lever for Trump-Pence.

The same divisions have manifested themselves in our religious practices. For more than two decades, frequent church attendees, no matter their denomination, have voted Republican. Those who attend church services infrequently or not at all back Democrats. Those patterns held in 2020: 59 percent of regular church attendees supported Trump; 58 percent of those who attended a religious service either yearly or less often supported Biden.

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At the Catholic University of America, this reflexive partisanship has made an ugly appearance. Following the conclusion of Black History Month last March, an icon was unveiled in the university’s law school chapel. Titled “Mama” and commissioned after the death of George Floyd, artist Kelly Latimore evoked the infamous Pieta with the Madonna holding the body of her dead son.

Many saw the painting as evocative of racial injustice, noting that Floyd’s last words were calling out for his mother. At its unveiling, Catholic University Law School professor Regina Jefferson led a call and response that rejected racism in both its active and passive forms. A description at the base of the painting read, “May Mary, the Mirror of Justice, hear the cry of all who have known the sorrow of losing a loved one to violence and injustice.” Unlike the Pieta, Mary stares directly at the viewer, prompting the observer to reflect.

For eight months, two versions of the icon were displayed on the Catholic University campus — one in the law school chapel, the other in the campus ministry office. But in November, the Daily Signal, published by the conservative Heritage Foundation, stirred controversy by noting that the depiction of Jesus in the icon resembled George Floyd. Fox News quickly picked up the story.

Blayne Clegg, a junior at the university, said: “There’s a fine line between recognizing the innate dignity and righteousness of human beings that are made in the image of God and embracing brazen, progressive politics.” Another student called the painting “heretical, blasphemous, idolatry,” adding, “It is just another symptom of the liberalization and secularization of our campus.”

Catholic University President John Garvey maintained that “our Law School has always seen the figure as Jesus,” noting that the icon includes the Greek letters for “I am,” words associated with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Garvey refused to remove the painting, saying, “It has been the university’s policy, throughout my time as President, not to cancel speakers or prevent speech by members of the community.”

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No matter. The day after the Fox News story appeared, Latimore’s icon was stolen from the law school chapel. Almost immediately, a smaller version that hung in the campus ministry office was put in its place.  

Latimore’s art causes the viewer to think. When asked if the deceased person portrayed in the icon was either Jesus or George Floyd, Latimore responded, “Yes.” His deliberately obscure answer is the point. The painting created a moment of pause, even discomfort. One thought of those unjustly put to death by the state. Others felt sympathy and sorrow. Some undoubtedly were left with a feeling of discomfiture.  

Religion isn’t for the comfortable. The New Testament reports that when Jesus said anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood “remains in me and I in him,” many of his followers drifted away. Americans should be uncomfortable with politicians who advocate for abortion rights, or with leaders who think separating immigrant children from their parents is good public policy, or with governors who support the death penalty. Indeed, it is when the church makes people uncomfortable – and gets them to think – that it is fully engaging the hearts and minds of the faithful. 

Seeking comfort is far easier than wrestling with difficult decisions. More than a decade ago, President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBarack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle Voting rights is a constitutional right: Failure is not an option Florida looms large in Republican 2024 primary MORE implored graduates of the University of Michigan to make themselves uncomfortable: “If you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. . . . It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.”

Universities at their best should challenge students and create degrees of discomfort. But all too often, thoughtful dialogue is eschewed in the reflexive politics of the right and the left. Stealing the icon may have brought a momentary sense of comfort, but everyone should be uncomfortable by what happened. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.