Throughout the months of lockdown, there seemed to be no exceptions to the ban on large gatherings. It didn’t matter if you wanted to attend the funeral of a loved one, or had a wedding planned; from church services to football matches, we have been forbidden to congregate.
Until, that is, the start of this month, when politicians, media figures, and public health experts discovered that the prohibition wasn’t so total after all. The protests against police violence and racial injustice, although they clearly had the same potential to spread coronavirus as any other kind of big outdoor event, were actually – we were told – fine. In the US, more than a thousand “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders” signed a letter supporting the demonstrations. The experts didn’t, as they explained, support all protests – just these ones. If you wanted to demonstrate against the lockdown itself, for instance, then you were actually fomenting racism: “Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism.”
In New South Wales, the Court of Appeal ruled that protestors would be allowed to join a Black Lives Matter rally. In Britain, politicians who had strongly favoured the lockdowns, and commentators who had raged against any infraction of the rules, suddenly declared their admiration for the protestors. London policemen joined in at one event, kneeling in the accepted style. In Canada, prime minister Justin Trudeau (pictured) did the same, “taking a knee” at a march in Ottawa. Official policy had been reversed in a few days.
One possible explanation is that progressive politics is now a kind of religion. It has its dogmas (“trans women are women”), its visions of the apocalypse, and its central rituals – like public protests – which, it seems, take precedence even during a pandemic.
To say that progressive politics is a religion isn’t to dismiss it out of hand. Like most religions, it contains some elements of truth. As Christopher Altieri writes in this issue, racial injustice is an urgent crisis and – as Matthew Schmitz points out – one with which Christians should be especially concerned. (For that reason, many American Catholics have joined Black Lives Matter events, even while disagreeing with some of that organisation’s policies.) But other elements of the new religion are more dubious; and like any belief system, it needs to be assessed in the light of the only religion which is wholly true.
In 1935, the great social activist Dorothy Day wrote: “If they, the liberals and Communists, are trying to win adherents to their cause of materialist philosophy – we too are trying to win them in our Catholic philosophy, by spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and by a general program of propaganda.” But she added: “Let us take what truth there is in what they say in regard to racial justice and give them credit for what good they do.” That seems like the right balance.
I’d like to thank readers for their many messages about the new format. The response has been very positive, and I’m also especially grateful for your ideas about what we should cover. If we incorporated every wise suggestion, the magazine would have to be 800 pages long rather than 80; but we’ll do our best.