ROME (CNS) — Early in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump and then-candidate Bernie Sanders were called “populist,” but neither represented a viable form of populist politics because theirs was “all fury and no love,” said a speaker at a recent academic conference.
The sixth annual Front Porch Republic conference at the University of Notre Dame was not affiliated with any political party or religious group, but attracted many Christians who want to revitalize a local community culture in an effort to stave off what Pope Francis has termed a “globalization of indifference.”
(See a related video.)
Bill Kauffman, a political writer who spoke about “Populism and Place” at the conference in early October, told Catholic News Service in Rome that a healthy political culture must focus on the local community — something that no major candidate today is doing.
“Any healthy populism has to be grounded in the particular, in the love of one’s neighbors, of one’s town, of one’s community, and it’s a defense of that community, of those neighbors, against remote rule,” Kauffman explained.
He said the Catholic Worker Movement, founded in New York in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, espouses the same kind of populism. The movement, which cares for the poor and marginalized, now counts some 245 Catholic Worker communities worldwide. Day’s sainthood cause was opened in 2000 by the Archdiocese of New York.
The conference participants “are really very worn out with the conventional political discourse in this country,” said Elias Crim, founder of Solidarity Hall, a website and publishing house specializing in topics related to Catholic social teaching.
The participants, he said, “have always been ‘third way’ people” who do not wholly identify with either the Republican or Democratic Party and are focused on inventing a political philosophy that works for “our own neighborhood, communities, localities.”
“Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, therefore we need to know who they are,” said Susannah Black, a Christian blogger who spoke at the conference.
Another participant, Grace Potts, said she home-schools her six children and prefers to buy handmade goods from local vendors.
“Where can I get fair-trade chocolate for the least price and from a local vendor?” Potts asks herself. “And the answer is, there’s one guy and he’s dealing out of his garage. And this is how I’m doing my grocery shopping.”
For Potts, buying locally is a moral act, because “connection and communion is everything, it’s the center of who we are” and “having nameless, faceless transactions degrades that,” she said.
“Every time we can have a transaction with a human being whom we know, for whom we can express love directly, that’s the moral choice,” Potts said.
The ethical dimension of economic engagement is obscured even in the way people talk about finance, said Patrick Deneen, who teaches political philosophy at Notre Dame and gave the keynote address at the conference.
“We talk about certain kinds of demands that the economy makes of us or the market makes of us, as if it’s an autonomous entity that’s no longer under our control,” Deneen said.
Deneen credits Pope Francis, retired Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II for reminding Catholics that the economy should always serve the good of human beings.
Gross domestic product is not the tool Catholics should use to judge the economy, he said. They should be asking, “Is the economy serving our communities? Is it strengthening our families? Is it providing for a kind of long-term consideration of the effects of our actions upon the environment and upon the world?”
Philip Bess, a conference speaker and author of the book, “Till We Have Built Jerusalem,” said such obligations also should be reflected in the way cities are built.
Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” Bess said, affirms the value of how cities were organized in pre-industrial times, when food and building materials came from nearby sources.
“Cities are how the human animal inhabits the landscape, and we do it in order to flourish, and we can do this badly or we can do it well,” Bess said. “The body of Catholic social teaching is encouraging us to do it well.”
Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox writer and author of the upcoming book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” said that there is a missionary dimension to relearning how to live locally.
“We have to be what Pope Benedict said were creative minorities,” Dreher said. “We can start small businesses; we can start schools.”
Such initiatives will prove necessary in coming years, Dreher said, because “small-o orthodox Christians” will eventually be excluded from the economy for ideological reasons.
“In the medical field, there is already a push to prevent doctors from getting licenses unless they sign off on abortion and euthanasia. This is going to go from medicine and law to many fields,” Dreher said.
Building up one’s own neighborhood economically might be the only option for Christians who don’t want to compromise their consciences, Dreher said.