As a veteran Chicagoland Democrat, Rep. Daniel Lipinski knew what to expect when facing newspaper editors during pre-election endorsement season -- hard questions about his support for centuries of Catholic teachings on abortion.
But the Chicago Sun-Times stressed a different question in 2020 -- same-sex marriage. Lipinski said the Supreme Court had settled that issue, so he didn't expect to face it in Congress. The follow-up was blunt and personal: But do you support legalized same-sex marriage?
Lipinski said he supported his church's teachings on marriage and sexuality.
"They didn't just see themselves as newspaper editors interviewing candidates in a political race. ... They saw themselves as inquisitors seeking an admission of heresy," said Lipinski, who lost that close primary race to a rival backed by liberal Democrats.
During his 16 years in Congress, Lipinski voted with his party 90 percent of the time, and his convictions never changed, especially on economic and labor issues. Nevertheless, by 2018, New York magazine had floated this headline: "House Democratic Leaders Rally to Defend Their Illinois Heretic."
By 2020, he had reached "political leper" status, in part because of social media attacks on his beliefs that bled into mainstream news, he said, addressing the recent Journalism in a Post-Truth World conference in Washington, D.C. The event was sponsored by Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and the Eternal Word Television Network.
The old days of tough questions and bipartisan debate were one thing, said Lipinski. At this point, American politics have stormed past tribalism into bitter sectarianism, with politicos, activists and journalists embracing "partisanship as a fundamentalist pseudo-religion" that strictly defines good and evil.
What is happening? In the past two decades, he noted, researchers have documented a stunning rise in "religiously unaffiliated" Americans. In 2020, Gallup reported that membership in houses of worship sank to 47 percent -- below the 50 percent mark for the first time. In 1999, that number was 70 percent.
It's possible, said Lipinski, that many citizens are now searching "for meaning, or a mission, or truth, somewhere else," which only raises the stakes in public life.
"Partisanship has become not just a social identity, but a primary identity considered to be more important than any other," he said. "We all identify ourselves as belonging to different groups -- our families, our religions, our favorite sports teams, our professions. But more and more Americans are defining who they are by the political parties that they choose."
Once that choice is made, many citizens -- including journalists -- assume that it's essential to conform to every party stance or "risk banishment from the group as a heretic. But it's not even love or warm feelings for one's own group that holds the two parties together -- it's contempt for those on the outside."
At this point, said Lipinski, political dogmas have become so powerful that they now appear to be shaping the religious, class and sexual identities of many Americans -- instead of the other way around. The teachings of competing politicos, preachers and pundits define the boundary lines in this war zone.
The bottom line: The "partisan virtue-signaling" that became so obvious in the Donald Trump era now dominates political discourse and news coverage about America's most divisive religious and moral issues.
This acidic tide is "rising and the problem for our democracy is that a sectarian view of politics is a zero-sum game focusing on destroying the other," said Lipinski. "There is no real debate, there is no attempt at negotiation, no compromise -- because we cannot do any of those things with the devil."
Tragically, far too many Catholics -- left and right -- have jumped into this "sectarian war." While he opposes where the Democratic Party now stands on many moral and cultural issues, the former congressman stressed that "neither major party is completely in line" with the teachings of the Catholic faith.
"This makes fusing our partisanship with our membership of the Body of Christ thoroughly problematic, to say the least," Lipinski concluded. When believers cross that line, "political messianism is inevitable and political victories will come to be seen as divine imperatives.
"This can lead to the belief that legal, institutional and even moral constraints can be ignored since the stakes are so high. This creates a danger for our country, the church and our souls."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.