Let’s Hope This is a “Teachable Moment” for Covington Catholics


John Gehring is Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life.  In his recent piece at Commonweal he hopes that Covington Catholic School might view what happened last weekend at the Lincoln Memorial as a “teachable moment.”  Here is a taste of his excellent piece:

After watching the longer video, it’s hard for me to square Phillips’s claim that the white students were going to attack the black men. The students were clearly agitated after being cursed at and ridiculed, but they were not advancing aggressively toward the men. But I was not there and so can’t speak to the fear others felt. Either way, Phillips may well have been right in sensing a potentially escalating situation. While he later explained that his movement toward the group of teenagers was meant to separate the young men from the Hebrew Israelites, in the heat of the moment there is no way the students could have known this, since Phillips never speaks or tries to explain what he is doing. No matter what happened before the moment seen in that segment of the video that went viral, once the two groups came together the students clearly acted with disrespect toward Phillips, displaying an arrogance, ignorance, and sense of superiority all too common among students at largely white prep schools. I wrote about my own experience with the attitudes, cultures, and norms prevalent in that kind of culture a few months ago, as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings unfolded: not as a sweeping indictment of all private schools, but as a reminder that privileged places rarely reflect on their own status in the world because the world is designed for and caters to them. Culture is the water we swim in each day. We don’t see it or question it unless we’re forced to open our eyes.

It’s not a revelation that people can watch the same video or review the same evidence and come away with different conclusions. Our life experiences, race, gender, and sexuality don’t determine who we are, but often influence what we see, omit, prioritize, and categorize. What you observe in this video might have less to do with a camera angle or length of footage than the interpretive lens you bring to issues, a lens that formed long before this incident. The challenge we all face, particularly white men, is this: How do we interrogate our own biases and blind spots?

I worry it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have these tough conversations, harder to slow down, and harder to think before we open rhetorical fire. Everyone knows social media exacerbates this problem. We live in a time when the news cycle never stops, when instant reaction is demanded. Twitter is often less a virtual public square in which substantive ideas are exchanged and debated than a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue. Instead of encouraging humility, empathy, and reflection, we’re celebrated for our speed, hot takes, and how many ideological opponents we can slay in 280 characters. I’m guilty of not always having the discipline to stop feeding this insatiable beast. Like others who have confessed their own haste on social media in recent days, I could have waited longer before tweeting about this incident and given more space to filling in the picture. But conservatives and MAGA bros who want to lecture liberals or dunk on so-called “PC mobs,” or who think these Catholic students come away from this as victims, need to step back. In aligning themselves with a demagogue who has boasted about assaulting a woman, mocked a disabled reporter, called a sitting member of Congress “Pocahontas,” and said there was blame “on both sides” of a bloody white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, they’re perpetuating a system and culture that celebrates the abuse of power. Make America Great Again hats are not KKK hoods, but you don’t exactly have to hide racism and nativism when the most powerful man in the world gives energy to those forces. Any principal who thinks it’s appropriate for students to wear MAGA clothing to a pro-life rally has thought very little about how this president debases human dignity on a near-daily basis. More broadly, prolife groups that have cozied up to Trump—while his administration caged immigrant kids and his Environmental Protection Agency lets polluters spew toxins that are dangerous to pregnant women—undermine the credibility of the prolife cause.

Once the media spotlight moves on from this latest viral moment, where do we go? Covington Catholic High School and every school now have the opportunity to use this episode to do better. Teach history—including the church’s complicity in white supremacy over the centuries—in a way that helps young people connect the dots between the past and present. Most Catholics, no matter their age, are uninformed about our own institution’s role in exploitation and oppression. “Catholic parishes rarely examine the church’s record of actively participating in the federal government’s conquest and colonization of Native Americans and the West, part of the church’s effort in the 19th and 20th centuries to gain mainstream acceptance in America,” William S. Cossen wrote in the Washington Post last week. Reckoning with this uncomfortable past, he writes, “is essential for coming to terms with the injustices faced by indigenous people both in history and in the 21st century.”

Read the entire piece at Commonweal.

This whole debate seems to come down to this:  If you do not think MAGA hats and shirts are offensive, or believe that it is just fine if a Catholic school allows its students to wear MAGA stuff at a public event and get in the face of a Native American man trying to diffuse a situation, then you will support the boys and think that they did nothing wrong.  If you think that MAGA hats and shirts are offensive because the entire phrase “Make America Great Again” is morally problematic (as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump), then you will criticize the boys.

But I would take this a step further.  If I had a son who was carrying on like these boys–taking off their shirts, doing racist tomahawk chops, or mocking someone in public–I would bring him home and take him to the woodshed.  I don’t care who provoked him.  I would also be furious with the school and its chaperones for allowing the boys to behave in this way.

24 thoughts on “Let’s Hope This is a “Teachable Moment” for Covington Catholics

  1. Hi Alex,
    I am not sure I fully follow you. How could Covington boys have communicated succinct, understandable protest messages about an abortion facility since they were in front of the Lincoln Memorial? Furthermore, since none of them were probably saved from an abortionist’s scalpel, how could they effectively express that idea? That sort of message needs to be on video.

    It seems for you, Alex, that everything comes back to the red hats. While wearing the hats may well have alienated you and others, I can perhaps understand the sentiments of the boys. Every day the major media treats us to unrelenting attacks on pro-life Trump and to a lesser extent attacks on traditional values. The wearing of the hats by the boys may well have been their small act of defiance to our secular media masters in NYC and Washington. Was it wise? Maybe not. Was it understandable? To me it was.

    Sometimes people can be pushed into the state of mind so ably portrayed by Peter Finch in the 1976 iconic film, Network. Character Howard Beale (played by Finch) reaches his breaking point about society and general events in the country unleashing an unrehearsed diatribe on television. Howard’s final impassioned plea is that everyone will open his/her window and scream out, “I’m as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore!” Ha ha. Obviously, Alex, I am being hyperbolic here, but I wouldn’t blame the Covington boys for wanting to be slightly defiant to the secular world system. The bad guys shouldn’t always get the attention. 😇.

    By the way, please don’t misunderstand me here. We need a bit of levity.


  2. Yes any one of those things would make a much better face of the movement. But these kids didn’t choose to wear apparel promoting those faces, did they? That’s my whole point!


  3. Justin,
    I don’t know anything specific about Doug Frank’s book, but from your brief synopsis, I do know that there is a wide range of light “spiritual autobiography” writing on the market. You can find quite a number of authors who have abandoned fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, various sects, Mainline Protestantism, etc. Pick any religion in the world.

    Focusing specifically on Frank’s book type, I have noted two basic reasons for people departing evangelicalism. The first is disenchantment with the culture within evangelical churches. The second is the failure of evangelicalism to provide a satisfactory apologetic basis for the faith. Finally, there is a third reason which is often not overtly stated; specifically, it is disappointment with God. The third reason is the most complex and the least explained, but essentially the author’s spiritual expectations were crushed by an unhappy life-experience. God gets the blame, and the person walks away from the faith.

    Often the author officially cites reason one or reason two as his/her rationale for exiting when, in reality, the reader can’t help but feeling that reason three might be the real problem. We are all very good at masking our real motives, even from ourselves.



  4. Alex,
    Do we know for sure that Trump actually assaulted any specific women sexually? The now-discredited Michael Avenatti never showed that, The Billy Bush tape never showed that. Accusations are very easy to make but less easily corroborated.
    As far as Trump being the “face of the pro-life movement”…………Well, I don’t see him as such. He is one of many politicians who support unborn children. In my opinion, all politicians are flawed in one way or another; that doesn’t mean they can’t do highly moral things in support of public policy. As far as the “face” of the pro-life movement, my personal vote would go to the counselors and pickets on the sidewalks outside of abortion mills or better yet a smiling teenage girl whose life was saved because her mother was dissuaded from killing her in the womb.


  5. Correction. I was thinking of another term on the Master/Slave side. Even still, I am not sure linking to a definition does the trick. That is akin to saying a MAGA hat is ok as long as it is identified as nothing more than a hat with a patriotic clause on it.


  6. “Facts don’t mean much for people who are driven by emotive ideology.”

    “Psychological projection is a defence mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.”


  7. Hi Paul,

    You might like a book by Doug Frank called “A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus.” He is what I would call a progressive evangelical who grew up fundamentalist and had to really think through several of the valid issues you raise in your criticism of cultish religion. I couldn’t put it down once I started.



  8. Dear Paul,
    Please be specific. I thought I did respond to your concern that cults and accepted religions are similar.



  9. Even if they couldn’t have predicted the racial tensions it would have inflamed, they really should have objected on the terms of wearing clothing that endorses an accused sexual predator to a pro-life rally.


  10. There does seem to be a strong correlation between wearing MAGA apparel and one’s proximity to the altercation.


  11. Paul,
    I think you are mixing two threads here.
    1. The term “cult” has a generally accepted sociological definition. Most churches are not cults using this definition.
    2. Any religion——Christian or not——-has distinctive doctrines. The holding of these doctrines does not render them a cult.


  12. Jeff,
    I heard an interview with the young man yesterday. He allowed that stepping back would have been an acceptable and reasonable option. He stated that maybe he should have done that. Yet it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. We all have made debatable decisions in life in the heat of a given moment.

    With all of that being said, the kid thought he was diffusing the situation, As I have stated earlier, Mr. Phillips advanced to the kid’s position making him the aggressor if I might use that word loosely.

    By the way, the kid comes across very well in an interview. He is a nice kid.


  13. John,
    I am surprised to see you use the term woodshed. Although I am sure you would not actually beat your child, you should be aware that this term triggers horrible images to those who have suffered parental and spousal abuse. It is also commonly used in master-slave punishment scenarios. For your sake, I hope the broader media does not see this. You might be negatively labeled for life.


  14. I would ask the smiling student why he didn’t just take a step back, turn, and walk away. He wasn’t pinned up against a physical wall or a wall of students.
    There was space behind him.


  15. James, what I said was that the beliefs of the average churchgoer (which included me for many decades) are — when you get down to it — not that different from the beliefs of weird cult people.

    Think about it. The typical Christian believes that God created humans but made them in such a way that they were irredeemably offensive to him. They believe that God loves people unconditionally but at the same time is angered by their behavior and has no choice but to torture most of them for eternity. They believe that God and his son are not separate people and are in fact the same “age” for lack of a better term. Plus, they share “personhood” with a third entity that is said to have looked like a dove. They believe that in order to forgive humans, God developed a plan for his immortal son to die (be killed in a most painful fashion). We are supposed to imitate God, but it would be a grave crime to kill our children to forgive people that offended us, no? Most believe that God loves us and cares for every detail of our life, yet is going to wipe out most of humanity in a future apocalypse to achieve his plan.

    My point isn’t whether Christianity is or isn’t true, although obviously I no longer think that way. The point is if we think rationally about the things we believe, they really aren’t a whole lot less weird than the beliefs of oddball cults.


  16. Paul,
    I am very surprised that you would liken a crackpot you once knew (paragraph 3) with “the average churchgoer” (paragraph 2.)

    Most of the thousands churchgoers with whom I have been associated over the years are far from perfect yet I cannot cite a single one of them who rises to the bizarre standing of your former acquaintance. You and I must not travel in the same ecclesiastical circles, Paul.


  17. I agree with your take John. For those who say the boys were justified in “retaliating” against the Black Israeli preachers, well, the fact is there are religious zealots shouting about the end times and proselytizing in every city, most every day, in public squares and train stations, etc. The vast, vast majority of people know to ignore them. There’s no good reason to engage them. I doubt any of them engage with people who don’t engage them in some way.

    I have for whatever reason over the years spoken to a few and my response was pity, as in “wow, how does someone get to the point of such weirdness.” But then I realize that what they believe isn’t that much different from what the average churchgoer believes.

    When I was a teen I had a summer job with a guy who thought he was Jesus. He actually was a rather famous mathematician before he went insane, and Carl Sagan wrote a chapter of a book about hm. He was a nasty man who if prompted would say nasty things. But the proper response was to feel sorry for this guy, not mock him.


  18. John,
    I find Mr. Gehrig’s piece in Commonweal very telling. This publication is a predictably liberal journal of Catholic opinion and as Mr..Gehrig admits, he was too quick to criticize the Covington boys before all of the facts emerged. This bit of writing in Commonweal was his “atonement” of sorts. He even obliquely faulted Mr. Phillips for not making his goals clear to the boys. Social media and the twenty-four hour news cycle also are critiqued.

    But wait……..Mr. Gehrig must throw in a barb against the boys. Their Catholic high school is a “prep school” not altogether different than Brett Kavanaugh’s high school in the affluent D.C. suburbs. And we all know that prep school kids are arrogant, privileged, cocky, insensitive, etc. I would challenge Mr. Gehrig to do some genuine reporting here. Specifically, he should analyze the average family income of children connected with Covington Catholic. Then Mr. Gehrig should analyze the same metrics for families who send their kids to Justice Kavanaugh’s high school. There is no parity. We are are talking about middle class students in Covington Catholic and very affluent students in Kavanaugh’s Montgomery County school. Of course, lumping all of the kids into the prep school narrative suited the theme Mr. Gehrig was attempting to develop.

    Next Gehrig devotes considerable space to the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church toward native Americans. Well and good——-no argument from most of us here. This historic fact, however, does not give Nathan Phillips license to intimidate and bully high school boys in 2019.


  19. What should really be a teachable moment — as if we needed another — is how biased and dishonest our mainstream media is. Let’s not generalize about this; take a gander at representative portions of CNN’s fawning interview with Mr. Phillips. Notice how each question is framed:

    CNN: “Let me ask what happened to you. These boys in the middle of the group and you found yourself surrounded.”

    The premise of this leading question is entirely false. Assumes facts not in evidence — actually, directly contrary to the video evidence — as one might say. Phillips didn’t passively “find himself” anywhere. He intentionally walked over to students who were standing in a group, waiting for their buses. He initiated the confrontation. He got in the face of a student and began banging his drum. He was never surrounded — the students did not move closer to him. Phillips’ supporters who were with him — including a Native American heckling the students, and telling them to “go back to Europe”, were standing directly behind him the entire time. But acknowledging any of this wrecks the desired narrative.

    CNN: “One of the things [the students] said is we weren’t protesting against Native Americans. We were there for the March for Life and we were just chanting — and this is kind of putting the blame on you — and this person came into our space and we were just getting all hyped up. Do you buy that?”

    Again, notice the pro-Phillips advocacy — “they are blaming you.” Is this a reporter or a publicist for Phillips? Second, the video(s) is crystal clear: Phillips DID come into their space, they had been chanting school cheers, they were not protesting Native Americans. How about we go to the videotape — which of course CNN had no interest in doing — and instead of asking Mr. Phillips whether “he buys” what the students have said, as if this is a credibility battle with no way for others to evaluate the truth or falsity of the competing claims, ask Phillips: “Do you agree this video shows you entering the students’ space?” “Do you agree they are engaged in school cheers as you approach?” “This now shows you walking up and banging a drum inches from this boy’s face. How is this an attempt to make peace or calm the situation?” “How were the students to understand what you were doing?” “On what basis do you claim you were surrounded? Can you show me where that occurred?”

    No interest in obtaining those answers. Far too inconvenient.

    CNN: “Were you trying to calm the situation down basically when you saw things kind of spiral out of control?”

    Again, leading — Phillips is the noble protagonist, doing the calming. Does the video bear that out? If someone marched up to me, began banging a drum in my face, staring me down, making no effort to otherwise communicate in a way that I could understand, that would seem far more like an intentional provocation. What about the second leading question — the claim that things were spiraling out of control? Do the videos show anything like that? What can that possibly mean? The videos do show the Black Israelites cursing the students, hurling racist epithets, calling them “faggots”, calling an African American student the n-word and claiming that the “crackers” were going to harvest his organs. Maybe someone interested in getting at the truth, and not spinning a pre-written morality tale, would have asked Phillips: “Why didn’t you go pound your peace drum in front of the Black Israelites, who were profanely taunting the students?” “If you were interested in defusing the situation, why did you think banging a drum in someone’s face, and not speaking any words that were intelligible, would promote that effort?” “Why did you allow people in your entourage to taunt the students, call them white interlopers and tell them to go back to Europe?”

    The interview goes on in this vein. There are no questions to Phillips about how he reconciles the conflicting accounts he gave to the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press. No questions about his prior activism, where he fomented unrest, not peace. No questions about his false claim — now formally debunked by the WaPo and other outlets — that he served in Vietnam. No questions about why he referred to the students as “beasts” and the Black Israelites as “prey” to the Detroit Free Press — even though it was the latter group of adults directing racist, homophobic slurs at the students. No questions about what, in particular, he found “true” and “educational” about the Black Israelites bile.

    The media wonders why it has an approval rating lower than the Laurentian Abyss among a majority of Americans? This is merely Exhibit 4,395,126.


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