Your vote isn’t enough. It will take a lot more to change deep American values

(CNS photo/Tom Dermody, Catholic Post)

Participating in electoral politics in the United States can be challenging for a Catholic citizen. Church teaching provides helpful guidance on many public policy issues, but that guidance does not align with the policy positions of the two major parties. It is rarely obvious in a particular election, for example, which party or candidate is more pro-life across a wide spectrum of issues. There is rarely a “Catholic side.” As a result, voting can be both an internal moral struggle and a source of division among Catholics.

Affecting the outcome of specific elections, however, is not the only way Catholics can influence the social and political direction of the nation. Electoral politics focus our attention on a small set of contentious issues and a narrow range of policy options, albeit ones that are important at the time.


Going Deep

Elections are important, but deeper cultural values, which usually lie outside the scope of a political campaign, can also powerfully influence the nation. Such values can determine how particular issues evolve and the very nature of our politics and the health of society. Looking beyond the electoral politics of the day to consider the values that guide our nation offers additional opportunities and obligations for Catholics to contribute to government and society in the United States.

Paying attention to cultural values does not mean ignoring public policy; evolving cultural values provide a foundation for policy change and carry it through to its completion, so the two are closely related. With the end of the Civil War and adoption of the 13th Amendment, for example, the prohibition of slavery became national policy. But values of white citizens did not change overnight.

After the war, Southern states began to pass laws, known as Black Codes, that established economic arrangements intended to retain slavery in all but name. Over time, however, minds and hearts continued to change such that today slavery, at least in the form recognized by the Constitution, is not only illegal but, almost unanimously, morally repugnant.

There has also been progress in achieving full citizenship for African-Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are landmark examples of policies aimed at ending racial discrimination, and most everyone now agrees that racial discrimination in employment and voting is unacceptable. Of course, racial segregation and discrimination persist.

In my own home town, Baton Rouge, La., the problem was manifested recently in the tragic shooting of an African-American by police officers that resulted in civil unrest, compounding the tragedy. It is heartbreaking to see one’s own city at war with itself, but such events shed light on a reality that many would deny, a cold war that is still there below the surface.

A priest of the diocese recently spoke directly to these events and the injustice that they indicate. He suggested that there is no political solution to this problem. He said, “We will only learn to live together when we admit that we are nobodys, so that we can all become somebodys in Christ.” Though this community and many others will continue to debate the need for additional policy changes—better use-of-force training for police, for example—ultimately he is right. Changing the law will not make us one community. Our values as a society must change; the law cannot do that for us.

Policy and attitudes regarding abortion may follow a similar pattern. Many Catholics invest a great deal of themselves in political campaigns aimed at changing the law with respect to abortion. If such legal changes are achieved, however, and prove to be as effective as our laws prohibiting drug use and as costly to enforce, will those who work so hard now be satisfied with the outcome? As with slavery, the law is only one facet of the change that is required. Abortion will become history only when the nation fully recognizes the sanctity of the life of the unborn.

Converting Hearts and Minds

Electoral politics provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in setting priorities and in the debate about policy changes to be made in the short term. But if policy change was not sufficient on the question of slavery, has not been sufficient on the question of racial justice and will not be sufficient on the question of abortion, our obligations as citizens do not end at the ballot. Converting hearts and minds on such issues is just as important.

We must, for example, bring our “nobodyness” to encounters with persons of other races in order to share the love of Christ and overcome separation. We must bring compassion to those who are considering abortion in order to demonstrate that mother and unborn child have a home and a family regardless of circumstances. We may even need to recognize the legitimacy of other points of view on these issues in order to grow together as a society. Picking a side in an election is not a substitute for establishing human connections.

The dominant cultural values of our time are not suited to sustaining a healthy society or effective representative democracy. Catholic values and traditions provide an alternative to these dominant cultural values and can contribute to improvement on both fronts.

The dominant cultural values of our time are not suited to sustaining a healthy society or effective representative democracy.

For many years I was a part-time college instructor in American government. Some of my students, like many of their age group, questioned the need to vote because, they argued, “My vote is not likely to make a difference in an election nor to achieve any tangible result for me personally, so why bother?”

This question is revealing. Phrased in a slightly broader way, the question is: “Why should I be concerned with anybody but me?”

This, to my mind, is the lynchpin to understanding the weakness of the dominant cultural values in the United States. In too many settings and in too many ways, the prevailing answer to this question is: “There is no reason why you should.”

Traditionally, a belief that human beings were naturally bound to one another created a sense of obligation to a community because of a belief that the community was in some critical way more important than the individual. When social bonds and obligation to community dissipate, a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others in the community is replaced by a tendency to act in ways that place others at risk.

Texting while driving, the illegal gun and drug trades, irresponsible investing, failure to end racial segregation, excessive consumption that depletes planetary resources and lifestyles built around technological isolation—all these place others at risk and are manifestations of this dissolution. Certainly some of us still dabble in communities on a superficial level or babble about their importance in shallow, patriotic utterances; but actually making life choices that place the well-being of a community above the well-being of oneself is no longer a reality in most of our lives.

A common misconception among those who recognize some version of this problem is that the unraveling of the social fabric began fairly recently. But the disease that is debilitating the American body politic is not the result of an infection picked up in the last few decades. The nature of the disease is more akin to a genetic disorder, with its origins in the sociopolitical DNA of the nation.

For most of the nation's history, as the political theorist Patrick Deneen describes it, the United States benefited from a reservoir of inherited communal attachments and ancient conceptions of the social nature of human beings. But this reservoir has been depleted. Catholics need to draw from the church’s values and traditions and do their part to replenish that reservoir.

Rebuilding Community

Beyond elections and beyond particular issues, we are obliged to consider the broader cultural crisis of our time and the possibilities for contributing to the overall health of government and society. There are many ways to do this, and each of us should consider how our talents and circumstances can be applied to this obligation, but some common obligations are applicable to all citizens.

We are obliged to recognize the importance of civic government and support its effectiveness. We see how the church’s government holds a global network of disparate communities together; we could not be a catholic church without it. The same is true of the United States.

Supporting effective civic government in the United States requires voting for candidates who are interested in governing and capable of doing it. That in turn requires consideration of more than a candidate’s positions; it requires an understanding of their motivations for pursuing office.

For example, a professed willingness to work with others to move society forward together may reveal an attitude conducive to governing; a desire to destroy opponents is an attitude detrimental to governing. The latter attitude has come to dominate U.S. elections.

The first consequence of this is, not surprisingly, poorly functioning government; and poorly functioning government in turn makes policy progress on any issue nearly impossible. To support candidates simply because they claim they will fight for certain policy positions is self-defeating. To support candidates who support the institutions that make governing possible is our obligation.

We are obliged to be ever attentive to commonalities and shared purpose. There is far too much concern among officials and voters with winning the next election. As a result, we obsess over our differences and lose all sight of our shared values and goals. If partisan politics dominate our civic activities and convince us that we are always engaged in combat with each other, we have given up all sense of national unity in favor of victory-oriented division.

We are obliged to take our values into all facets of our social lives, including the economy. I have heard practicing Catholics suggest that popes and bishops should not comment on economic issues. Presumably this belief is encouraged by the belief that the forces that make up the free market system are content-neutral and therefore should be kept separate and apart from moral judgment. There may be perfectly sound arguments supporting this conclusion, but they are not Catholic arguments; indeed, segregation of this sort seems to be the essential form of worshiping two masters.

The invisible hand works without government interference, but it works much better for everyone, and with less government interference, if moral principles guide the actions of its actors. The obligation to make morally sound economic decisions applies to both producers and consumers.

Admittedly, doing this makes economic decisions much more difficult. For an executive, balancing the needs of current employees with the obligation to the sustainability of the enterprise for the sake of future employees is harder than just answering to the fiduciary obligation to shareholders; and consumer choices that confront materialism and acknowledge ecological and fair trade concerns demand decision making more challenging than simply maximizing the buying power of our income. We are obliged to commit ourselves to these difficulties as a way of committing ourselves to something bigger than ourselves and reversing the exploitative and destructive forces of purely self-interested economic activity.

We are obliged to retain commitment to authentic community. Authentic communities nurture the individual but also demand that the individual make commitments and sacrifices for the sake of the community. They create a sense of belonging but also a sense that such belonging is expansive, not insular, directing attention of each member outward to the human community rather than to the differences between “us and them.”

The family provides the foundational experience of belonging and sacrifice for most of us, and we are obligated to ensure that family is experienced by everyone. The structure of the Catholic Church, with local parishes united in dioceses that are in turn united globally, is a very distinct example of how local communities can be united in a much larger community. Theoretically, the nation’s county, state, and federal governments could function in the same way, but even the levels of government seem more focused on division than on unity.

Catholic communities of vowed religious, in their subjugation of the individual to the community’s principles and in their service, provide a striking counterpoint to contemporary values in the United States as well. One of the great developments of recent church history is the expanding opportunity for more people to more intimately experience some form of the commitment of vowed religious. For some this occurs in small faith communities; others become associated lay members of one of those communities of religious.

In my own religious community, the Congregation of St. Joseph, the sisters speak often about how much they appreciate having new members who can share their charism, but what strikes me is how much our world needs what the sisters have. Authentic community is living proof that the political philosopher John Locke, whose thinking deeply influenced U.S. civic culture, was wrong about human beings; we are innately social creatures who achieve our purpose only through living out an obligation to others.

Religious people have an important leadership role to play in changing secular values

We are obliged to join with members of other faith communities who are also mining the depths of their traditions for a response to excessive individualism. There is nothing uniquely Catholic or even necessarily religious about obligations to the community. Indeed, the goal is for communal obligations to become a universal norm.

Religious people have an important leadership role to play in changing secular values, just as they did regarding slavery and civil rights, and for the same reasons. Sectarian differences should not distract us from our shared purpose.

Simply put, Catholics should manifest in every aspect of civic and political life a belief that we are bound to our fellow citizens and responsible for them, all of them. This statement is so uncontroversial and so essentially Christian that it seems it should not need to be said. It would not be but for the fact that the statement is so radically at odds with the prevailing values of the culture in which we have been long immersed.

That culture was founded in part on a rejection of the idea that human beings are naturally conjoined in favor of a view that the free exercise of self-interest is the basis of all relationship. Tragically, what was originally a peripheral principle has become the hallmark feature of the society that evolved. Now American Catholics need to accept the responsibility to redefine, even reinvent, a culture that esteems life and community.

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Stuart Meisenzahl
3 years 2 months ago

I am in absolute agreement that the Church should seek to change hearts and minds of individuals in order to affect change in the cultural norms and values of the nation. The "how" in that proposition is the difficult point to tackle.
The Church has no expertise in economics or markets as the sorry history of Vatican economic organizations amply demonstrates. Similarly the Church has no expertise in governing as again reflected by its disastrous history of being in bed with dictators, kings and queens etc.
. For Bishops and Cardinals to mount the pulpit on particular economic issues or to sponsor particular economic positions is to court disaster.
Adam Smith's Invisable Hand in the field of economics and markets is just an applied observation of what the Catholic Church recognizes as God's great gift to the individual of "free will". The "free market" as we know it is the embodiment of the collective aggregation of these individual exercises of "free will" .
It is perfectly appropriate for the Church to comment on the moral implications of any exercise of free will, including in the field of economics but that is a far different proposition than sponsoring or endorsing a specific economic policy and arguing that individual decisions should be made to achieve such a policy. It is one thing to instruct/urge/ counsel individuals on the moral necessity of sharing material wealth in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount, but is quite another thing entirely to require/demand /instruct that economic markets themselves be structured to share material wealth across a broad spectrum. Adam Smith's principle teaches that if the Church successfully convinces a significant number of individuals on the moral implications of their exercise of "free will" it will be reflected in the market. The Bishops always seem to prefer the short cut of ignoring the individuals and going directly to critiquing or affecting the final policy.

Similarly in the field of politics the Church and its members cannot in the first instance "outsource" the principles of Sermon on the Mount to government. The job of the Church is to change the hearts and minds of individuals who once again are exercising a choice of their "free will". The charge from the Sermon on the Mount to individuals is not to rely on government but to personally act. The job of the clergy to preach, reach and teach individuals is significantly harder than just heading off to the halls of congress, but that is the job. But again the Bishops like the short cut of going directly to government to effect top down results. You correctly note that it is the bottom up (start with individual hearts and minds) that results a permanent change in our community.

As to "rebuilding community", I might suggest that before the Bishops do anything else they figure out how to fix and revive their own collapsing parish structure in the the United States and fix the various dioceses' own finances which have suffered depletion/collapse to pay for the errors and mistakes of their own making.
Tough for the parish priest to reach "a roaming catholic".... here today gone next Sunday! I am all for starting right at the Parish level.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 2 months ago

Christ healed the sick, the lame, the blind and the deaf. Bishops perhaps see something Christlike in the Affordable Care Act.

Raymond Marey
3 years 2 months ago

You make sense on many levels. Free markets are a reflection of free will. The "Top Down" thinking ingrained in the hierarchal church does not allow comprehension of this concept, nor how the Holy Spirit acts through this method. There is a latent dishonesty in the church. The clergy ignore God's command to "go forth and multiply", instead claiming celibacy is somehow holier than following God's unequivocal direction that it is not good for man to be alone. To cover their obvious error, they claim celibacy and abstinence is optional but only allow converted protestant ministers to be married. Jesus said he did not come to build a new institution by saying he was not an earthly king, yet the Vatican is literally a kingdom, a country in and of itself. Jesus wanted us to hear the message from people who went out with only the clothes on their back. Naively I believe the Holy Spirit would take over from there. America works, not perfectly, but obviously the Church needs to refrain from politically agitating one party against another, and focus on its own many flaws. The Church needs to redirect its social justice zeal inward. Show us how its done, ..... or don't. -Dr. Mary

rose-ellen caminer
3 years 2 months ago

When you say we need to recognize the legitimacy of other points of view on "this issue" ,referring to abortion, you lose me. That killing human fetuses can be seen as morally legitimate , is a complete non starter for me. Everything else you say I agree on, but abortion has been common now for over 40 years. It's not some side issue. It's a "grave evil" ;I know even to use that phrase, is passe , now that outlawing abortion is only paid lip service to, and not politically viable, but it's still very true.
It is bad enough that we have not been able to change hearts and minds, but that now even Christians are saying what you say; "we should recognize the legitimacy of other views," on abortion?, makes it look like our moral compass is shifting. If killing innocent sentient suffering beings in the womb is perhaps moral, what does our Christian faith mean concretely? As a Christian/ humanist I know it can never mean the willful killing of the unborn.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 2 months ago

“…a belief that human beings were naturally bound to one another created a sense of obligation...”

In World War II, a sense of obligation may have revealed itself as shared sacrifice. A return to a 77% estate tax (on the top .01% incomes) would perhaps signal that a sense of obligation is alive and well.

Michael Barberi
3 years 2 months ago

I think the 'how' to change minds and hearts and cultural norms and values is the key here.

We can preach about it....but Sunday sermons are about 10 minutes and focus of the Scripture readings.

Mass attendance is about 23% in the U.S....and most parishioners don't get involved in ministry for any number of reasons, good and bad.

Those that can should do...and that means speaking up when conversations among friends indirectly or directly enforce cultural norms and values that are in contradiction to the Gospel.

Most young Catholics don't go to Catholic elementary or high school. There should be a requirement that all young people go through 12 years of Catholic education. Normally, required Catholic CCD ends at Confirmation. Perhaps, years 8th-12th, should focus on the 'how', social and sexual ethics, and how to make moral decisions. I am not an educator, but I think it would be a good idea to feed young minds with practical theology as we grow into mature adults.

Recognizing how our secular culture of individualism, relativism, consumerism and liberalism impacts our thinking, motivations and ends would be a good first step. Nevertheless, all I ever hear are those words but not any real life examples in a parish expert-lead forum where an exchange of ideas are shared and questions are posited and answered.

Frankly, I think the Church is not equipped nor skilled enough to engage in this type of dialogue and education at the parish level. In other words, when you get into the details about the issues of everyday life, the Church often has no convincing answers other than general guiding principles. General guidelines are good, but the deeper you get into the details of concrete cases and circumstances, the less do general principles provide answers. On the other hand, black and white moral answers on issues ranging from contraception, to the termination of a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother, have never worked.

Tim Donovan
3 years 1 month ago

I believe that the violence of legal abortion is a matter of paramount importance in our nation, much as ehding the enslavement of blacks was of paramount importance in the first seven decades (or more) of the 19 th century. I agree, however, that there are many important matters for us to consider as good American citizens and good Catholics. I readily agree to being an imperfect Catholic, as I'm gay and have in the past violated church teaching regarding gay sex. However, by going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confessing my sins with several compassionate priests, I have felt consolation. I support gun control, reasonable government assistance to the millions of Americans in need, reasonable laws to protect our environment, reasonable humanitarian aid and economic development for impoverished foreign nations, and oppose capital punishnent. I also believe that we as nation should welcome immigrants, including those who come here illegally. As a retired Special Education teacher who also worked in a group home for an agency that served disabled people from infancy through their senior years, a majority of the employees in the agency's residential program were immigrants, primarily from African nations, particularly Liberia! In the group home where I worked, three of my co-workers were Liberia, ahd fled from their homeland due to the extreme violence if a civil war. I do believe, as difficult as it may be that our nation has a responsibility to reform our immigration laws in the best way possible. Also, there must be racial equality, which is also a difficult matter. In my view, the great majority of police officers are good people who do their best to serve their communities. However, some abuse their power by injuring or killing citizens and it seems that racial minorities are particular victims. I do believe that abortion should be ended both by passing laws ensuring maximum protection to the innocent unborn, as well as assistance for pregnant women in need. Education in terms of sexuality should be primarily a matter for oarents and houses of worship to undertake; however, I believe that schools should in a reasonable manner teach about the biology and "technical" matters related to intercourse . Although as a faithful but imperfect Catholic I support only natural family planning, I do believe that non-abortive means of contraception as well as sterilization should remain legal for adults, but not minors. If I understand the author of the article correctly, I agree that on many of these political matters,that dialogue in a respectful manner can be beneficial. Finally, although the government has a significant role to play in address issues related to the common good, community organizations, houses of worship, individuals, foundations, and private charities all have a significant role to play in improving our culture.


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