The Catholic Thing
The Political World Seen – and Unseen Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 08 November 2010

When Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984, carrying forty-nine States, our late friend Joe Sobran began National Review‘s first commentary after the election, with this memorable opening line: “Heh, heh, heh.” It was a moment of savoring. The mid-term election, a week ago, offered the occasion again for savoring, but with the joys tempered by the disappointments. Harry Reid in Nevada, Patty Murray in Washington, survived after all. And then there is Barbara Boxer. No one who read the exchange will readily forget it: During the 1999 debate on a partial-birth abortion bill, Rick Santorum asked Barbara Boxer whether one was still free to kill the child at the point of birth if the toe of the child remained in the birth canal. Of course not, she said. Then what, he asked, was the difference between the toe remaining in the birth canal, or the head? Instead of bringing Senator Boxer along the chain of reasoning, his question triggered a spasm of outrage: There he goes again, doing tricks with words.

And speaking of words and their tricks, one must wonder just why so many conservative commentators on television seemed to be afraid of moving beyond the narrowest, flattest phrases when they were asked to explain, in a pithy line, what this election was about: “It’s the economy, and jobs.” Yes, that was a critical part of the story with unemployment around 9.6 percent. But surely that was not the fuller, richer account of the recognitions setting in among the public.  There was a concern also that the attempt to foster jobs through a massive spending on a “stimulus” was creating jobs mainly in the government and strengthening the public service unions. As one wag put it, government in California was already “government of, by, and for the public service unions.”  

The people working for the government were in an enterprise that could not go out of business when their labor costs went up dramatically. People who could not be fired had the powers of law at hand to raise their salaries, by laying taxes on people making less, and who could in fact be fired. The national stimulus orchestrated by the Congress and the administration bore the tendency and purpose of making this scheme national in scope. All of this was tied in with the political takeover of medical care, with its prospect of price controls and rationing. And then came the extension of even more regulations on financial institutions, making it ever more likely that credit will hinge more and more on political connections.

         Republicans have become America’s pro-life political party

But there was another dimension of the election that ran even more beneath the notice of the media, and it could be seen in the statistics once the dust had settled. A contingent of “pro-life Democrats” who had voted for Obamacare was defeated, including: Steve Driehaus and Charlie Wilson of Ohio; Kathy Dahlkemper, Paul Kanjorski, and Chris Carney of Pennsylvania. By one count, seventeen pro-life Catholics were added to the House, while even more important, twenty-six pro-abortion Catholics will be leaving. But that in turn may distract attention from the surge of pro-life Republicans at all levels, in governorships and legislatures, pro-lifers who are not Catholic. Americans United for Life has made a list of the pro-life gains in governorships, and they are dramatic: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Maine, Iowa, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Wyoming, Kansas, Alabama, New Mexico – in addition to the pro-life governors reelected.

When we add up these things, we come face to face again with the truth that somehow dares not speak its name even among Catholics: Like it or not – whether it accords with ancient loyalties and enmities or not – the hard fact of the matter is that the Republicans in our day have become the pro-life party in our politics. And so, as a notable example, when the bill on partial-birth abortion passed the Senate in 2003, the Republicans voted for it 48-3 (losing only Lincoln Chafee and the two senators from Maine). The Democrats voted about two-thirds against it, 30-16. In the House, the Republicans voted for the ban, 218-4, the Democrats 63 for it, 137 against.

In my grandparents’ apartment in Chicago, where I spent my first few years, there was, in the kitchen, a large picture of Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican Party had begun with a muscular Protestantism in the campaign against slavery and polygamy, but at the end of the nineteenth century, it was also an engine of nativism in seeking to end any public support for Catholic schools. And well into our own time that party took its lead from upper-middle class Protestants, eager to advance the cause of contraception and birth control. Many of us in the pro-life movement can recount our frustrations dealing with traditional Republicans who were hostile to pro-lifers or just couldn’t see that the “life issues” were anything more than a distraction from the “real issues” in our politics. But what has suddenly become clear is that Republicans of this stripe are passing from the scene. The younger ones coming up have been drawn in part because the Republicans have become the pro-life party, and they have absorbed that character as they have risen to the political life.   It is time for Catholics to stop seeing through a glass darkly in viewing our politics, and start seeing what is plainly before us.

Hadley Arkes
is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Bill, November 09, 2010
Well done, Dr. Arkes. Thank you for reminding us that there are non-Catholic politicians who are also Pro-Life.
written by Joe, November 09, 2010
While legislative gains are notable, Professor Arkes, the additions of Sotomayor and Kagan do not bode well for an overturning of Roe v. Wade. Ultimately, it would seem, the Supremes will have the final say on abortion and with no changes in the left-leaning court foreseeable, any reversal would appear to be unlikely.

Overlooked in the media focus on the Congressional gains by the GOP is the strides made in state legislatures, where something like 680 seats were taken by Republicans. Wisconsin, for example, once as blue as the sea, is now nearly totally red with both houses going over and 6 of 8 congressional seats, plus the governor's job. If federalism is still alive -- and that is very much in doubt -- then impetus for new abortion restrictions can take root at the state level.

Still, in the end, it seems that the judges are the ones who decide social policies (e.g. gay marriage).
written by Ted, November 09, 2010
"When Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984, carrying forty-eight States...."

Reagan actually carried 49 states... Mondale (by a razor thin margin) carried his home state of Minnesota and (by a wide margin) carried the District of Columbia.

Reagan came darn close to carrying all 50 states. The 1984 election was a wipeout.
written by Chris Boegel, November 09, 2010
The solution to controlling judges is to submit them all to elections, like those in Iowa who were kicked out for usurping their authority by daring to preside over the institution of marriage.
written by Hadley Arkes, November 09, 2010
Ted is quite right--and this was the slip: I recalled that Mondale had carried only two jurisdictions, but one was the District of Columbia, not a state. I'm sorry for the slip and pleased to have the correction. As a wipe out, that outcome was comparable to 1972, when Nixon lost only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia

"Joe" anticipates my next column, but he falls into the mistake more common in our own time: assuming that the political branches have nothing to do with interpreting the Constitution and at time governing the courts. If President George W. Bush had been more inclined to take any initiatives here, he and the Congress had in their hands two pieces of legislation--the Partial-birth Abortion Act and the Born-Alive Infants' Protection Act--that gave them critical levers. With those levers they could have pushed the party of abortion to the beginning of the Endgame on abortion. Those levers could be used now by the House--and by a Pro-life president.

But beyond that, the Court with Roberts and Alito have virtually invited the States now to bring forth a chain of laws that restrict abortion in precise, limited ways, and with the prospect now that this chain of steps will be sustained by the Court, one step at a time. With about 680 new legislators in the States, the States can become now engines ever more active in generating that chain of cases brought to the Court.

written by CP, November 10, 2010
The Republican Party is quite clearly more pro-life than the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, many Catholics are holding their noses and voting Republican in spite of a strong distaste for the rest of the Republican agenda that includes things like support for the death penalty and the dissolution of social welfare programs. Unfortunately, some Catholics are so put off by this agenda that they compromise their beliefs to the point that they support pro-abortion candidates. What you so easily ascribe to "ancient loyalties" is actually a real, heartfelt decision being made by those who cannot rationalize voting for the negative aspects of the Republican agenda.

The argument against this compromise is that abortion trumps all other issues. I can agree with this argument. But where are the the pro-life, Catholic Republicans trying to push the party to support a ban on the death penalty or a more just society for immigrants and the underprivileged? Whether they wish to wash their hands of other social justice topics by citing prudential judgement or not, the teachings of Christ are quite clear in a call for compassion and a preference for the poor. The teachings of the Church assent to the role of public authority in supporting social justice initiatives up to and including Caritas in Veritate.

Support the Republican Party because it is pro-life, but never stop fighting to change the platform of that party so that it is more aligned to the charity and mission of our Church. To surrender these values for political reasons is to lose both the battle for abortion (as we lose the support of those who compromise their pro-life beliefs) and social justice (as we support an agenda antithetical to it).
written by BD, November 11, 2010
Christ did indeed teach us to care for the unfortunate among us. However, He did not teach us to do that by handing over our funds to our government and have them do it. In fact, I argue that 'entrusting' our government to do our social welfare for us, we have removed ourselves from daily acting out Christ's mission. Be realistic, most people pay no attention to the dollars removed from their check in taxes. People live and budget on their net income and therefore do not 'feel the sacrifice' of their contribution to the 'poor among us'. If, in fact, we had a much greater portion of our own earned income, we could then truely live Christ's mission as individuals giving to those in need directly. Christ did not tell us to give to Caesar so that he could take care of the poor and lame. He told us to do it ourselves. In supporting a party who taxes and spends in the name of caring for the unfortunate, we have given over the definition of who is worthy of care to the very same group who does not value life. This is a huge dilema.
written by Barry Arrington, November 11, 2010
"the hard fact of the matter is that the Republicans in our day have become the pro-life party in our politics."

Republicans have been the pro-life party for about 30 years now; yet you write as if this is a recent, perhaps uncompleted, change in our politics. I wonder why.

The sad fact is that pro-life Democrats have been as rare as hens’ teeth for a long time. Witness Bob Casey’s shabby reception at the 1992 Democratic convention.

My roots are in the “solid South.” Once solidly Democratic (so much so that in most states the “real” election was the Democratic primary); now solidly Republican. And why did that happen? Because the Northeastern liberals captured the Democratic Party in about 1972 and proceeded to oust everyone who did not march in lockstep with the.

Both sides of my family voted Democrat only for generations. By all rights I should be firmly in the Democratic camp. But there is no room for me there, so I am a Republicn.

My grandfather remained a yellow dog Democrat until the day he died. When I was elected to my state legislature as a Republican he couldn’t decide if he were more proud of my accomplishment or more embarrassed by the my party. This, despite the fact that he was to my right politically. Yet he pulled the D lever every election, “because Roosevelt kept us from starving during the Depression. That’s why damn it!”
written by CP, November 11, 2010
Are you saying that there is no role for public institutions in caring for the disadvantaged?

Urging public institutions to help the disadvantaged is hardly unChristlike nor antithetical to Church teachings. As Americans, we have the power to guide the collective strength of our government to support programs to better our society. The Church supports public means of societal change and the role of government in achieving these goals, and has done so for over a century. Most recently, this was done by the Holy Father in Caritas in Veritate.

What happens when there is no private institution large enough to care for those in need? The realistic consequence of dissolving social security, medicare, welfare, public education, and other programs is a society in which the elderly go hungry, the disabled go without care, the poor go homeless, and the powerless go uneducated. This happens today even with these programs, but the breadth and depth of the suffering is much less. Do you think that dissolving these programs and giving back the money to taxpayers will lead to a better society? If so, how?
written by Brian English, November 12, 2010
"Urging public institutions to help the disadvantaged is hardly unChristlike nor antithetical to Church teachings. As Americans, we have the power to guide the collective strength of our government to support programs to better our society. The Church supports public means of societal change and the role of government in achieving these goals, and has done so for over a century. Most recently, this was done by the Holy Father in Caritas in Veritate."

Urging public institutions to help is one thing; surrendering the field to the government is another.

This belief that Christ's mandate to help the poor can be satisfied through more and more government intervention misses a critical point -- that material assistance necessarily excludes God.

If you have B16's book Jesus of Nazareth, look at the section on the temptation to turn stones into bread. He is emphatic that any program based purely on material aid is doomed to failure.
written by Brian English, November 12, 2010
"Do you think that dissolving these programs and giving back the money to taxpayers will lead to a better society? If so, how?"

Money now distributed through government programs will be distributed through charitable organizations, many of them religious in nature. People's lives could be transformed, not just maintained.

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