The Catholic Thing
Truncated Politics, Truncated Persons? Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A sampling of the news of the week: Our friends at the Franciscan University in Steubenville announce that they will have to discontinue the policy of offering medical insurance for their students, for they would be required under the rules promulgated under Obamacare to fund contraceptives and abortions or pay a knockout fine.

A black minister in Maryland, a Democratic member of the legislature, has been active in the resistance to same-sex marriage. President Obama’s support now for same-sex marriage has moved him to outrage. But it has not moved him from his determination to vote again for a man who would use all of the levers within his hands to advance a policy that this minister regards as massively destructive.

Jamie Dimon, the head of J.P. Morgan, has been suffering deep embarrassment over the loss of $2 billion in genius hedges gone awry. He complains of new regulations under the Dodd-Frank law, suffocating business. 

These are measures brought forth by a Democratic Congress, spurred on by a Democratic president, and Dimon has been known as a “big” contributor to the Democratic Party. Will his experience break him from his attachment to that party, or can we bet that he will continue to hold to that party for those “cultural” reasons that have attached people in his circle to the so-called liberal party?

At every turn, we hear that it’s the economy that will be the main determinant in the vote for president this year. But then again, isn’t that what we heard last time, and in 2004, 2000, 1996, and 1992 (“it’s the economy, stupid”)? That may indeed be true, but it has quickly become a mantra that has blocked out all contrary sounds.  

The sluggish economic recovery under Mr. Obama has borne even more severely on black people, and yet it is taken for granted that blacks will still vote for him at levels of 90 per cent or more. It seems that something similar is at work with the recoil of Hispanics from the Republicans, whether rightful or wrongful. Ethnic tensions have always been a part of the mix in American politics, and the loyalties may hold even through the ups and downs of the economy.

We are persistently faced with evidence that people care profoundly for things other than the state of the economy, even when joblessness has remained high. But earlier in the year, the problem of the economy was seen as part of a problem much deeper, running to the constitutional order.


The problem of Obamacare was a problem of the government moving to a monopoly of control over medical care. It promised a vast extension of the power of government, with the government now willing to: 

  • nationalize parts of the automobile and banking industry;
  • favor public unions over private employment;
  • put public money into businesses with political connections;
  • make more and more people dependent on the support of the government;
  • require Catholic adoption agencies to go out of business if they will not place children in the custody of homosexual partners;
  • and now force Catholic institutions to fund and endorse contraception.

We had a sense, for a while this spring, that the political class regarded these issues as worth talking about. They ran deeper than the state of the economy because they involved what we used to call “the terms of principle” on which a people lived.

I raise this issue now, with a certain alarm, because we have had settling in for a long while the notion that we cannot talk any longer in our politics about these questions. The cliché has taken hold that people care foremost about the economy, and that some people are actively hostile to hearing politicians talk about anything other than the economy. To talk about marriage or abortion is taken as the sign of a zealot, of someone willing to unsettle the public.

Mr. Romney over the last week has been putting the accent on the deficit. That is no doubt an important issue, but it is also abstract, and it would be a mistake for him to let slip the sense, taking hold earlier this year, that this election was really a moment of judgment on those “terms of principle” on which we live.  

At a certain point would it not be apt for a conservative candidate to ask: Are we really the kind of people who would prefer to see doctors and nurses leave their vocations because they don’t wish to engage in abortions? Do we really want a government that would compel a private Catholic college to drop its medical insurance because it doesn’t wish to endorse contraception? Is that the kind of people we wish to be, the kind of people we have become?

Among the lessons taught by Lincoln was that a statesman finds a way of leading people to talk about the things that are truly central even though people may not wish to talk about them. My concern is that we have produced a truncated discourse on politics in this country, with a strong aversion to talking about those matters of moral consequence that people do in fact care about. 

And if we come to settle more firmly into the grooves of that kind of politics, the question is do we become the kind of truncated persons who fit that truncated political world?

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and the Director of the Claremont Center for the Jurisprudence of Natural Law in Washington. D.C. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Other Joe, May 22, 2012
Leadership moves the polls. Manipulators consult them to determine how best to spin their web. When the government takes over the definitions of morality, morality becomes centered in this world and quickly politicized. The government then buys up consequences which people are happy to unload in return for votes. Thus there are no-fault divorces, no-fault road "accidents", abortions on demand, federal money for sex related disease control, free condoms, support for teenage mothers, bad financial planning bailouts, union demands that bankrupt a car manufacturer are paid for with tax dollars, and so on. Moral hazards are cleaned up by faceless bureaucrats in moral hazmat space suits. This is exactly the devil's bargain. The great deceiver provides modest worldly comfort for the cost of a soul. The problem is that, like Dorian Gray's portrait, the consequences have to go somewhere. The government has stored up all of the consequences in debt of all kinds, all of which is unsustainable. The consequences are removed from the individual and become societal. Spread the misery, spread the evil, it is only “fair”. When the day of reckoning comes, it will be like a tsunami. We see the signs in Europe today. We are living in a moral Ponzi scheme.
written by will manley, May 22, 2012
Mr. speak the truth. We live in a materialistic culture where money is all that matters. Morality is now seen as an old fashioned word that connotes a sense of elitism..."don't tell me how to lead my life. ..everyone should be free to choose their own ethical standards." The Catholic Church could be a leader in injecting morality into the political arena for consideration, debate, and discussion but for the fact that thousands of young boys were molested by Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy chose to conceal and cover up these crimes rather than report them to law enforcement. It will be decades before the Church gets its moral mojo back because of these scandals. In the meantime, the Church should focus on inward reform and repentance. Right now the Catholic Church should be in a collective confessional mode; not in a political action committee mode. That's the harsh reality. Anything else is wishful thinking. I truly wish there were not the case.
written by Grump, May 22, 2012
Good article, professor, but using Lincoln as an example of statesmanship is a poor choice. "Dishonest" Abe has been exposed as one of the worst Presidents in history. Thomas DiLorenzo's excellent books, 'The Real Lincoln' and 'Lincoln Unmasked' reveal a Obama-like dictator who had little regard for the law (he suspended habeas corpus, for example, arrested thousands of political opponents, closed hundreds of opposition newspapers and, as an unabashed white supremacist, supported colonization of blacks back to Africa).

I think Rick Santorum proved that social issues do matter in America, but I'm afraid Romney will act defensive in his debates with Obama and try to change the topic whenever "gay marriage" or abortion comes up.

Unfortunately, identity politics shapes America more than ever. Voting blocs are typically classified in monolithic fashion as "the black vote," "the Jewish vote," "the Hispanic vote," etc. We are no longer a nation of individuals, each thinking for his or herself but rather allowing the group to do the "thinking" for us. Eric Hoffer brilliantly wrote about this in "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" in 1951.
written by Sue, May 22, 2012
"The Catholic Church could be a leader...but for the fact..." that it's American wing, through the USCCB, shilled for Obamacare. All followings from that fact, were predictable, and can be charged back to the USCCB.

Shut down the USCCB, it's resembling the Chinese Patriotic Church. Devolve the authority back to individual bishops where it belongs. If they need to coordinate, let them coordinate with Rome.
written by jsmitty, May 22, 2012
Does Obamacare really force Franciscan University to fund abortions? I know that if the HHS rules are implemented health insurers will have to cover contraceptives, so it makes sense to argue that FUS will be paying for them indirectly through its health insurance premiums. But I missed the part about abortions. These aren't part of HHS regs as I understand it, Dr. Arkes. What's the basis of the claim you make in the first sentence?
written by Louise, May 22, 2012
Sue is exactly right. Sooner or later it all comes back to the bishops. The local paper this morning reprinted an editorial from the L.A. Times. The sentence that struck home to me was to the effect that Cardinal Wuerl didn't object to such and such, why does he object now to Ms. Sibelius speaking at Georgetown? In the opinion of the L.A. Times, he had long since relinquished any moral authority to speak on any matter concerning abortion, same-sex marriage, or any issue involving moral choices.

Please. Did you have to post the photo? I can at least turn the TV off when he appears, but I didn't want to turn Prof. Arkes off. It was a real shocker to confront it when still half asleep and before my morning coffee. When I was a little girl, I had a ventriloquist's dummy of Charlie McCarthy. When you pulled a string the jaw dropped down opening a big grin on his face. Every time I see this grin, I wonder who pulled the string.
written by Rosemary, May 22, 2012
HI Louise - I know from past comments that you are my age...and I love what you have to say!
written by Martial Artist, May 22, 2012
@Other Joe,

You write "When the day of reckoning comes, it will be like a tsunami. We see the signs in Europe today. We are living in a moral Ponzi scheme." You are almost certainly correct, and I suspect that the day of reckoning will be within the expected lifetimes of many of us commenting here, almost assuredly within one or two decades, and most likely on the nearer end of that span. If Romney is elected and it doesn't occur prior to November, then Obama and his party will bear much of the blame. On the other hand if Romney is elected and it doesn't occur for another two years or more, Romney and his party will bear the blame. Just as in the depression. Despite the fact that most of FDR's initial term programs were little more than expansions of what Herbert Hoover had put in place after the "crash," Hoover gets the blame and FDR the credit, albeit erroneously, for the recovery.

The truth of the matter is that neither of those two candidates has proposed a viable solution to the deficit and the ever-growing Federal spending increases, so whichever is elected, we are in a very similar, if not precisely the same, boat. There is only one major party candidate who has a plan to eliminate the deficit during his first term. He is not eliminated from the running yet, so there is some cause for hope.

If Romney is elected, the issue is not whether we are all toast, it is when will it become inevitable.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Manfred, May 22, 2012
Dr. Arkes: The readers should be reminded that big changes are afoot. At the last election of the president of the USCCB, for the first time in its history, the vice-president was not elected to succeed the president. Abp Dolan was elected over Abp Kicanas (Tucson) who had been supported, by among others, the homoactivist group "Rainbow Sash". It is Dolan who recently admitted that catechetics, including the prohibition against contraception, had not been taught to the laity by the hierarchy in forty years! You wrote your article before the announcement on May 21st, that the archdioceses of New York and D.C.,as well as Notre Dame U. and Catholic U. and sundry dioceses and Catholic institutions, had levelled suit against the Federal Gov't.on that day. The HHS mandate became law in February, 2012 and bishops must either standup or consign the Church to an inferior place for ever. They know this and all the bishops, including the homosexuals in their midst, now have to join a fight that many of them don't want as otherwise their offices and titles will become de jure (as opposed to de facto)irrelevant.
written by Jacob, May 22, 2012
Hadley Arkes for president!!
written by Louise, May 23, 2012
Thank you, Rosemary, and God bless you. And God bless all the writers and commenters here. It is encouraging to hear so many faithful voices raised in praise and defense of Christ's Church. It calls to mind a certain mustard seed of which our Lord spoke.
written by Hadley Arkes, May 23, 2012
I had sought to comment much earlier in the train of comments on Tuesday, but my message had gone astray through my own fault. I’m grateful to Brad Miner for inviting me to add a few responses nevertheless. But writing later now, I must record my appreciation again for the conversation that unfolded here among my readers, for they’ve been led to discover also the ground of friendship with one another.

I wanted to offer a plea to our friend Grump. Through the warm entreaties and welcome of other readers, he was apparently returning to communion. I wanted to ask him, though, not to buy on to that false caricature of Lincoln that comes through that circle of books marked by Mr DiLorenzo. Before he says anything more in that vein I’d plead with him to read the best—and most beautiful—books written on Lincoln, both by Harry Jaffa: The Crisis of the House Divided (1959), and A New Birth of Freedom (circa 2000 or 2001). These are books that deal with Lincoln at the highest level by treating seriously the substance of his political thought. The writing is offered by one of our premier teachers of political philosophy, an acute student of statecraft, and a man who had formed his style by absorbing himself, years ago, in the study of Elizabethan literature. I’ll buy Grump the copies if he can’t find them, but they are in print and available.

JSmitty raises an apt question about abortion in the mandates, as well as contraception. The problem here is that the mandates offer a sweeping coverage of contraceptives, and that sweep takes in things like Ulipristal, which probably function as abortifacients. But even putting that aside: under the current dispensation, any federal regulation of medical plans is virtually guaranteed to cover abortion as a “necessary” and “legitimate” part of medical care. Even if the Administration did not press it, the courts would require it; and we have an Administration that will not neglect to press it.

Our friend Manfred is quite right that I wrote my column before the news came out of the launching of the lawsuit by Catholic institutions. For this forceful move we must credit the leadership of Cardinal Dolan. And to make the connection back to my essay, this lawsuit may have the advantage of insuring that the moral questions at the heart of these suits will be kept before the public through the course of the presidential campaign. But we do need a political leadership that will amplify this message, or to say quite enough at least to keep the media from pretending that it is something quite secondary, quite peripheral in our politics.

Hadley Arkes

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