The Catholic Thing
Voting Day Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 06 November 2012

Abraham Lincoln argued that if a free people became indifferent to the matter of slavery, they were laying the groundwork for their own enslavement. A people that acquiesced in the enslavement of blacks would put in the place the premises that could also remove the right to vote from many whites as well.

And so a regime outwardly democratic in its forms would be turned, in its inner substance, into something else. People may be going into voting booths, marking a ballot, and they seem to be acting in the style of people voting in an election. But they may no longer have the soul, or character, of a democratic people.

Today is election day in America, and we may ask in a similar way if people understand the levels of meaning that are bound up with that act of “casting a vote.”  

There is a choice to be made, of course, among candidates and “ballot questions.”  But beyond that is the deeper question that must ever be bound up with a vote:  By casting a vote is one affirming the moral rightness of a regime of voting, a regime in which the authority to govern is derived from the “consent of the governed”?  

Does one understand that one is affirming then the equal right of all of those people in the adjacent booths not to be deprived of that regime in which they have that right to vote?  

And yet we have seen elections, some in distant places at a distant time, and some too near to us, in which people have walked into voting booths utterly indifferent to that question of whether they are obliged to preserve that freedom for the voters in the next booths, or even for themselves and their children.

The most dramatic example came eighty years ago in Germany, in the last free election before Hitler came to power. Some voters went to the polls with a willingness to put the government into the hands of a party (the Nazis) that made no secret of its desire to strip people in the other voting booths of their rights of citizenship (their rights to vote), and even their natural rights (their rights to hold their property, practice their professions, and finally even their right to live).

Some might not have believed that the Nazis would end elections and ship Jews to killing centers. But in their very willingness to take a chance on these things we find the erosion of that soul that marks a democratic people.

      Voters, in shadow, awaiting their turn

In our own day we have seen the earnest claim made for the “right” of illegal aliens to become “citizens.” However that argument plays out, it is worth posing the question to those who would become citizens: Do they regard themselves as morally obliged to preserve a regime of citizens? Do they understand that they may not be morally free to vote for a Chavez or a Castro, who would end a regime of free elections?

There was a time when those kinds of choices could be foreclosed on our ballots. But no longer.  

Thirty years ago I was debating with people in the ACLU over the matter of American Nazis parading through the suburb of Skokie, Illinois, with a large Jewish population. David Hamlin of the ACLU declared: “we must be free to hear the Nazis because we must be free to choose the Nazis.”  

In other words, for the libertarian, the case for democracy begins with the notion that there are no moral truths: We must be free to choose because there are no moral truths that show why the ends of the Nazis are any less legitimate than any other set of policies on offer in our politics. And in the final descent into incoherence, there is no truth that establishes the moral superiority of democracy and this regime of unrestricted free speech, for we must be free to vote them out.

For some of us the erosion of sensibility marked in another day by slavery is marked in our own time by the indifference to that “human person” in the womb. There is nothing one could cite to remove that whole class of human beings from the circle of “rights-bearing” beings that could not work to remove, from the protections of the law, many people walking about well outside the womb.

The matter is given a deeper import in this country by the fact that we don’t have a multiparty system in which the voters simply determine the strength of the parties that will negotiate after the election in order to determine just who forms the government. That decision in this country is made by the public at large at the polls.

If I’m a Catholic Democrat I have to decide, say, whether the interest in expanding the liberal policies on welfare is really more important than the matter of forcing Catholic institutions to support abortion and contraception in their medical plans. Or scaling back the killing of the innocent in abortion.

Those kinds of questions don’t have to be faced as fully in other systems of voting. And that is why the people voting today, doing their reckoning, are not only deciding who will form the government.

They are deciding something about themselves – about the things they care about most deeply and the principles that finally command their firmest obligation.

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.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, November 06, 2012
Mr Arkes, Perhaps one of the best articles
of this "Election" season.I wanna thank you!
written by Ray Hunkins, November 06, 2012
Thank you for your insightful perspective Proffesor. May God have mercy on this great Nation and its people this day.
written by Manfred, November 06, 2012
Thank you for an excellent article describing the attributes and failures of a democracratic society which, in order to be effecive, has to be homogenized vis a vis intelligence.You cannot have millions of children passing through urban schools without ever being given an I.Q. test because the results would be so embarassing when compared to suburban students or recent immigrants from S.E. Asia. We saw one minority person waving her recently received "Obamaphone" which she had been given free. Her profound judgement was that Romney "sucks". Romney was correct when he stated that 47% of our population could not manage their lives, and they would not vote for him. The more astute Catholic American, as you well point out, sees him/herself looking into the void which may very well extinguish our way of life. We have only to look to Canada where Same Sex Marriage has been law for ten years. The E.U. and U.N. are applying tremendous pressure to force all of Europe to be liberalized as well. The Mother of God said to the seers at Fatima "Only I can save you."
written by Louise, November 06, 2012
All I have to say today is John 16:33!
written by Chris in Maryland, November 06, 2012
Along with attributes and failures of portions of society, we Catholics must account for the attributes and failures of "college-educated" voters who are baptized Catholics. We will see the outcome, and it will teach us something about our fitness as a people to serve The Lord as "Salt of the Earth" and "Light of the World." Holy Mother of God, pray Your Son to enlighten our minds and open our hearts.
written by debby, November 06, 2012
in hurricane Sandy fall-out, i waited with my husband and mother over 2 hours to vote on Sunday. what a great grace to be surrounded by a sea of many cultures who turned out. i do not recall ever waiting more than 10 minutes except the very first time i cast my vote for Ronald Reagan.
i do not relish the whole political fray, yet i know i have a responsibility and privilege to do what i can, namely, fast, pray, learn the facts, share what i know and vote.

God's will be done in all hearts throughout our land and the whole world. at least in the USA we still have this right. for how much longer, i wonder?
written by AvantiBev, November 06, 2012
LBJ's 1960's Great Society - supported to this day by many Catholics who consider it "charitable" -- expanded the welfare state's reach into family life. When the "take-a-hike-dads" aid regulations coupled with the Sexual Revolution, the Black family and the communities they made up were shaken to the very core. Then the corrosion of that perfect storm began to destroy the foundation of all families.

There is nothing charitable about making dads optional or obsolete. And most women heading for the abortion clinic do not have a committed, loving husband to father their child. Both the overweaning federal/state aid programs and the Sexual Revolution told boys they need never become REAL men but rather stay a hybrid of Peter Pan and Hugh Hefner. Hey guys, either drop off your latest pregnant "relationship" at the clinic or let the chump taxpayers try to "raise" your kid with an aid check. Later the chumps can be taxed even more to pay for the kid's emotional problems and criminal record.

Therefore I don't buy the dilemna of deciding BETWEEN scaling back abortion and scaling back so-called programs for the poor more truthfully called "perpetual employment for bureaucrats" programs. During my lifetime, I have found one to be hopelessly entwined with the other.
written by Graham Combs, November 06, 2012
In my experience the indifference I encounter in the Church is not only to abortion, but to the those children no longer raised in families (see Murray's COMING APART), to learning supplanted by indoctrination, to the sexualization of children, and to the futurelessness that too many American children and young adults face.

At vigil Mass this past weekend I listened as Monsignor gave a sermon in which he acknowledged the divisions in his parish and said that at least we could be united in prayer. Praying for what? Does God allow us to ask for anything, including a president so pro-abortion and so contemptuous of religious liberty that he lies to the presiding bishop knowing there will be no consequences for his deceit? One sensed an atypical resignation in the monsignor's manner and voice. Atypical but infectious. I left church demoralized. Perhaps the Catholic Church in America is the Democratic Party at prayer (echoing what used to be said of British Tories and the Church of England). I voted this evening resigned in the knowledge that at least half of my fellow Catholics were indifferent to path our country has now chosen -- in the voting booth, in the sanctuary, in the workplace, in the classroom, when we read a novel or go to a movie or watch a TV show. It just seems as if people just don't care anymore.

Whatever happens tonight, I have become wary of the Church's motives whenever the bishops speak en banc. I don't see the America they see or live in the America they seem to live in. It reminds me of what Justice Scalia said about his colleagues on the bench creating "a Constitution for a country I no longer recognize."
written by Gian, November 06, 2012
Excellent article but rather unfair to Germans voters of 1932-33. Were there any indications that the Nazis would go on stripping Jews of Natural Rights?

The Political Rights are another matter and it is only a liberal dogma that all residents have equal political rights.
written by Matthew, November 06, 2012
If Obama and the various "culture of death" referendums wins tonight with a required substantial support of practicing Catholics; what does that say about the Catholic in the pew today, the parish priest who quivered and hierarchy? The unprecedented effort by the USCCB to protect its institutions in the United States have failed for they waited years too long. They danced with the devil at far too many Al Smith dinners over the years to recognize the character they courted. That character is political progressivism which lead us to a moral relativism to even practicing Catholics.
written by Chris in Maryland, November 07, 2012
We should never give up, but it is important to take stock of some of the institutions of The Church in the U.S. And it is difficult to take stock of oiur institutions, because there is little/no visibility into them from the outside.

For instance, what exactly is Catholic Charities? Is it funded primarily by Catholic charitable giving, or is it funded largely by government programs? If the latter, why is The Church funneling government money (not mainly Catholic money?) to other organizations (not Catholic organizations?). Are we being asked to give alms at Mass, etc for an effort that is mainly Catholic, or is it mainly a government program dressed in Catholic colors? Is there transparancy and accountability here?

What is the state of our Seminaries and what are they teaching? These days we hear general assurances that the bad stuff from the 1970s-90s is fixed now, but how can we be assured of that? If our Catholic colleges have slipped away from Christian morality and apostolic faith and theology, what assurance do we have that the same forces inside Catholic colleges are not in play at Catholic seminaries? Surely there are good and bad seminaries out there, but the danger is, we have little/no way of knowing what's what. What parent wants to send their son with a priestly vocation into such dangerously uncertain territory? There are horror stories out there of faithful young men getting sifted and repulsed in some of our seminaries. Yet do practicing Catholics have any means of visibility into what is going on in our seminaries?

Why can a priest in the Archdiocese od Washington, DC be removed for trying to defend the integrity of Holy Communion, while others can get away with publicly defying the Bishop's teaching to defend mariage?
written by Manfred, November 07, 2012
Please, no tears! Mary promised that if men did not reform their lives, empires would fall. WW I brought the end to the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires. WW II brought the end to the British, French, German and Japanese empires. Now it is America's turn. Did anyone think that we were going to get away with fifty years of divorce, contraception, abortion AMONG CATHOLICS? Last night we were delivered the bill. Eighty years ago, the German people were delivered the "Austrian corporal" named Adolf Hitler, whom they thought of as a crank. What harm could he do? We were delivered the man of mystery for the second time. In his first four years he showed us the harm he could do. Now he will do it.In 1969 Fr. Joseph Ratzinger.who had served as an advisor at Vat II, wrote "Faith and the Future" in which he forecasts a very small Church which would eventually be restored by people searching it out.Why did he write this then? Because all the naifs who served as the Fathers of the Council were shocked at the European student riots of 1968 which did not compute with the minds of the Fathers.In their naivete, the Church was supposed to learn to from the World. Aggiornamento! We are going to be learning a lot from the "world" over the next four years.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters