The Strains of the Political Season

In times of trouble, we invoke Fr. Richard Neuhaus’s summoning line, “We can still turn this around.” The thing to be turned around is the election, after it has already been turned around. Senator McCain had actually surged to a modest lead in the national polls after the Republican Convention and the advent of Sarah Palin. Then came the savaging of Sarah Palin by the media. And then, even more decisively the financial crisis, hitting with alarming force, with the stock market sinking each day, taking down with it the pensions of ordinary folk. Under those conditions, it could hardly be a surprise that people have focused, with their deepest fears, on the crisis threatening their lives most directly, and they would put to the side their concern for the killing of unborn babies they could not know, destroyed in abortions not yet performed.

It took, of course, a large measure of moral imagination in the first place to treat the embryo, or the fetus in its early stages, as the equivalent of that outfielder or that lawyer standing, in his full, embodied strength, before us. It may be harder yet to grasp just why that concern over the taking of innocent life would have to be a “central” issue in any political campaign, far more fundamental than anything else. I sought in these columns about a month ago to recall the case to be made for the centrality of that question of “the human person.”

Every issue in our politics involves the concern for the righting of wrongs, the relief of injuries or injustice. They may involve people threatened with the foreclosure of their homes, the loss of their jobs and their health insurance. All of these cases involve the suffering of hurts and harms. But they also depend on a judgment of the beings who count as “persons,” for if they don’t count, the harms they suffer go curiously unnoticed. In that famous scene in Huckleberry Finn, Huck had contrived a story and told Aunt Sally that his boat was delayed because “we blowed out a cylinder-head.” Aunt Sally reacted: “Good gracious! anybody hurt?” “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

For certain people, at a certain time, blacks simply did not register as real “people,” whose injuries somehow counted. In a remarkably similar way, Bill Clinton could look out on the experience of partial-birth abortion, and never apparently see a child, whose skull was being crushed, and whose head was being collapsed as the contents of the skull were being suctioned out.

One could ask then: these people facing the loss of their homes and their jobs, why do they count? If they elicit our concerns as fellow men, fellow humans, are those nascent beings in the womb any less human? What features do they lack that are somehow relevant to their standing to claim our concern? And if it is reckoning of injuries, why would the poisoning or dismembering of these small beings count as lesser injuries in any scale for the measurement of pains and harms?

We find people who can grasp these points, and yet feel themselves overwhelmed by the crisis of the moment. In a passage I need to call back from memory, Adam Smith once observed that the person who cuts his finger with a knife will feel a more intense concern for that pain than for the report of thousands perishing in an earthquake on the other side of the world. But at the same time, he wrote, it would be the rare person who would be willing to see thousands die in order to avert that cut to his finger.

Something of that kind may be at work now, even among Catholics who are otherwise sensitive to the destruction of innocent lives in abortion. Earlier on, in one survey, McCain had a ten-point lead among Catholics. A survey a few days ago, from another source, had Obama running even now with McCain among Catholics. We would expect of course that when that sample of Catholics is broken down into nominal Catholics and Catholics who faithfully attend Mass, the difference will be quite marked, and still in favor of McCain. But as George Marlin has reminded us in his grand book on the American Catholic voter, the Catholic vote remains pivotal in battleground States such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin.

It is not a good sign if the Catholic vote as a whole offers no tilt toward McCain. One of the most telling issues, in this respect, is the opposition of Obama to the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act. But it is a telling fact also that Senator McCain has rarely mentioned that issue, let alone explained it. He was preparing to raise it in the second debate, but the question never arose and McCain never pressed it. The issue has been given over to Sarah Palin to raise, but as far as I recall, it has never been the subject of any ad run by the McCain campaign. Do we have here yet another case of filtering out – in this instance, on the part of those people who manage Republican presidential campaigns? With all of their genius, they never seem quite able to grasp that this issue really counts, even when it works powerfully in their favor.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.