What Matters Now

The last election was a very bad election, and I’m not referring primarily to its outcome.  Voters choose whomever they choose, and the electorate gets the government they deserve.  What concerns me more deeply is that over six billion dollars were reportedly spent on the recent elections, and yet for all that investment of time and money, very rarely (if ever) did we hear a substantive debate concerning the real issues and challenges facing the country. 

It seems we have lost the ability to carry on serious, adult conversations in public about issues crucial to the common good.  Make no mistake, liberal or conservative, we will suffer for it.  No one is really “winning.” The whole country, more and more, is losing.  And the worse our problems get, the greater the anger and divisiveness, and the less likely we are to have people who can speak in public in a reasoned, mature fashion. 

This problem is aided and abetted, as we all know – indeed, it is in large part created – by the media and their inability to deal with any serious topic in a way worthy of its importance.  There are simply some things that can’t be expressed in a thirty-second sound bite.  And while taking a single comment out of context in order to blow it up into a reason for outrage may make for wonderful scandal mongering, it also immeasurably cheapens the public debate. 

In this forbidding environment, the results of a word or two out of place mean the difference not only between winning and losing, but between remaining a viable candidate and becoming the sacrificial scapegoat for the country’s self-appointed priestly caste, the media pundits, whose greatest joy in life seems to be self-righteously banishing into the wilderness the unclean and unfit.

No one is willing to allow an unguarded comment, and as a result, all public discourse is carefully scripted to make it palatable to the least-common-denominator audience or to the special interests of carefully targeted “interest groups.” 

Let me suggest, then, that if Catholics want to help cure what ails the nation, they must help the nation think about itself and its common good in ways deeper and more substantial than the nation (and especially the nation’s dominant media) seem willing to allow. We’ll need to give some serious thought to issues a lot more substantive than what sort of coalition might win the next election.

One way of judging political societies is whether and how they come to terms with the question of their own identity. In that regard, we’ll need to give some serious consideration to what we mean by “the American Dream”?  Have we, for example, let shallow and foolish conceptions of the suburban ideal seduce us into overvaluing social arrangements that were never all that ideal? 

Is the “American Dream” really just a set of economic privileges?  Or do those economic privileges entail and presuppose certain obligations and responsibilities: for the nature and character of the public order, for example, and for the common good of the nation?  When it comes to elections, can we really say nothing more substantial than “It’s the economy, stupid”?  We have to come to terms with the fact that what used to be considered shameless greed and avarice is now thought of a sort of benign self-interest:  merely “market choices” of the “consumer.”

Can we take the time to resist the popular culture with its libertine sexual mores and its market-driven corporate consumerism long enough to ask the sort of essential questions the Church requires us to ask, such as: What is the role of markets, and what are they for?  If, for example, we say that markets are for persons, and not vice versa, then how do markets best serve persons?  So too if bureaucracies are meant to serve persons, and persons not merely meant to endlessly feed the paper-hungry beast, then how best can our institutions once again serve us as persons and not merely as numbers or units

Do we really want every institution in America to serve the autonomous hyper-individualism that is at the root of both current American liberalism and current American laissez-faire free-market capitalism?  Or can we as Catholics help America find a new vision of society, based on the communal and relational dimensions of the human person?

So, too, we must come to terms with the nature and quality of Christian education in the country.  For example, can our Catholic schools and colleges help our students avoid becoming the kind of soulless bureaucrats and technocrats that are currently strangling so much of contemporary American life?  The answer is no if those schools continue to ape the current cultural paradigms and refuse any and all efforts to renew their dedication to their specifically Catholic mission and identity.

And finally, what about the media?  As Catholics, can we really do no better than the current drivel we’re fed every day?  Are we up to challenge of helping the nation fight the constant stream of half-truths and lies in the only way such a battle can be waged: with a solid presentation of the truth?  Can we teach our students, for example, to demand something more from their politicians than empty platitudes and self-contradictory explanations with no basis in fact or evidence?  Is it time to go back to the classic education in grammar, rhetoric, and logic?

Would any of these things guarantee victory in upcoming elections?  I have no idea.  But if as Catholics we want to think well about politics in the United States in our current situation, we’ll have to think hard about many things other than politics.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.