Painfully high unemployment figures have led many political commentators to insist that the upcoming presidential race is — to repeat the tired refrain — “about the economy, stupid,” a phrase first used in the 1992 presidential election year. In other words, American jobseekers will shrug off other concerns and vote solely on the basis of bottom-line goals.
Yet what has always been distinctive about our culture, as Alexis de Tocqueville presciently observed in his masterwork, Democracy in America, is that our experiment in ordered liberty depends on the strength of our national character, and that means social issues and moral principles matter.
In our history, religious movements secured groundbreaking legislation to end slavery and stem the brutal consequence of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal.
In recent decades, there has been a growing divide on how to correctly interpret the Gospel mandate. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his presumptive opponent in the November election, have employed religious ideas and language while addressing social and economic issues. For example, the president referenced Scripture to justify his support for same-sex “marriage” and for increasing tax burdens for affluent Americans. Romney, during a May commencement address at Liberty University, offered a vision of faith-inspired political and cultural engagement that transcended denominational boundaries and even partisan politics.
His emphasis on personal moral responsibility as a pathway to a stronger American culture and economy acknowledged that the country needs to reclaim the Founding Fathers’ understanding of American character.
The U.S. bishops frequently advance principles and practical policies that straddle the partisan divide. When they publicly opposed the Health and Human Services “contraception mandate,” special interests mischaracterized their stance as a “war on women” and suggested the bishops sought to advance a conservative campaign to move the Catholic “swing vote” to the GOP. But the bishops know well that the strength of religious institutions and robust First Amendment rights will help assure that Americans continue to view the nation and its future security in a rich, integrated manner.
This means that we can’t limit political debate to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis that pushes issues of national character to the sidelines.
Indeed, it is during times of deep crisis that a nation’s citizens must be especially mindful of unchanging moral precepts that protect us from the temptation to despair, to penalize the vulnerable or to embrace leaders with facile solutions.