Discussions of politics and morality often focus on divisions and conflicts more than what there is in common. This is a mistake, according to Carl Anderson, head of the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus.
In his recently published book, “Beyond A House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored By Washington, Wall Street and the Media,” Anderson doubts the usefulness of an analysis of America based on categories of right versus left, or red states versus blue states.
Over the last couple of years the Knights of Columbus have examined the opinions and values of the population through a series of polls. Topics covered included marriage and divorce, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the role of ethics in business and in politics. According to Anderson, the surveys discovered a surprising unity among many Americans on a core of moral and ethical values.
The media portrays an America in a time of crisis — whether it be a financial crisis, a war crisis, or a crisis over immigration — but underlying the economic, social and political difficulties lies a moral crisis. More than two-thirds of Americans believe the morality of the country is headed in the wrong direction, says Anderson.
This is a major cause of people’s disillusionment with political institutions and parties. “Politicians and the media see a world of right and left,” Anderson notes. By contrast, “The American people see a world of right and wrong.”
As other commentators on contemporary America have noted, Anderson points out that the country has a high level of religious practice and that many of the debates on social and political matters are framed in moral or religious terms. Nearly 80% of people call religion an important part in their lives, and more than three-quarters say that marriage, respect for others, and personal responsibility are undervalued.
Right and Wrong
Turning to the continuing financial crisis, Anderson observes that many people have lost savings and pensions, or have been forced out of their houses. Yet, in most cases, no laws were broken and nobody is held accountable. Is it a problem of inadequate legislation, or more fundamentally, one of a lack of right and wrong, in effect a moral bankruptcy on the part of money managers and investors?
One poll showed that 92% of people believed that greed was a major factor in causing the economic crisis. In spite of this, both of the major political parties focused on more regulations and legislation, ignoring the overwhelming consensus that it was a problem that could not be fixed with just more rules.
The greedy can always find another loophole, Anderson comments, so limiting the solution to legal fixes only means that we are condemned to an endless reactive game of catch-up. What people want today is a call to morality on the part of both business and political leaders, he adds.
Human nature is capable of both greed and altruism, Anderson maintains. So we don’t need to limit ourselves to an economic system based solely on self-interest. Instead we need to challenge people to think of the broader consequences of their actions.
A concern for the common good and the practice of virtue would go a long way to ensure a system where profit does not come at the expense of others, says Anderson.
The overwhelming majority of people want business decisions to be guided by moral choices. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think that religious values have a place in influencing the decisions of executives, and an even higher number — 70% — of executives agree.
A similar situation exists in politics. Most people are tired of the political bickering and consider that politicians have lost touch with the people. “The issue of political polarization isn’t a problem for most of us, yet for far too many politicians and pundits, we are all either red or blue,” Anderson observes.
As well, over 80% of people consider that politicians are moving the nation’s moral compass in the wrong direction — a higher level of discontent than even for the news media and the entertainment industry.
Americans tend to favor a limited government role, not only due to a longstanding preference for the individual, but also because of the conviction that the Washington elite does not share the ethical values of the great majority of the nation, Anderson argues. It’s not hard for politicians to discover what people’s values and concerns are, they only need to listen, he says.
One of the issues that has caused division for many years is abortion. On the surface it seems that the debate is a bitter divide between the pro-life and pro-choice positions.
Surveys show, however, a clear preference for a law on abortion that is more restrictive than the current situation, where there is no limit at all when abortions can be carried out. About 80% of Americans favor a situation where abortion is limited to the first trimester, Anderson noted. Only 16% of men and 11% of women say that abortion should be legal at any time.
So instead of a clash of absolutes there is, in fact, a surprising degree of consensus. “That moral consensus — that abortion can and should be restricted — ought to be the starting point for resolving the political impasse on abortion,” says Anderson.
On another hotly debated topic — same-sex “marriage” — the media reports give the impression that public opinion is split down the middle. The polling by the Knights of Columbus reveals, nevertheless, that when a full range of options is given — same-sex “marriage,” civil unions, or no legal recognition — that 38% favor no legal recognition, 28% support civil unions, and so nearly two-thirds do not favor re-defining marriage.
This support for the traditional view of marriage is evident in the fact that in 31 states voters have supported amendments that define marriage as only between a man and a woman, Anderson points out. In all the places where same-sex marriage has been legalized, it was done by judges or legislators, and not by the public.
Precipitous juridical action, as occurred with the abortion decision of Roe v. Wade, would be a grave mistake, Anderson warned, and would lead to far more division than the current national debate on the issue of same-sex marriage.
In the book’s concluding chapter, Anderson states that it is undeniable that there exists a values gap between the American people and those in government. There is also a gap between the consensus of many citizens on many issues and the habitual tendency of the media to portray debates as a conflict between extreme positions.
A return to traditional moral values as a way to resolve the economic and social crises of our times is the path favored by a strong majority of Americans. “We are a people united by values, a people who respect most those who volunteer their time for others, and those organizations that facilitate such activity,” says Anderson.
It’s time for politicians to see this consensus and go beyond the political impasse that characterizes the debate on many issues, he pleads.
Anderson also urges that the discussion on issues of economic or social policy be characterized by a greater degree of charity, respect, and civility. Overall, this brief book, at just over a hundred pages, provides a refreshing call to recognize the core of solid values that continues to unite a solid majority of Americans.
Legionary Father John Flynn writes from Rome. This article originally appeared in Zenit.