Even now, in the wake of political and electoral chaos, the American family has much to be grateful for. I should say especially now.
Together we witnessed that, even in the midst of political pandemonium, there is order and ironclad stability at America's core. Our forefathers at the head of the historical American family had the foresight to plan for such times as these.
Or look at our country this way: Have you ever seen a family in which there is no moral center, discipline, order or respect for authority? The tykes set their own rules—what to eat, when to sleep, what to watch on TV—and the parents, intent on maintaining peace at any cost, tiptoe around combustible emotions. This is a world of tiny tyrants tempted to oppress because there is no rule of law to keep them in check. Chaos prevails.
This, thankfully, is not the shape of the American democratic experiment. On the verge of an inauguration, after one of the most contentious presidential contests since our founding, all America's constitutional institutions have been severely tested—and proven themselves up to the challenge. The rule of law has prevailed over chaos.
That's because, for all our faults and moral deficiencies, the American family is a functioning family. It knows how to behave itself in times of national crisis. And this election process was at least a demi-crisis. It's times like these when healthy family-first principles become most clear.
Consider how conflict gets handled in a functioning family. I'll use the example of my own family not because it's anywhere near the standard, but because I happen to know it best.
At least once a day, one of my children makes a familiar charge: “That's not fair!” It is pretty well established that the first step to a remedy is to explain the nature of the grievance to the offending party (almost always another child). If satisfaction is not achieved, the next step is to take it to the arbiter on duty—their mother. In most cases, this suffices.
But sometimes the matter must be appealed to the supreme parental court—mother and father, together. This, in the end, is the forum where rules of the family must be interpreted and upheld in the light of principles of justice at the core of our family's founding—our Catholic faith. This is a pretty charitable sketch of life at the Dannenfelsers’, I admit. But I hope you get the idea.
There is a chain of command and an understood system for resolving conflict.
With so much more at stake than a hogged toy or hurt feelings, the American family relied upon our institutions in a similarly functional manner to pull us through the crisis of an excruciatingly close presidential election, one in which both sides believed they were victorious. Just as in our families, “fairness” could not be worked out to please every party's injured sense of justice. Thankfully, Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman led by example when they showed they had the maturity and integrity to graciously, if belatedly, acquiesce to our nation's institutions.
For all our faults, the American family is a functioning family.
A peaceful resolution to a potentially explosive crisis was possible because America's constitutional foundation is so very firm. Pope John Paul II articulated beautifully the transcendence of the principles at the root of the American experiment when he welcomed Lindy Boggs as ambassador to the Vatican in 1997.
“The founding fathers of the United States,” he said at the time, “asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature's God.’”
Indeed, there is so much for which we should be thankful. Yet, while we Americans have operated as a functional family, we clearly have much growing up to do.
As children, we can take for granted the guiding principles of our family, frequently testing boundaries. That childlike freedom to defy foundational principles can flourish only where the foundation of a family is firm and children mature. But, eventually, growing up requires that we reaf-firm the core moral principles that guide our moral conduct.
In the same address to the Vatican ambassador, the Holy Father added: “But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation ... makes its own the moral truths on which the founding fathers staked the future of your republic. Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed.”
Certainly a renewal is in order. Without making the founding principles “our own,” the “culture of death” will continue to flourish. The tragic narrowing of the circle of those we welcome into the family and protect under the law will continue. The unborn, elderly and those not proving “useful” are rapidly getting squeezed out of the family. It is up to us to convince the majority of citizens to grow up when it comes to preserving human rights.
Otherwise, the equivalent of a 4-year-old's moral code will overtake our nation.
And, because of the wisdom of our founding fathers, we can renew our trust in our system of government. After all, we as a nation have just prevailed over a political power crisis. With trust in our institutions guided by a faith that is rooted in love, we Catholics are in a good position to build upon that trust and take on much more.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is chairwoman of the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C.