2012 Election Year Offered Dueling Visions of Society
WASHINGTON — With President Barack Obama securing another four years in the White House, Democrats retaining the Senate and Republicans still in control of the House, the 2012 election takes nothing off the table for Catholics.
They must continue their campaigns to overturn the Health and Human Services’ mandate, back the Defense of Marriage Act and block federal subsidies for abortion.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to Obama offering prayers “that you will exercise your office to pursue the common good, especially in care of the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn, the poor and the immigrant,” Cardinal Dolan wrote. “We will continue to stand in defense of life, marriage and our first, most cherished liberty, religious freedom.”
Meanwhile, Church leaders and pro-family advocates are still reeling from the defeat of four state efforts to bar a redefinition of marriage in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.
Experts are still weighing data that will help explain how Obama overcame weak jobs numbers, public fears about an exploding national debt and a late surge by his GOP rival, Mitt Romney, to win re-election.
But part of that winning strategy was the advancement of a vision of society that framed the president’s social polices as a boon for key segments of the electorate: single women, Hispanics, voters favoring same-sex "marriage," and others who feared cuts in federal social entitlements.
The 2012 election offered dueling visions of American society, symbolized by the candidates’ stances on religious freedom, contraception, "marriage equality," and reforming programs like Medicare. And when all the exit polls have been dissected, experts may conclude that the president offered a more compelling argument for his portrait of America than Romney.
Last May, the Obama-Biden campaign rolled out an online slideshow, “The Life of Julia,” that explained “how President Obama’s policies help one woman over her lifetime.”
The narrative does not feature a boyfriend, let alone a husband, but Julia benefits from free birth control, letting her “focus on her work rather than worry about her health.” But if Obama is defeated, Julia could be denied the same health-care benefits because “Romney supports the Blunt Amendment — which would place Julia’s health-care decisions in the hands of her employer.”
Ask Catholic scholars and commentators to distill the message of the Democratic presidential campaign, and they may well cite “The Life of Julia.” That’s in part because it presents the government as a reliable placeholder for spouses and families, but also because it elevates the right to free contraception over First Amendment conscience protections.
“There really are competing irreconcilable visions of society on offer in this election,” said Gerard Bradley, a constitutional scholar at the University of Notre Dame who has spoken out against the HHS mandate.
“The Obama campaign's ‘Julia’ ad sums up the president's vision” of the individual as “basically alone in society,” noted Bradley, editor of the newly released Challenges to Religious Liberty in the Twenty-First Century.
“Julia has no family and evidently no religious community to support her,” Bradley said. “She does have a set of aspirations and goals, and the government is her financial angel — Uncle Sam as Daddy Warbucks, if you will.”
“The HHS contraception and abortion mandate perfectly illustrates this vision,” he added. “Woman counts upon the Democrats to tax and spend to subsidize her most intimate choices.”
In contrast, he said, Romney had emerged from the campaign season as “the champion of civil society. His opposition to the mandate and support of the Blunt Amendment reflects [that], no doubt.”
The president’s ability to both present, and implement his view of America's future path was on full display in the four state contests dealing with same-sex “marriage.”
“Obama’s endorsement of same-sex ‘marriage,’ along with support from Democratic leaders, the NAACP, public employees and many other organizations and businesses cut strongly” for same-sex “marriage,” said Maggie Gallagher, a marriage expert, author and the former chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage.
“We were outspent by a factor of 8-1. There were no voices speaking out against it, except for a small band of people, yet it was still very close,” Gallagher told the Register.
On Nov. 7, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, called on the faithful to counter efforts to impose a new vision of marriage: "No matter what policy, law or judicial decision is put into place, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union. It is either this, or it is nothing at all.”
The president’s support for the contraception mandate and for “marriage equality” have been tied to a strategy to draw together disparate segments of American society that may not identify with the social mainstream. But Gallagher noted that Obama’s speeches frequently offered a “communitarian vision: He talks about personal responsibility, but he blends it with government support.”
The president echoed the communitarian theme in his Nov. 6 victory speech in Chicago: “We believe in a generous America, a compassionate America, in a tolerant America….That’s the future we hope for. That’s the vision we share.”
However, George Weigel and other critics of the president’s social and economic policies contend that the expansion of government under Obama’s watch is a stark departure from the signature American ethos of small government, entrepreneurship and civic engagement — themes sounded by the Romney campaign.
As government expands, the president’s critics fear that it will crowd out the array of civic institutions that have effectively shared responsibility for social needs.
“Given the choice between going down the path to boredom and insolvency pioneered by the European social-welfare state and charting a bold new approach that combines passion, justice and fiscal responsibility, America chose the former,” Weigel told the Register after the election. “Something is deeply awry in American culture.”
James Capretta, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an associate director at the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004, cautioned against hasty judgments about the election outcome.
“The election was quite close, and we have an evenly divided country with two visions of moving forward,” said Capretta.
“One thing is clear: If a democratic society goes down the road of too much dependence on government, it is very difficult to reverse course later. People come to expect that support.”
The two campaigns’ perspectives on human flourishing were on display throughout the campaign.
Romney attacked the president’s suggestion that business owners couldn’t take credit for their success —“You didn’t build that” — while Obama offered his social and economic policies as a powerful defense of the interests of women and working and middle-class Americans.
During the second presidential debate, Obama noted that his administration had mandated “contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a health issue; it’s an economic issue for women.”
Obama then attacked his rival’s support for the Blunt Amendment: “Gov. Romney not only opposed it [the mandate], he suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage.”
Romney, for his part, reframed a question about gun control to stress the importance of two parents in the home: “Because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.” But that was as far as it went, with the GOP candidate moving back to offense on Obama’s economic record.
“What happened on stage was that Obama would make an outrageous statement about the Blunt Amendment or Planned Parenthood, and then Romney would pivot to the economy. In his thinking, it would be deadly to address those issues; what turned out to be deadly was that he didn’t discuss it,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which raised $11 million for pro-life candidates across the nation and celebrated the election victory of Deb Fischer, the new Republican senator from Nebraska.
“The questions about life and marriage were effectively sidelined by the Republican Party in the interests of making the election about stewardship,” agreed Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things.
With the election now decided, he said that “one of the most important things Catholics can do is set about reforming the Republican Party so that is a more effective vehicle for Catholic social teaching.”
Janet Smith, the pro-life author and speaker and a moral theologian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, noted that Obama’s campaign talking points corresponded with broad social trends that chart the steady rise of single mothers, who now account for more than 40% of live births in the United States.
With families fracturing and jobs hard to find, the expansion of government programs has become increasingly necessary and reassuring for struggling Americans. Polls confirmed that single women were much more likely to vote for Obama than married women.
That said, Smith also viewed the dueling campaign themes as symbolic of the “divide between those who believe there are truths to be pondered and lived by and those who have given up on truth. Whether abortion or ‘gay marriage’ is right or wrong, some just don’t believe they have the tools to make a judgment, and they just let it happen.”
Smith argued that individualistic moral norms can be effectively challenged in political forums and in other avenues of public life, and that the campaign season signaled that many Americans remain committed to defending truths that secure the dignity of the human person.
“The underclass, the financial crisis and the moral crisis,” Smith concluded, “will make us dig down and ask, ‘Can we learn something from the fact that we now have single mothers responsible for 40% of live births?’”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.