Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Ash Wednesday, the New Hampshire primary, and the limitations of politics

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 10, 2016

On Ash Wednesday, the internet is abuzz with reactions to the New Hampshire primary. This year’s calendar, placing the start of Lent immediately after the opening ballot of the presidential campaign, prompts some thoughts on the relative importance of political and spiritual battles.

Let me state my thesis simply at the outset: The campaign of spiritual purification that we begin today is far more important than the traveling political circus that is now headed for South Carolina. More important for each one of us personally, of course, because our eternal salvation is the only question that matters in the long run—and by “long run” I mean something more than a 4-year term. (“What would it profit a man…”) But also more important for the welfare of the US, because our country’s spiritual struggles, too, are more important than the year’s political contests.

Or let me put the matter differently: Even if we elect a very good president—and frankly, I don’t see one on the horizon—he will not solve our society’s most serious problems. (Granted, the election of a very bad president—which looms as a distinct possibility—could make them worse.) No presidential candidate has offered a plausible proposal to curb the breakdown of the American family, the collapse of morality, the loss of faith.

This is not an argument against political involvement. I would never make such an argument. It is an argument for maintaining proper priorities. Politics is important business. But politics—as that implacable realist, von Bismarck, told us—is “the art of the possible, the attainable.” We cannot attain by legislation, nor by executive order, the sort of society that requires sturdy families, self-reliance, and moral character. A society’s culture sets limits on its political system. And as dysfunctional as the American political system has become, America’s cultural base is even more thoroughly impoverished.

Every four years, enthusiasts pin their hopes on a preferred presidential candidates, and dream that this candidate will lead America to new heights of greatness, security, and prosperity. (Needless to say, the candidates do nothing to dispel such beliefs.) After decades of working for political candidates, and even finally being a candidate myself, I have become much more conscious of the limitations of political life.

Since anyone with a Twitter account can pass himself off as a political commentator, let me say a few words about my credentials. Since 1962, when I volunteered for my first campaign, I have been involved in dozens of electoral contests: federal, state, and local. I have stuffed envelopes, passed out flyers, made phone calls, rung doorbells, and chaired organizational meetings. I have done speechwriting, fundraising, and opposition research. I have been an adviser to two (successful) presidential campaigns, and been myself a candidate (not quite so successful) for the US Senate.

(It was at the end of my Senate campaign, in 2000, that I reached the conclusion that I should set any political ambitions aside and concentrate my energies on Catholic affairs. As I wrote at the time, “we cannot expect reform in society at large until we achieve reform within our Church.” For the benefit of those who might be interested in my reasoning, I am reproducing below a copy of the editorial that I wrote for the December 2000 issue of Catholic World Report, upon my return from the campaign to my editorial desk there.)

Does this background make me uniquely qualified as a political analyst? Not at all! There are thousands of Americans with equal or greater experience and savvy; that’s the beauty of our democratic system. But my experience does make me skeptical about the self-appointed experts who believe that they have discovered cures for all our social ills. Elections are important, but they are not all-important. Even after an unusually pivotal election, your greatest concerns—your health, your family, your work, and (I hope) the state of your soul—will be the same. I have learned the wisdom of the old Romanian proverb: “The change of princes is the joy of fools.”

So while politics is important business, there are strict limits to what we can achieve by political means. There are no limits at all, on the other hand, to what we can achieve by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; for that we have the Lord’s promise! We can revive our own faith, awaken the strength of our neighbors, and thereby accomplish what not even a presidential candidate dares to suggest.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” So wrote the most acute of all observers of our political scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. Perhaps the most appropriate “political” task for Lent would be to embark on our own private campaigns to make America good again, beginning with ourselves.

Back in the Saddle

Reproduced from the December 2000 issue of Catholic World Report


Well, I'm back.

My career as an active political candidate reached its zenith on November 7, when 45,000 Massachusetts voters did me the honor of choosing me to represent them in the US Senate.

However, 2.5 million other voters chose someone else. In fact 1.9 million opted to give the incumbent, Sen. Ted Kennedy, another 6-year term, thus ensuring that I would resume my editorial post at CWR.

The campaign was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, and always fascinating. I am grateful to the people who made it possible: to my publisher, Father Fessio, who indulged my penchant for tilting at windmills by authorizing a leave of absence; to my colleague, Domenico Bettinelli, who handled the editorial duties in my absence; to the hundreds of donors and volunteers who supported the campaign.

The truth is that I never expected to win the race. My campaign--which I waged without the support of a major political party--was motivated not by a desire to hold public office but by an urge to change public opinion. Still I did hope to muster more than 2 percent of the popular vote. So as I look over the official results, I cannot avoid asking myself what went wrong.

The Catholic vote

Roughly one-half of all Massachusetts voters describe themselves as Catholics. I ran on a strong pro-life platform, which in theory should have appealed to Catholic voters. But the Catholic voters rejected my message.

According to exit polls, 76 percent of the voters who described themselves as Catholics voted for Sen. Kennedy, whose outspoken support for the killing of unborn children had recently earned him the "Champion of Choice" award--the highest honor conferred by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Another 12 percent of the self-described voters voted for a Libertarian candidate, who also supported unrestricted legal abortion on demand. Still another 9 percent chose the Republican challenger, who opposed partial-birth abortion but supported the general legal framework of Roe v. Wade. And a paltry 3 percent of the Catholic voters cast their ballots for the only pro-life candidate in the race.

How could this happen? Any conventional political analyst would say that my campaign foundered because it lacked two essential ingredients: funding and publicity. That analysis is accurate but inconclusive.

Certainly it is true that I ran my campaign on a shoestring. My budget was $75,000, while Sen. Kennedy had over $6 million at his disposal. (Even the Libertarian candidate received over $800,000.) But I certainly tried to raise the sort of financial support that would have allowed a high-profile campaign. Why didn't more pro-lifers contribute to my campaign?

Perhaps I am not an effective fundraiser; I concede that possibility. But it is not so easy to explain the lack of media coverage for my campaign. I am, after all, a full-time professional journalist. I know how to write a press release that will catch an editor's eye. Day after day I churned out provocative statements and faxed them off to local editors. But I might as well have been putting those press releases into a paper shredder instead of a fax machine. Not once in the course of the campaign did a major newspaper or broadcast outlet take note of my policy positions; not once was a story devoted to my candidacy.

Not paying attention

So the question arises again: Why did reporters and editors feel that they could safely ignore my candidacy? One columnist, writing with more candor than delicacy, described my political appeal as "exotic." Is a pro-life stance really an "exotic" political posture in a state in which half of the voters are Catholic? Evidently it is.

The exit polls offer a few more significant insights on my race. Among the voters who describe themselves as "conservative," 6 percent supported me. That number is certainly not overwhelming, but it is twice as strong as the "Catholic" response. Among self-identified Republican voters, and those who cast a ballot for George W. Bush, I won 5 percent of the votes. If these poll results are accurate--and I have no reason to doubt them--I was more successful at winning the support of conservatives and Republicans than that of Catholics.

But I did not court "conservative" or "Republican" support. Instead I spent my evenings addressing one local pro-life group after another. I never issued a public statement that did not allude to the abortion issue; I sought no public endorsement except that of the state's largest pro-life organization. And yet when the dust settled and the returns came in, I won just 3 percent of the Catholic vote.

My Senate campaign was not an isolated event. All across the United States, most self-identified "Catholic" voters cast their ballots for a presidential candidate who supports the legalized slaughter of the unborn.

Are most American Catholics actively opposed to the Church's teachings on the dignity of human life, are they indifferent, or are they simply not paying attention? In any case, the Catholic Church has failed to sway the political opinions of her own faithful. My excursion into secular politics leaves me more convinced than ever that we cannot expect reform in society at large until we achieve reform within our Church.

  -- Philip F. Lawler

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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