Politics is dead: This year, avoid the quadrennial silliness.
2016 is a presidential election year in America. Most citizens will fasten their attention on the Republican and Democratic candidates. A minor third-party candidate may emerge. Even those with outstanding Catholic values will invent some reason for insisting it is absolutely essential to elect Candidate X. A large number will deny that any other conclusion is morally possible. And nearly everyone will denounce any failure to vote as an abandonment of both responsibility and hope.
Serious Catholics who pour time, energy and money into the process of getting their preferred candidate elected will—once again—waste their precious resources. The candidate anointed by our secular high culture will once again coast to victory. Those who recognize either the natural law, Divine Revelation, or both, will end up disappointed. Worse still, in four more years the repetitive proof that their efforts make no discernible difference will be forgotten. Sadly, the quadrennial silly season continues to cycle around. It is upon us now.
I recognize that in the broad scheme of human affairs, politics is hardly irrelevant. Even when effective political action is largely out of reach, there will always be at least a few people who are called to deep political involvement, a few more who ought to keep their eye on things to watch for opportunities, and more than a few who are prepared to step up their commitment in those unusual instances which offer a good chance of success. I cannot morally condemn another’s continued interest in American politics; nor can I pronounce from on high that nobody should pay attention, contribute, or work for political ends.
But I can make the case that, in the United States today, moral politics is effectively dead.
A politics out of reach
I suspect that all mass societies strike a death blow to democratic institutions. But whether this is true or not, it seems clear that American politics is beyond the current reach of citizens with values rooted in anything other than the spirit of the age. The overwhelming majority of Americans are taught from birth that they are the most free people in the world; that they have the finest government in the world; that the only acceptable value system is the moving target imposed by our educational and journalistic elites; that all religion is at once subjective, private and dangerous; and that the only way to create a safe and comfortable society is through bureaucratic regulation by the State.
The dominant American attitude toward law and society is shaped by secular utopianism. Exalted rhetoric is coupled with an increasing slavery to State-regulated passions. The process is eerily reminiscent of totalitarianism, or perhaps merely of bread and circuses. Since our minds have been darkened by a secular ideology that rejects grace, most of us can no longer even see the obvious causes of the continuous destruction of core social goods that plagues our declining culture.
The broad cultural consensus that man must stand in the place of God—which makes human government the sole determinant of value—has put effective politics beyond the reach of anyone who sees reality whole. We have steadily slipped away from a culture in which law was limited by a higher source of values, through a culture in which intellectually-abused minorities desperately seek protection from legal punishment through conscience clauses, and finally into a culture which no longer makes a pretense of protecting anyone who holds time-honored values—which are now regarded as subversive.
Nothing could be more natural than to restrict subversives. Mental and moral slavery (and, increasingly, physical slavery) are increasingly explained as the necessary price of freedom. And even if potential “subversives” are rendered irrelevant most often through cultural mind tricks, politics in America—and especially higher politics—is out of the reach of anyone who has a coherent conception of the Good.
We cannot expect huge numbers of Americans to suddenly rediscover the natural law, even if it is written in their hearts. Our unpromising situation will almost certainly continue until we are able to re-evangelize huge numbers of our countrymen. This re-evangelization is not just a matter of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord in some personal and ultimately salvific sense; it is a matter of insisting that the Lord of the Universe, and the laws He has written into His Creation, must be honored day by day in every aspect of life, both private and public. Without a total collapse of the secular order, we would be wise to expect such a major undertaking to proceed slowly.
Barring extremely unlikely circumstances, politics will be out of reach in America (and, yes, in most of the West) until this transformation takes place. The chief argument to the contrary—that more and more small prolife laws have been passed at local levels in recent years—relies for its power on a forgetfulness of how low we now set the bar for considering something “prolife” (like getting some helpful regulation passed for a non-prolife reason), and of how often such little victories are later invalidated by higher powers. Even on this most hotly-contested front, the overall trajectory has been down for over 50 years.
In any case, our betters have already managed to re-architect the regulatory State to make the family all but irrelevant. We have little real choice but to work for conversion or await destruction, or perhaps to take advantage of the latter to achieve the former. Evangelization alone can make politics relevant again to men and women of good will. Even in the order of nature, only Christ saves.
That is why I am casting a pre-emptive vote against being caught up once again in the silly season. We must opt out of our cyclical exercise in self-deception. We must choose not to place our bets on the quadrennial horse race, wasting our energy and our resources on the political equivalent of an entertainment cycle. Indeed, entertaining candidates (or those who are made to appear most amiable on television) often attract votes. But few voters understand the policy issues that their choices imply—and most could care less. They prefer cultural rhetoric to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).
The American presidential election is the Super Bowl of politics. Yes, life is more fun (and our future seems less bleak) when we have colors to root for, a team to cheer. But the playoff system (the American party and primary system) is all but unworkable. The substantive difference in what candidates will actually try to accomplish is typically small. Every politician must ultimately hew very close to the acceptable cultural line to have any chance of winning enough votes. And again, in mass societies, most people either vote as they have been taught or told to vote, or do not vote at all.
So what is the point?
My point is simply this: For the vast majority of us, it is the height of folly to be distracted by an unmerited trust in American politics from our primary duty of strengthening the Church and proclaiming Christ’s message, a duty that is as civic as it is religious. We can search the Gospel in vain to find political exhortations to anything beyond obeying legitimate political authority and praying for political leaders (Rm 13:1-8; 1 Tm 2:1-4). And we can search through all of Scripture without finding more definitive political advice than to “put not your trust in princes” (Ps 146:3-4).
Even St. Paul, when he was in a prison built by politics, did not ask to be freed, but instead asked only this:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving; and pray for us also, that God may open to us a door for the Word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison, that I may make it clear, as I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. [Col 4:2-5]
So don’t be fooled. I would be delighted to be proved wrong, but the odds are overwhelming that we will be more faithful to Christ and do far more good if we pay only peripheral attention to politics in 2016. We have a strong moral obligation to remain faithful to our baptismal calling, to remain focused on what Our Lord has called each of us by name to be and to do. Let us make a pact. This year, let us renounce our characteristic political silliness—and our characteristic political waste.
Next in series: The Death of Politics, revisited with critics in mind
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Posted by: jackist7902 -
Jan. 20, 2016 8:56 PM ET USA
Well said Jeff. Orthodox Catholic have become accustomed to thinking of themselves as conservatives and have failed to notice that there is little about the United States of today that a Christian would want to "conserve". We live in a God-forsaken land with a God-forsaken people, and we should act accordingly.
Posted by: Leopardi -
Jan. 20, 2016 2:14 AM ET USA
I'm late to this discussion, but I'm shocked! Jeff, come out from under the dark cloud. That the struggle does not go well is a reason to redouble the effort...not to quit. In keeping with your most recent metaphor: worry not about putting the eggs in the wrong basket, the key is to fill all the baskets. That is, do everything possible in this struggle. We often pray for help without discerning that it is us who are called upon to be the solution to this "silliness".
Posted by: skall391825 -
Jan. 19, 2016 5:51 AM ET USA
Just praying and not voting, or not voting for a Conservative candidate is the same as (1) voting against our children because an above-ground, free Catholic Church can't exist in America without the protection of a Conservative interpretation of the Constitution; and (2) voting for a 7 to 2 ratio of anti-Catholic to non-anti-Catholic Supreme Court Justices within four years. The USCCB won't tell you that because its members and staff are mostly liberal. Now there's something to pray about.
Posted by: KC627 -
Jan. 18, 2016 1:42 PM ET USA
I think I find in Dr. Mirus' exclamation “ . . . moral politics is effectively dead,” moral is the key word on which I would focus in this debate. Lack of morality is the problem. For this to change, prayer and evangelization is best way to resurrect "effective" morality in politics. I will expend my energy and support there. No more getting caught up in the "silly season" for me. I am not abandoning politics, but changing strategies. I also agree with Randall Mandock and Minnesota Mary.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jan. 17, 2016 4:50 PM ET USA
Allow me to follow up. What is the political problem with American Catholicism? Government interference. How and why is this the problem? The personal devotion of many of the American prelates to liberal/socialist causes, candidates, politicians, and the money and influence they control.Until the Catholic hierarchy decides that evangelization is more important than the government trough, our American Church will continue to be governed more like a secular enterprise than like the bride of Christ
Posted by: Minnesota Mary -
Jan. 17, 2016 4:44 PM ET USA
After listening to all the demagoguery in the GOP debates I have decided that I won't be voting this year and maybe never again. Having spent most of my life fighting the good fight in politics, I have come to realize that my grandmother, Clara Duffy Meyer, (1879-1962), was right. She said, "Politics will never change the world, but prayer maybe will."
Posted by: skall391825 -
Jan. 17, 2016 2:48 PM ET USA
Jeff, you're wrong. Our duty is to get into politics up to our ears and protect/restore our unique "Rights come from God, not the State" system of government. Are you a Sola Scriptura guy? Look at how abhorrent Socialism is considered by Church teaching--that's not from Scripture. Canadian prelates would take our system over theirs in a heartbeat. Buck up, Lad, and if you don't want to get involved, please stay out of the way.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Jan. 17, 2016 2:36 PM ET USA
I'll write more about this in the next few days, in an effort to clear up several misunderstandings. It is amazingly difficult to speak frankly about the lack of political possibilities for Christians in America without being accused of a failure of nerve or an abandonment of responsibility. But we no longer have the luxury of thinking politics can be effective without an evangelization which has not yet been accomplished. Recognizing this reality in an "election year" is the first step to avoiding what I have described as a "silly" waste of time, effort and funds—that is, of putting our eggs in the wrong basket...again.
Posted by: the.dymeks9646 -
Jan. 17, 2016 8:43 AM ET USA
We reap what we sow, so we have a natural need, hence moral duty to sow those things which can bear the best fruit. Our expectations though need to be tempered in reality. The reality is that we should focus on local politics more than national politics. This is subsidiairity at work. Politics is hopeless, just as humanity is, but God has solved that problem for us, now we just need to do our part.
Posted by: Jim.K -
Jan. 16, 2016 10:22 PM ET USA
Every Sunday at Mass, we pray for our President and other elected officials. I suppose you think that is a waste of time. How will we convert those folks if we stay home and hide under our beds, which, I think, is what you are suggesting. Christ came for the "sinners," not us "perfect people" who don't see the need to deal with others. We must stay involved in our society and do what we can to convert it and slow down the evil influence of the enemy. Prayer is essential - but so is action!
Posted by: herose4u3999 -
Jan. 16, 2016 6:26 PM ET USA
We are responsible to exercise our dutiful privilege voting and to vote for the best candidate who promotes Judeo-Christian values and best serve our fellow man. A Christian duty. We do this of course by Trusting in the Lord with all of our hearts. If Catholics across the board would not vote for pro-abortion candidates over the years we would have a nation that is strong and mighty in the Lord.
Posted by: alexanderh167577 -
Jan. 16, 2016 4:03 PM ET USA
I’m not quite sure what you are suggesting we do. Bury our heads in the sand? Detach ourselves from politics and pretend like they don’t matter? I can think of nothing more defeatist and contrary to the spirit of the gospel. You have every right to be sorrowful and sober about the present state of affairs, but this should impel us to participate more, not less. Faith without works is dead, but perhaps I am completely misunderstanding you.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jan. 16, 2016 5:14 AM ET USA
I think what Jeff is saying is that evangelization is the target: the good, the true, the beautiful. Political wrangling is the side show. Evangelization is properly a grass roots movement, a building of consensus in true values, true love of brother, from the ground up, not from the leadership down. And therein lies the role of the laity: to evangelize not only those among us ignorant of the faith, but those prelates who have fallen into the political trap of feeding from the government trough.
Posted by: fenton1015153 -
Jan. 15, 2016 10:39 PM ET USA
Politics is a serious and deadly business. It is almost a certainty that your elected officials will be paid to vote against you. My advise has long been to never vote for the incumbent. Some better advise would be pray like your life depended on your own prayers. Too bad our priests ad bishops have failed to offer us the better advise.
Posted by: koinonia -
Jan. 15, 2016 8:52 PM ET USA
"My point is simply this: For the vast majority of us, it is the height of folly to be distracted by an unmerited trust in American politics from our primary duty of strengthening the Church and proclaiming Christ’s message, a duty that is as civic as it is religious." A good point. " We have a strong moral obligation to remain faithful to our baptismal calling..." Something deeper is needed for significant results. This is a work of conversion. It's a long road. Expend energy wisely.
Posted by: billG -
Jan. 15, 2016 7:17 PM ET USA
So, do we throw in the towel and stop opposing evil too? Let's not talk about abortion because the political system is stacked against us? It has often been the sad situation in US politics that we face voting for the lesser of two evils, but that does not mean that we should abandon all political efforts. American politics will indeed be "out of reach" if we don't reach at all.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Jan. 15, 2016 4:35 PM ET USA
I am not sure I understand whether you are saying that we should not seriously consider candidates, stay informed, and vote for the candidate who best reflects our values and is electable. We have thus far survived seven years of a grossly destructive chief executive, and we can only thank God and some very courageous people for it. This may be the silly season, but politics is not silly.