Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

To fix the American political system, first fix the American culture

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 08, 2012

Let’s face facts squarely. We have lost an election. We are in grave danger of losing a nation.

The 2012 elections were a decisive defeat for the culture of life. But this defeat did not “just happen” on November 6. It was the result of a long trend. If we don’t take action now to reverse that trend, we can expect even more disastrous defeats in 2014, 2016, and beyond.

The re-election of President Obama—who did his utmost to make unrestricted legal abortion a major campaign issue—is only the most obvious of the losses the pro-family movement suffered. In four different states, voters chose to move toward legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Up until this week, when American voters had the opportunity to weigh similar proposals, the results had been 32 victories for traditional marriage, 0 for a change. Now that perfect record has been broken; the momentum has shifted. In Massachusetts, the electorate only just barely defeated a bid to legalize assisted suicide, and the slim margin of victory for life is probably attributable to the fact that the legislation was very poorly crafted; advocates of suicide will surely try again soon. In Missouri and Indiana—states with strong pro-life leanings—Senate candidates were savaged for making ill-phrased remarks about abortion in extreme cases, and ultimately went down in defeat.

Yes we lost, and lost badly. Liberal commentators have been quick to conclude that the pro-life/pro-family cause was a burden that Republican candidates could not carry. Dan Gilgorff of CNN proclaimed happily that “Tuesday’s election results seemed to mark a dramatic rejection of the Christian right’s agenda…”

Not so fast. Was the agenda of the “Christian right”—the culture of life—ever really presented to the American public to be accepted or rejected? Certainly Barack Obama rallied his hard-left supporters by depicting the pro-family movement as a threat. But was there any corresponding effort by Mitt Romney and his Republican supporters to make the case of the pro-family cause?

Sure, Romney did occasionally claim the pro-life mantle—when he was speaking to a friendly audience. But he admitted that he had no plans to change the status quo (which allows for abortion on demand), and he never argued the case for pro-life policies. His running-mate Paul Ryan began to make that case during a televised debate with Vice President Joe Biden, but stopped short of making the natural-law argument in defense of human life, and failed to to show the true appeal of the pro-life cause.

So the Obama-Biden campaign scored a tactical victory by successfully portraying pro-lifers as extremists. This was an astonishing coup. Poll after poll shows that most Americans do not support unrestricted legal abortion on demand, and would support modest efforts to protect unborn children and their mothers. Yet the Republicans, who quietly support such modest measures, are perceived as the extremists, while the Democrats, who insist on protecting and even subsidizing abortion in every possible circumstance, have successfully presented themselves to the American people as the “moderates” in this debate!

How is this possible? How can it be that after nearly 40 years of energetic effort, the pro-life movement has failed to persuade the American public of the justice of our cause? My college tennis coach had a favorite maxim: “Never change a winning game. Always change a losing game.”

There’s an old adage in politics: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Or as a grizzled campaign veteran once put it in a conversation, “You can’t make bear soup without a bear.” That compelling logic applies to political causes as well as political candidates. If only one side of the debate is heard, that side wins.

Forty years later I still find his logic compelling.

Back in the 1980s, pro-life campaigners could safely state their opposition to legal abortion and assume that a majority of constituents would agree with them. No longer. The climate of American public opinion has changed; acceptance of legal abortion has spread. What was self-evident in 1776 and in 1976 is not evident to most Americans today. The voters need to be persuaded; the natural-law argument needs to be made.

Unfortunately, at precisely the time when we should have been emphasizing that natural-law argument, many pro-life activists adopted a very different strategy. Rather than urging political candidates to make the arguments forcefully, pro-lifers began embracing candidates who downplayed the abortion issue, hoping to avoid debates. Sometimes the strategy was successful, and the candidates won. But over time, because the pro-life cause was not actively presented, the terms of the debate shifted toward acceptance of legal abortion. Soon we were being asked to accept candidates who were unwilling to endorse any pro-life legislation, simply because they were less objectionable than their rabidly pro-abortion opponents.

Many candidates who won pro-life endorsements because they seemed friendly to the cause have proved unreliable. Quite a few politicians who were elected with the enthusiastic support of the pro-life movement failed to deliver on their campaign promises. Some have openly deserted the case and joined the swelling ranks of the “pro-choice” crowd. There has been precious little movement in the opposite direction; the political current flows only one way.

For years the pro-life movement has tried to win elections without winning hearts and minds. We have been willing to compromise our fundamental principles in the quest for a temporary political advantage. Now we are left with neither. It’s time—past time—for a change in our approach.

In the argument above I have concentrated on the abortion issue, because it has been the focus of so much attention since 1973. But the same arguments could be made about issues such as same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, gays in the military, euthanasia, and religious liberty. On every front, the pro-life/pro-family movement has been yielding ground. On every issue, Republican political campaigners have, as a rule, been loath to take a stand, anxious to avoid a confrontation, during general elections.

In his stump speeches Mitt Romney pounded relentlessly on the theme that his policies would help create more jobs. This was unquestionably an important issue in a time of economic distress. But keep in mind that President Obama, too, claimed that he would create new jobs. Obama’s argument was implausible, but the point is that some voters accepted it. The main thrust of Romney’s message was persuasive only to those voters who accepted the Republican narrative regarding job creation. Meanwhile the unhealthy trend that affects every American household just as surely as job losses and economic recession—the decline of healthy family life—was nearly ignored in this presidential race.

Our economic problems may seem more pressing today, but the questions of family life—of what sort of society we choose to be—have far more long-term impact. Writing for National Review, Mark Steyn made the point:

If this is the way America wants to go off the cliff, so be it. But I wish we’d at least had a Big Picture election. The motto of the British SAS is “Who dares wins.” The Republicans chose a different path. A play-it-safe don’t-frighten-the-horses strategy may have had a certain logic, but it’s unworthy of the times.

But before we pin all the blame for our current troubles on shy Republican candidates, let’s be honest enough to look at things from their perspective. They feared that if they made the cause of life a major theme of their campaigns, they would lose. Alas, Tuesday’s results suggest that they might be right. We aren’t ready to win these arguments; we haven’t persuaded the American public. That’s why unless something changes—unless we adopt a different approach, and start quickly down a new route—we’ll lose again in 2014.

In a short but incisive analysis for World magazine, the Evangelical scholar Marvin Olasky argues that our losses in 2012 were the fruit of 50 years’ worth of mistaken strategic decisions. Christians allowed liberal secularists to gain control of academic life, and indoctrinate the rising generations. We acceded to no-fault divorce, and the subsequent breakdown of families. We allowed ourselves to be caught up in the details of political contests, when we should have been noticing the adverse long-term cultural trends. We accepted noisy talk-show hosts as our main sources of information, when we should have been developing our own means of communication. Now after a full generation of political activism, the “Christian right” is worse off than when it first appeared on the American political scene.

Mitt Romney worried aloud about the growing number of Americans who now rely on government largesse. But there are far more disturbing trends in American society: the percentage of children born out of wedlock (a stunning 41%, and rising!), the number of marriages that end in divorce; the number of pregnancies ended in abortion; the number of young people living together without benefit of marriage; the number of families that never go to church. We aren’t just losing elections. We’re losing a way of life.

Look at the exit polls from Tuesday’s elections. The voters who attend church services regularly, the voters who live in intact families: these constituencies are still strongly supportive of the “culture of life.” We have been trying, for far too long, to use political methods to change cultural trends. It’s time to turn that approach around completely. If we can reverse the deadly trends in American social life, political success will naturally follow.

Twelve years ago, after my own unsuccessful campaign for elected office, I wrote: “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.” To revitalize our country we must revitalize our culture. And to revitalize our culture we must revitalize our faith.

How appropriate, then, that Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed this a Year of Faith! At his public audience on November 7—coincidentally, the day after the American elections—the Pope said that Christians must help their secularized neighbors to recognize the “mysterious desire for God” that is an innate aspect of human nature. We must, he said, lead our neighbors in “learning or re-learning an authentic taste for the joys of life.” Every man and woman on earth is predisposed to religious faith, and to seek contentment in a happy family. If we can help people to realize these desires—which are pre-programmed in their nature—we can still recover our culture and our nation.

But how?

First, I suggest, by encouraging marriage. Be civil to unmarried couples who are living together, but don’t accept their situation as normal. Encourage married couples who are having tough times to stick together. Next by education—beginning in our homes and in our neighborhoods. Eventually we must join the battle to recapture the schools. Then by active involvement in the public battle of ideas. Since the mass media are hostile we must establish our own lines of communication, and the new social media give us ample opportunity. Most all, by example. Happy households are attractive; our neighbors will want to know our secrets. (If you are a regular visitor to the web site, I’m sure you will notice that the path I am recommending is one that we have been traveling for several years. I encourage you to join the campaign!)

We cannot and should not expect easy victories. This will be a long, difficult campaign. Things may get worse before they get better. In fact, with the renewed mandate of the Obama administration, they probably will. Cardinal Francis George has made the point in dramatic fashion, saying that “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” We all may be asked to pay a price for our faith—perhaps not at the cost of our lives, but at the cost of popularity or professional standing or even the cost of a job. But courageous witness will not go unrewarded. As Cardinal George said, in the long run a faithful Church will “pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” If enough Christians are willing to pay the price our success is assured.

How can we restore the culture of life in America? It’s simple, really—not easy, but simple: by practicing our faith.

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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  • Posted by: - Nov. 13, 2012 3:18 PM ET USA

    I have come to the same conclusion about what we must do. Along with a few other people from my parish, we will be evangelizing at our city's Christmas parade at the beginning of December. We will be giving out material about the church, and information with mass times. We plan on doing this throughout the following year as well. We need to bring people back to the church to change their hearts and minds.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Nov. 11, 2012 5:57 PM ET USA

    @hartwood01: "We can't legislate morality." That's why Phil said we need to make the argument from natural law. I don't need religion in order to know it is an abominable crime to dismember a child in its mother's womb. But if we as a society protect with the force of law the able among us, we should, a fortiori, have laws protecting the defenseless in our midst. There is nothing coercive about that.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Nov. 10, 2012 4:35 PM ET USA

    We can't legislate morality. We are not the only game in town,this is not a country that is ruled by a particular religion. People have different beliefs, maybe held wrongly,nevertheless,they cannot be forced to accept ours.(See Islam). We can only observe God's laws,be examples of the Christian life and cut the red-hot,hateful language so many of us are capable of.

  • Posted by: geardoid - Nov. 10, 2012 3:04 PM ET USA

    Phil's piece is a reply at length to Olasky, who omits the most obvious point. As commentators are ready enough to kick at downed bishops (a questionable stance for sheep), let me ask: to what party might a black monogamist proLife Christian with leadership qualities turn? Had certain GOP constituents not squelched such prospects, the results would be dramatically different. It'd take great mettle, as a loss - even if the swing vote dropped to 0.5% - would mean being pilloried. God bless America

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 10, 2012 10:07 AM ET USA

    Thank you! Your answer is THE only solution to the problem. We can have all kinds of opinions about all the symptoms & manifestations of the culture of death. At "the end of the day", there are only two paths: one to God; one away from Him. Your article summarizes & provides the steps to return to the path to God. Father Patrick Magnier used to say, "Being Catholic is easy, it's just that not being Catholic is easier." Don't take the easier way-live the beauty & truth of being Catholic.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Nov. 10, 2012 1:02 AM ET USA

    The Pope says, "Faith commits every one of us to become a living sign of the presence of the risen Lord in the world." The conversion of ancient Rome from paganism to Christianity has been described by historians as the moral miracle of western civilization. How were the 12 apostles and their disciples able to do this? St.Paul's answer, "But the foolish things of the world has God chosen to put to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world has God chosen to put to shame the strong..

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 09, 2012 1:09 PM ET USA

    In his stump speeches Mitt Romney pounded relentlessly on the theme that his policies would help create more jobs. Yes he did but he did not connect with the average guy because wage jobs have been very flat as far as pay increases for 30 years. More flat wage jobs will not inspire anyone except the wealthy that will become more wealthy as more people slave for poor wages. It is time to change the economic paradigm and invoke social credit and dump Federal Reserve lending to our government.

  • Posted by: rdubin1661 - Nov. 09, 2012 10:42 AM ET USA

    Christians have to be optimistic; we know how the story ends. And I'm a patriot, and have always loved my country, but now I have to wonder: Are we fooling ourselves? Is America still "savable"? Is it really any wonder we are where we are, when for the past 40 years, our society has slid along on a river of the blood of 50 million innocents? We look back at the horrors of the 20th Century, at Hitler's slaughter of 11 million Jews and other undesirables, and shudder at the evil. Mirror, mirror.

  • Posted by: unum - Nov. 09, 2012 6:43 AM ET USA

    The demoralized Catholic laity are mostly led by political progressives in the USCCB who are willing to subcontract social justice to the same Democrats who are advocating abortion on demand and homosexual marriage. They (the clergy) speak so loud that the world cannot hear what we (the laity) say! So, a minority of the unled laity continue to advocate the gospel message, waiting for the Spirit to intervene, reform the clergy, and get the country's attention. The laity are not the problem!

  • Posted by: impossible - Nov. 08, 2012 6:58 PM ET USA

    Well said Phil. Maybe a NL (natural law) party should be formed and work with the Tea-Party. Why should the USCCB be allowed by the many good Bishops meddle with secular socialist causes thus advancing socialism and eventually totalitarianism?  Every 2-4 years may Bishops and priests have to issue separate letters to give Catholics a last minute glimpse of true Catholic social teaching.  Bishop Fulton J. Sheen said saving the Church will be up to the laity.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 08, 2012 6:51 PM ET USA

    @richardols3892--I think you are correct. We ought to have a zipper policy in the military as well as everything else. We ought to demand chaste conduct from all our members of the armed services, and from society as a whole.

  • Posted by: Defender - Nov. 08, 2012 5:41 PM ET USA

    Having served in combat (Army)and elsewhere, homosexuality is contrary to the good order and discipline of any military organization. Though it seems not to be PC today, soldiers in close quarters don't need (or want) the distraction or worry.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Nov. 08, 2012 5:35 PM ET USA

    I agree would add the "lack of catechetical instruction" to the list. There is nothing more sad than to hear one of our bishops or senior priests bemoan this omission. Don't they realize that THEY were our leaders during that period?. Recently I heard a bishop say that "younger Catholics didn't have the advantage that we (older folks) had to learn from the Baltimore Catechism." Why not, Bishop? Who removed it from our schools and churches? NOT THE PARENTS!

  • Posted by: richardols3892 - Nov. 08, 2012 5:19 PM ET USA

    "issues such as same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, gays in the military, euthanasia, and religious liberty." I agree with all your points except that about gays in the military. It has been my experience as a military officer that homosexuals can and do serve in our Armed Forces as well as any heterosexual. If any man or woman is willing to serve in the defense of his or her country at the risk of their lives, I think they should!

  • Posted by: Defender - Nov. 08, 2012 4:57 PM ET USA

    Look at the loss to Christianity of millions around the world. We are leading the effort to de-Christianize 3rd World countries by withholding financial assistance to countries who won't conform to our dictates on condoms and homosexuality. Europe has long been lost to the hedonism of the West, while in the US we keep electing those who lead us in the same direction. Anyone know a few tunes for a violin?

  • Posted by: opraem - Nov. 08, 2012 4:23 PM ET USA

    what should be a force for good is the catholic church, but the molestation/abuse of children and its cover-up has muted the moral clout of the cardinals/bishops in the public square. card dolan has stated the failure to teach about humanae vitae has come to roost. our feckless bishops have a trail of failure spanning two generations.