Published on January 6, 2016
George Weigel's Weekly Column The Catholic Difference
To redeploy a phrase from President Ford, our “long national nightmare”—in this case, the semi-permanent presidential campaign—will be over in eleven months, or at least suspended for a year or so. It’s not been an altogether edifying show to date; one may hope that, as the fields get winnowed down, a measure of the serious debate that befits a great republic might emerge. With a view to encouraging that, here are two suggestions for what Catholics in America might ponder before November 8.
(1) The most important numbers to keep in mind between now and Election Day are “78,” “80,” and “83.” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78 by November 8; Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will be 80 by then, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 83. If the actuarial tables mean anything, those numbers suggest that the next President of the United States is likely to get two, perhaps three, and just possibly four, nominations to the Court.
This demographic reality creates an opportunity, unprecedented since the disaster of Roe v. Wade, to make significant advances in rebuilding the structure of legal protection for human life from conception until natural death in the United States. It also creates the possibility of reversing more than a half-century’s jurisprudential malpractice in the matter of Church-and-state and reaffirming the truth about the First Amendment, which is that “no establishment” serves the goal of “free exercise.” And it just might mean getting the question of what “marriage” is, and who may “marry” whom, reconsidered as a matter of constitutional law, not public policy preference.
It will thus make a vast difference who makes these nominations, and how the Senate that will advise and consent on them is configured. For if real progress on reaffirming the right to life, securing religious freedom, and defending marriage rightly understood is possible under one scenario, it is just as possible that the alternative scenario will produce a Court that deals potentially fatal hammer-blows to these causes for the foreseeable future.
(2) When the new president gets his or her first intelligence briefing in the Oval Office on January 21, 2017, he or she may wonder what demon possessed him or her to want the job. For the world is almost certainly going to be more dangerous that day than at any point since the height of the Cold War, and perhaps as long ago as 1947. The dismantling of the international security architecture that has guided the North Atlantic democracies since 1949 has proceeded apace for the past seven years; those responsible for that dismantling stubbornly refuse to consider the evidence before their eyes and hold steady to a lemming-like march toward disaster; the new president will thus face a challenge unlike any since Harry Truman confronted the consequences of the collapse of British power after World War II.
There are lots of reasons to think that America should be ashamed of itself if it considers what taking a holiday from history has done to the world since 2009. The government has failed to take the measure of a newly aggressive Russia that operates by stealth aggression and lies before it gets down to the real aggression; meanwhile, the United States sends military junk to a Ukraine that is begging for help in building democracy and prosperity. The Middle East is a boiling cauldron of violence, murder, and ideological madness, in no small part because the United States decided that it had had enough of maintaining order there. Meanwhile, the State Department has gutted the notion of “religious freedom” in U.S. international human rights policy, preferring to emphasize the export of American lifestyle libertinism while threatening to withhold foreign aid if poor countries decide that they’d just as soon not imitate western decadence—which seems to them (and not without reason) to have caused an awful lot of unhappiness.
The campaign consultants will tell candidates that, when it comes to what we might call the Presidentiad, it is, was, and always will be about the economy. Serious Catholics will know better. It’s about our national character. It’s about building on, not wasting, the victory of freedom in the Cold War. It’s about responsibility.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.