Talking the Talk

Published December 8, 2004

The Catholic Difference

The night after the election, PBS correspondent Margaret Warner recounted a conversation she’d had with a John Kerry aide, still reeling from the results of a contest he and his boss were certain they’d win. “You know, Margaret,” he said, “the Republicans were talking to five, six, seven million people that we don’t understand at all…and you and the press don’t understand them either. And the pollsters aren’t picking them up.” The comment was deeply revealing and brutally honest – unlike a lot of shell-shocked scribbling on the op-ed pages after November 2.

Judging from the post-election reaction of his more fervent journalistic and academic supporters, the Kerry candidacy was attractive because it represented the Europeanization, which is to say “secularization,” of American public life. A Kerry presidency would keep the great unwashed hordes of evangelicals at bay; a Kerry presidency would put assertive Catholic bishops in their place, leaving the field to the more “understanding” staffers at the bishops’ conference and their episcopal allies; a Kerry presidency would regulate biotechnology in utilitarian terms (i.e., what works, we’ll do); a Kerry presidency would support the federal courts’ efforts to legislate social policy, thus nailing down “choice” as the supreme value involved in the “social issues;” a Kerry presidency would insist that the right to life of the unborn and the traditional understanding of marriage are matters of “doctrine” that “cannot be imposed on a pluralistic society;” above all, a Kerry presidency would secure a virtually unlimited abortion license, the key to sustaining the “gains” (as these folks understand them) of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement.

The new president would attend Mass regularly. But, as he said repeatedly during his campaign, he wouldn’t let the moral teaching of his Church interfere with his policies, although that teaching expresses basic norms of natural justice rather than particular Catholic claims. Religious faith, in a European-style Kerry presidency, would be thoroughly privatized: a matter of what Americans do with their solitude, to paraphrase William James. Publicly assertive Catholics, and the even more rambunctious evangelicals, would be dealt a crushing blow.

It was not to be – and not because the messenger was a rather vain Boston Brahmin whose attempts to look like a regular guy (baseball fan, hunter) invariably backfired. Indeed, I felt a twinge of sympathy for Senator Kerry in the days immediately after the election as his former acolytes turned on him, suggesting that a more likeable candidate could have sold the Democrats’ message. On the contrary: I thought Kerry ran a rather effective (if often mendacious) campaign. The message, not the messenger, was the problem.

What Kerry’s secularist supporters can’t seem to understand is that the evangelicals, the John Paul II Catholics, and the observant Jews don’t need explaining; what needs explaining is the Harvard faculty club, Michael Moore, and most of the op-ed regulars at the New York Times – people who’ve persuaded themselves that a profound belief in the God of the Bible, expressed in a commitment to live by the Ten Commandments, is the fast track to fascism. They’re the anomaly, not the believers. If they’d ever take a field trip out of their secularist bunkers to meet the rest of America, they might find we’re not so scary after all.

The secularists did have one triumph on November 2: Proposition 71 in California, which embroils the state in scientifically dubious and morally reprehensible stem-cell research. Prop 71’s success – in an election cycle that saw proponents of traditional marriage bat eleven-for-eleven and pro-life candidates do very, very well – suggests that the “values people,” as we’re now labeled, haven’t yet learned to talk the talk on issues posed by the new biotechnologies. We can make the arguments – scientific, moral, philosophical; the arguments are rationally persuasive. Then Michael J. Fox comes into the hearing room and the debate is over.

What’s the language that meets the challenge posed by misconstrued compassion (“Did you want Chris Reeve to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair?”) and utilitarianism (“If it works, it must be right.”)? We don’t have it, yet. We need it. Soon.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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