Others will wade into the high grass of political strategy, demographics, and “ground games” to pronounce on the whys and wherefores of the results of this election in a far more competent manner that I am capable. My focus is on a broader, deeper, and I would argue, more critical dimension of what these results may mean. In that regard, I would observe three things:
1. Americans give signs of moving in a morally and politically more progressive direction, by which I mean that the appeal to the wisdom of past ages and tradition is simply not as compelling as it once was. People today, not all, but many, seem to want the trappings of the tradition (the white gown at the wedding), but not its obligations (chastity before it), thus indicating they would rather live off the legacy of the past than work to create a new and enduring legacy for the future.
2. This tendency applies not merely to moral issues, but to economic and political ones as well. As expressed in the elections results, and confirmed over time in numerous polls, Americans want a prosperous economy with all the “toys” it will produce, but they also demand a wide assortment of political and governmental props to ensure they do not have to sacrifice too much or risk too much in order to attain it. In many respects it is as simple as wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too — writ large.
3. Finally, and with specific application to our religious institutions, now under more governmental threat than at most any other time in the history of the Republic, there must be a recognition of failure on our part to make persuasive, compelling, and authentic the message and identity we bear. The very existence of our social-service institutions is taken for granted at the moment that these have themselves lost their own rasion d’être (witness the wholesale sell-out of Catholic Bishops by the Catholic Hospital Association in the face of the HHS mandate, among others). At least with regards to the Catholic bishops in the United States, along with various movements of Evangelical Protestants, there is a growing recognition of a failure in our role in forming a clear, vibrant, winsome, and effective “world view.” The recognition is growing, as I say, but what this election gives evidence of is that we have a great deal more yet to accomplish.
One week prior to the national elections, I addressed the 22nd Annual Dinner of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. The words I spoke then strike me today as having a new application, so I close with them:
I have recently taken note of a great deal of frustration on the part of good people that seems to come to a head around election time. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me in my pastoral capacity to tell me of the great anxiety and despair they feel over the political mood in our nation; how exhausted they feel over debates and campaigns and solicitations. How they are fearful of the future.
It seems to me that we appear to have forgotten, or need to realize anew, that the solution to this frustration is not, and never has been, success in any given election. It may surprise some to learn that the Kingdom of God is not and will not be brought about by politics. I do not, of course, say that politics is unimportant — I am certain that you in this room will be sure to vote next week, if you have not already done so. But if you believe that it is or can be of ultimate importance, then I fear you not only commit heresy, but you concede the whole point to those who see the state as the be-all and end-all.
What we need to do is diminish assumptions about what the role of the government is and ought to be in the first place. I do not say by this that partisan politics has no place whatsoever, or even that a life of public service may not be a worthy vocation or calling, but to the extent that we diminish our assumptions about the role of government as a whole, we move things in the right direction.
The political process under a robust and ever-enlarging government incentivizes politicians to simply wait to see what the direction of the wind will be so they can build constituencies by offering favors. [Our] mission . . . is to give direction to the wind in the first place. The sad truth is that it will take much more than one election to solve what ails us, in part because the confusion that ails our republic runs very deep.