Politics & Policy

Knight of Consensus

Carl Anderson talks with NRO about America’s moral core.

This midterm cycle has been a time of unprecedented civic engagement, and Carl Anderson sees a lot of consensus in it. The New York Times–bestselling author and head of the Catholic men’s group the Knights of Columbus has a new book, Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street, and the Media. He talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about his evidence and some of the most important cultural and political issues of the day, including abortion, marriage, immigration, the economy, and more.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Days after the midterm elections, we have a fair bit of division in Washington still. Why isn’t your book an exercise in fantasy or idealism?

CARL ANDERSON: The fantasy is that we are divided as a people. Washington is divided, in part, because the common belief is that there isn’t really a way forward. But obviously, as the research I discuss in the book shows, there is. By beginning at the country’s moral core, our political leaders can find a way forward that draws the support of the American people, rather than alienates them.

LOPEZ: You write, “On basic moral questions, on what they believe at their core, most Americans stand shoulder to shoulder. They agree that morality has a place not only in our families and personal relationships but also in corporate offices and boardrooms on Wall Street, in the country’s newsrooms and in the halls of political power in Washington.” How do you prove that? And how do you translate that into something concrete that businesses and Washington can work with? Or does it really all start in our families and personal relationships?

ANDERSON: I think that the polling data on each of these issues speaks for itself. People want a consistent moral approach in life, whether in public or in private, whether in politics or in business. Of course it starts with each of us, but after the financial earthquakes of the past two years on Wall Street, and the political shakeups of the same period, I think the entire country is ready for this. In the cases of Washington and Wall Street, if it’s not morals that shows them the way ahead, perhaps it will be self-preservation that leads them to a moral approach, given recent history.

Concretely, this works the same way. People need to make the choice to have that consistent set of ethics — at home, at work, in public, in private. Taking those concrete steps will lead to countless other concrete moral actions, one step at a time.

LOPEZ: The Knights of Columbus are more about charity, fellowship, and catechesis than polling. Why did you get into the business of commissioning polls?

ANDERSON: The Knights have always been about charity, and charity is something that betters our communities and our country. We have long had an interest in working to make our world a better one, not only through charity but also through education. As far back as the 1920s, we commissioned books on issues that needed to be addressed. For instance, we published three books on the contributions of racial minority groups to the United States in the mid-1920s. One of those books, on the contributions of African Americans, was written by W. E. B. DuBois almost four decades before the 1960s civil-rights movement.

We were involved with the polling of younger Americans in the 1980s, and more recently have been polling because we think it is important for people to understand who the American people are and what we believe on moral issues, and to find ways that we can come together to better our nation.

One really great thing that came out of this polling was the news that the two groups most respected for moving the moral compass of the nation “in the right direction” are volunteers and charitable organizations. For us, that means that the hands-on charity that our members do in 14,000 councils in this country and around the world has offered real, concrete hope. That’s something that the entire country can agree is a good first step forward for our nation.

Providing a moral compass is something that we try to do by our actions, through our charity. But it is also something that the Knights of Columbus has long done by promoting — and adding to — public discussion of key issues.

LOPEZ: I imagine you’ve seen the change in the way Catholics voted this time around. Catholics don’t vote in a bloc, of course, but what do you make of exit polls showing upwards of 50 percent of Catholics voting Republican this time around?

ANDERSON: I think people should be careful of discussing the “Catholic vote” per se, for the simple reason that there are many “Catholic votes” — the practicing-Catholic vote, the lapsed-Catholic vote, the Catholics-who-go-to-confession vote, etc. But what is clear is that Catholics, like all Americans, are looking for a moral way forward. Let’s hope they get it, and soon. But for that to occur, both parties will need to realize that political wins should be less important than beginning debates at America’s moral core, seeing our moral consensus not as a place of compromise but as one of beginning.

LOPEZ: Is the Tea Party an angry movement? Can it see beyond a house divided?

ANDERSON: A recent poll by Frank Luntz found that almost three-quarters of Americans said they “were mad as hell” and were “not going to take it any more.” So is the Tea Party angrier than the rest of America? I don’t know.

I do think the Tea Party is an interesting phenomenon and one that in certain ways dates back to the disagreements between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. It is indicative of the American people’s unhappiness with politics in general.

LOPEZ: What’s the most significant news you include in your book?

ANDERSON: I think the fact that there is great unity in America on political issues — from abortion to the size of government to the moral effect of various groups and institutions on our nation’s moral compass — is significant. The idea that the divisions in this country are vertical, not horizontal, is very important. The fact that we are a people alienated from some of our key institutions but in step with each other is really important, too.

The data that illustrates this best, perhaps, is the analysis of opinions on abortion. The fact that there is consensus on an issue that, more than any other, has come to be seen as emblematic of an intractable culture war is very significant news.

LOPEZ: Is this news that John Boehner, a Catholic, might be able to work with as he leads his new House majority?

ANDERSON: A big issue in this book, and one that we often lose sight of, is that there is a strong consensus, a strong moral compass, in this country. It’s time for our leadership to align itself with those core values.

When there is a dramatic electoral shift, we tend to think about it as a realignment of the people to a political party. But the point of this book is that the political leadership should be asking themselves whether or not they are aligned with the American people.

The American people haven’t moved much in terms of their core values and beliefs in the past two centuries, and we want our elected leaders to represent those values.

LOPEZ: Was the health-care debate — and Catholics’ role in slapping down critics of its offenses to the most innocent among us — a scandal?

ANDERSON: You know, I think the health-care debate had many problems, from the perspective of the American people. They had a specific moral problem with the abortion component, and they had a more general problem with the expansion of government.

As for the Catholic Church, like everyone else, it has a First Amendment right to speak out on issues. Recent polling indicates that most Americans think religious values have too little influence in Washington. Our own polling has found something similar: Americans want to hear from religious leaders on the issue of abortion, but, interestingly, they don’t want to hear about it from politicians. So the Catholic Church’s role here was vital, and the official Catholic position was very much in line with that of the American people — especially on the issue of abortion in health care.

What’s clear from the book is that support for abortion is very low in the United States, and trying to institutionalize unrestricted abortion through national health care is going to cause a significant backlash. An even more serious problem is the fact that so many see this as a profound violation of conscience rights.

LOPEZ: What is values-based leadership?

ANDERSON: First of all, it’s hard to lead a moral people without exerting moral leadership. That said, values-based leadership is a two-fold idea. First, it means adhering to the values that have made this country great — the Judeo-Christian ideals held by our nation’s founders and still held by the great moral core of the American people. Second it also means holding those values consistently, not having one set of values for home and another for business or politics but just having one set, period.

LOPEZ: You write, “The idea that our country is divided on restricting abortion is a myth, and justifications for avoiding the issue on that basis no longer apply. The goals can be achieved.” How do we begin to do that when the issue is as contentious and personal as it is?

ANDERSON: We begin by recognizing that Roe v. Wade is not settled law. A strong consensus of eight in ten Americans want to significantly restrict the legality of abortion.

The point is that, contentious as the issue is in public debates and in the way that it is covered, there is far more agreement than disagreement among the American people. Most Americans would limit abortion only to the rarest of cases, and about eight in ten would limit it to the first three months of pregnancy, at most.

Our political leaders could begin having this sort of discussion in America — with the consent and support of the vast majority of the American people — but what is needed is the courage to look past the tiny but vocal faction that wants to support the Roe legacy at any cost. They have had four decades and the weight of the Supreme Court behind them, and yet they have failed to convince the American people.

The mythology that holds that there is an absolute debate over abortion has helped make the issue seem so contentious.

LOPEZ: Is there hope for marriage in America?

ANDERSON: I think there is great hope for marriage in America. Ninety percent of married Americans are happily married. Nine in ten would marry their spouses again if given the choice. Most first marriages do not end in divorce, contrary to the myth that half do. Americans see marriage as undervalued by society and see it as one of the top priorities in their own lives. There is little doubt that the good of marriage is well understood by Americans and will continue to be so.

And this is in the face of a constant drumbeat of social and economic pressures against marriage. What this should tell us is that it’s time for our social policies to treat marriage as what it is, the cornerstone of society, rather than something irrelevant and in decline.

LOPEZ: Abstinence is also a contentious word. How can we help young people develop a healthy approach to sexuality?

ANDERSON: We live in a society that has trivialized sexuality. I think the key is to understand the meaning of sexuality, communion, and marriage, subjects I discussed in an earlier book, Called to Love. A number of groups supporting greater respect for sexuality in the proper context are gaining traction at some of our nation’s best colleges, and this is proof that young people are looking for something greater than what the “hook up” culture offers. Groups like that have a hopeful, helpful message.

LOPEZ: You quote John F. Kennedy, but didn’t he do some damage, making religion private, in a way, in his famous speech in Houston?

ANDERSON: Many people have taken issue with aspects of John Kennedy’s speech in Houston, and I agree with much of that criticism, that the speech presents a number of historical problems. But it’s worth noting that those who criticize Kennedy’s speech in Houston nonetheless usually give him credit for making the case that he would resign rather than violate his conscience — something few politicians would do today.

But while there are problematic aspects of that Houston speech, I don’t know of any such criticism of his inaugural. And perhaps we should read the two speeches together.

In the inaugural, President Kennedy made clear that our rights come from God — not from the state — and that we are here to do the work of God on earth as our own. It was a speech consistent with the sentiments of Washington, Tocqueville, and Lincoln — and, as those who have read my book know, Jefferson.

LOPEZ: The immigration debate has been a difficult, infuriating, and heartbreaking one. Where the Catholic Church can provide moral guidance, some of her leaders have instead attacked good-faith efforts to protect America’s — or an American state’s — border, in one case as Nazi-like. How can we get beyond this point in a way that protects the dignity of all men but also our nation’s borders?

ANDERSON: What we found in our research for this book is that the American people don’t see the immigration issue as one that is either amnesty or Arizona. They see something far more nuanced. The vast majority of Americans understand that most immigrants are simply people looking for a better life. Americans also support a path to citizenship for those here — as long as certain conditions are met.

The problem is that Americans see our system as broken, but they don’t like to see the law broken even if it’s a flawed law. Ironically, this is one issue on which people want federal action. The majority of those who support laws like Arizona’s indicate in polling that they do so because they feel the federal government has failed to act. Only about a quarter indicate that they think it will actually decrease immigration. In other words, it is almost as if the Arizona law was seen by many as a “protest” law over a broken policy. Until we get a coherent solution to this problem we are going to have the extremes on both sides dictating policy.

LOPEZ: There are some depressing (albeit unsurprising) numbers in your chart of people’s attitudes regarding “Influence People or Institutions Have on the Moral Direction of the Country.” What can be done about Hollywood? Why are people so down on the Internet?

ANDERSON: What’s interesting about the Hollywood numbers is the fact that the movie industry seems to be starting to take notice of the problems that exist, and is beginning to turn out less toxic fare. Television has yet to catch on, but at least we have the start of something. It’s hard to say whether this is motivated by profits or decency, but either way, it’s a good thing for us all.

As for the Internet, it’s no secret that there are problems. Whether it’s a lack of morality related to economics (theft of personal information, malware, and viruses) or a lack of morality related to sexuality (the exploitation of children and the objectification of women), the Internet is a place that has many good elements but also many problematic ones. I think people are cognizant of that.

Maybe it’s time to pause the seemingly endless chatter on the advantages of social media and begin having a discussion about the context in which “social networking” is taking place.

LOPEZ: Does the Catholic Church have a weakened moral authority?

ANDERSON: Forbes ranked the Pope fifth on its list of powerful people this year — six places better than last year. A quarter of Americans are Catholic, and the American people have a core system of beliefs that, on many issues, mirrors Catholic values. As the largest church in the United States, the Catholic Church not only has the largest platform and the greatest number of adherents but is also the largest single defender of the sort of traditional moral values Americans believe in. In an age of moral relativism, the Catholic Church still speaks out on what is right and what is wrong — and people listen. So I think the Catholic Church continues to have very strong moral authority.

What is interesting about the polling we have done is that it shows alignment on issue after issue between the Catholic Church’s position and the values of the American people. Like the Catholic Church, Americans think we need a fair immigration solution; they want abortion laws that protect mother and child alike; they have an awareness that, in the long run, abortion hurts women, something the Catholic Church has been saying for years. And, like the Catholic Church, Americans see marriage as undervalued. They believe in God, practice their faith in numbers very high for the industrialized world, and believe in a consistent set of ethics at work and at home. They want to hear from religious leaders on moral issues, and they don’t want religion banned from the public square. It is clear that the message of the Catholic Church has a receptive audience among an American people. And I would add that this is not exclusive to the Catholic Church.

LOPEZ: Who do you hope reads your book?

ANDERSON: I hope the book is read by those who hold moral values and think they are alone, because I want them to know that they aren’t alone, they are part of the quiet consensus.

I hope politicians read it, because they need to know that Americans expect a strong moral compass in their leaders.

I hope business people read it, because they need to understand that success and morality are intertwined, and that if they want sustainable profits, a moral compass shows the way forward.

I hope that the book starts a discussion among these groups on important issues. It’s not meant to be the last word on any of these things, but I do hope it shows a way forward, a logical, rational way that we can do what we need to do to get over the hostility and partisanship that has paralyzed government and alienated so many of our institutions from the people they serve.

LOPEZ: If you could highlight one item for people in public office, what would it be?

ANDERSON: Start your conversations by looking at America’s moral center. Let’s not start with a partisan position or a special-interest position on every issue and then find out it leads nowhere. Let’s start with what the American people believe, and then figure out where we go from there. Let’s respect the people who respected those in office enough to elect them.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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