Elections and the culture: What we learned in 2012

During the 2012 election season, the Church actively supported a number of issue-oriented ballot referenda initiatives around the country. Most of them failed to pass.

Mostly disappointing results

In Maine, Maryland, Washington and here in Minnesota, there were ballot measures for which the Church worked to preserve the civil institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The pro-natural marriage side lost narrowly in all four states after being heavily outspent in each one.

In Florida, voters failed to end the taxpayer funding of abortions and also voted down an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would have removed a “Blaine Amendment,” a 19th-century state constitutional provision that targeted Catholics and which today jeopardizes joint charitable and social service relationships between church entities and the state, and impedes a number of educational reforms, including school choice.

In California, a referendum to end that state’s use of the death penalty, strongly supported by the Church, also failed.

Last spring, a North Dakota religious freedom restoration initiative lost badly at the polls.

Church-backed campaigns won victories in two states: In Massachusetts, a referendum to legalize euthanasia was defeated (barely); and in Maryland, voters approved a state-level DREAM act, which provides in-state college tuition rates for certain undocumented immigrants who attended Maryland high schools.

Elections reflective of culture

What can we learn from these disappointing results?

The main thing to keep in mind is that elections are typically barometers and symptoms of broader cultural trends.

These votes are reflective of a severe cultural amnesia about the basic truths and principles that built Christian civilization — a redundant term. They exhibit a lack of solidarity with others and future generations, and an indifference to understanding how social institutions affect the common good.

The fact that voters were unable to protect the institution of marriage, end taxpayer funding of abortion, or support religious freedom — and just barely thwart the aggressive push for euthanasia — is not encouraging from a cultural standpoint.

As Pope Benedict XVI has noted, if we wish to see better results in the political arena, there first must be a change in the culture — the framework of beliefs and practices that shape and govern the social life of a nation. (2010 World Day of Peace Message, 5.)

Historically, culture is rooted in “cult,” that is, religious belief and practice. Therefore, cultural change requires the embrace of a new set of beliefs and practices.

Cultural change rooted in renewed understanding of the human person as created by God

Our problems in the political and economic spheres find their source in a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of the human person and the person’s relationship to other persons and society. We misunderstand who the human person is because we no longer know the Creator, the one who authored the operations manual for human life.

As the Second Vatican Council explained: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. . . . Christ . . . fully reveals man to man himself.” (“Gaudium et spes,” 22.)

Therefore, the ultimate solution to our problems is not better political tactics, more money, new policies, or better messengers. The answer is in an embrace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness, including in the political realm where Christ is king of kings and lord of lords.

Cultural change starts with man in the mirror

Cultural transformation starts with each one of us. What’s wrong with the world, you ask? I am and you are. We need to live the Gospel and make it attractive for others to do so. That means our participation in the public arena must be governed by Catholic social teaching, and not the prevailing and destructive left-right ideologies of our day to which, sadly, most Catholics devote their political allegiances.

Though in each of these ballot campaigns the Church embraced her responsibility to speak the truth and shape both culture and law, the seed often fell on rocky ground. There is not just indifference to the message, but in many cases, fierce resistance.

The Church’s witness in the public arena has become countercultural, and it is likely to remain so in the near future. Catholics seeking to witness to the truth must acclimate themselves to a culture largely indifferent, and in some cases hostile, to the message.

As the history of the early Church shows, however, being countercultural — even persecuted — is an opportunity to change hearts and begin the process of cultural renewal. The world needs witnesses, not just teachers, and each one of us can share in that task.

Prudence and justice are always important virtues in the public arena. But what Catholics will likely need most in the years ahead is courage. Fortunately, grace perfects nature.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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