Both sides see 2012 election as defining event
2012 election
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session
of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington
Jan. 24. CNS photo

Politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum say the election of 2012 is the most important in years. And while many elections have been called “most important,” this one could live up to its billing. 

The candidates seem to agree. Mitt Romney: “This is an election not to replace a president but to save a vision of America.” Newt Gingrich: “This is the most important election since 1860.” And President Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address: “What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values but American values. We have to reclaim them.” 

Which, however, is precisely what each party — and the president — say they’re doing by pressing their own agendas. 

Most important or not, the November balloting really will confront voters with a choice between parties and candidates divided over fundamental questions. 

The choice customarily is framed in terms of differing views of government and its role. According to this interpretation, the election will pit advocates of government as a provider of benefits against advocates of government as a provider of opportunity — in sound byte language, the “nanny state” vs. “crony capitalism.” 

Shades of gray

Beyond the slogans lies a complicated reality. Crucial policy differences really do separate the two parties and their standard bearers, but on the question of how active a role government should play in Americans’ lives, differences aren’t between black and white but among shades of gray. 

Obama and the Democrats haven’t repudiated the free enterprise economic model. And Romney, Gingrich and the Republicans — with the possible exception of libertarians like Ron Paul — assign government a major role in providing social welfare benefits. 

The serious differences instead are over where to place the emphasis and whether federal policy should assign priority to direct government interventions or to the smooth functioning of the private sector. 

Further complicating that necessarily complex question are here-and-now realities like a weak economy, spiraling health care and Social Security costs, and the evident need to control the national debt before America goes the way of Greece, Ireland and Italy.  

These and other European countries now face the prospect of austerity as the price to be paid for years of government borrowing to support ever-growing social welfare.

By themselves, questions like these would make this election at least as important as any in years. But some people discern another sphere of national life — largely ignored by media — where the issues are equally or even more pressing. 

Code words like “social issues” and “culture war” express what’s at stake here. But at a deeper level than even these terms suggest, the issue is America’s drift away from religious values toward secularist ones — in other words, secularization. 

Church-state conflict

Some conservative commentators get the point. In a recent book titled “Suicide of a Superpower” (St. Martin’s Press), Patrick J. Buchanan writes that events surrounding President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 marked “the advent of post-Christian America.” Buchanan, a Catholic who has been an aide to GOP presidents and contender for the presidential nomination, argues that especially for Catholicism conflict between Church and administration is “irreconcilable” in the “age of Obama.” 

As if in illustration, the administration on Jan. 20 announced it would require church-run institutions like Catholic schools and hospitals to provide full coverage for sterilization, abortifacients and contraception in their employee health care plans. 

The only concession to objections by the U.S. bishops was a one-year reprieve before the regulation goes into effect. The bishops are expected to resist, thereby potentially throwing the issue into the presidential campaign. 

This draconian ruling is hardly the only area of conflict between Obama and Catholics. Although there is agreement on some matters, the Catholic Church now finds itself in fundamental disagreement with Obama policies on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and same-sex marriage. 

Over time, too, it’s become clear that Obama and his associates subscribe to a secularized view of religion that minimizes its place in social and political life. 

Indeed, the president himself embodies it. Besides pursuing a secularist agenda on social issues, Obama, a professed Christian rarely seen engaged in prayer or worship, communicates by action as much as words the message that, practically speaking, religion has little role in public life. 

Recently a trivial but telling incident underlined that. A presidential statement for the observance of Jan. 16 as “Religious Freedom Day” appeared to go out of its way to speak approvingly of “non-believers.” This labored inclusiveness struck some readers as not unlike saying a kind word for smokers in an anti-smoking ad. No president writes routine official proclamations for himself, but the ghostwriters who do are careful to reflect policy. 

Religious difference

By no means, though, is it clear that the GOP will be able or willing in November to present voters with a sharp contrast with Obama on religion and values. Of the two main contenders for the Republican nomination, Romney is dogged by some voters’ suspicion of his Mormonism, while the past marital troubles of Gingrich, a Catholic convert, are a continuing embarrassment. 

Paying too much attention to religious matters might risk violating the Constitution’s ban on a religious test for public office. But too little attention would also be a mistake. Voters have a right to know what candidates believe, to the extent it impacts on their fitness for office. As may well be the case in 2012. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.