When Americans go to the polls next month, they will be participating in a national referendum on values. This "values" dimension makes the election, in the estimate of seasoned observers, the most important in many years. “The closest thing to political Armageddon since 1860,” Frank Gannon and Jeffrey Bell of the conservative Washington-based American Principles Project write. If that is stretching it, it’s not by much.
Values like justice and charity and economic self-determination are fundamental to economic policy. Values are at stake regarding the scope and configuration of government, the central challenge here being balancing solidarity and subsidiarity. Values speak to the question of America’s role in the world, including a realistic and constructive stance toward a resurgent and sometimes hostile Islam.
And it hardly needs saying that values are at the heart of the social issues — pre-eminently abortion and same-sex marriage — that are intimately linked to the sanctity of human life and the meaning of marriage and family. Apparently reflecting the preferences of both parties and their candidates, not a lot has been said about social issues in this year’s campaign. But whether the politicians and the media acknowledge it or not, everyone knows these issues are there, this year’s political version of the elephant in the living room. What role they will play in the election has yet to be seen.
In order to understand how America reached this present state of affairs, a bit of context will help. It comes from a Church source. Speaking at the world Synod of Bishops now nearing its close in Rome, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., referred to the “tsunami of secularization” that swept over Western Europe and much of the rest of the world in the last several decades.
Powerful currents from that cultural tidal wave also have pummeled — and, indeed, they continue to pummel — the United States. For fresh evidence of that, we need look no further than the new Pew Research Center study that shockingly found nearly 20 percent of Americans now describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated. (This group includes atheists, agnostics, and a significant number of people who just don’t identify with any particular denomination.)
The tsunami of secularism reflected in this situation didn’t come from nowhere. In his influential book "Modern Times," historian Paul Johnson notes that the breakdown of the religious impulse among members of the West’s cultural elite occurring in the 19th century left in its wake what the author calls "a huge vacuum” of convictions and values. Efforts to fill that vacuum make up a large part of modern history.
Much of this work, as Johnson and others point out, has been done — usually with disastrous results — by zealots of secularist ideologies (think fascism, Nazism, communism) who busied themselves with constructing secularist utopias of one or another sort. The United States has, happily, been largely spared the most noxious expressions of this unhinged zealotry up to now, but the urge has been present all the same. Of late it has tended to take the form of a kind of statist populism, practiced to varying degrees by both political parties, that seeks to win and hold power by organizing coalitions of heterogeneous interest groups held together by rhetoric, habit and the promise of rewards.
And so we come to the election of 2012. Every election is a choice, but the choice this time focuses on an especially large question: what kind of values — contemporary secularist or modestly traditional — shall 21st century America officially espouse and practice? Good luck with that one.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.