The Peril of Total Political Disengagement

In a recent column, I argued that Catholics should willingly lend political support to the Republican Party. The focus of that piece was on the contention that there is no particular principle on which the Republican Party and the Church are clearly and intractably at odds.

For many serious Catholics, I suspect that that argument will come across not as wrong, but rather as dissatisfying or unresponsive to their true concerns.  In my experience, anti-Republican resentment is fairly strong among Catholics, but the antipathy is not a response to the party’s formal commitments so much as the lackluster way in which it pursues them. Republican politicians pay lip service to certain cherished principles of religious conservatives, but relatively few seem to be committed pro-lifers, and even fewer seem genuinely to care about protecting marriage, the family or the autonomy of the Church. These issues, Catholics feel, are reluctantly included in the Republican platform merely for the sake of winning votes. Republican leaders have no serious intention of pursuing a socially conservative agenda in the foreseeable future.

I’ve heard this analysis time and again from Catholic friends who are disillusioned with the Republican Party. And in fact, there’s an element of truth in it. The reality is that America is at present a deeply divided country in which religious conservatives represent a counter-culture. High-ranking political personalities tend to be immersed in an elite culture that fears and reviles traditional religion along with traditional values and mores, so they aren’t always well-versed in, or sympathetic to, the concerns of serious Christians (or serious religious people of any stripe). Also, politicians are perpetually looking for ways to win elections, and it understandably seems to them that it will be difficult to win with a social message that is increasingly out of sync with modern popular culture.

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This predictably creates some tension within the party, and it’s fair to say that prominent Republicans don’t all hold religious conservatives in high esteem. Some, to be sure, are genuinely eager to hold onto a fusionist vision that combines a small government agenda with a robust commitment to virtue, community and family. For others, accommodating social conservatism is just a necessary evil. It’s a crude oversimplification but not entirely wrong to suggest that Democrats have “bought” a winning coalition by supporting welfare and organized labor. As the party of fiscal austerity, Republicans are unwilling to match Democratic spending commitments, and consequently they are “stuck” with religious conservatives as the only remaining voting block large enough to keep the party viable.

Nobody likes feeling like the last kid picked for the team, and considering the matter from this perspective, it’s hardly surprising that religious conservatives feel used. It’s not very thrilling to think of ourselves as microscopic cogs in a political machine mostly dedicated to preserving the elite status of the power-hungry. I’ve known many who were sufficiently discouraged about this that they stayed home on election day, or cast “voting my principles” ballots for powerless third parties.

Others call for a kind of grassroots revolt from the traditional party structure. This perspective was reasonably well summarized in a recent article from American Conservative’s Noah Millman. Angered by the way in which the elite exploit the rhetoric of the culture wars to entrench their own positions of privilege, he recommends that we ignore the charged rhetoric, denying political parties the opportunity to take us for granted.

It sounds appealing on its face, but there are some problems with this position. First of all, political parties are not hive minds. They are big, messy conglomerates of wildly diverse people and groups, each with their own sets of concerns. Political strategists endeavor to meld these varied interests together into a reasonably coherent political message, but since no single person has absolute control over the entire political process (much less the media), the resulting product is still typically quite diffuse. Late in his article, Millman attempts to pinpoint what each party “really” values (he mostly sees the parties breaking on size-of-government lines), but any effort to do that will be fairly arbitrary, because the party isn’t a single organic entity. Different members value different things, which is why so much negotiation goes into developing a platform and political message.

Of course, it’s also quite true that the entire political process is awash in greed and empty ambition, and that many people (whether politicians, pundits or political operatives) will say or do almost anything to maintain their own status and position of privilege. So it has always been in our fallen world, and ever shall be. But that bland observation really shouldn’t affect our personal voting habits. We can’t look into politicians hearts to gauge their sincerity, so the best thing we can do is make it worthwhile for the ambitious to represent our interests. The way to do that is by making the case that there is real life and cultural vitality in the positions we want them to espouse (both in rhetoric and in concrete political efforts).

Given how religious conservatism is viewed within “elite” American culture, it’s entirely unsurprising that many Republicans want to secure our votes while making as little commitment as possible to our views. Thus, we see regular calls for a “truce” on social issues, which generally amounts to an appeal for social conservatives to remain in the Republican fold while muting their social views as much as possible. Of course, we should reject this kind of “truce.” But even that won’t be possible if we storm away from the negotiating table.

As unwelcome as the news may be to certain ranking Republicans, the party still needs our votes. But if (as Millman recommends) we stop voting on social issues, the parties will inevitably realign in such a way as to leave our social concerns unrepresented. Given the current direction of the culture, it’s more or less a given that the end result will not be pleasing.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if indeed the GOP did nothing to promote the good. If Republican pro-life and pro-marriage advocacy were really confined to rhetoric, perhaps it would be just as well to vote our fiscal views or not at all. But it’s a terrible mistake to think that the Republicans have done nothing concrete to protect life or promote the family. As Exhibit A, consider the substantial progress the pro-life movement has made in restricting (which often means closing) abortion clinics in recent years. Liberals are in something of a panic about it. Would we have been able to pass that legislation without Republican leadership?

As Exhibit B, we should note that the judiciary, bad as it is, could be worse. Thanks to Republicans, we have at least some justices who are sympathetic to our concerns about life and marriage and willing to rule in favor of academic or religious freedom. Beyond this, recent losses on the marriage front shouldn’t cause us to forget the many successful campaigns the Republicans have waged within the last decade to protect traditional marriage. In short, it’s really not reasonable to doubt at this stage that the Republican Party is the best available political organization through which to pursue pressing social goals.

It’s understandable that religious conservatives would feel irritated given their (often accurate) perception that they are not respected in mainstream political circles, and that their views get less attention than their numbers would warrant. At the end of the day, though, pouting is the quickest and most effective way to slide ourselves into irrelevance.

The truth is that faithful religious people are reviled by America’s liberal elite precisely because we have a vibrant, functional culture of our own, which doggedly resists liberal attempts to co-opt it. Moreover, the cultures we have built can boast precisely those goods (a strong marriage culture, high birth rates) that are most desperately needed in our society, as even liberals have begun to appreciate. The best way to increase our political influence, therefore, is by persuading the Republican Party that they would do well to tap into that cultural energy rather than hiding it under a bushel. We can only do that if we remain engaged with our political allies, summoning as much grace and optimism as we can in what is admittedly a trying time for conservatives of all stripes.

Politics is rarely edifying, and not everyone is called to labor in the political vineyard. Even those who are called to this work allow themselves occasional breaks from the relentless news cycle, so that they can restore their sense of perspective. What we should not do, however, is allow our disdain for the fallen world to overflow into a kind of self-righteous eagerness to vacate the field, removing ourselves to cultural “bunkers” in which we can live out our personal convictions in private.

It is perilously easy to give up on a world as depraved as ours, taking pleasure and pride in the superiority of authentic Catholic culture that we hold in our mind’s eye. Of course we should endeavor to build our own homes and communities around such a vision, but at the same time, we should recognize the peril of total disengagement. As we saw with the recent Arizona religious liberty bill, people are not easily moved to respect the integrity of lifestyles that they do not understand, or beliefs that they have been taught to regard as irrational and bigoted. People who consent to live in bunkers tend to be annihilated in the long run. For our children’s sake, and for the sake of our country and compatriots, we must labor energetically to ward off such a grim future.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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