From the Publisher: The Coming Cultural Crisis

A magazine like Crisis does not endorse candidates. As the reader may discover from the round robin in this issue, its writers are deeply divided with regard to presidential candidates George Bush and Bill Clinton. Just the same, journals of opinion have an obligation to provide an interpretation of events. And one of the prerogatives, maybe the only one, that as publishers Ralph McInerny and I still get to exercise is to analyze matters in a personal way, without pretending to speak for our editors, writers, readers, or even for each other. In this column, I am on my own.

If every presidential election may fairly be described as a turning point in this nation’s history, the election of 1992 is yet more deeply so. On matters crucial to the public policy agenda of the Catholic community, the two major candidates of 1992 point in quite opposite directions. (If Ross Perot re-enters the race—which, as I write, is uncertain—he seems on these matters closer to Clinton.) Depending on who wins, the public ethos of our society, its “moral ecology,” and its capacity for public moral approval and disapproval is likely to receive a powerful presidential push one way or the other.

Here a few words are required to establish my context. Alexis de Tocqueville described religion as the first political institution of American democracy, because it is the guarantor and defender of the nation’s beliefs about human dignity, and a major teacher of the virtues indispensable to self-government. Yet, independently of the services they provide to democracy, the Jewish and Christian institutions of America have overriding duties: Duties to be faithful to themselves and, above all, to God. The anti-religious hostilities of our Supreme Court to the contrary, the free exercise of religious conviction is not a favor granted by a monistically secular State. And it is not merely a matter of personal and private conscience. Neither the Supreme Court nor any other worldly power can force believing Christians and Jews into a private closet, while obliging them in public to stand mute before practices they are commanded to abhor.

The free exercise of our religious convictions as Catholics, Jews, and Protestants arises not from our consciences but from our communities, through which the Word of God has come down to us. Such free exercise is for us a public duty, which arises from a public fact. The publicly known commands of our faiths obligate us and hold us to a public standard. They insist that the vision that is in us be exercised in public, not in private solely.

As of mid-September, in any case, with an incumbent president behind in various polls by 10 to 20 percent, only a reckless observer would bet against Mr. Clinton’s chances. Votes for him will not be merely a protest vote; they will be the real thing. Barring a sudden reversal, the Governor of Arkansas will almost certainly be our next president. And if Bill Clinton does win this watershed election of 1992, three great issues of the Catholic public agenda of these last 20 years will be wiped from the boards.

The first issue is the horror of 1.6 million abortions per year. Since 1973, nearly 24 million fragile young lives have been terminated. (The oldest of these youngsters, had they lived, would today be nineteen years old). The social and economic costs of this loss are immense. Yet material costs scarcely begin to compare with the loss to our moral standing in history, our moral self-confidence, and our secret opinion of ourselves. Our fear of national decline is palpable.

Yet no candidate for the U.S. presidency has ever put his campaign so publicly and so fully on the side of abortion “rights” as Governor Clinton has. The Governor supports a law in Congress that would strike down any conditions, restrictions, or limits to the broadest of our current gruesome practices—including the killing of infants that somehow survive first attempts to slay them; the use of abortion for gender selection; and the like. And no candidate has ever promised so openly to insist upon a litmus test for judicial appointments, in order to approve only of those who will uphold the complete scope for abortion now in practice. The hope of the pro-life movement for peaceful legislative remedy may well be dashed.

The second issue is called, euphemistically, homosexual rights, but it is not the inalienable natural rights spoken of by our Founders that are in dispute. Rather, it is the assertion of the organized gay community that sexual activity among gays (or, for that matter, among unmarried persons) is morally equivalent to marital sexual activity. This is an assertion of moral equivalence; it is a moral assertion. Even those who are perfectly willing to tolerate private behavior and public discussion, and more than willing to help alleviate the ravages of AIDS, cannot—morally cannot—concede such moral equivalence. Nor can they accede to public policies which would enforce that concession. The conflict of moral visions here is sharp and direct.

The third issue seems on its face to be merely a practical issue: school choice. Yet, given the anti-religious hostility of the Supreme Court, and the growing anti-religious aggressiveness of some organizations, it has become virtually impossible to impart a prayerful, religious, and moral education (of the sort our forebears experienced) through the public schools. Without such an education, it is quite doubtful that “the truths we hold” or the institutions to which Americans pledge allegiance make full sense. As Aristotle long ago recognized, some truths are “self-evident” only to those who have learned their pre-suppositions. Only for certain religious traditions do phrases such as “endowed by their Creator” and “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” retain their bite. And of these religious traditions the public schools have by now been thoroughly “cleansed.”

Increasingly, as in Weisman v. Lee, the public schools have been ordered to become positively hostile to the public truths that undergird American institutions. Such truths can no longer be taught, and symbols of them are no longer allowed to violate the classroom (or even the graduation hall). The narrow intolerance of a few non-religious persons has now become privileged; it alone determines the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Most Americans are, in effect, coerced by public policy into attending state schools, whose ideology has been deliberately and systematically narrowed to fit the secular ideology of the courts. This situation is unprecedented in American history before 1948. (After the McCollum case of that year, John Courtney Murray, S.J., instantly detected the incipient cancer; see the reprint of his lecture about this in last month’s First Things.)

From this point of view, school choice appears to be not merely a practical matter: It is a moral and cultural matter of the utmost importance. Institutions of human rights are not protected by words on paper—”parchment barriers,” as Madison put it. They are protected by the habits of the American people and, not least, by the habits, virtues, and convictions inculcated in the nation’s schools. Should the moral decline of the nation’s public schools continue, the future of American society looks even bleaker than people think.

Ordinary Jews and Christians, prevented from expressing their beliefs in the public forum and from exercising their religion openly, pluralistically, and with tolerance for one another, will find themselves increasingly alienated from the public schools, from this nation’s other institutions, and from the new and narrow definition of the Constitution now being forced upon them. Already one hears plans of going into opposition.

Americans have every right, upon reflection, to choose whichever candidate they will. They lend their personal weight to whichever side of these three great issues their own moral communities incline them. But no one should doubt that on these three issues, this election is a choice between two radically opposite national directions. The outcome will deeply affect the public life of Catholics.

The stakes in 1992 are very high. They transcend the personalities and platforms of the candidates. The correlation of forces in the culture at large (even if Perot enters) will be dramatically affected by the outcome on November 3. Don’t underestimate the importance of 1992 as a cultural watershed.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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