I was up late last night baking chocolate chip cookies, watching the returns, and trying to sort my feelings about the election. I was pleased, yes, but in a way that was hard for me to grasp.
As I watched the returns come in, the first thing I felt was a sense of satisfaction. I felt strongly that the judgment of this election needed to extend beyond the president himself to include his party. I agreed with James Fallows that “for America to return the incumbent party to power after this record would make a mockery of the idea of ballot-box accountability and two-party competition.” A majority of voters clearly agreed with that assessment.
A second emotion, which rushed in after the networks called it for Senator Obama, was pride. There was no question that this was a historic day, not merely for African-Americans, but for the nation. I thought of those-Black and White-who had marched and organized and even died to make this day possible. I thought once again of my own ancestral roots in antebellum Virginia and the historical burden those bloodlines entail. My reflection was made more poignant by Obama’s invocation of Ann Nixon Cooper during his acceptance speech. While there were many Nixon families in the South, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some of my ancestors owned some of Mrs. Cooper’s as property.
A third feeling, which emerged during the president-elect’s acceptance speech, was hope. The deep sobriety of his address conveyed to me that this was man who understands both the dangers and possibilities of the present moment in our nation’s history. We clearly have elected a man of singular intellectual and political gifts to guide us in a difficult time. From his writings and his speeches, one can clearly see that he is a man who listens well, consults widely and thinks deeply before he acts. His invocation of David Plouffe and David Axelrod during his speech reminded me of the impressive competence of his campaign organization. It is said that presidents govern in the same way they campaign. If that is so, we can hope for the restoration of a baseline-and much needed-competence to the day to day operations of the executive branch.
I don’t have a long laundry list of things I am looking for the new president to do. I’d like to see a significant change of direction in foreign and military policy. I don’t object to moving the tax burden upward a bit, but we need to pay as much attention to how to get the pie expanding again as to how to distribute it. Before we go overboard in re-regulating the financial markets we need to be very clear what our desired outcome is. Some form of health care reform is long, long overdue. While it’s hard to care about deficits during a recession, I’d like to place the nation on a path to fiscal sanity again, including a solution to the long-term structural deficits in the Medicare and Social Security programs. To the extent that the Republicans in Congress are willing to be pragmatic partners in dialogue, I think that most of these are areas where bipartisan solutions could emerge. We need the spirit of Eisenhower to re-emerge within the Republican Party.
I am not blind to Obama’s faults, particularly the way he embraced increasingly radical positions on the issue of abortion during the campaign, such as his endorsement of the Freedom of Choice Act. I think that Greg Sisk is right that Catholics and others with pro-life convictions who supported Obama will have a particular obligation to make themselves heard on this issue in the months to come. This election was certainly no mandate for federalizing abortion law and limiting the ability of states to find workable ways to embed respect for the unborn in law.
A final emotion, perhaps, is sadness that the election–as expected–aggravated the political fault lines within the Catholic community. I certainly understand the frustration of bishops with political leaders who-whether deliberately or out of true ignorance-misrepresent Catholic teaching in the public square. The collapse, however, of what initially appeared to be a strong episcopal consensus around the Faithful Citizenship document was not an edifying sight. Nor was the misuse or misunderstanding by many of key concepts from our tradition of moral theology: “intrinsic evil,” “prudential judgment,” “formal and material cooperation,” just to name a few. The catechetical collapse of the last few decades seems to have led to the loss of a language in which we can talk to one another. We are the poorer for it.
Which is one of the reasons I was glad to be baking cookies last night. The cookies are for a Christian prison retreat in which I am participating this weekend. They were a physical reminder to me that as important as it is for Catholics to “take their faith into the public square,” the country that has our first loyalty is not of this world. Activists of the left and right may articulate their respective visions of social reform, but we are here not so much to “build the Kingdom” as to be heralds of the One who is building it. It is true that this may sometimes require prophetic confrontation with the forces of evil. It may also, however, require contemplative withdrawal in the face of aggressive demands to “choose a side.” As Stanley Hauerwas once observed, the “Church does not have a social strategy, the Church is a social strategy.” To the extent that the way we engage in social reform simply apes the worst aspects of our political culture, we become the salt that loses its flavor. If that happens, we lose no matter how many elections we may win.