Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

A Liberal Land, from Sea to Shining Sea

Michael Novak

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America votes for its president on 2 November. Here, one of the nation's most respected Catholic observers depicts a country drifting to the Right. Religion, he says, cannot be separated from the tissue of national life.

Year by year, the American electorate becomes (in the European meaning of the term) more "liberal" - that is, voters are more committed to liberty, less willing to heed elite opinion, and a little more religious and "traditional" in their moral ideals. Put another way, they become less like France. Less social democratic, less bewitched by the Left.

One index of this change is what is happening in two of America's most "European" and left-leaning states, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Minnesota is the state most like Scandinavia, with a heavy Scandinavian population and a long left-wing tradition. It has not voted for a Republican president since 1972. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and for Al Gore in 2000. Yet in recent years the governorships of Minnesota and Wisconsin and a growing number of their legislators, from the lowest ranks upwards, have been Republicans. And this year, George Bush is ahead in the polling in Wisconsin and close enough to be competitive in Minnesota. He might even win both - a thought that would have seemed preposterous a few months ago.

Across the nation, polling data also shows that a growing number of students just entering universities have grave reservations about abortion, and are inclined to weigh heavily the right to life of the child in the womb from a very early age.

Part of the reason for this trend towards what the media insist on calling "conservative" values is that the Left has become so irrational. One of the great crusades of feminists, for example, is to defend "partial-birth abortion", which is opposed by 68 per cent of Americans, according to Gallup. This practice takes an infant about to be born, turns it in the womb until its head emerges from the birth canal, and then uses forceps to crush the skull and remove the brain. The purpose is to count this gruesome practice as an "abortion", protected as a woman's right. The American Medical Association has testified that this practice is never necessary to protect the health of the mother. (Unlike European law, American law allows abortion throughout the nine months, right up until the birth of the baby.)

Another indication of the growing conservative drift of the country - or, rather, revulsion at left-wing illusions - is the strenuous effort of American politicians of the Left to deny that they are on the Left. They boast of their conservatism on certain issues, their moderation, their centrism. The Left, but not the Right, hates to be "labelled" - that is, called by its proper name. Conservatives are proud to be called conservatives - in President George W. Bush's case a "compassionate conservative". Democrat Senator John Kerry is always protesting against labels, and insisting that he is not a "liberal" (in the American sense, rather like "social democrat" in Europe). This fear of the left-wing label is as good an indication as any of the way the wind is blowing in America.

Roughly speaking, I think Americans see the world in this way. A crazy European ideology, Fascism, tried to replace democracy with dictatorship, and ended in concentration camps and a pagan Europe aflame. Meanwhile, another wild ideology, Communism, proposed a Mickey Mouse vision of economics and, except for a powerful military, kept the many nations forced into the Soviet Union at the level of a fourth-world economy, until the whole project collapsed. Americans find it hard to understand what Europeans find plausible in socialist economics.

For Americans have experienced the great advantages of owning their own property, building their own businesses, inventing and discovering new goods and services. Enterprise is the second secret to American life, springing from creative economic imagination and personal initiative.

But the first secret to American life is the American love for association. Americans form associations for every public and private purpose. They raise money for these associations from among themselves. This is the thick communitarian side of American life. Each of us belongs to many different committees, voluntary associations, clubs, organisations, and we go to many, many meetings with others. In America, we do almost nothing all alone. We work in teams. (That may be why our favourite sports are team sports: baseball, football, and basketball.) We may be the best in the world in joining with others to achieve a multitude of common purposes, in immense variety. Instead of turning to the State, we turn to one another.

Americans get their sense of community from working with one another, not from the State. We get our dynamic, wealth-creating economy from personal initiative and creativity, not from the State.

Finally, there is the importance of religion in American life. The great French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America that what most made American democracy different from Europe was religion. In America, religion was from the first on the side of liberty, and liberty on the side of religion. The reason the American colonists had the courage to fight for independence against the British King and Parliament was their Christian belief that the Creator held them inalienably accountable for their own liberty. Since liberty (as they believed) was the purpose the Creator had in mind in creating the cosmos, and in offering his friendship in freedom to humble humankind, then that same Creator was unlikely to abandon his subjects who chose the path of freedom. Britain had one of the two greatest armies and navies on earth at that time (France had the others), and the Americans had neither. They put their trust in the hands of providence, and they prevailed.

Ever since, any who would lead the Americans must show gratitude to the Almighty, must express commitment to him. Here there may be separation of Church and State, but there can be no separation of religion from the tissue of national life. Clinton, for example, spoke of religion far more frequently than George W. Bush, and was often praised for it. Some may have doubted how seriously he meant it, but he was in fact publicly and openly quite religious. It is a normal practice for a president. It is practically mandatory.

The largest single group of religious voters in America are the Catholics, who represent about 25 per cent. By an accident of their immigration, Catholics are concentrated in the 10 largest states by electoral votes, they vote with greater regularity than Protestants, and they are in presidential "swing" states, that is, they vote sometimes for Republicans, sometimes for Democrats. So they are a crucial voting bloc. Presently, they are trending slightly towards Kerry; those among them who go to church weekly or more (about one third) are voting strongly for Bush.

More generally, about 63 per cent of those Americans of any religion who attend church services at least weekly (about 14 per cent of the American people) have voted Republican in recent years. About 60 per cent of those who seldom or never go to church (also about 14 per cent) vote Democrat. Religion has recently become one of the single greatest points of political division in America. This is quite new, since not long ago the Bible Belt, urban Catholics, and Jews used to form the three main pillars of the Democratic Party.

These trends, too, have strengthened the optimism and energy of the "conservative" movement for change represented by the Republicans. On the other side, never has so much private funding poured into a political campaign, as suggested by the $15 million the investment guru George Soros has personally committed to defeating George Bush, plus the scores of millions contributed by his friends. Television is crowded by privately funded anti-Bush adverts, in addition to the Kerry campaign's adverts.

So the outcome will indeed be interesting. It is still not clear whether Kerry or Bush will win the 2 November election, although Bush appears to be slightly ahead in the polls. His lead is slightly greater in several of the hotly contested "battleground" states than in the national polling. (This phenomenon is normal, because two of the most populous states - California and New York - tend to show huge Democrat majorities, while the other states tilt slightly to the Republicans.)

But the considerations listed above - cultural, moral and economic - indicate why the strong tide of growing conservative sentiment (that is, in the European sense, "liberal" sentiment) seems still to be in motion, and at this point seems to favour President Bush - and probably future American presidents as well.

Michael Novak, former US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission and to the Bern round of the Helsinki talks, holds the George F. Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. His most recent book is The Universal Hunger for Liberty (Basic Books). He was also the 1994 winner of the $1m. Templeton Prize for his pioneering work on religion and economics. A version of this article first appeared in Le Monde.

Read this article on The Tablet website.

Posted: 10/31/04

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