THE THINGS THAT ARE “CONTROVERSIAL”: THE MEDIA GATEKEEPERS OF A NEW POLITICAL ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA
Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic
THE THINGS THAT ARE “CONTROVERSIAL”: THE MEDIA GATEKEEPERS
OF A NEW POLITICAL ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA
by Stephen M. Krason
In the current U.S. presidential primary campaign, we are witnessing in full relief a defining down of what subjects are in the category of “controversial”—and, more, what things apparently can even be a subject of public discussion. In the past few weeks, as former Senator Rick Santorum has emerged as a serious contender for the Republican nomination, we have seen media attempts to sandbag him for statements he has made—not just in the campaign, but also in talks he has given in recent years—as somehow beyond the pale as far as what can be part of legitimate discussion and policy debate in the U.S. It is interesting that the examples concern matters that are part of Catholic teaching or that the Church has at one time or another addressed.
The first is the relationship between politics and religion. Santorum said, “The idea that the church can have no influence or involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.” He is certainly correct. From the sermonizing for liberty in the Revolutionary Era to the heavy involvement in and even leadership of the civil rights movement by clergymen, churches have sought to bring Christian moral teaching to bear on the course of public affairs in America. The First Amendment aimed to protect religion from the very danger of government seeking to stifle its witness. What Santorum has said is consistent with the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, who brought forth the modern social teaching of the Church in the nineteenth century. While the two have “dissimilar” functions—i.e., one’s role is temporal and the other’s spiritual—Leo criticized the view that the state can be “separated from the Church wholly and entirely” (On Human Liberty #39). Thus, human law may not be disconnected from the divine law, the state may not disregard the Church when shaping its actions and practices, and the citizen may not be forced to make his faith a strictly private matter. This last thing was what Santorum mostly had in mind. Moreover, in On Civil Government Leo admonishes political leaders that respect for the Church and religion is to their benefit since Christianity preaches obedience to lawful political authority.
Santorum’s thinking about contraception is familiar enough to any serious Catholic. It harms women’s health, damages marriages, and encourages illegitimacy. A recent op-ed column by Jenn Giroux in The Washington Times Weekly succinctly cites the health evidence, which has been there for sometime for people to see. The corresponding rise in the divorce rate and the increased acceptance of contraceptive use over the past several decades can hardly be an accident. Indeed, many have called Pope Paul VI’s much-disparaged encyclical Humanae Vitae “prophetic.” Believe it or not, there actually was a time when the Church—and Protestant churches, as well—opposed the easy availability of birth control (which is not at all Santorum’s position). The title of a book about the history of birth control in the U.S. captured its odyssey: From Private Vice to Public Virtue. If anyone doubts how the availability of contraception encouraged pre-marital sex and illegitimacy, he can just note the comments of one of the Pill’s developers, Dr. Minchuch Chang, which I noted in my book Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution.
Santorum expressed concerns that women in combat would damage military effectiveness. The reason is that relations between the sexes being what they are, male soldiers would instinctively come to the aid of their wounded female comrades even if this would compromise a battle situation. This was one of the points seriously discussed by policymakers when the increased role of women in the military was on the public agenda in the late 1970s. Now it is controversial. In fact one writer in the Huffington Post listed it as one of the “goofiest things” that Santorum has said. I don’t think the human nature that is at the root of male-female dynamics has changed since the 1970s, however. Nor has it changed since Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Christian Education of Youth in 1929, when he called the military training then being given to girls in some countries “against the very instincts of human nature.”
Santorum even caused a minor flap when he criticized President Obama’s comments that suggested everyone should go to college. Santorum said that some would benefit from trade schools, vocational training, apprenticeships, and the like. I can tell you, as a college professor, that if everyone went to college, many simply could not do the academic work at that level. It would eviscerate what’s left of higher education standards. Defining down what is controversial links up well here with the dumbing down of our population. If the President thinks that it is only intellectual and semi-intellectual work that is good for people, he should take a look at what the Church has said about the dignity and value of all honest labor. He should also realistically see the situation out there: Many college graduates today are not getting the kinds of jobs, or the pay, they thought their degrees would guarantee. Some can’t find jobs at all.
The media and the secularist bloggers got especially charged up by Santorum’s 2008 lecture at Ave Maria University, where he said that Satan has especially been targeting the U.S. For those who foolishly believe that there is nothing but the physical world, this was preposterous and a sign that Santorum must be a religious fanatic, obscurantist, or something like that. Obviously, the reality of the fallen angels is a main teaching of Christianity. Maybe those of a secularist-empiricist mind-set should talk to a diocesan exorcist if they have any doubts. Of course, their more basic skepticism here is about the nature of evil itself, which many of them have long-since come to believe is a result of social conditions, or institutions, or a psychological malady of some kind.
It is striking how the gatekeepers of public opinion keep defining down more and more the nature of the controversial. The realm of acceptable discussion keeps getting narrower—even if it involves very serious matters of public policy or that affect social problems before the country or that go to the heart of the human condition. They do this both because they are trying to further fashion the public’s mind-set in a leftist-secularist direction—the new political orthodoxy—but also because they lack the intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation to see anything beyond what they think. Indeed, as with Santorum they scoff at anything outside their ideological and “dumbed-down” philosophical universe.
It is good that Santorum—probably not entirely intentionally—has raised these kinds of questions. We are often told that someone seeking public office should steer well clear of topics such as these. One might ask, however, who has a better podium than a presidential candidate? We might also bear in mind, first, that the heads of great nations are not just political leaders but also, in a genuine way, moral leaders and, second, that the most crucial issues confronting America today are ones of fundamental beliefs and principles. These are, of course, the very things that define what a country and a people are.
Certainly, the last major American political figure to talk so openly about good and evil was Ronald Reagan. He did not get nearly so specific as Santorum, however. It is also not so clear that Santorum is able to do it with the deftness and prudence that Reagan did. So, it remains to be seen if he is able to truly stimulate a national conversation about long overdue moral and even policy issues without allowing the array of political, media, and academic opponents—the opinion-makers—to successfully label him an extremist or a religious fanatic. Also, after the further cultural decay of the intervening decades it is not so clear that the American public is as capable of responding to such themes as it was thirty years ago. As columnist and himself one-time presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan wrote, “Santorum is betting that Americans still believe this is God’s country.” At the very least, though, Santorum may have taken the initial steps toward recovering the long-forgotten educative function of politics.
Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.