The National Catholic Review

First, a confession: I couldn’t do it. I wanted to vote for one of the two nominees from the dominant parties, but I just could not offer my vote to either. I went for the Green candidate, since he was for universal health care and conservation policies that 20 years from now we will all wish had been enacted. This might make Republicans happy, since I did not vote for Kerry. And it might anger the Democrats, since I threw my vote away, as they say.

Ands yet I think Democrats and Republicans, indeed America itself, have their own confessions to make.

America’s Moral Schizophrenia. The split between the Republican and Democratic parties in many ways embodies the fatal division that individuals make when they separate their personal lives from their cultural and political worlds. Some Republicans seem to think that reproduction issues are the only moral issues. Some Democrats seem to think that reproduction is the only area that is exempt from moral questioning. Both sides are wrong.

And they both have become specialists in the art of denial. What they miss is that all politics involves morality. Every part of life is a moral arena. Our problem in the United States is partial amorality: we are fiercely committed only to certain selected ethical issues, and we steadfastly deny that other ethical problems even exist. What is more, we strangely isolate the personal realm from the social. But sexual expression and reproduction are never merely private choices. These choices themselves influence and are influenced by our social and economic environment. People who trumpet capitalism and individualism fail to realize that those very forces drive human choices about sex and child-bearing. Others who trumpet sexual autonomy and private choice over the fate of the unborn fail to realize that those very values legitimize pro-choice wars and self-interested individualism.

The mindless rhetoric of both sides was one reason why so many were relieved that the political campaign was finally over. The problem was not that people were tired of rational argument and informed data. They were just frustrated with the inane repetition of slogans and distortions. Extreme ideologists, like Pavlov’s dog, salivate at the sound-bite signal of their preferred taste. The Pavlovian right gives George W. Bush credit for everything. The Pavlovian left gives him credit for nothing. The right thinks him an angel; to the left he is a devil. Until the right and left muster the courage to be a little self-critical of their own ideologies, the moral wound afflicting America will only widen.

Republican Religiosity. It is amazing how far removed from the Gospel are what pass for Gospel values today. If you think that concern for food, clothing and shelter for the least among us is some kind of liberal pap, you do not read the Gospel, much less believe it. If you think that the pride of a self-made man or nation, that amassing of wealth in the hands of a few or that the arrogance of power have nothing to do with evangelical faith, maybe you should question what you put your faith in. If the use of embryonic stem cells and cloned humans is wrong, does privatizing it for the profit of corporations make moral sense? If respect for human life is indeed shown by concern for unborn human beings, is it not also shown when one feeds the hungry or removes people from death row or questions the killing of innocents under the rubric of collateral damage? The common thread between left and right is the belief that there are acceptable reasons to kill humans. They just have different candidates for the killing.

Democratic Delusions. I was once in your party. I still look for any Democrat who might be aware of the great dis-ease that is abortion on demand in our society. If you could make your tent as large as the Republicans do, you might win some elections. But the most oppressed faction within your party is the Democrats for Life. You do not want them even to have place at the table, much less to offer an opinion. You make abortion a litmus test to run for office, to sit as judge and even to be taken seriously. You do not want to debate about the direction of the party, but that is the very debate you must enter. You may think all women, all the poor, all the working class support you. But you have broken trust with millions of them, offering them only a combination of Republicanism lite and abortionism heavy.

On my reading, John Kerry is a decent and smart man. Kerry, however, gave more attention to the gun lobby than to people who think human fetuses might merit as much consideration as a dog. And yet in the United States, second-trimester humans do not even have the regulative protection we give to laboratory mice. A hard-core minority, chanting back-alley abortions and teenagers with hangers, has so entranced the party that a Democratic candidate dares not entertain the possibility of a national consensus on at least making abortions rare, as Clinton and the party used to say. This minority is so rigid it would rather sacrifice the careers of people like Dick Gebhardt and Tom Daschle at the altar of the abortion lobby than question its dogma.

Moral valueseven the moral values unacknowledged as suchindeed influenced the 2004 presidential election. Pundits have offered explanations ranging from the ridiculous to the helpful, from the preposterous to the plausible, usually spun to their own ideologies. If the two parties do their own self-serving interpretation, it will be an opportunity missed. Democrats and Republicans will never learn as long as each side presumes the other to be either moronic theocrats or secularist do-gooders.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.