Barbara J. Elliott vote

As Americans enter the voting booth today, we will be making a momentous decision for our nation. Whose vision will we embrace? Three groups of people are split, and they may very well determine the outcome: women, Hispanics, and Catholics. And the concern that drives many of them is “who really cares?”

The people who truly care are at work around us in American cities every day, people of faith who are working without fanfare, understaffed, overworked, in places held together with duct tape and a prayer. I call them “street saints” and they are transforming lives—and doing it without government dollars. We should vote to allow the “street saints” of America to be left alone to restore lives in the private sector and civil society. They are doing what the government cannot. They are loving people into wholeness. 

The issue of “social justice” is one that Republicans have a hard time addressing, because party politics have focused so long on what government ought not do that we have almost forgotten how to think and talk about what the private sector can and must do. We have forgotten about the strength of civil society, private voluntary associations, and Burke’s “little platoons” where local hands reach out to help neighbors in need. This is where people truly care, and do a very good job restoring lives, lifting people to their feet, helping them get jobs, transitioning them out of homelessness into a new life. And we are doing it without government money, precisely because we believe that faith in God is so important in making a person whole that we won’t accept the muzzle that comes with government funding.

These are the kind of people that the Obama administration has put in the cross-hairs of its HHS Mandate to force us to violate the principles of our faith in the name of universal health care coverage. This must be overturned. If Americans want to elect people who truly care, they should vote for leaders who understand the importance of the “street saints” who, because of their faith, are providing hands-on care to America’s poor, hungry, unemployed, and incarcerated. These private sector caregivers are providing homes for young women in an unplanned pregnancy, and helping her find a loving family to raise the baby if she cannot. They are changing the hearts of prisoners so effectively that when they are released they don’t return.

The problem is that more and more of these activities have been yielded to the government, taking them out of the realm of the Church and communities where they were provided for the first two centuries of our nation. And this transfer was accomplished in the name of social justice, in the name of “caring.” The problem is, it doesn’t work.

I believe that living social justice in our own actions in the private sector is the most effective way to bring it to fruition.  As followers of Christ, we are called to be vessels of his love and transforming power, taking it into the world, bringing the individuals and institutions into the order that God has ordained. The Church should form the laity to understand that each one of us is charged with the responsibility to do everything in our power to live our faith with authenticity. We need mature hearts and minds going into the secular world as messengers of truth and love. What we do as private citizens is every bit as important as how we vote—even more so.

How far have we fallen, when people at a political convention boo at reinserting God into their platform, as the Democrats did this year? The Founders of this nation intended to guarantee the free exercise of religion, not to eject every trace of it from the public square. Even Thomas Jefferson, the Deist, understood that faith in God is necessary to ground the character of the American people. His words are etched in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be though secure when we remove their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are a gift from God?”[1] In his Farewell Address, George Washington reminded us: “Religion and morality are indispensable supports…let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.” John Adams said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proclaimed “Religion [to be] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” and set aside land for churches. The article of religion for the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 says “[I]t is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other.” Forbearance, love and charity. These are the fruits of faith that the Founders wanted to foster in America.

Over the next 50 years after the American founding, faith motivated an outpouring of voluntary and charitable activity. When the young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he was struck by the faith in motivated civic life. He wrote, “For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other.”[2] Tocqueville was dazzled by the array of voluntary associations—civic, philanthropic, moral, and educational. This was so unlike Europe, where it was more likely that the aristocracy or the state would take on a project, but seldom would individuals band together. Since the first immigrants arrived, they had been building hospitals, distributing books, starting schools, assisting the poor, caring for orphans and widows, and caring for destitute pregnant women.[3]

Tocqueville was struck by the way this idealistic impulse to assist others balanced out another prominent trait of Americans—the inclination toward individualism and materialism. The act of serving others disciplines the character, shaping it in the direction of temperance and moderation. As Tocqueville put it, “If it does not lead the will directly to virtue it establishes habits which unconsciously turn it that way.”[4] Tocqueville observed that the character of America hung in a delicate balance between the tendency toward selfish materialism and individualism and the other polar opposite—voluntarily serving one another in charity. He warned that if America would lose this balance, its health would be imperiled.

Civil society is the realm of any country that is free of the government, operating in the private sector. It includes churches, neighborhood associations, parochial and private schools, nonprofits, newsletters, journals, business associations, social clubs, and all activity at the community level that is neither the government nor business. This realm of civil society has been a unique strength in America throughout its history, a training ground for developing civic muscle and civic virtue. It brings together people at the grass roots level to form relationships and solve problems. The organizations of civil society also serve as intermediary institutions—mediating between the large and impersonal institutions of government and corporations, and the individual.

This realm of civil society is also where the Catholic principle of subsidiarity finds its expression most often. This is the level where assistance can be given to people whose names you know, and whose circumstances are known. This is where solutions can be tailor made for individuals and communities, taking their exact circumstances into account. This is where people of faith can serve others not because of a law of the government, but voluntarily because of the law written on their hearts. This is how people of faith have lived as good citizens throughout much of America’s history:  by serving one another voluntarily, with faith, hope, and love.

The generosity of Americans who gave their time and their money has been impressive. But personal engagement in civil society has declined dramatically in our lifetime. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone lays out the numbers:  civic engagement leveled off during World War II, rose a bit in the 50s, but when the 1960s came along, it began to plummet.  By the 1980s it was in a nosedive, and now it has shriveled to insignificance. It wasn’t just that women were entering the workforce. The most striking correlation that Putnam found was the inverse proportion between the numbers of hours spent engaged in the community and the hours spent watching television.[5]

 In the past several decades, radical secularism, social unrest, economic woes, sexual liberation and the pill, legalization of abortion, deconstructionist academic theories and unbridled materialism combined in the perfect storm, creating the cultural revolution that swept the US and Europe, and has now produced the post-modern culture, which is relativist and markedly secular. The same nation whose coins bear the imprint “In God We Trust” has been busily ejecting all vestiges of faith from the public square under interpretations of the First Amendment that have nothing to do with its original intent. Lawsuits remove monuments referencing the Ten Commandments from public space while so many shootings, rapes, kidnappings, and acts of violence take place that it is hard to shock us any more. Public officials endorse same sex marriage, skip the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and increasingly refer to the “freedom to worship” rather than the “freedom of religion.” People of faith are now ordered to violate our religious convictions. And we take it.

The time has come for people of faith to stand. What we provide has a civic value necessary for our country. The Church forms good citizens who provide crucial and necessary services in this nation. People of faith must vote responsibly in accordance with a conscience informed by the teaching of Christ. Our obligation is to vote our conscience on the issues like life, but also to live our faith in the world. The job of the Church is to form the minds and hearts of the faithful that they may understand that their first and primary identity is as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and a member of the Body of Christ through the Church. Wherever the City of God and the City of Man are in conflict, our first loyalty must be to God’s law and not that of man.

The American founders believed that freedom was important, but that it must be linked to faith. In the absence of faith, liberty becomes license. With faith, freedom becomes the freedom to do what we ought.

As we vote today, we should think about the relationship between faith, virtue, and the republic in which we live. If we curtail the activities of the people of faith, who are freely serving our neighbors and building virtue in the nation, we are undercutting the one element that provides stability and genuine compassion for our nation.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis piece was adapted from a presentation to the Council of Catholic Bishops in Minnesota in September, 2012.



2. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution  (New York, NY:  Doubleday, 1955) p. 153. Quoted in Novak, p. 31.

3. Marvin Olasky researched the archives in the Library of Congress from the early years of the nation and documented exactly which groups were providing these services. See Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (Washington D.C.:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992).

4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 527.

5. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

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