The Quiet Consensus
11/30/2010Matthew St. John
Many are wondering what the future holds for the United States. There is much to be done, and there is no shortage of crises to address, including those of national finance, war, immigration, health care and partisanship. But there is another foundational problem that most Americans see — a moral crisis.
The cause of this predicament and how Americans believe it can be solved is the subject of a new book by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson titled Beyond A House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street, and the Media (Doubleday, 2010).
The book presents data from polls commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and conducted by The Marist Institute for Public Opinion. Bolstered by similar data from a number of other respected sources, it moves beyond popular theories of bitter partisanship and hopeless divisions in the U.S. electorate and identifies a quiet consensus informed by a belief in traditional values.
A DIFFERENT STARTING POINT
More than 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln famously applied the words of Jesus to the issue of slavery: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (Mt 12:25). Those words, which Lincoln spoke as his party's candidate for Senate in Illinois, remain true today. Less remembered, however, were Lincoln's opening words that night: "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it."
Beyond A House Divided begins to identify the answers to these questions and, while not exhaustive and inclusive of all the issues facing our nation, examines how many of these problems might be approached.
"Every book has its purpose," Anderson explains in the foreword. "This one was written to contribute to the national conversation about what direction the country ought to take based not on a partisan political approach, but on the moral sense — and consensus — of the American people."
Rather than "starting at the political poles and moving toward the center on the basis of compromise," Anderson advocates "a different starting point" — namely, seeking the common ground of the American people. This common ground starts with a belief that the moral compass of the nation is pointing in the wrong direction — a view held in common by 73 percent of Americans.
As such, there is a perceived disconnect between the people, their institutions and the impact of those institutions on the morality of the nation. When asked about the effect of institutions and groups on America's moral compass, the majority of people agree that everyone from politicians and the news media to the entertainment industry and professional athletes skew the nation's moral compass in the wrong direction. By contrast, more than half of Americans believe that volunteers, charitable organizations, the military, private education, law enforcement, families and doctors have a positive effect on America's moral compass.
In fact, the polling found that Americans are three times more likely to believe that the greatest hope for the nation's future lies in a return to traditional values than in anything else.
DISCOVERING COMMON GROUND
The beliefs of the American people actually have a lot in common with Catholic social teaching. Polling demonstrates that most Americans believe in God, are happily married, are cognizant of the negative effects of divorce and would significantly restrict abortion. In addition, the majority of Americans expect ethical behavior in business and in politics, value charities and volunteers, donate money and spend time volunteering, and identify having a family and being close to God as two of their top life goals.
Somewhere between the moral recession that Americans currently see and the moral change they believe in for the future lies a whole host of issues on which the American people — surprisingly — agree. There is a consensus that is often ignored or overlooked on the topics of business ethics, abortion, health care, marriage, immigration and the proper balance of church and state.
For instance, there is an 80 percent consensus in the United States today on abortion restriction, a two-thirds majority against redefining marriage, an 84 percent consensus on belief in God and a three-fourths majority on the interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Anderson's analysis of these numbers in Beyond a House Divided is a refreshing, non-partisan and empirical assessment of the nation's perceived problems and their solutions. It aims to spark a conversation that is long overdue — one that challenges Americans to reconsider the conventional wisdom that they have heard for so long.
Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a reminder to all that the United States is fundamentally a nation of ethics and morality, and that its people are people of traditional values. Moreover, we will be missing a major part of the picture until we begin to view the problems facing United States and the world through the lens of a foundational, moral crisis. Only then will we truly move beyond a house divided.
MATTHEW ST. JOHN is a member of the management development program at the Knights of Columbus international headquarters in New Haven, Conn. He is a member of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705.