At last, Election Day is here! At last, after months of campaigns, hours of debates, and countless speeches, the time has come for us to cast our votes! This presidential election seems to carry a greater significance than most, for the choice before American voters today is not merely a choice between incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, but a choice between the two visions of America they represent.
The polarization of our nation is readily apparent throughout this campaign season. Each side attacks the other as the greatest threat to the American way of life in order to win votes. Critical issues, such as the freedom of the Church to exercise her charitable mission, have slipped through the crossfire unnoticed. Millions of voters remain resolutely committed to the ideology of their party, dividing the country into red states, blue states, and swing states. Several other rifts have emerged during this campaign cycle: “makers” versus “takers”, the 99% versus the 1%, the Tea Party versus the Occupiers. With such stark divisions, one may wonder: what is it that unites us as a nation?
One answer, proffered in the introductory video at one of the party conventions during this campaign season, is that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” With all the divisions mentioned above, this answer seems compelling. However, this is a troubling thought—if we all belong only to the government, then the same government is free to do with us whatever it wills. A review of the totalitarian regimes that held power throughout the world in the last century would make anyone suspicious of a unity derived solely from the government.
Rather, ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” in the famous words of Abraham Lincoln. We do not belong to the government; rather, the government belongs to us, and as such, does not have the power to unite us. But if not the government, what does bring us Americans together?
In his book, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to our nation during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, sought the answer to this very question. As he considered the factors that led to the union of the colonies in the first place, a common religion stood at the top of his list. Truly, Tocqueville did not mean that all the colonists attended the same church—the United States has always been rather pluralistic in this regard. Instead, Tocqueville observed that everyone’s actions flow from their attitude towards religion, and he saw the importance and the difficulty of cultivating common ideas and virtues in a democratic society. As he wrote,
For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire political freedom. And I am inclined to think that if faith be wanting in him, he must be subject; and if he be free, he must believe.
Having experienced the effects of the French Revolution firsthand, Tocqueville knew the dangers of a society in which religion was abandoned in favor of a fraternity derived from the state. In a democratic nation, he argued, turning the mind toward God and the goods beyond this world overcomes the tendencies toward an unbridled individualism that tramples on the natural rights of others. Only a common respect for these rights and their Giver can keep us united.
Some of us follow God by the light of faith. Others, without the fullness of faith, acknowledge God as the Creator. Still others strive toward goodness without recognizing the supreme Good as God. Whatever our particular case may be, every one of us in some way demonstrates that “He made us; we belong to him. We are his people, the sheep of his flock” (Ps. 100:3). In creating us, God granted us the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—the ultimate goal of human life—which have been the foundation of our country from its inception.
At the end of the convention mentioned above, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York offered a prayer for the nation to preserve these rights, that God may give us courage to defend “life, without which no other rights are secure,” to “renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty: the first, most cherished freedom bequeathed upon us at our Founding,” and that God may “show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
Let us join our prayers to his as our nation votes today. Let us pray that all who dwell in this land may turn toward the God who made us and brings us into one out of many, that we may all exercise virtue in the political sphere and in everyday life, and that our leaders, no matter who emerges victorious today, may protect these rights for everyone. May America always regard these founding principles and remain one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Image: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Betsy Ross 1777