Ideology vs. Reality
The ultimate reason for moving us to action
By Lorenzo Albacete
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the US election results is how long it took for observers, pundits, and political experts to understand what was at stake in this election. President George W. Bush did not win the election because all of those who voted for him agree with his decision to oust Saddam Hussein and bring democracy to Iraq. Initially, most Americans believed that the war in Iraq was a necessary component of the war against terrorism, but that is not true today. People are worried about the present situation in Iraq and probably would have ousted Bush in the hope that a new President would clean up the mess created by the current Administration. Yet the election results show that people who had reservations about his Iraq policy or who opposed it altogether still voted for his re-election.
Nor was it a matter of the fear of terrorism. No doubt, many voted for Bush because they somewhat sensed that Kerry’s view of the terrorist threat was flawed, that he saw the terrorists more as criminals than ideologically driven nihilists striking at the heart of the American “way of life.” Few of these, however, could offer a coherent argument about why they thought this way. They just sensed it was so. They voted for Bush because somehow they sensed that his view of the terrorist threat was more realistic–that is, less ideological.
In ordinary circumstances, the election would have been decided by economic issues, and since most Americans are worried about the current state of the economy (whatever the official figures), it should have been easy for the Democrats to win by recalling the prosperity of the Clinton years. And yet in area after area–including in Ohio, which turned out to hold the key to the election–voters experiencing economic hardship voted for President Bush.
The experts are hesitatingly conceding that the deciding issue in this election was the debate about “values.” But “values” has become an ambiguous word, and the same value–such as freedom, for example–can be invoked to justify radically opposed actions. It is not enough to say the decisive issue in this election was the “values thing.” The crucial issue was the experience of reality that underlies the way we understand values. The crucial issue was ideology. Once again, the American people refused to surrender their freedom to ideology.
Ideology is a perennial temptation of politics, and Americans are not exempt from it. The American people are moved by great ideals, especially by the ideal of personal freedom. An ideal though, degenerates into ideology when it is separated from the experience of reality. The ideal of freedom becomes the ideology of freedom when it is based on a project of our own making. Ironically, the ideology of freedom closes the door to the perception of that which is truly new and unforeseen, and therefore suppresses our sense of wonder, thus limiting our freedom.
Here lies the importance of the “life issues” and other “values” issues that proved to be so decisive in the elections. Blindness to the humanity of a fetus, for example, is not necessarily the result of a bad will or a lack of ideals. On the contrary, this position is often defended in the name of values and ideals such as health, compassion, scientific research, and freedom itself. The desire to alter the definition of marriage to include homosexual unions is pursued in the name of fairness and justice. These views do not betoken a lack of ideals or values; they reflect the blindness to reality produced by ideology. As Flannery O’Connor observed, our problem today is that we “feel more” but “see less.”
Whereas most of the Western World seems to be rushing headlong into this ideological prison, the result of these elections show that there continues to be something in American life that has slowed down this process. What that something is can be clearly seen in the factor that most observers acknowledge to be the most important factor in this election: the pro-Bush vote of the ”evangelical Christians,” that is, Christians whose thinking is the outcome of the experience of a personal encounter with the risen Christ.
There is only one thing that breaks through the ideological distortion of reality, and that is a fact. The experience of an unassailable fact destroys ideology. When Columbus found America, all the maps had to change. Discussion was over. Nor did Columbus fear that it would disappear when he returned to Europe. Evangelical Christians can see through the ideological darkness because their faith is not based on a discourse, but on the fact of the encounter with Christ. This is the secret to its strength. This is why the victory of ideology in America has been slowed. Evangelical Christians recognized President Bush as one of their own. Most Catholics, on the other hand, saw the struggle with ideology as a battle between moral principles, as a philosophical or theological struggle, accepting thus the presuppositions of those infected with the ideological virus. Catholics obedient to the teaching of the Church were particularly pained by the fact that the candidate most affected by an ideological view of freedom was himself a Catholic. They could only attribute his views to a willful rebellion against Church authority, while Kerry kept insisting that he adhered to Church doctrine and was in fact guided by the Catholic “values” that he learned in Catholic school. The Catholic discourse soon became a battle between values, assigning priorities to them, debating which ones were the most fundamental, the most important. The result was a divided Catholic vote with no particular influence on American politics.
In one thing Kerry was right: Catholic participation in politics is guided by education.
In European countries with strong Catholic majorities, the Church has been unable to stop or even slow down the slide into ideology. Fifty years ago, Fr Giussani understood that this was precisely what was going to happen. Communion and Liberation is the result of Giussani’s response to this inability of an apparently strong, politically powerful, and fully orthodox Catholicism to generate a culture inoculated against the ideological virus. The key was education. Catholic education had sought to transmit values, but it had failed to transmit the method to grasp the “core” of the values, their genesis, the “ultimate reason” for moving us to action. What is behind the Catholic view of values? Not an intellectual treasure, but a fact, an event, the victory of Jesus Christ over the human slide into corruption and nothingness. The point of departure for the Catholic judgments on politics must be the experience of this Fact that is the victory of Christ and what it reveals about the political facts or policies being judged Only then will a “Catholic vote” really matter.