Campaign 2012: Burke vs. Hobbes?

You likely think, gentle reader, that the 2012 presidential race is a contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. That, of course, is true, insofar as the names on our Nov. 6 ballots go. But the 2012 race for the White House is something more, something more profound—something with deeper historical roots in modernity’s wrestling with political power and how that power contributes to the common good.

This is a contest, to take symbolic reference points, between Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

Both were British subjects. Both had a profound impact on modern political theory. Both knew that religion and politics—Church and state—had been thickly interwoven into the history of the West, although here the deep differences between these two paradigmatic figures begin to sharpen: Hobbes tried to drive religious conviction out of the modern public square, while Burke fashioned a vision of political modernity that drew in part on the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages.

In a Hobbesian world, the only actors of consequence are the state and the individual. In a Burkean world, the institutions of civil society—family, religious congregation, voluntary association, business, trade union and so forth—“mediate” between the individual and the state, and the just state takes care to provide an appropriate legal framework in which those civil-society institutions can flourish.

In a Hobbesian world, the state—“Leviathan,” in the title of Hobbes’s most famous and influential work—monopolizes power for the sake of protecting individuals from the vicissitudes of a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In a Burkean world, civil society provides a thick layer of mediation—protection, if you will—that cushions the interactions between individuals and life’s challenges.

A Hobbesian world is a world of contracts and legal relationships, period. A Burkean world is a world in which there are both contracts—the rule of law—and covenants: those more subtly textured human associations (beginning with marriage) by which men and women form bonds of affection, allegiance and mutual responsibility.

Catholic political theorists have always had major difficulties with Hobbes, and not simply for his promotion of what we would call, today, the “naked public square”: a public space shorn of religious conviction. Hobbes’s vision of the state is far too cold for the social sensibilities of Catholics, who habitually think of society as organic, not artificial or contrived.

By contrast, Burke’s defense of society’s “small platoons” has numerous affinities with Catholic social doctrine, from Leo XIII through Benedict XVI. John Paul II, for example, was particularly forceful in his defense of the mediating institutions of civil society, describing them in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus as schools of freedom: those natural human associations, beginning with the family, where beautiful, willful little tyrants (which is a precise description of every 2-year-old ever born) are transformed into the kind of civil, tolerant adult citizens who can participate in public life through their minds, not just their muscles.

No American presidential candidate is going to run on an explicitly Hobbesian platform. And the complexities of life in a post-modern world are such that a purely Burkean republic is unlikely anytime soon. The issue here is one of tendencies, orientations, visions of possibility. And at that level, 2012 really is shaping up as a contest between “Hobbes” and “Burke.”

For as the candidates have presented themselves to the country over the past months, and most recently at their conventions, it has become ever more clear that America will choose in 2012 between two paths into the future. Along one path, there is, finally, room for only the individual and the state. Along the other path, the flourishing institutions of civil society empower individuals and contribute to real problem-solving. In the former, the state defines responsibilities and awards benefits (and penalties). In the latter, individuals and free, voluntary associations assume responsibility and thereby thus make their contribution to the common good.

Hobbes vs. Burke. It’s an old argument. It’s also the argument we shall have between now and Nov. 6.

COMING UP: Colorado bishops issue letter on the Hyde Amendment and other pro-life Congressional policies

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We, the Catholic bishops of Colorado, urge Congressional Representatives to support the Hyde Amendment and the Walden Amendment. We also ask the Faithful to sign The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) petition to lawmakers encouraging them to preserve the Hyde Amendment, which can be accessed at: NoTaxpayerAbortion.com, and to contact their Congressmen and women to support the Hyde and Walden amendments.

The House Appropriations Labor and Health and Human Services subcommittee recently passed a spending bill that strips protections for pre-born children, healthcare providers,and American taxpayers by excluding pro-life provisions, including the Hyde and Weldon amendments.

The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortion in most cases, except for rape and incest, has received bipartisan support since its inception in 1976 – including by pro-abortion administrations. Hyde is critical in saving lives. The Charlotte Lozier Institute estimates that approximately 60,000 pre-born babies are saved every year because of the Hyde Amendment.[1] This is the first time in 40 years that the Hyde Amendment was not included in the annual appropriations bill[2] and failure to include pro-life amendments will only further increase divisions in our country.

The Weldon Amendment prevents any federal programs, agencies, and state and local governments from discriminating against health care practitioners and institutions that do not provide abortion services. It ensures that pro-life individuals and organizations can enter the health care profession without fearing that the government will force them to perform a procedure that violates their well-founded convictions. It has also received bipartisan support and was added to the appropriations bill every year since it was first enacted in 2005. [3]

Congress’ recent actions endanger the lives of pre-born children and infringe on the rights of millions of Americans who do not wish to participate in the moral evil of abortion. A recent Knights of Columbus/Marist poll found that 58 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortions[4] and a 2019 Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans think abortion should either be illegal or only legal in a few circumstances.[5]

The government should neither use taxpayer funds for the killing of pre-born children nor compel medical practitioners and institutions to violate their well-founded convictions. Congress must uphold these long-standing, common-sense bipartisan policies that promote a culture of life in our nation.

Human reason and science affirm that human life begins at conception. The Church objects to abortion on the moral principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with respect due to every human person. There has never been and never will be a legitimate need to abort a baby in the womb.

It is critical that Congress continue its long-history of supporting policies such as the Hyde and Walden amendments, and that all Colorado Catholics and people of good will make their voice heard in supporting these life-affirming policies.

Sign the petition to Congress here: www.NoTaxpayerAbortion.com

Contact your Congressional Representatives here: https://cocatholicconference.org/news/

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver

Most Reverend Stephen J. Berg
Bishop of Pueblo

Most Reverend James R. Golka
Bishop of Colorado Springs

Most Reverend Jorge Rodriguez
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver