Seemingly ages ago, before Marco Rubio short-circuited during Saturday’s New Hampshire debate, his third-place victory speech in Iowa was about “America’s story.” It was about the “story of your parents—you know the stories—of your parents who sacrificed and gave up so much so you could be what they could not.” It was about the “stories of those parents today who are doing the same for their children.”
“It is this,” said Rubio, “that makes America special, and it is this what we fight now to preserve.”
America’s warm story, the state’s cold story
It’s a charming and emotional slogan, one designed both to galvanize supporters and give cautionary advice about good politics more broadly. Rubio—with beautiful wife and kids in tow—not only set himself apart as a deeply convicted family man, but presumably intended to suggest that neither Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, nor Donald Trump (and maybe others) could reasonably be elected by a nation invested in its own future and in the well-being of its children.
At best, “America’s story” is a warm way to describe a very unemotional, cold, and calculated feature of the secular state. The purpose of such states is largely self-preservation. There’s nothing that would demand “parents who sacrificed and gave up so much so you could be what they could not.” There’s a dimension of self-preservation that requires maturation and growth, and in this very limited way “so my children can have it better than I did” might make the odds of survival for a state a little more likely.
Yet as gripping as “America’s story” may be, and as attractive a guide to our political choices as it may seem to be, it is not an obviously Christian story. On the Via Dolorosa, Jesus commanded the women to weep not for him but for their children. Scripture and the Church honor the care of parents for their children and their provision for their children’s future.
We are not wrong to work, and perhaps to vote, to make our children’s lives materially better. Catholic Social Teaching stresses the good of having a home, food, education, employment, and security.
But the blessedness we aspire to as Christians is otherworldly, and material success, much less material improvement, is in no way to be guaranteed for this life by following the precepts of the Gospel. That includes the blessedness of our children, too.
Not Enough for The Christian
“America’s story” might be a good tool to move people to thought and action who are otherwise apathetic about political or societal improvement. The emotions it plays on are real and salutary—especially when you remember your own parents and grandparents, who likely did sacrifice greatly for your benefit and left you a better world than they had. And it can justifiably be used in that way, because it points to public goods we should pursue for everyone.
But it’s not enough for the Christian. “Which candidate will make me and my children richer?” is not the only, and not even the most important question the Christian should ask before he enters the ballot box. And while the Christian has a duty to the sort of filial piety that recalls and venerates such stories, he is equally responsible for resisting sloganeering that competes against the core teachings of the faith.