Watching the multitude of 2008 presidential candidates, there is a sense of unease. It's not that the nation's security, immigration reform, health care and education are unimportant; far from it. It is that the proposals of the candidates seem shop-worn, partisan and just plain hollow. That two-thirds of eligible citizens don't bother to even vote suggests something more fundamental needs attention in the American body politic.
With only a secular vocabulary, however, what ails us is hard to articulate. We know that free markets are efficient, but we also see massive disparities in wealth. The middle class, which Aristotle opined was essential to good governance, often seems consciously short-changed. All but the very wealthy are meaningfully priced out --- from the pursuit of public office, affordable housing and even Notre Dame with its $46,730 tuition and fees, for example.
We all value freedom of expression, yet, often what is expressed becomes coarse and immoral. The Internet which binds us in conversation is drenched in venomous "chat" and pornographic exploitation.
We value law, but there seems far too much of it to go around, and its administration is, or is troublingly alleged to be, based on who you know rather than on objective standard.
We yearn for the "good ole days," looking for a candidate who will restore our self-esteem and standing in the global community --- restoring, if you will, the image of a scrappy, open, honest, compassionate and principled America rather than Abu Ghraib, U.S.A.
The conservative and liberal political vocabularies of the 2008 debate platform are inadequate to these tasks. They fail most specifically to account for the foundational idea that is America: men and women created equal and seeking a well-ordered civic society in order to pursue a transcendent end.
Competing conservative and liberal ideas reflect a diminished conception of the person. Without a sense of man's supernatural self, conservatives emphasize individuality and overlook the need for community and human solidarity; liberals turn "right" into assertions of demand, tolerating if not extolling policies --- such as abortion or commitment-free sexual practice --- that are utterly destructive of the family and the basic goods of nature.
Since these conceptions of the person are incomplete or just plain wrong, they leave us yawning when they are rearticulated in partisan fashion by candidate A or B.
Of course, the failure of the United States to address its own malaise does not exempt us from the resentment produced among very poor nations because of U.S. citizens' attachment to materialism and shifting cultural values. To poor nations, Americans are endorsers of cultural decay exported by market practice and depicted in film.
And when materialistic choices (and their related dependency on foreign oil) end up associating Americans with the worst elements of other societies, the error is compounded by indiscriminately backing the wrong team with U.S. economic and military power.
A thoughtful presidential candidate will help voters to re-examine their national conscience, to contemplate what it might mean for them, for the U.S. and the entire world if they understood the human person authentically and completely --- that is, in the Catholic vernacular in terms of the Trinity and the identity of Jesus Christ.
In so doing, Americans might well rediscover a calling to get beyond self; a capacity to understand that exceeds one's own point of view; a willingness to see one's destiny as inseparable from that of others; a grasp of how a true generosity of spirit breaks down barriers of suspicion and creates community and long-lasting friendship.
The personalist tradition of Catholicism, of course, is not intended as a political platform for any particular nation. As the writings of Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI reveal, it is a way to live, informed by revelation and the tradition of the church. Americans knew that once --- and can know it again.
The candidate who discerns how that might be so will deserve trust.
Douglas W. Kmiec is Caruso Chair and Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University, Malibu.
Published with permission from the author.