The race is on. Presidential primary season started in Iowa on Jan. 3 and the electoral finish line isn't until Nov. 6. The marathon will test the endurance not only of the candidates, but also of Americans subject to a media blitz.
All the play-by-play commentary on which candidate is up, down or out sometimes trivializes the process. Saturation coverage has been known to provoke an aversion to politics itself. But even by muting television campaign ads and hanging up on candidate robo-calls, it's impossible to avoid politics.
Nor would it be wise to do so.
For one thing, the constitutionally prescribed process for electing a president is enormously significant for America's future, and participating in it is a right to be prized. What's more, for anyone who is not a hermit cut off from human society, politics is inescapable.
Politics extends well past the presidency and far beyond Congress. It doesn't stop at state houses, county seats or city halls. It's in the Rotary Club, the condo association and baby-sitting co-op. It reaches right down to the church pew and the dinner table.
That's because politics is about ordering our lives together. It's the way we figure out how to meet everyday needs. It's how we solve problems and sort out our differences. It's harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what's worth pursuing as a society.
We work out pressing issues in all kinds of forums from family room to boardroom, each with its own authority structure exercising roles and responsibilities.
Take the family, for example. The home is the first place that forms "habits of the heart" in a child. That's how 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville referred to our moral inclinations.
The family is where an individual first encounters the give-and-take of living in community, under the authority of parents. Here begins the lifelong process of reconciling one's own needs and desires with those of others. Whether in the kitchen or a congressional committee room, the basics are the same.
In his classic "Democracy in America," Tocqueville observed that "the whole moral and intellectual condition" of the American people is critical to maintaining the republican form of government instituted by the U.S. Constitution. That's why Tocqueville placed such an emphasis on America's vibrant religious traditions in his account of the success of the American experiment in ordered liberty. Religious congregations played a significant role not only in shaping Americans morally, but also socially.
Tocqueville concluded that religion "must be regarded as the first of (the Americans') political institutions" because it teaches us how to exercise our freedom. In church meetings on the East Coast and missionaries on the Western frontier, he witnessed self-government at work.
Family, church and community groups — often referred to as civil society — play a significant role in the self-governing system the United States was designed to be. In contrast, elected officials actually play a limited role. Relegating more of the governing to "professional" politicians — particularly to those in national office — damages the process of ordering our lives together. When elected officials overreach their designated authority, it erodes the roles and responsibilities of other institutions in society, including family and church.
A well-ordered society depends on mutual respect among a variety of institutional authorities. This idea has a rich heritage. The concept of "sphere sovereignty" in Protestant social thought teaches that family, church, government and other institutions have their own proper authority within respective boundaries. To disregard these boundaries is to undermine the proper function of society. Similarly, the principle of "subsidiarity" in Catholic tradition teaches that higher authorities should refrain from interfering in affairs for which subordinate authorities are responsible and capable.
In practical terms, the best way to meet individual needs isn't to outsource the problem to a distant, impersonal government. A welfare check sent to a single mother isn't nearly as effective as personal relationships helping her overcome daily challenges. Much less can that anonymous check provide a substitute to her children for an absent father. Civil society provides more holistic answers than centralized government to immediate needs and is better able to prevent future ones.
That's why one of the biggest questions this election cycle is: Will we restore the rightful authority of civil society in ordering our lives together, or will we continue to centralize more and more decisions in Washington? Let's not pretend politics has no place at the dinner table. It's already there. Please, pull up a chair.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book "Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century."
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