The following column by Hadley Arkes appeared October 23 on The Catholic Thing blog site.

In the crisp air of October, it is very much in the air, whether people are talking about it or not. The coming election hovers over everything.

The language has been overdone over the years, and so it may now be discounted when people say that this may be the most important election of the generation, the moment of a turning point. And yet it is.

The “turning” is something close to a change in the regime itself – in our understanding of the rightful ends of government, the concentration and uses of political power, and the terms of principle on which we live together as a people.

On the issues of abortion and marriage, I needn’t trouble our readers by saying again what they’ve read me saying for years. Except that certain things deserve to be said anew in every season.

We have an administration marked in its character by a Chief Executive who would not protect a child who survived an abortion, lest that protection of a child born alive would call into question the whole corpus of “abortion rights.”

That sense of things pervades his administration and finds expression in the regulations it routinely hands down, dealing with hospitals, insurance, and medical care.

If Mr. Obama gets one or two appointments to the Supreme Court, it is not merely that same-marriage is virtually certain to be imposed or that abortion becomes even more firmly fixed as part of the “established order,” quite safe from challenge. But rather, those “rights” to abortion and same-sex marriage will become part of a new orthodoxy to be imposed, as a moral requirement, on institutions and persons, private and public.

No organization that denies the rightfulness of these things will be seen as a “legitimate” organization. Catholic hospitals that will not house the surgery of abortion; doctors and nurses who will not participate in the “procedure”; agencies of adoption that will not place children with same-sex couple; justices of the peace who will not perform homosexual marriages, photographers who will refuse to take pictures at these events – all of them may be subject to sanctions of various kinds, whether losing licenses or being hit with penalties.

In his famous speech to the Cooper Union in New York, in February 1860, Lincoln noted the hard moral insistence of the partisans of slavery: Mere acquiescence in accommodating them was not enough. “Silence,” he said, “will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them.”

What will make them feel safe and unthreatened? “This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words.” Hence also the demand that a new “sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private.”

In other words, we have seen all of this before. It is work of a moral passion insisting on its recognition in every place, quite regardless of whether it is driven by a valid moral judgment, commending and condemning the right things.

During the second presidential debate Mr. Romney was asked about contraception. He remarked that women ought to make their own decisions here without getting their employers involved.

We cannot expect him to take the moment to raise questions about the ethic of contraception, but I wish he could have said something closer to this:

Women and men can buy contraceptives on their own, more cheaply through stores, than they can be bought through insurance; and the only rationale for imposing this requirement on employers is that the people who have moral reservations on contraception are compelled to speak the words that renounce their own convictions.

They are the words that put in place of their moral convictions the new orthodoxy of the Left.

The historian J.G. Randall complained years ago that Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had gone through Illinois in their famous debates, unsettling the countryside, and instead of focusing on what he regarded as the “real” issues – issues such as the opening of western lands or improving conditions in factories – those two politicians agitated the countryside over that moral issue of slavery. And everyone knew that there were no answers to moral questions.

Mr. Romney, in that second debate, looked into the camera and earnestly said that fixing the economy and lifting the condition of the middle class was “what this election is all about.” But of course he must know – and he has more than intimated that he knows – that the election is about far more than that.

And yet, we hear at every election, with the voice of J.G. Randall, that “the economy” is the overriding the issue. Either the political class has come to believe that the economy drives everything else, or that it is the thing that people care about most of all.

The pundits hold to that view even as many voters persistently show that they care profoundly about other things. But there was once a time when political men seemed able to talk about the questions that ran to the root of things, and find a public that took quite as seriously, as an issue, the terms of principle on which they lived as a people.

And the haunting question is: when did we cease being that people?

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