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Wilderness training: America's "progressives" could benefit from a short political retreat in the desert.

NAIL-BITING THEIR WAY THROUGH A FEW TENSE hours on November 2, in the end self-described "progressives" in America's blue states only found more reason to wonder how--even if--they fit into the nation's changing political and cultural landscape.

Some, crippled by cynicism, exasperated, exhausted, have crawled away into a deeper despair that will only lead to political impotence. All those folks finding themselves wondering if Canadian winters could really be that tough should remember that wandering out in the wilderness for a while is not always a bad thing. The Israelites spent 40 years lost in one. They were all the wiser for it when they wandered out, having worked out what it was they believed in and better prepared for the future they would build in the promised land (and totally done with all that golden calf business).

Newly wandering progressives could begin their wilderness studies by revising a few ideas that had been associated with American conservatives but that seem now to be jumping parties. Fiscal responsibility and budget hawkism were conservative keystones, but the neo-cons' "what, me worry?" keystone cop-out approach to deficit spending has got even moderate Republicans worrying about guest appearances at federal bankruptcy hearings.

Ronald Reagan helped rebuild conservative America's power base with a call to a new federalism, that is, a new era of empowerment for states after the bad old days of big government, when civil rights legislation and the war on poverty often superseded state authority. These days it is pretty clear that whatever their public positions, politicians in Washington, reds and blues, have little real will to resolve some of the nation's most pressing social problems.

It could be time for state and local governments to step up and accept the responsibility to "promote the general welfare" that is being abdicated in Washington. Already a number of states offer their own versions of universal health plans. Others should consider their own measures in the face of the federal government's utter failure to respond to this looming and ever larger crisis.

A handful of states are essentially signing onto the Kyoto Accords rejected by the president by establishing their own goals for reducing greenhouse gases and fossil fuel consumption within their borders. Meanwhile, Midwestern governors are leading a mild rebellion against federal power by creating the means for their citizens to buy low-cost prescription medicines from Canada and Europe.

Such a state and local government renaissance makes a good fit with Catholic social teaching's concept of subsidiarity, essentially the notion that justice and communities are best served when only the appropriate level of government authority is deployed to most effectively deal with a social problem. Now a persuasive argument could certainly be made that the federal level is the most appropriate to address a problem like lack of access to health care, but let's face it, we ideological beggars can't be choosers.

In the meantime, from creative efforts to improve local education systems in the face of unfunded national mandates to establishing their own "living wages" to compensate for the shameful deterioration of the federal minimum wage's purchasing power, I say, iViva la revolucion de los estados!

As THEY SEEK TO JOIN WHATEVER POLICY UPRISING IS BREWING in their home states, Catholics should remember that they do not have a real political home in any state, blue or red. U.S. culture rejects the church's culture of life at the same time it resists its promotion of the common good, protection of human dignity, and pursuit of economic justice for all.

U.S. Catholics must recognize when American nationalism passes beyond patriotism and into outright idolatry; we must be accountable for the violence being done in our names. Speaking up on such matters will surely only mean more cultural time-outs in the political wilderness, but that's OK. In the desert, Brazil's late Archbishop Dom Helder Camara once remarked, it is easier to see the face of God.

Only on the cultural margin can Catholic wisdom be fully and freely preached and a new way prepared. We are the co-creators of a future that we may not see, there is still so much work to be done, and to survive in the wilderness, you cannot succumb to hopelessness.

By KEVIN CLARKE, senior editor at U.S. CATHOLIC and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications.
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Title Annotation:margin notes
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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