Stephen Kent

Perhaps you, too, enjoy travel books about places and people.

Books such as John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charlie” and “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon are classics of this genre. These essays about off-road places provide a flavor of the unique character that distinguishes a place.

With this in mind, one wonders how to understand the United States (with the emphasis on the adjective “united”).

The 50 states have different understandings of life and of the protection of life. Maryland recently repealed its death penalty law. Oregon allows capital punishment. But in a current case, the governor of Oregon refused to impose the death penalty even though the subject desires it. And Oregon is one of the few states in the nation that allows assisted suicide. So why isn’t the convict in question seeking refuge under the state’s Death with Dignity Act?

South Dakota became the first state in the nation to enact a law explicitly authorizing school employees to carry guns on the job.

The morning after the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections was shot to death at his home, the governor signed a new gun control law to extend background checks on gun buyers to private firearms sales. He also signed legislation limiting the size of ammunition magazines that may be sold in the state, which also was where the Aurora movie theater massacre took place as well as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

A proposed national assault weapons ban backed by President Barack Obama ran into trouble when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid removed it from a broader Democrat-backed gun control package for a lack of votes.

A bill in the Washington Legislature to expand background checks to private gun sales failed to get a single vote, even from its sponsor. “I have really come to realize that no legislation will ever address the criminal element as far as guns are concerned,” said State Rep. Maureen Walsh. Her realization may have resulted from the 1,000 calls and emails sent into her district by the National Rifle Association.

Just weeks after Arkansas passed a first-in-the-nation ban on abortion past 12 weeks, North Dakota followed with banning abortions if a heartbeat can be detected, as early as six weeks.

“I’m from the group who hates voting on abortion issues and who don’t like to play God,” said North Dakota State Sen. John Andrist, who describes himself as “moderately pro-life” and has voted for some but not all of the restrictions North Dakota has taken up this year.

Maryland became the 18th state in the country to repeal the death penalty. Delegate William J. Frank told lawmakers that he had been a longtime supporter of the death penalty but changed his mind because of the influence of the Catholic Church.

“The most important and compelling issue for me is to view the issue from a consistently pro-life perspective,” he said. “Those five men on death row, the worst of the worst, are, believe it or not, created in the image and likeness of God.”

How are these dichotomies to be viewed by someone trying to understand the United States? Consistently pro-life vs. moderately pro-life.

What makes life different in Washington and Oregon, in Maryland, which repealed the death penalty, and in California, where voters did not repeal it?

As the books say, the United States is marked by distinctions in food, language, customs and music.

But it cannot be distinct in regard to moral issues and still deserve to be called “united.”


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: