12/02/2011 10:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2012

Vermont: Green Mountain Conversion

In 1936 Vermont was one of only two states not to give its electoral votes to Franklin Roosevelt. Despite the Depression, a majority of Vermonters refused to give up a culture of individualism, self-reliance and small government; the majority remained very hostile to the New Deal even as it helped to bring many people out of poverty and desperation and to give them renewed dignity and opportunity. From the Civil War until well beyond FDR, no Democratic presidential candidate carried the state of Vermont.

Many things changed in Vermont in the 1960s, some of them in permanent and very substantial ways. I was born in Burlington, the state's largest city, and I grew up there: I saw first-hand how Vermont was going through a kind of conversion experience. Barry Goldwater's ill-considered attack on Social Security played a major role in destroying forever the Republican hold on Vermont. I recall my great grandmother, a life-long Republican, voting Democratic in the 1964 election. A decade later Democrat Patrick Leahy was elected from Vermont to the U.S. Senate; he has easily been re-elected ever since, and has been a tireless champion of workers, of the disadvantaged, and of environmental protection. By 2001 James Jeffords, the other U.S. Senator representing the state, left the Republican Party, and in so doing changed the narrowest of Senate majorities from Republican to Democratic. Bernard Sanders, a self-described socialist, was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981. Two months later France elected socialist François Mitterrand as its president. Vermonters commented wryly: As Burlington goes, so goes France! By the 1990s Sanders was representing Vermont in the US. House, and in 2006 was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 2006 Vermont also elected Democrat Peter Welch to replace Sanders in the House; a graduate of the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross, Welch is a Congressman strongly committed to guaranteeing health care for all. Universal access to health care is also a cause dear to the Democrat elected Vermont governor in 2010. And in December 2010 Sanders gave a Senate speech lasting several hours on the need to raise taxes on the wealthy. It seems that Vermont has become one of the most progressive states in the U.S.

But how did such change come about? No doubt there are various factors, including population shifts involving the moving to Vermont of significant numbers of New Yorkers and others that have brought their values and mentalities with them. But as a native of the state I see more than migration at work. I believe that a kind of conversion, political as well as moral and religious, has occurred. This may seem a surprising claim for a region that has seen church attendance decline in recent decades, among Protestants and Catholics. Vermont seems to be catching up with European countries such as France or Germany where formal church membership and attendance have been dropping precipitously for a long time. Yet something very close indeed to Catholic social teaching has been put into practice in these countries through government policies that protect workers, and guarantee access to health care, access to higher education, and to a comfortable retirement. The dignity of the human person, a theme repeated again and again in papal encyclicals, is cherished and is promoted in practical, effective ways. In France, the law requires that workers be given a five-week paid vacation; the work week is limited to 35 hours; families with several children enjoy various financial benefits unimagined in the U.S. Perhaps European practices have an effect on Vermont. In the 1980s Madeleine Kunin, a native of Switzerland, was elected and re-elected governor. It is likely that the geographic proximity of Vermont to Canada, and thus its European-style social democracy, has had influence in the state.

Religion, I suggest, has played an important role in what I call Vermont's conversion. Two examples: The Weston priory, a Benedictine monastery in the Vermont town of Weston, draws large numbers of visitors. Here, Mass attendance remains very strong, and crowds come to a place where they find a religious community devoted to prayer, to sharing of resources, to solidarity with the poor, to offering sanctuary to immigrants. Here the progressive political culture of the state is very clearly and visibly in harmony with Catholic principles. And the Sisters of Mercy, long committed to education and health care, have in recent times, in Vermont and elsewhere, promoted environmental guidelines for preservation of the earth's resources. Are the monks and the sisters but marginal Catholics in these concerns?

I dare say that they are not. In recent years Pope Benedict XVI has made some important statements about respect for the environment. For example, his message for New Year's Day 2010 argued that in order to cultivate world peace we must protect creation. Benedict's themes in this message are solidarity and the common good; he insists that the environment is God's gift to all humanity and it must be sustained by a shared effort. Benedict adds that an environmental crisis is a moral crisis, one that calls us all to put aside selfishness and to embrace a responsible lifestyle that respects God's creation and the needs of all persons, regardless of nationality. So far Pope Benedict has made but one trip to the U.S. Perhaps he should include Vermont on his next visit, for Vermont, the Green Mountain state, really may be the 'greenest' of states. Vermont has for several decades been at the forefront of environmental protection. Conservation and land use laws are very strict. It can take many years for a housing or commercial developer to obtain permission to build, if permission is given at all. For several decades already, billboards and other large signs have been banned from the entire state. While driving on highways almost anywhere else I react to the visual pollution that is a billboard with this thought: we would not allow that in Vermont!

The common thread in Vermont's conversion is an embrace no longer of rugged individualism but of the common good. Long may Vermont preserve its convert's zeal for the latter.