Edited to clarify: This post is now in more mainstream news outlets and I have noticed that some people are coming to this post and reading quite a bit into “grave moral evils” and the two major political parties. So, what am I, in fact, seeing as ways in which the two parties are supporting grave moral evils? I don’t have time to get into that here in depth (and have discussed this issue in other posts) – but to give readers a sense of this, we could begin with the grave moral evil of murder especially at the hands of the state, as well as state-assisted violence done against human beings. That would include things like torture (which both parties support) as well as drones. As is clear in this post, from a Catholic perspective, that also means abortion, as the killing of innocent human life.
Last week, some of the headlines were about a poll that shows Catholics swinging toward voting to re-elect President Obama. The numbers are surprising to some, given that in June, Catholics were much more evenly divided between Gov. Romney and President Obama. You can name me as one who isn’t all that surprised though: as a group, Catholics are diverse enough that they often mirror the American population in general in their views on issues. And additionally, I think the 47% comments that Governor Romney made were enough to touch many Catholics in a sore spot: their belief in helping the poor. (In the National Catholic Reporter survey released last year, sixty-seven percent found that very important.)
What the polls likely won’t ask is how many Catholics feel very conflicted about their choices at the polls this year, regardless of which way they lean. And those polls definitely won’t ask how many Catholics are not voting for either of the top two candidates. The relative number of people voting for third party candidates this time around has been miniscule, and the percentage of Catholics in that group would, from a pollster’s perspective, be negligible.
Still, I think there’s an important question here, a question that has now been publicly voiced in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf. He’s not Catholic (as far as I know), but his statement has certainly been setting a buzz among my Catholic friends on Facebook because here is someone who is giving voice to some major concerns for Catholics, particularly in relation to a war of aggression (which, in fairness to President Obama, has been a standard for presidents since at least George H.W. Bush).
Third Party, Or Not at All?
Friedersdorf raises a question similar to some of my own: not “Which one?” but “Third party or not to vote at all?”
In past elections, I’ve taken a fairly standard (in recent years anyway) Catholic view that while both (yes, both!) major parties support grave moral evils, I could legitimately vote for one or the other so long as I wasn’t voting for them because of their views on those grave evils (which I was not) – following the oft-cited leaked memo from then-Cardinal Ratzinger (2004) “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons” along with the CDF’s statement about voting.
Of course, given that my ability to predict the future is non-existent, it’s actually rather impossible to make much of a helpful determination about political candidates and what they’ll do in office in relation to goods and evils anyway. So like many, I’ve been bumbling along, hoping for something good to come from my meager vote.
Something has tipped for me this election and it’s the way I think I’m being asked to rip myself in half, figuratively speaking, by one party or the other, or both. It’s also the way I see my church being ripped in half, and the country ripped in half. I know that voting is never a pure act and there are never perfect candidates and perfect parties but the difficulty here is that the idea of perfection can work the other way too.
Two choices, and only two, is also “too perfect” especially given the complexity of American culture. The very fact that people scoff, “You’re throwing away your vote!” when the few who dare vote third party suggests a pervasive aura of perfection – and it’s not coming from the third-party voters, or from the ones who choose not to vote. It’s coming from those who find it necessary to cajole, bully or shame others into voting only on two-party lines, which suggests the kind of fragile perfection of a thin crystal bowl. Pretty to admire, but not really able to be used….
I will highlight here two other places where that kind of two-sided “choice” is backfiring. One is in the lack of bipartisanship, mostly coming from Republicans and epitomized for me in the way President Obama kept asking Republicans for their own different health care bill…and they never responded. So now when I am asked to vote for people who now want to repeal the whole bill, I think that is too little too late. I commend Speaker Boehner and President Obama for attempting to find compromise on the budget, but on the whole, there has been a decided (and often promoted and planned) lack of compromise on pretty much any issue (discussed somewhat here).
That highlights the stupidity of the apparent choice with which I am faced in the election. The stark disparity between the two party’s platforms indicates to me that regardless of who “wins” in November, the net result will be that nothing will continue to get done. In a two party system, we seem to have only one choice, even if that choice splits us down the middle.
The other is the way that the HHS mandate whittled down “religion” so that it became a narrowly defined term. (Mitt Romney does not appear to want to change that – see his response to Raymond Arroyo in this video here, where he speaks at length about freedom but very little about the actual question….). Catholic schools and hospitals are, well, Catholic. How can I be asked to separate what counts as “religion” into two parts in the way that the administration wants me to? That’s a bit like taking apart a piece of who I am (as one who works in a Catholic school) – to say nothing of the church. But the apparent bifurcation – which fits so well into a secular society – doesn’t work with crazily complex cultures like Catholicism…or being American.
I know that US governments have often dictated how religions operate (case in point: Catholic soldiers cannot really live out the Church’s teachings on just war) so there is always some kind of accommodation being made on one side or the other. And I certainly wouldn’t put the mandate in the same category as the martyrdoms happening to Christians around the world each day. Still: the difference to me between this “accommodation” to government and other ones is that this one involves the whole group of people who call themselves Catholic. It asks Catholics to put being American above being Catholic, and that is not a thing that the Church ought to be about.
Wealthy SuperPAC donors seem to be dictating my choices via their own choices for where to throw around money. And they seem also to be dictating to me that there are, in no uncertain terms, only two “choices” that I can choose from, so I’ve got, somehow to make my Catholic convictions fit into ever more narrowing political definitions. Further, the RNC and DNC party platforms make life seem way more simple than it actually is. In this situation, voting might seem to be even more satisfying because hey, it’s easy: two very different platforms, two very different ideas of what the government should be. But indeed, these sharply divergent, limited platforms are not at all satisfying, nor do they go very far in describing true things about me and the people I meet everyday.
Add to that my already present concern about the parties’ support of various grave moral evils, and I find myself in strange and uncomfortable territory. To vote third party, or not at all?
The Election’s False Choices….
Interestingly, I find I’m in good company, and I wonder if it’s a small, but growing group. I’ve certainly heard more from friends and colleagues about voting third party/no party this election than I did in the 2004 or 2008 elections – which is especially interesting given that there’s no clear third party candidate this year (i.e. Ross Perot, Ralph Nader), so anyone voting third party has had to do quite a bit of their own unearthing of candidates. In a decidedly non-scientific poll, I asked some of my Facebook friends their thoughts…. From the Catholics:
“ I’m tired of voting for someone who supports some form of grave evil, so I’ve decided not to anymore. That about sums up my reasoning!”
“I won’t be voting for either major candidate, not only because each is hopelessly flawed, but because it help perpetuate an equally hopelessly flawed binary voting system. Nobody’s vote “counts” in that it decides an election, but it can count in sending a message–and the message I want to send is that our system and candidates are broken.”
“ Neither candidate really promotes all the things that we hold as important issues as Catholics: pro-life issues- from conception to natural death, universal health care, religious freedom, and policies that care for and protect the poor of our society. We are praying for divine inspiration to help guide us in our decision making, since we believe that voting in the election is also an important part of living out our faith. Just so unsure which candidate will promote the greater good, or maybe just be the lesser of two evils.”
And non-Catholic friend or two also weighed in:
“Not catholic, but never going to waste my vote by supporting people that I only agree with their rhetoric, not their actions, and actually only agree with their rhetoric HALF the time. Gary Johnson 2012 since the Republicans abandoned all sanity in their platform.”
One of the points that comes through in these statements again and again is how arbitrary and false the choice seems – so false, in fact, that they are not really choices. I know there are those who say, “Ah, but not voting is to ‘let’ the other guy win. And if the other guy wins, well….” I suppose I’m supposed to fill in the blanks with some such statement like, “The world will end.” A special variation on the theme for Catholics (as well as evangelicals) tends to run something like this: “You may think your vote is wasted, but if you don’t vote, millions of innocent babies will die.” (Alasdair MacIntyre wrote on this essay on voting choice in 2004, and I think what he says is quite right.…)
How very falsely eschatological…. So excuse me if I politely disagree with this kind of argument: an argument that I MUST use my vote because otherwise all hell will break loose does not strike me as a real choice, and certainly not one befitting a democratic system. That kind of a choice strikes me as more like the kind of “choice” I might have seen in a totalitarian government in the latter half of the twentieth century: “Do this or die!”
Moreover, if I hadn’t been encountering that same kind of language each and every election since at least 2000, I might still be convinced.
But (for example) when the apparent “right choice” in terms of abortion (for example) “won” in 2000, and again in 2004, and when, moreover, the Supreme Court became a relatively clear majority of conservative-leaning justices, I might have expected that abortion questions might have been put a bit more to rest (via court decisions, or changes in law, or both) but that really hasn’t happened. Or perhaps we’d expect a more direct correspondence between presidential term and abortion rates. For instance, they declined 11% between 1994 and 2000, and another 8% between 2000 and 2008. They declined across almost every demographic except a key one: they increased by 25% for women in poverty! (So – disturbingly to me -it is exactly programs designed to help end poverty, especially for women and children that are at risk in the Republican party….) Any kind of story that suggest my vote directly impinges on a fight against abortions would not seem to be borne out by sociological data or work done at the federal level. (And when it comes to the Romney-Ryan ticket, such a correlation seems sketchy at best – see Jane Romney’s comments here, for example.)
But at this point, I find that when the choices are bad, all the time, then the better choice is to opt out of a system that keeps putting forth poor choices – and thereby opt for trying out other ideas.
The Church’s False Choices…
Most significantly for me, I fear that the false choice we’ve been presented with at the polls is being mirrored by a focus on these false choices in our Church [edited to clarify: especially by lay people in the pews who think that we can focus on the bishops’ teaching in one area while neglecting their points in another], which is destructive to our Christian unity. I think it is wildly unfortunate that a few bishops have supported this dichotomous view by being fairly pointed in their support of Republican candidates, and have seemed to suggest that prudential judgement means almost anything goes.
Why is it the case that abortion – not explicitly mentioned in scripture as such, by the way, though certainly supported by scripture – should be the act on which bishops use their authority and make pronouncements (and Catholics tend to listen), but economics – which Jesus mentions explicitly several times and which the apostles clearly see as linked to good functioning of the early Christian communities in Acts 2 – is the issue where bishops seem increasingly willing to back down and say they have no authority at all?
The very idea that there would be some things that the church can touch, and others that it cannot, is itself a false choice. It is just as false as the idea that we’ve got to choose either government or individual freedom, either abortion or economic justice, either war of aggression or (oops) war of aggression….
I don’t think the church (clergy and lay people alike) should succumb to the overly simplistic world represented in the current political system.
And, since I have no hope that either political candidate will either change things, or compromise, I do not think that the current political scene requires that I should either rip myself in half in order to vote only for some of the things I care about….
Nor, I think, is it good for the Body of Christ to be ripped in half over this….