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Not Voting (Dem or Rep): A Rising Revolution?

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….



  1. Your example of abortion is fine, but, just out of curiosity, if you chose as your issue of “right choice” economics and care for the poor, are you saying you are still unsure which party better represents the promotion of the common good? Or perhaps if you chose “care of the Earth”/environmental issues, might you have a clearer conception of which party is a definitively “lesser evil”? Could I argue: “I am anti-abortion and pro-protection of endangered species [or something like that[, and since voting for a Republican has not done much on the former issue, and I have reasonable grounds for believing that Democrats will do much better on the latter, then I have a reasonable moral justification for doing so?”

  2. The abortion example serves for me as a way to show that the present dichotomy doesn’t work in relation to voting – not that voting for one party or another doesn’t work. I think voting for either one or the other maintains a dichotomy that is itself flawed, in addition to the fact that I think I’m supporting grave evils regardless of where I throw my choice when it comes to the two major parties. So I wouldn’t draw the kind of argument you give here though I know that this is sometimes how the morality of voting itself has been portrayed.

  3. Is there a “third party” candidate who is acceptable by Catholic standards? I guess I am leaning Obama for the reasons Daniel alludes to, but since I am in a state that is going Obama anyway I would gladly use my vote as a statement if there were a statement I could earnestly make. Just write in “Jesus Christ” a la Woody Guthrie?

  4. Zeb – I haven’t myself been happy with the third party candidates either – the ones I’ve been investigating all tend too libertarian for me and I just don’t think that’s a compatible viewpoint to hold in relation to Catholic teaching. So it may be “no vote” at the national level (I’ll still be voting locally)

  5. Jana,

    I appreciate the difficulty you lay out here and I have voted for third party candidates in the past for similar reasons. I think it can be a justifiable choice. But generally I believe Catholics should vote for one of the two major candidates. Perhaps it is because, though I am sympathetic to Hauerwas and Augustine, ultimately I am more optimistic about citizenship in a pluralistic democracy and about the potential for finding common ground among people of different faiths. I continue to hope we can do better.

    So I think it is my responsibility as a citizen to make a choice, not primarily by assessing which candidate supports or allows things I consider to be evil, but by assessing which candidate is capable of actually bringing about more good. It’s not an easy choice or a pretty one. It’s not one that will ever be fully compatible with my Catholic convictions. But if I follow John Courtney Murray and view the state as but a small part of the world with limited but valuable work to do, I can still feel good about taking part in this election.

  6. Julie, in other areas we are careful to think about whether we should resist participation in a sinful social structure. (Like factory farming or the global exploitation of workers.) I believe our current political system is structurally antithetical to the goods that you rightly point out that pluralistic democracy could contribute to the common good. We are presented with a simplistic, binary choice with two candidates who are bought and paid for by interest groups and other donors, who cynically shift their views based on polling data and who the audience is to which they are speaking, who energetically defend horrific injustice and violence directed at vulnerable populations, and who engage with each other in a dysfunctional system created by media and the two major parties who (out of self-interest) refuse to allow complexity and new ideas to enter the discussion.

    I suppose we can make arguments about how one candidate is marginally better than the other, but each is hopelessly flawed, and the system in which we are forced to “choose” is also hopelessly flawed.

    How can we have true structural change if we willing participate in (and thus perpetuate) the structure? Don’t we have a responsibility–in the name of participating in a more authentically pluralistic democracy (which is consciously orientated toward the common good)–to refuse to participate in this sinful social structure and send a message that the common good will not be served by the way our political system currently functions?

  7. Thanks for the comment Julie – I think I share the concern about finding common ground in a pluralistic society. My issue here is less with the question of intrinsic evils and finding a candidate who doesn’t support an intrinsic evil (I’m not sure that even exists) and more with the question of whether a two-party system and the “choice” it forces us to make is a real choice or a beneficial one. I’m concerned more about the system as a whole rather than any one particular candidate in this case. I admit that my choice to use abortion, the HHS mandate and my choice to allude to libertarianism as not in line with Catholic social teaching makes that less clear….

    Nonetheless, I think there is very little chance of finding common ground in the way things are presented at the moment.

  8. There can never be such a thing as a Catholic party since there is no such thing as a Catholic position on most political issues. Catholics may freely disagree about the budget, immigration, health care and pretty much every other topic since the Church takes no position on how practical problems should be resolved.

    More to the point, I disagree that both parties support grave moral evils. While those evils are obvious among Democrats they are far from clear on the Republican side. Wars of aggression? The Church never defined the Iraq war as immoral. The pope opposed it, but considering it ill advised is not at all the same as defining it to be immoral. He did not, the bishops did not, and you cannot.

    The Ryan budget? Some theologians and a bishop or two condemned it as immoral but again the Church has made no such determination. Capital punishment? The Church has always recognized the right of states to employ it and Cardinal Ratzinger himself acknowledged that there could be a valid difference of opinion on the issue.

    We may profoundly disagree about the wisdom of Republican positions on any number of issues but if the Church has taken no position on them we surely have no authority to condemn them as immoral. Wrong perhaps but not evil.

  9. Ender – Catholics cannot “freely” disagree on the issues you mention – that is, we are not “free” to believe just whatever about immigration, budget and so on. We can disagree within the spectrum of Catholic teaching on dignity of all people, personhood, principles of Catholic social teaching, etc. But in that kind of discussion, everyone would need to be able to speak in relation to Catholic teaching and discuss how/why it relates. One of the difficulties I have in the current binary state of the US political system is that Catholics on both sides are often not using church teaching.

    To say it differently: papal encyclicals and conciliar documents, all of which discuss the kinds of matters you speak about, are authoritative. And the church has taken a position on them – it is not “anything goes” – it is “there is a limited range of possibilities that could be true to Catholic teaching”.

    Evil does in fact reside in all of the kinds of systems you mention – in Caritas in Veritate (an authoritative church document), Pope Benedict says: “The Church’s wisdom has always pointed to the presence of original sin in social conditions and in the structure of society: “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals”[85]. In the list of areas where the pernicious effects of sin are evident, the economy has been included for some time now.” And he goes on to delineate those, and to suggest that a distributive market has continuously been emphasized by the church: “But the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy, not only because it belongs within a broader social and political context, but also because of the wider network of relations within which it operates. In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well.”

    We are not free to think that those are “WRONG” but not “EVIL”. (I’m not sure, when it comes to moral theology, by the way, that a distinction between “wrong” and “evil” makes a lot of sense.)

    If you do not see these encyclicals as authoritative, by the way, then it is not clear to me why you can see Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae as authoritative either?

  10. Jana- It is surely true that we are not completely free to choose as we will simply because the Church does not explicitly require or forbid something. That said, however, it is equally true that within broad guidelines we are in fact free to choose whatever solution seems most effective. The Church leaves it to our discretion to support or oppose Obamacare, the Arizona immigration law, and the Ryan budget. None of those choices is immoral even though any of them may be wrong (meaning incorrect or even harmful).

    It is not that the Church has not spoken authoritatively in her encyclicals, it is that those encyclicals do not propose or require our assent to particular solutions. Those documents provide the objectives and the outlines within which we must craft the solutions we deem appropriate. Catholics will inevitably be on both sides of these prudential issues and this is entirely appropriate.

    Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role. (Gaudium et Spes)

    My position is that it is precisely the role of the layman, not the clergy, to decide how best to solve the practical problems of government.

  11. Thanks for this post Jana!! It can feel a little lonely riding this wave but your post and this site give hope that others are catching on. As someone who feels they cannot in good conscience vote for either party as things currently stand I thought it worth while bringing up that a “no vote” does not end in simply “not voting”. It must be a conscientious decision accompanied by the conviction that we are called to “inform, form, and transform” culture as oppose to simply conforming – a half-hearted and reluctant vote in this election would seem subtly conformist in nature. That being said, a “no vote” stands for far more than mere refusal, it is a call to action. I think Archbishop Naumann of Kansas has presented well this call to action in his column:

    You comments on his column would be greatly appreciated!

  12. I wish I could give Jana’s post a more thorough reply – maybe I will later. But I wanted to engage the comments of Julie and Charlie above. Charlie rightly calls our attention to the possibility that our very political structure is a structure of sin, and therefore may require social refusal. Alasdair MacIntyre writes: Liberalism is the politics of a set of elites, whose members through their control of party machines and of the media, predetermine for the most part the range of political choices open to the vast mass of ordinary voters….Politics and its cultural ambience have become areas of professionalized life, and among the most important of the relevant professionals are the professional manipulators of mass opinion. Moreover entry into and success in the arenas of liberal politics has increasingly required financial resources that only corporate capitalism can supply, resources that secure in return privileged access to those able to influence political decisions. Liberalism thus ensures the exclusion of most people from any possibility of active and rational participation in determining the form of community in which they live.
    So MacIntyre favors a micro-politics of social resistance at the genuinely participatory level. I understand that, and support it… but I also wonder if MacIntyre’s analysis is overdrawn. Is our political order really so corrupt that participation in it at the national level is hopeless? If so, when did that happen? I’m worried that we will be left unable to differntiate between, say, a Hitler – where I think an argument for non-participation could be made – and the sinful limitations that have beset politics for a long time. I mean, I can imagine us getting to the point that one or both parties are so thoroughly corrupt – that is, thoroughly antithetical to any policies for the common good – that social refusal makes sense. But I can’t see how we’re actually at that point. I think there is room for radical positions – by which I mean critics of modern liberalism per se, like MacIntyre or Dorothy Day – but Charlie’s point about structures requiring refusal would mean endorsing that position for all, it would seem.

  13. I do not understand the response of not voting. There are enough people not voting already that even a significant amount more would do very little. Why not vote third party as a way of protesting the corruption of the two main parties? If the election is close, the main parties would start looking at third party platforms.

  14. or write down the name of a friend so that the parties know that there are engaged citizens who do not find their current platforms agreeable.


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