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Scott P. Richert

Where Faith and Politics Intersect, Part III

By May 11, 2009

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Over the past two weeks, in "Where Faith and Politics Intersect" and "Where Faith and Politics Intersect, Part II," I have examined the situation in which Catholic voters in the United States find themselves. On the national level, neither of the two major parties reflects the moral and social teaching of the Catholic Church completely. Indeed, sometimes through the positions they have adopted and sometimes simply through compromise, both parties fall significantly short of what Catholics should expect in their political leaders.

That means that voting is almost always a compromise, as long as one is voting for a candidate from one of the two major parties. Many Catholics, myself included (at least in the past), have decided that the better compromise to make is to vote for candidates who are pro-life, even if they do not adhere to Church teaching on other issues, because abortion is the gravest moral evil that we face everyday in the modern world.

But the problem, as I explained in Part II, is that voting in that manner has led to us becoming "sure votes" for those who say they oppose abortion (which means, in most cases, Republicans), even if they do not follow through. As long as a putatively pro-life candidate is facing an opponent who is pro-abortion, he or she can count on our votes, election after election.

And the result is that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, and we now have the most pro-abortion President the United States has ever seen.

Other Catholics have made a different (and equally flawed) choice. I'm not talking here about Catholics who defy Church teaching on abortion, or those who claim that they are "personally opposed, but . . . " I mean Catholics who honestly oppose abortion but who see a stalemate developing on the issue, largely because politicians elected on pro-life platforms don't follow through.

The Failure of the "Seamless Garment" Approach

Many of these Catholics end up adopting what used to be called the "seamless garment" approach. I've written before about the reasons why this approach does not work well in practice, since too many of those who espouse it end up lowering abortion to the level of other evils, rather than simply adding moral weight to evils other than abortion. (See "The Practical Effects of the Seamless Garment.")

And that, I think, is happening again. Barack Obama won the Catholic vote in the 2008 election. Moreover, he won a significant percentage of self-identified pro-life Catholics (though by no means a majority). In other words, some pro-life Catholics voted for the most pro-abortion candidate ever fielded by either party.

There Is No Evil Today Proportionate to Abortion

Many pro-life Catholics find it hard to believe that anyone who is sincerely pro-life might have voted for Barack Obama. If the U.S. bishops have been clear on one thing over the past four years, it is that Catholics cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion unless there is a proportionate reason to do so. And whatever you think of the war in Iraq or the Bush administration's use of torture (and I opposed both), neither is a proportionate reason. Both are dwarfed by the destruction of 4,000 innocent human lives every day of every week of every month of every year since 1973.

Why Did Some Pro-Life Catholics Vote for Barack Obama?

Still, trapped by the common belief that you have to vote for one of the two major-party candidates, and not liking the war that Republican candidate John McCain had supported (and perhaps even having doubts about McCain's commitment to life, because of his flip-flopping over the years on abortion and his support for embryonic-stem cell research), some pro-life Catholics managed to convince themselves that they had a proportionate reason. It seems clear to me that they are wrong, but I think it is equally clear that simply repeating that "A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion without a proportionate reason" is not going to convince them that they are wrong.

Nor is telling them that they have to vote for a candidate who supports a war that two consecutive popes opposed because that candidate may be more pro-life than the one who opposes the war. The war is a lesser evil than abortion, but if John Paul II and Benedict XVI are right in their judgments, then the war is still an evil.

The Problem of Predictability

Would it be great if all Catholics voted only for pro-life candidates? Of course. But would it change the political landscape? Of that, I'm far less convinced. In practical terms, it would mean that Catholics would become a voting bloc for Republicans akin to the voting bloc of blacks that the Democratic Party can rely on. And if anyone believe that becoming "sure votes" for the Democrats has benefitted blacks, then I've got a bridge in Tuscaloosa to sell you.

Becoming "sure votes" means that we Catholics lessen our political influence rather than increase it, because we have no way of ensuring that the putatively pro-life politicians that we elect actually follow through. The only way we can make sure that they act upon their campaign promises is if they seriously believe they might lose their next election if they do not.

But if we insist that "the only way to make our voices heard" is to vote for the Republican candidate or for the Democratic one, then we're effectively silencing ourselves, because the Democratic one, at least at the national level, is almost certainly going to favor abortion. And that means that, by default, we cannot vote for the Democrat. And that means that, by default, we end up voting for the Republican. And that means the Republican has no reason (other than true conviction, something lacking in all too many national politicians) to follow through.

Trapped in the Two-Party System

So how do we break out of this conundrum? By looking for alternatives. In the first piece in this series, I talked about Fr. Rob Johansen's proposal for withholding our votes from the two major parties until they come around on Catholic moral and social teaching. Many people assumed that I meant not voting. That is one option, in a race in which there are only two candidates; but in races with third-party candidates, we can and should cast a vote if the third-party candidate is better than the other two.

I think the reason that so many people assumed that I was counseling complete withdrawal from voting is because they are trapped in the two-party system. There's no reason why we have to be. As Catholics, our allegiance isn't to a political party, but to the truths of the Faith. And as Americans, our allegiance is to our country, not to a two-party duopoly that is not part of our Constitution.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Father Johansen outlined two choices: We can start from the artificial constraints of the two-party system and work backward to find out which of the two major-party candidates in any race best fits Catholic moral teaching. Or we can start from Catholic moral teaching and judge all candidates in light of it, even if that might mean that we find all of them wanting.

We know what the result of the former behavior is: 45 million unborn children dead, with no end in sight. That in itself seems to me reason enough to consider the latter.

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Comments
May 12, 2009 at 2:48 pm
(1) Dave says:

There are many passages in the Bible that support war in defense of nations. War is, unfortunately a necessary element in the human existance caused by our fall from grace. Right now, muslims are growing by leaps and bounds around the world, Christianity is basically at zero growth. Muslim extremists want to destroy all faiths contrary to their own. Starting with the Jewish faith, then Christianity etc.. To compare a war for the long term survival of our faith and nation to that of a the plague of the optional use of abortion has no moral equivelent. Unfortunately, all Popes have to be against war. It is the polically correct thing for them. Especially with the muslims. Look what happened when the Pope said something controversial about muhammad. Catholics died. Catholics as well as Christians better wake up, or there will be a reoccurance of the Roman Colesium where Christians were killed. Our current President is making it easier for this to occur, closing of Guitmo, money to Beruit, bowing to muslim leaders, money to Hamas, backing off of support for Isreal, first interviews with muslim news media, etc…etc… In addition, in the time of econimic hardships and record breaking deficeits, he found money to pay for abortions world wide… How any Catholic could have voted for this man is beyond my comprehension.

May 12, 2009 at 3:20 pm
(2) Daniel says:

I agree with the large part of your analysis and comments but I find your lack of conclusion frustrating. In a two candidate race or 5 candidate race, inevitably, unless there is a politically faithful Catholic running (certainly not a sure thing in a majority protestant/non-affiliated country) every candidate is likely to be found wanting. If abortion is the gravest evil in today’s world (and it is) some candidates will be immediately ruled out by their position on that issue. However, assuming their are two candidates that claim to be pro-life, there then needs to be a clear elucidation of what other priorities need to be (economic, foreign policy, etc.). The other situation is just as difficult, if all candidates are pro-abortion do we then withhold our votes entirely? Or do we settle on the lesser of two evils based on other positions?

May 12, 2009 at 3:59 pm
(3) nanci says:

I think that in your editorial you give too much credit regarding the thought process that went into electing Obama. There were all sorts of things that should have sent warning signals to us when we heard him speak. I often heard discussions in our work lunch room from fellow employees who were voting for him simply because he was black, which makes about as much sense as voting for a woman simply because she is a woman…no thought went in to what his value system was or what his agenda would be. It’s a shame, but I think we’re stuck with a decision that was more media driven by people who simply wanted to “make history”.
I will continue seeking out the pro-life candidates, and in the absence of one, would have to choose the lesser of two evils. We would certainly benefit from a multiparty system…becuase the two party one just isn’t working.

May 12, 2009 at 7:35 pm
(4) Jonathan says:

What is particularly disturbing is that as a pro-lifer, we tend to hold high regard for Republicans like GW Bush even though he signed executive orders to put people to death. I see his actions worse than Obama, since Obama has never signed such orders.

As Catholics, we need a consistent message on pro-life issues. It is not just about abortion.

May 12, 2009 at 8:03 pm
(5) sparky says:

Everyone in this argument is ignoring one glaring omission: The better way to fight abortion is the same way cigarette smoking has been fought. That is twofold: One, reduce demand by offering better alternatives to women in crisis pregnancies (and don’t say that a pregnancy is never a crisis; it often feels that way to women who are unprepared to take on that responsibility or who are abandoned by the child’s father). We do that by counseling, by providing for their needs, every need, including emotional, social and financial, to help them feel stable and in a position to raise a child. Second, we work to remove the stigma our society attaches to giving up a child for adoption. We managed to lower smoking from something virtually everyone did everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s to something that is scorned by a majority of people today. Only when it because socially unaccepted did we begin enacting bans in public places. It took 40 years, but it has worked. Abortion has been legal more than 30 years and is perceived as less stigmatic by many people than adoption. Until that changes, banning abortion through legislation won’t work. As for Obama, he is a reasonable man who would not object to banning a practice like abortion if he sensed that demand was dropping and that society was disapproving of abortion in a general sense. He’s not necessarily PRO abortion, but he is saying that government should not be making that choice for women. I agree. I am anti-abortion and pro-life (which is much, much more than abortion) and I voted for Obama. I did that because he seemed to be the more capable of the two choices we were given. I refuse to be a slave to any candidate who claims to be pro-life simply for that reason. As is so astutely pointed out, that is generally a meaningless statement designed to force people of principle to vote for a particular candidate, nothing more. George W. Bush claimed to be pro-life, but he ordered more state executions than any previous governor of Texas; as president he waged an illegal and pre-emptive war against Iraq and also approved of torture. In my book he fooled everyone. Oh, and he lied plenty of times too. Those are not traits I admire. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

May 13, 2009 at 6:52 am
(6) Kirt Higdon says:

In actual practice, the Republicans have been more pro-abortion than the Democrats simply because they have held more power at the executive and judicial level for the last generation. Roe v. Wade was proclaimed in a decision written by a Republican appointed Justice under a Republican appointed Chief Justice and the same can be said of the Casey case which was expected by some pro-lifers to overturn Roe and instead affirmed it. Ronald Reagan, idol of the pro-life movement, signed into law one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country before Roe v. Wade and as President appointed two out of three pro-abortion justices to the Supreme Court, as well as many to the lower courts, not to mention many of those who are now imposing “gay marriage”. I will confess here publicly that I voted for Reagan twice (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). I learned my lesson about voting Republican.

During the regime of the Democrat Clinton, abortions actually declined in the US in every year but one. And under Bush II? We can only guess because as soon as he took power the Center for Disease Control made optional rather than mandatory the state reporting of abortion statistics, thus making it difficult if not impossible to tell if abortions were increasing or decreasing in the country as a whole.

I’m not saying that the Democrats would have been any better and Obama shows promise of being worse, though only marginally so. I’ve not voted for any Democratic presidential candidate other than hard-core pro-lifer Ellen McCormack in the primaries of 1976. I agree with Scott Richert on the third party or non-voting options. But most important, to paraphrase the advice given by John Mitchell during the Nixon regime, “watch what they do, not what they say.”

August 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm
(7) Clara says:

Last time I posted I mentioned that Pope Benedict XVI said that our culture’s greatest fault is its lack of Faith in God. We aren’t true atheists; we are pagan idolators, trusting in material things and making gods of our pleasures. He said everyone wants to keep a little evil in his pocket, just in case. I can’t get that phrase “keep a little evil in his pocket just in case” out of my head, and it resonates when I think I want to vote for the lesser of two evils. (a little evil, instead of a greater evil in my pocket).
I have free will, and I don’t want to “keep a little evil in my pocket just in case”, because I think that would be my lack of Faith.
So I will vote for Ron Paul, even though others around me tell me I’m only helping Obama by doing so. I think that kind of discouragement is the work of the devil, urging me to “keep a little evil in my pocket”.
This Faith that I want to live does not even hint to me that Ron Paul will win this election. I’m sure he won’t, but I’m equally sure that God can work with my vote in some way known to Him and unknown to me, so I will give that vote to God by voting for Ron Paul, whom I don’t see as a savior, but as a good man, one more worthy of a Catholic’s vote than the one who can only claim, at best, to be the lesser of two evils. It just seems so clear. Vote for the Good and trust God.

August 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm
(8) Ann says:

I guess our next step is to find out who else will be running for office and what their views are on all pro-life issues. I feel very torn with no alternative and the responsibility to use this freedom so many died to protect for us.

August 15, 2012 at 11:40 am
(9) Clara says:

Last time I posted (7) I was going to vote for Ron paul. However, it wasn’t long after I had made that decision that Mitt Romney announced that Paul Ryan is his running mate. Paul Ryan’s record is much better than Ron Paul’s (even though I still appreciate Ron Paul’s defense of our constitution). I do not see the Romney/Ryan ticket as the lesser of two evils, but a clear choice between evil and good. I will vote Romney/Ryan this election.

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