The relationship between faith and politics generally, and Catholicism and US elections specifically, is too complex to adequately summarize in a blog post, and I don’t pretend to have the expertise necessary to do so. But a 20,000 mile view of the terrain, I might be able to do. A couple Catholic friends of mine sat down Sunday evening and talked about this relationship, and here’s what I walked away with:
Basically, it seems that US Catholics ally with a certain political party based on that party’s views on the “Big Issues.” To clarify what I mean, imagine two Catholic-friendly candidates running against each other. Both of these candidates are solidly pro-life, neither want to force healthcare workers to assist in abortions against their will, neither support torture, etc. Outside of the issues of abortion and torture, though, the two candidates resemble the modern Democratic and Republican parties. This sort of election would require each of us to form some real opinion on what we thought the government’s role ought to be in education, or healthcare, or labor rights, or foreign aid, etc. There would be no “wrong” vote, but it would take some thoughtful contemplation over whose approach was better.
We don’t live in that society. Instead, we’ve spent years living in a society in which faithful Catholics were allied with only one party. In the past, this meant that we were Democratic, because the Republicans were fiercely anti-Catholic and against Catholic immigration. Remember the accusation that the Democratic Party was the party of “Rum, Rebellion, and Romanism” back in 1884. Since Republicans didn’t want us (and even hated and feared us) we were Democrats. The DNC was unafraid to nominate a Catholic, Al Smith, to run for president against Hoover in 1928. And in 1960, Kennedy ran and won, winning a now-shocking 80% of Catholic votes. For about a century, the Democratic Party had been the party of choice for Catholics
These days, the opposite is true. We’re Republicans, because of abortion. For much of our history, it’s been hard for Catholics to support one of the two major parties, because they were on the wrong side of a Big Issue. The unfortunate consequence of this, though, is that we tend to fall in lock-step with the party of choice on the “small issues.” That is, on those areas where the right choice is a prudential judgment, our consciences are often shaped by our favored political party. There are a lot of reasons for this:
- The small issues don’t matter — To use the extreme example, if you’re a German voter in the 1930s, you’re not basing your ballot for or against Hitler off of your feelings on his proposed Autobahn. If one of the two candidates supports the legalized killing of infants, his ideas about tax reform don’t matter. You’re voting for the one who doesn’t support legalized killing.
- Since the small issues don’t matter, we don’t think about them — We generally don’t have a very well thought-out position on the prudential judgments of the day, even on the ones we think are very important. A lot of American Catholics are troubled by the state of the healthcare system, by the crisis of poverty here and abroad, and so on. But because we never have to stand in a voting booth and choose based on that issue, we give practical solutions to the problem less thought.
- We stop trusting the other side — Quite sanely, if Candidate (or Party) X either is pro-legalized killing, or perhaps worse, is “personally opposed” to killing children, but doesn’t have the good sense to think it should be outlawed, we find that Candidate untrustworthy. Perhaps they’re evil, or stupid, or terribly naive; perhaps they just have a “different” (stupid, evil, or naive) system of morality. At the very least, we can say that their judgment is terribly flawed on the major issues. As a result, since this Candidate or Political Party isn’t trustworthy on the big things, we’re unlikely to trust them on the small one. It makes sense: it’s the converse of what Matthew 25:23: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” From a Catholic perspective, if someone gets the question of abortion so radically wrong, there’s no reason to think he’s any better on the question of, say, tort reform.
- As a result, we trust our favored party — Because we haven’t given the small issues a whole lot of thought (generally speaking), our default position is to trust the party which is trustworthy on big things to be trustworthy on small things. So when the DNC was the only party for Catholics, we tended to take Democratic views on issues from immigration to labor rights to caring for the poor — that is, we didn’t just agree that those issues were important, but we trusted the Democrats to be the party to fix them. Faithful Catholics today tend to agree with the Republican party on many of these same issues, disagreeing with their forebears. The Church’s stance hasn’t changed. Instead, the Catholic-friendly party has.
- This can cause us to tune-out of the political issues of the day, or engage in them in a strictly partisan manner. Given how stark the abortion divide is, it’s easy to paint a Republicans Good / Democrats Bad narrative that’s just not accurate.
- When the USCCB says something the GOP disagrees with, many Catholics’ first impulse is to take the GOP’s side. In doing so, we risk ignoring the Bible’s warning, from Psalm 146:2-3, “Put not your trust in princes:in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” Once we start putting all of our trust in the GOP over Christ and His Church (even a fallible body like the USCCB), we’re playing a very dangerous game, spiritually.
- We get taken for granted. The Republicans don’t even need to do anything about abortion. They can preserve the status quo, and pro-lifers have nowhere else to turn. Faithful Catholics aren’t much of a “swing” vote, since the two parties’ positions are pretty constant, as is Catholic moral theology on abortion.
- The problem only gets worse as time goes on. With each passing year, the two sides get more and more entrenched. Once Catholics’ consciences are formed by the GOP to agree on the small things, and once they’ve become convinced that they can’t even trust “pro-life” Democrats, even a genuinely pro-life Democrat would face an uphill battle to win those votes. So they don’t even try (let’s be clear: pandering to pro-lifers for their votes is part of the problem, but not making any effort may be worse).
- This opens the door for a betrayal. I don’t see a lot of prospects for a pro-life Democratic candidate emerging from the presidential primary. But I do see a very real risk of a pro-choice Republican. Look at the evidence: McCain was pro-embryonic stem cell research, he contemplated choosing pro-choice Lieberman as his running mate, and rising Republican star Scott Brown’s pro-choice. You’ve even got pro-lifers like Mitch Daniels and Hailey Barbour wanting to shush pro-lifers, to prevent them from getting in the way of a 2012 victory. The pattern’s clear: since the GOP knows pro-lifers aren’t going to vote Democratic, there’s a real urge to put up a “socially-liberal” candidate to appeal to moderates. Or they’ll just find some other block of voters they like more than us.
- This betrayal would risk many Catholic souls. Look at the DNC in the 1970s. As I mentioned above, the had the Catholic vote virtually locked down. But then the Democrats discovered the “New Left,” the young radicals who were pro-feminism, free love, and abortion. The DNC sensed that this was the emerging trend, and wanted to be at the forefront. For the first time, it started supporting causes that a Catholic could not support. Catholics were forced to either abandon the party they’d voted for their entire lives and which made up a huge part of their social identity, or abandon their morals. A number of Catholics chose the wrong answer to that question.
There’s not an easy answer to this question. On the one hand, Catholics can’t support the Democratic Party, as long as the Democratic Party supports abortion. On the other hand, Catholics can’t blindly trust the Republican Party, or they’re putting themselves in real peril. The only solution seems to be to keep eyes wide open, be willing to throw away the occasional vote on a quixotic third-party candidate, and pray for the return of our country and the DNC to Christian morality.