It’s election season, and I’ve hesitated to say much on the subject for many reasons. One of those reasons is because our obsession with politics is unhealthy and unholy (in that it reflects our fixation on this life rather than the next, and on worldly power instead of true discipleship). Another is that this election season has been like watching a slow-burning dumpster fire.
I don’t plan to tell you how to vote, but I do want to establish a few basic principles:
- No well-formed Catholic should feel comfortable with Trump or Clinton;
- Thus, voters face a difficult decision this fall;
- The Church gives some guidance on this, but this guidance is limited;
- You, as a potential voter, have the final decision to make as to who to vote and who to support; and
- Your salvation could well hang in the balance.
Let’s begin with the obvious: these two candidates are awful. Trump has called for torture as a tool for winning the war on terror, as well as “taking out” the families of terrorists (he later denied that this necessarily meant murdering the families). As for waterboarding, he’s said:
They asked me, what do you think about waterboarding, Mr. Trump. I said I love it. I love it. And I said the only thing is, we should make it much tougher than waterboarding, and if you don’t think it works, folks, you’re wrong.
As for Clinton, while she has been evasive about certain late-term abortions, her overall support for the legalized killing of unborn children is unambiguous. Indeed, she’s only gotten worse with age: she went from arguing that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare” (adding, “and I mean rare“) to arguing that they should simply be “safe and legal” (the “rare” language is also conspicuously absent from prepared campaign materials, so this wasn’t an innocent oversight). Indeed, it’s not enough for there to be a constitutional right to abortion: she’s pointed to the need to change religious beliefs to favor abortion, and the Democratic Party is in the process of including new language in its platform to encourage federal funding for abortion (breaking the Hyde Amendment truce).
And that’s just looking at two of the most obvious issues: I’m leaving aside the blatant lying on both sides (including, in Clinton’s case, lying to the FBI in the course of a federal investigation), Trump’s racially-charged comments in the course of the immigration debate, Clinton’s intolerant and intolerable stance on the HHS mandate, and a whole litany of other moral issues.
The idea of trusting either of them with the nuclear codes, the ability to appoint Supreme Court justices, the authority to enact executive orders, and one of the most important bully pulpits in the world ought to turn any Catholic’s stomach. If you’re enthusiastic about voting for Trump or Clinton, I’m concerned about your moral code.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to vote for them. Rather, it’s just an acknowledgement that we’re facing what the USCCB calls a “difficult choice” in its Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship voters’ guide:
34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.
In other words, if you’re supporting your candidate because of their support for torture, abortion, etc., you’re sinning. However:
35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.
36. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
The document goes on to discuss the question of “single-issue” voting:
42. As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.
Think about it this way. Hitler’s views in favor of exterminating the Jews would be enough to justify voting against him (without further consideration of any of his other views), but Stalin’s opposition to the extermination of the Jews wouldn’t be enough to guarantee the Catholic vote. A truly awful public official can still be right on particular important issues.
So how should you vote? The USCCB recognizes that “the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.” But it also recognizes that “the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation.”
And it’s here that I want to shift from talking about voting to talking about political support. In an era of widespread social media, seemingly everyone is in a hurry to vent their partisan political preferences, and it’s here that we face a serious moral issue. It’s one thing to vote for an awful candidate because his or her rival is even more awful. It’s quite another to whitewash your preferred candidate, to overlook (or worse, to justify) their moral flaws in an attempt to make them more palatable to other Catholics. That sort of party spirit runs contrary to the Gospel (cf. Galatians 5:20). Trying to “sell” your candidate to your friends through deception (even self-deception) is exactly the sort of political choice that can affect your own salvation.
So let’s keep a couple of things in perspective. First, despite all of our pretending otherwise, your individual vote won’t change the outcome of the election. Last time around, the closest state, Florida, was decided by a margin of more than 73,000 votes. Even if you somehow persuaded every one of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers (newsflash: you won’t), that wouldn’t swing the closest of the closest swing states. The idea that you need to vote for a bad candidate or else the even-worse-one will win has always been false.
Second, this election isn’t the end of the world. It’s true (no matter who’s elected) that we could easily see things in this country get worse, even a lot worse. That shouldn’t be ignored or minimized, but it also shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. Like the myth of your vote determining the election, this myopic focus on right here, right now makes every election feel like a crisis and triggers fear instead of rational decision-making.
Third, while our broken civilization will inevitably cease to be someday, the same isn’t true of our souls. And it’s these immortal souls that we are rushing to sacrifice on the altar of partisanship. We’re sacrificing the eternal for the temporal, and not even managing to swing the outcome of the election (an election that turns out to matter a lot less than we’ve been made to believe). It’s a Faustian bargain beneath our human dignity. I leave you with this reflection by C.S. Lewis: it’s the denouement of his sermon on The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
Go and live, including civic life, accordingly.