A first look at Catholic voter guides

by Michael Sean Winters

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Now that summer has ended and we head into the final two months of the election cycle, let's look at some voter guides directed specifically at people of faith. The very idea of such guides may strike people as a novelty, but remember that John Adams' campaign explicitly sought the religious vote by labeling Thomas Jefferson an atheist, the entire 1928 election was a referendum on the suitability of a Catholic to become president, and Hubert Humphrey knew exactly what he was doing when, in his 1960 primary fight with John F. Kennedy, he chose as his campaign theme song "Give me that old time religion!" Religion and politics have been all mixed together throughout the history of our secular republic.

Just yesterday, the Paulist Fathers released their reflection on the moral issues facing the country. Like many religious commentators, they misunderstand the history of politics, right off the bat. "Language and methods once considered out-of-bounds for political candidates have been found acceptable by a not-insignificant number of our fellow citizens," the good fathers write. "Prejudices that we hoped dead were merely sleeping. These prejudices have been awakened and given new voice." The idea that in some earlier time our elections were pristine exercises in rational moral discourse, and that ours is a uniquely degraded time, this betrays an ignorance of history. And, it was foolish to think that the prejudices that stalk our nation's psyche, religious, racial and ethnic, had vanished. So, I give the Paulists a D in American history.

The Paulists get an A in moral analysis, however. They begin each section with a quote from Scripture, making the point that the religious believer starts with her faith commitment and then goes in search of a political reality that coheres with that faith commitment, not the other way round. And, who could quibble with their list of important moral issues facing the nation: the rise in bigotry and xenophobia; acts of violence; the sacredness of all human life; economic uncertainty, the middle class and the poor; and care for our common home.

It is good to place the rise in bigotry and xenophobia first, not because it is an issue with more moral weight than, say, war or abortion or even income inequality, but because it is the thing that is different this year. Four years ago, Mitt Romney did not stoke the flames of white nationalism, and Barack Obama did not scratch the anti-Mormon itch. This year, unwilling to risk alienating Trump's supporters, plausible candidates refused to challenge Trump's inflammatory and bigoted harangues.

Another especially good thing about the Paulists' guide, however, is that they stake out a moral vision that causes conscientious Democrats and Republicans to acknowledge the fact that neither party has a monopoly on moral virtue and both parties fall short on specific issues.

On care for creation, every person planning on voting for Donald Trump should be made uncomfortable by the quote from Pope Francis' address to Congress that the Paulists' guide cites:

I call for a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States -- and this Congress -- have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies ... .

So far from "courageous actions and strategies," Trump has joined the climate change denier bandwagon.

Conversely, every Catholic voting for Hillary Clinton Democrat should squirm when they read this from the Paulists: "Abortion of the unborn also threatens our culture. We pray that all people will see human life as a precious gift from God that begins in the womb. We also recommit ourselves to be present to single women and couples facing unplanned pregnancies. We recommit ourselves to support those who have welcomed children despite difficulties and challenges." What moral objection can be found with those words? There is no simplistic suggestion that abortion will be solved irrespective of the culture nor any denial of our civic obligation to women and couples facing an unplanned pregnancy.

Faith in Public Life is an advocacy organization and, just so, you would think it would have more freedom in articulating its guidelines than a bunch of Catholic priests. And you would be wrong. FPL's voter guide is exceedingly well written, and they do a good job of articulating a moral stance and then linking it to a set of policy prescriptions, providing bullet points for each item on the list.

But what to make of this sentence with which FPL opens its section on gun violence: "Across denominations and faith traditions, we hold in common the belief that all people are created in the image of God and that killing is an unequivocal sin." They rightly note that our nation has more guns than people. But, how do you apply the words "unequivocal sin" here and not once mention abortion in the entire rest of the text? Indeed, there is nothing here that would make a Hillary Clinton supporter blush. If religious groups believe that their concerns are transcendent, they need to articulate them in such a way that that transcendent quality is apparent. They need to at least pretend to balance or they will be dismissed, and rightly, for reducing religion to politics. This was always the problem with the Moral Majority. At its best, FPL avoids the trap. This guide, I fear, falls short, and I am disappointed that so many Catholic organizations endorsed the guide. They should insist on the kind of balance our faith demands and be willing to let the partisan chips fall where they may before signing on to such documents.

One of the most sophisticated guides issued this year comes from Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester. In addition to reminding Catholics that we have responsibilities in the civic sphere, something you never hear from a politician, Wester explained the complexity of the task as well as it has been done, writing:

Our world is increasingly complex. The global social, political and economic realities do not give way to simplistic answers. Our world is fraught with wars, terror, violence, civil unrest, poverty, migration leading to a refugee crisis, hunger, and human-caused climate change, human trafficking and racism. As Catholics we uphold dignity of all, most especially the poorest and most vulnerable in our world. We must grapple with the fact that no one party or candidate represents all my thinking or the Church's thinking. We must also look at all the issues, not only one or two, although it is important to prioritize the issues since not all are equal and some, like the sanctity of human life, are of the utmost importance. Pope Francis speaks to our call to be involved in the complexities of our world. 'Authentic faith ... always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it ... . If indeed "the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics," the Church "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice." ' (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 183.)

Hard to argue with that.

Recalling a conversation with a parishioner, Wester also did an exemplary job explaining prudence, which is too often invoked as a get-out-of-jail-free card by those who wish to minimize issues like poverty and immigration which are complex. Wester writes:

I reminded her of the need to discern, using the gift of prudence, which St. Ambrose described as the 'charioteer of the virtues.' Prudence is synonymous with discernment. It enables us to 'discern our true good in every circumstance ... . Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives and determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively.' (FCFC No. 19). Discernment means following one's conscience with courage. As Pope Francis states, 'this does not mean following my own ego, or doing what I am interested in, or what I find convenient, or what I like.' (Angelus address, June 30, 2013)

And, he reminds the clergy that it is their job to form, not to replace, the consciences of the faithful.

Voter guides are always a mixed bag. Later in the month, I will examine the creative ways some Catholics are defending voting for Donald Trump. In the meantime, I think readers should consult as many of these guides as possible. If you acquire one new thought, it has been worth the effort. Most importantly, the exercise is itself an example of the kind of responsible discernment to which we are called. A good rule of thumb about the honesty of our discernment is this: If you finish exactly where you started, you probably need to do some more discernment.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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