For most of my formative years, until I was almost 30, the Washington, D.C., area was home for me. Politics brought my family there; my father initially worked for a U.S. senator and went on to work in the Carter administration. When I was in college, I spent two summers as an intern for the same senator for whom my dad had worked, and I began my career as a lawyer in Washington as well. I mention all this to say that from a very early age, my life was filled with the day-to-day of American political life, and I can say with significant personal knowledge that the operation of democracy in the United States (never a pretty process here or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) has become increasingly debased and cynical.
The sense of national responsibility and leadership that transcended party loyalties has all but evaporated, replaced by a coarse pandering to public opinion. There is no end to what we must endure in this regard, from the heckling of the president in a joint session of Congress, to the broadly held assumption that the Supreme Court justices should behave like political hacks. Despite the physical grandeur of our nation’s capital, one senses a slowly advancing internal rot driven by small-minded “principle” and personal self-aggrandizement.
Voting, Citizenship and Faith
Given this environment, I have been moved to think carefully, as we approach another presidential election in November, about what it means to be a citizen of the United States who is also a person of faith. Although my faith has a great deal to do with how I think things ought to be, I make political decisions based on the world as it is. The United States I observe today is a place riven by two warring ideologies about the role of government that have reached an impasse, lacking in a strong sense of common purpose and rooted culturally in libertarian individualism. This suggests to me that my political decisions need to be about the “big tent” issues and not the political sideshows. As a Catholic, therefore, I am most concerned about how our government promotes human dignity, the common good and meaningful participation in the life of the community for all.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have offered us a compelling guide for thinking about faith and political life in their document “Faithful Citizenship,” and much of what I have to say about this topic draws on the themes they have developed so carefully. It is not my goal to restate what they have written, but to reflect more personally on how I understand my responsibility as a voter and citizen in the context of Catholic teaching.
How might that translate to specific issues relevant in this election? Take, for example, our health care debate. Although the Supreme Court has relieved some of the pressure on the issue with its most recent ruling, the fact remains that the idea of providing universal health coverage remains extremely controversial in the United States. The House Republicans recently wasted precious public resources by conducting a purely symbolic vote to “repeal” the Affordable Care Act despite its survival of the Supreme Court challenge. Mitt Romney subjected himself to 17 seconds of sustained booing by boldly repeating his intention to repeal “Obamacare” at the annual convention of the N.A.A.C.P.
Most countries with the necessary financial means (and some without it) have provided universal health care to their citizens and residents for decades because it was fairly obvious that human dignity required it. Universal health care is a moral imperative, something a political community ought to offer if it hopes to encourage meaningful membership and participation in the community, both of which are essential to a well-functioning democracy.
In the United States, however, many people do everything they can to prevent the entire population from receiving health coverage because they cannot stand the idea that the government (as opposed to the free market) might be in the best position to provide it or because they despise the president and his political party or because of disagreements about whether particular procedures should be covered. Although I take very seriously the role we as Catholics should play in bringing our values to the discussion of specific aspects of national health care policy, I think it is more important to make sure that everyone who needs health coverage has it—period. Allowing people to go without access to decent health care in the midst of this nation’s extraordinary affluence is at best a shameful misdirection of our priorities and at worst evidence of a nation blind to the basic requirements of social justice.
Another hotly contested issue of great importance to me is the concept of citizenship itself and the question of who can be part of the mainstream in American society. The philosopher Gary Gutting wrote recently in The New York Times about the moral questions raised by patriotism and the tensions it creates with a more universal morality rooted in cosmopolitanism—a philosophical concept that proceeds from a belief in the existence of shared moral obligations that are owed to all human beings. To whom do we owe equality of esteem, dignity and respect? Is it primarily to our fellow citizens? Do geopolitics and nationalism create our moral boundaries?
Certainly, there must be some sort of shared moral understanding among a defined group of people to give meaning to concepts like human dignity and equality, but as a Catholic I have always thought that my faith leaned heavily toward a vision of human worth that was not necessarily limited to Americans. After all, the nation-state and the accompanying concept of nationalism are relatively modern phenomena, and Christianity proposes a universal message about the dignity of the human person. This does not mean that our particular loyalties to family and country are unimportant, but they exist in the context of God’s unbounded love for all of us.
What, then, does this universality mean for a political issue like immigration? The United States is a settler nation and cannot be understood apart from waves of migration over three centuries. Our ability to absorb new migrants has long been our strength. Yet, many of us are unwilling to own this history in the face of substantial non-European immigration; we seem unable to appreciate the very real possibility that ongoing resistance to the integration of undocumented migrants in particular will create a new permanent underclass in American society. It is as if the agony of our nation’s relationship with slavery and segregation has taught us nothing.
Perhaps some of the political discord around this issue is rooted in the different daily realities experienced by those who live in the United States of the future—one of cosmopolitan metropolitan areas, multicultural neighborhoods and globally oriented workspaces—and those who live in the America of the past—defined primarily by Anglo-Protestant cultural dominance, post-World War II economic prowess and a firm belief in the United States as the world’s exceptional nation. This second America is passing away, and, for better or for worse, nothing can be done to bring it back.
I believe the faithful citizen casts his or her vote recognizing the country as it is and with a vision of what it could be in the best of circumstances going forward. The United States will soon be a majority nonwhite nation in which the former American understandings of “white” and “black” will lose their meaning. How will this affect U.S. culture and identity?
The U.S. economy will be driven by global economic events and policies over which the U.S. government alone will have little control. Can we continue to speak seriously about American exceptionalism? Social, cultural and political structures we have become familiar with over the last two to three centuries will change, and some of these changes will occur much more quickly than we expect. Raw assertions of political power may slow some of them down but probably will not stop them. Trying to resurrect a world that has passed away is futile, and the attempt is often more destructive than the changes we seek to prevent.
Recognizing the reality and inevitability of change, we should remain focused on promoting core values of Catholic teaching by seeking ways to make them intelligible in new social, political and economic conditions. Health care for all can unite a diverse population around a shared system of social benefits and promote a sense of common purpose through dignified provision for children, the poor, the weak and the elderly. A managed admission of immigrants and migrants to our nation allows us to reap the benefits of global movements of people, which can open up new possibilities for economic innovation, spark urban renewal and revive aging communities. Catholic social teaching provides important intellectual and moral content to a public discussion about why pursuing these policy goals would be a good thing, both morally and pragmatically.
No Pandering Allowed
Finally, we must be very wary of attempts by politicians and their handlers to pander to our most selfish instincts and separate us from our common sense, something that has become endemic in American public life. If I could ask one thing of my fellow citizens prior to this election, it would be for them to refuse to respond to infantile, reality-show politics and its false assertions, half-truths and mindless chatter. Let the Romneys ride their speedboat and the Obamas vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. What do the candidates for president propose to do for the country as the summers get hotter and sea levels rise? Does cutting taxes for the wealthy in the face of a historic recession create jobs? One candidate says it does and the other says it doesn’t. One of them is wrong or lying.
Neither political party in this country can be seen as a proxy for being a “good” Catholic in political life. Each of us must attempt to negotiate a role for ourselves as Catholic Christians in a secular society, one that allows us to share what we believe with our fellow citizens while maintaining our personal freedom to live out our faith in peace. There are no guarantees that we will convinc e them that our way is best. The notion of freedom of individual conscience within a political system that protects religion without favoring one particular faith over others is at the heart of the American experiment, but it can be very difficult to execute in practice. It is, nevertheless, a tradition that makes me proud to be an American.