Tomorrow is election day here in Virginia. As a political scientist, I am fascinated by elections. As an American, I am proud of our democracy and its institutions – you can count on two hands the number of republics in human history that have endured more than 200 years. But as a Catholic, I dread the first Tuesday in November. When I step into a voting booth I will almost certainly be obliged to pull a lever for a candidate who rejects much of what my faith counsels regarding justice and public policy.
The USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship explains this year that “in particular, our Conference is focused on several current and fundamental problems,” noting among others “the destruction of the unborn”, “efforts to redefine marriage”, “a broken immigration system”, “serious moral questions on the use of force and its human and moral costs”, and “increasing deficits and debt and the duty to respond in ways which protect the poor and vulnerable.” As the bishops observe – with noted understatement – “these themes from Catholic social teaching provide a moral framework that does not easily fit ideologies of “right” or “left,” “liberal” or “conservative,” or the platform of any political party.”
No kidding! I have voted now in four different states – North and South, East and West, red and blue – and have never been offered a major party candidate whose public policy seemed to reflect these imperatives in any consistent way. It’s enough to drive a trying-to-stay faithful citizen to despair.
If voting were the only – or even the best – way to represent my values in public affairs, I’d be pretty discouraged. But it seems to me that for a Catholic adhering who wants to honor the principles of Faithful Citizenship, the vote is not even a very good way to do it.
Many commentators will spend the coming year in tedious and abstruse arguments about how Catholic doctrine in general and the Faithful Citizenship document in particular should lead us to vote in 2012, but at the end of the day most voters will have to walk into a dark booth and choose a candidate that rejects a substantial part of the Catholic perspective. And that vote will be a blunt instrument. The officeholder who calls for immigration reform won’t know if you voted for him because of that, or because he promised to defend women’s access to abortion. The one who upholds traditional marriage won’t know if you supported her for that reason, or because she promised to reduce taxes by cutting TANF allotments.
Fortunately there are another 364 days in the year, and many other ways to make our voices heard. As the bishops also note, “participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.” There are all sorts of opportunities to write letters to your elected officials, circulate petitions, attend town hall meetings, and organize educational events in your parish or neighborhood.
It’s easy to get frustrated in this sort of activity, admittedly. Chances are, no matter how many letters you send and events you organize, you won’t see your representative or delegate change their position on a basic issue. But this hardly means your testimony is without effect.
Politics is not just about the position an elected official proclaims, but where they place their energy. The ‘pro-choice’ legislator who receives a flood of letters defending the unborn may decide to take a pass on leading the fight against parental consent laws. After hearing from parishioners across their district on a Catholic Conference lobby day, the ‘tea-party’ activist with a single-minded focus on cutting taxes and shrinking government may decide that cutting food stamps isn’t worth a government shutdown.
And in the end, our political parties are remarkably adept at giving us what we ask for. If they hear from enough faithful citizens, they will start sending us candidates more in tune with our faith.