How will the United States change after Nov. 6? The political rhetoric has verged on apocalyptic. Yet while the outcome of the U.S. presidential election will have far-reaching consequences, especially for those who live at the margins of American society, candidates and voters alike should recall the words of the Psalmist: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Ps. 146:3). That caution is especially poignant for many Catholic voters, who are once again caught between their desire to participate in civic life and the sad fact that both presidential candidates have taken positions that are incompatible with the moral law. That the candidates’ moral miscalculations extend even to the gravest questions of life and death only further vexes the Catholic conscience.
Some Catholic voters are tempted to give up, to sit out this election cycle; to choose, in effect, by not choosing. Yet this course is also problematic; the U.S. bishops’ declaration “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” reminds us that faithful citizenship is itself a moral duty. At the same time, the U.S. bishops are keenly aware of the Catholic conundrum: while there is a discernible hierarchy of moral concerns, no one party, one candidate or one issue is dispositive. The complexities and limitations of modern American politics necessarily mean that our individual political choices require a prudential moral calculus. They are a matter of conscience. The U.S. bishops, however, also caution “against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological, or personal interests.”
Unfortunately, the campaign debate thus far has been shaped almost entirely by partisan and ideological voices that find an all too-eager ear in the electorate. The Catholic voter, therefore, asks not simply whether it is morally troublesome to vote for this or that candidate, but how it is possible to contribute to the public discourse with reason and charity. In a nation as vast and complex as the United States, no general course of action can be prescribed; here, a difficult judgement of conscience is also required.
Yet one straightforward and immediate way for Catholic voters to make a meaningful contribution to the public discourse would be to draw the larger public’s attention to issues that, while central to Catholic social thought, have been neglected by the candidates and the secular media. While several issues familiar to Catholic voters, including the economy and the middle class, same-sex marriage, the legal status of abortion on demand and the ethical implications of Obamacare, have received consistent attention this campaign season, two especially pressing concerns have not been addressed: poverty and defense spending.
The important but narrow focus on the economic well-being of the middle class obscures the fact that 46.2 million Americans live below the official poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four), the highest number in more than 50 years. Over 20 million Americans, 6.7 percent of the population, have fallen into deep poverty, earning less than $11,000 a year. Many of these are without any shelter. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, for example, reports that 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and that 1.5 million other veterans “are considered at risk of homelessness.” The fact that so many of our fellow citizens live in abject poverty, sleeping curled up in doorways or under bridges, is a national crisis; the fact that the country is not even talking about the problem is a national shame.
Americans must ask also whether it is just to spend six times more than any other world power on national defense during this time of increasing social hardship. Should the nation’s political leaders fight over trifling savings from cuts to the Public Broadcasting System while the well-armed elephant in the deficit debate remains undisturbed? Neither of the presidential candidates has proposed substantial reductions in defense appropriations; such cuts are politically unpopular, even viewed by some as unpatriotic. Yet apart from the moral question, Americans must also ask whether it is even rational to build the world’s most technologically advanced military when most of the contemporary global threats are represented by teenagers shouldering AK-47s. “A nation,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Conscientious Catholic voters in 2012 must once again navigate the tricky waters of contemporary American politics, avoiding the twin shoals of moral hazard and neo-sectarianism. Along with tens of millions of their fellow citizens, Catholic voters will make their choice on the first Tuesday in November. For many of them, however, it is a dreary choice. Will America change on Nov. 6th? Yes, it will; but not nearly enough.