Bishop Seitz: Single-issue voting has corrupted Christian political witness

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, talks with a Honduran girl, Cesia, while walking and praying with a group of migrants at the Lerdo International Bridge in El Paso June 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

One day last year, I found myself waiting motionless, jammed in a confined space between concrete barriers, razor wire and armed border guards. I stood tensely under the burning desert summer sun in a dusty no man’s land on the international border between the United States and Mexico. I was holding the hand of a young, dark-skinned girl with brown hair, and my anxiety grew as we looked toward the United States, just feet away, and at the guards barring our entry.

Back in her home country, the girl’s aunts and uncles had been assassinated. If she had not traveled with her family 2,000 miles to the U.S. border, she might have shared the same fate. But after a long and perilous journey and having survived kidnapping attempts, there she was, waiting to legally petition for asylum at a time when hard-line immigration policies like family separation and forced returns to Mexico have made such an act dangerous.

I tried putting myself in that child’s shoes. I felt fear and vertigo. I felt the overwhelming weight of bureaucratic indifference and abstract government policy positioned against the vulnerability of a child. For a brief instant I felt what it must be like to be on the outside-looking-in of an exclusionary system of power. I felt fragile.

That experience of fragility deeply shaped my understanding of the social commitment of Christians.

That experience of fragility deeply shaped my understanding of the social commitment of Christians. I realized that our political commitment as Christians is less about seeking self-interest, accessing privilege and influencing power, and more about standing in solidarity with those forced to the margins of the systems we create.

The presidential election is fast approaching. Elections are a critical way we take an active role shaping the common good. We naturally project our hopes and desires for a resolution to the pains now afflicting our country onto that important moment when we cast our ballot.

A deep faith rooted in love is moved by the fragility of others and unsettled by systems that cheapen human dignity. For Christians, the ecstatic experience of being taken out of ourselves and into the drama of the reign of God opens us up to the horizon of the common good. As Benedict XVI said, “the more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them.” We get involved in building the common good because, as St. Óscar Romero said in his last words before being killed, “every effort to better a society, especially one that is so enmeshed in injustice and in sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God desires, that God demands of us.”

The experience of the nearness of Jesus and the love of God, our common Father, creates in us a new mindset: We are dependent, we need one another and we really are responsible for one another. This is what the virtue of solidarity is all about, the recognition that our destinies are woven together or they are not woven at all. Human fragility is not to be denied or demonized or hidden away, but met with love and compassion and solidarity. As Sister Thea Bowman put it so beautifully, “God’s glory is revealed because we love one another across the barriers and boundaries of race, culture and class.”

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Our vote is but one expression of this all-encompassing commitment to the common good and the project of building up solidarity.

Solidarity in Suffering

In the last several months, the wind has been knocked out of us by a major pandemic that has left many, especially the poor and people of color, with no lifeboat. We have also seen how the promise of equality contained in our founding documents has been deferred again and again because we cannot confess with one voice—as church or country—what should be self-evident, that Black lives matter. The individualism rampant in our social, political and economic life is rending the body politic and the body of Christ. But there is a lesson in all of this. As Pope Francis recently put it, “having failed to show solidarity in wealth and in the sharing of resources, we have learned to experience solidarity in suffering.” The Lord is teaching us solidarity by schooling us in fragility.

The individualism rampant in our social, political and economic life is rending the body politic and the body of Christ.

As pastor of a portion of the people of God located on the U.S.-Mexico border, a majority of whom are Latino, I see the deep interrelatedness of the issues affecting our people and endangering our sacred environment. Our communities are buckling under history, under racism and under Covid-19. The lack of opportunities and social supports available to our children do not match the height of their aspirations and dignity, and they are at risk of falling even further behind under the weight of the pandemic. This generation of our children was also sadly witness to the largest mass killing of Latinos in modern history, which took the lives of 23 of our neighbors last year in an act of racial terror in El Paso. In all of this suffering it is made abundantly clear that, in the words of the pope, “none of us is saved alone.”

What are the possibilities before us at the ballot box for a credible project of solidarity in this historical moment? We require leadership with character and experience, capable of expressing a moral vision to resist the harsh individualism and lack of solidarity fueling the multiple crises we face. We are desperately in need of genuine leadership and vision to overcome ingrained attitudes of being “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters” and to re-learn to “speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world.”

In an aggressively secular and hyper-competitive world, we should be grateful for the public respect for Pope Francis shown by the Democratic nominee, former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the values of the working-class ethos that Mr. Biden aims to project. We should recognize, too, the step forward represented by the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Our daughters and sons need to see women reflected in our nation’s highest leadership. As a bishop on the border, I am also encouraged by the Biden campaign’s promises to address climate change, create a path to citizenship for the undocumented, restore protections for asylum seekers and never repeat the criminal practice of separating families at the border.

The Moral Challenge of Abortion

We must also acknowledge the stumbling block created for religious voters by the Democratic Party’s ever-stronger commitment to promoting abortion without any sensible restrictions, including Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris’s support for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which threatens to break the last surviving bipartisan compromise in a decades-long stalemate over Roe v. Wade. Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have also committed to re-igniting debates over constitutionally protected matters of religious liberty that broad majorities on the Supreme Court have attempted to put to rest, provoking real fears on the part of the church’s charitable institutions of another chapter in the culture wars.

The deepening dogmatism of the Democratic Party on abortion is an inescapable moral challenge. But Catholics also need to recognize that we are living out the collateral effects of a misbegotten decades-long settlement between certain groups of political and religious leaders on the right. For far too long, in pursuit of “single-issue” strategies to end abortion, many Christians have scandalously turned a blind eye to real breakdowns in solidarity and dehumanizing policies, including crackdowns on worker rights and voting rights, the slashing of social support for the poor and sick, racism and the exploitation of immigrants and the environment.

All of this has backfired and contributed to the issue’s intractability, widened the polarization in our society, harmed the credibility of the commitment of Christians to the common good and compromised the integrity of our Gospel witness.

Pope Francis has repeatedly challenged American Catholics to reframe our approach to abortion. The Holy Father is clear:

Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery and every form of rejection.

We must repudiate any compromise of the moral integrity of the church’s witness through partisan alignment with single-issue political strategies disconnected from an integral ethic of human life. The moral and ontological pre-eminence of human life is gravely undermined by narrow political stratagems corrosive of the common good. Our concern and advocacy for life must embrace all of the marginalized and excluded, or it will ring hollow.

At the same time, we should also recognize that the individualistic reduction of abortion to a question of so-called “reproductive rights” brackets this fundamental social issue from any common moral analysis, as if the question of abortion carried no moral weight at all. It also displaces our attention from society’s duty to support the real economic and social needs of women, expectant mothers and families, where we are sorely lacking.

President Donald Trump has voiced his support for unborn life and taken steps toward defending life, like the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy. Likewise, he has taken positive steps to protect religious liberties. But the president has also tainted the pro-life cause with the individualism and cult of wealth, greed and celebrity that very quickly erode solidarity and cheapen life. And he has undermined the foundational importance of religious liberty with actions like travel bans targeting Muslims. Supported by a pagan aesthetic of self-assertion and buoyed by a destructive politics of fear and xenophobia, his administration has encouraged the worst expressions of nativism. And this is dangerously taxing the durability of our democratic institutions.

It is painfully ironic that one party claims to stand with undocumented families and unaccompanied children but not the unborn, and the other claims to stand with the unborn but not the undocumented. But the church will always define herself as that community which stands with whoever is considered unworthy of belonging.

But the church will always define herself as that community which stands with whoever is considered unworthy of belonging.

Over the past several years and decades, politicians on both sides, including both current presidential candidates, have contributed to the weakening of solidarity and the erosion of the common good in ways that should make us ask hard questions of both candidates now. The bishops of the United States and many moral leaders have long raised their voices against the abandonment of all restraints on an economy driven by greed, the weakening of protections for the poor and working class, the lack of access to affordable health care, laws that have led to the over-incarceration of people of color and militarized our local police departments, the unjust Iraq War, the extrajudicial killings of innocents by drones, trade deals that treat labor and the environment as collateral damage, and unacceptable delays on immigration reform. In short, we require moral leadership that will credibly address our country’s longstanding abasement by what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. termed “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.”

I share the pain, frustration and confusion facing Catholic voters this year at what feels like an impossible binary choice. Catholics who wish to take the demands of our faith and social teaching seriously have long had reason to feel politically homeless at election time. Neither party and neither presidential candidate reflects in a consistent way the ethic of love and life expressed by Jesus in the Gospels. Both parties have been influenced by both the individualism long lurking in American life and by Dr. King’s triple evils.

Voting requires a well-formed conscience and an exercise of prudence after prayerful discernment on the part of each voter of all the issues at stake. Our commitment is not to the abstractions of party platforms but to the particularity of the human suffering in our midst and the concrete possibilities for a project of solidarity and human emancipation before us. God never asks of us the impossible but only to achieve the justice possible in the imperfect world of the here and now. We must sincerely weigh all of the complex issues facing our nation and prayerfully reflect on the sacredness and equal dignity of all human life as well our duty to steward God’s creation.

Catholics may still arrive at different conclusions as to for whom to vote. But however we vote, God will judge us by the authenticity of our commitment to continuing to stand with all those forced to the margins of our society, even after Election Day. Our vote for candidates at every level of government, from local school boards to the highest levels of national government, is just one expression of that commitment.

It is helpful to remember that the great democratic achievements in our country—the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, labor rights, the antiwar movement, the pro-life movement—belong first not to presidents or politicians but to you and me and others driven by moral vision and inspired by faith. Better political leadership at the top will come from critique and action rooted in human experience below. In the words of Pope Francis, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

Accordingly, the high ideals of our country are best reflected in the accomplishments of those like Mother Cabrini, who began Catholic schools for Africa-Americans and immigrants; Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement; the young men and women captivated by the radical commitment of Dorothy Day; and a young John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Their legacy continues in the many volunteers who provide hospitality to migrants at the border, the followers of Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Life who walk with the poor and unwed mothers, and our Black sisters and brothers who continue to put their bodies on the line for racial justice.

The church is not engaged in shoring up the political agendas of either party. The followers of Jesus are washed in the waters of baptism that bring forth a new community of radical inclusivity that transcends narrow self-concern, elitist social division and arbitrary political boundaries. We are fed at the table of the Lord, where we learn a new logic of radical hospitality, mutual sustenance, reconciliation and forgiveness that prophetically challenges every bigotry and every decision that puts markets before people. We are responsible for one another, and we need each other. And so we will always stand in solidarity with those whose lives are made fragile and bring their suffering before the tribunals of power.

Let us express this solidarity and our commitment to a more just world with our vote this November.

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