Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Some thoughts on the election and a challenge to us all (Part II: Political Action)

Tom at Disputations raises an important point I think:
According to Bishop Hermann,
The question I need to ask myself is this: What kind of witness will I give to Him when I go into the voting booth this election day?
I respectfully submit that more important is this question: What kind of witness will I give to Him when I come out of the voting booth?

We have more than half a million minutes a year when we're not voting. When we come forth from that voting booth, do we stay tied hand and foot, in effect dead until it's time to go back in and vote again? Or do we come forth and live in such a way that, not only do people know how we voted, they know why?

So what will we do with the half a million minutes a year when we're not voting? Voting is a small part of political involvement, but for most Catholics it's our only involvement. This can't continue. Because Pro-Life Democrats are marginalized, we had Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competing with each other to promise goodies to the pro-abortion lobby. Because Republicans take the vote of pro-lifers entirely for granted, the candidate who in 2000 was opposed because he wasn't reliable on pro-life issues, is painted as a Pro-Life savior in 2008, when it's clear the issue was barely on his radar. We appear condemned to resorting to proportionalism and lesser-evil voting as the situation just gets worse with every election. Does it have to be this way?

I can't recommend enough this article by Fr. Rob Johansen on this issue. Excerpt:
The idea that we need to align ourselves with the party or candidate who most closely lines up with Catholic teaching is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is that it does not go far enough: It is hardly the robust, evangelistic, sanctify-the-world posture that our vocation to holiness and call to apostleship requires. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose stood up to and rebuked the Roman emperor Theodosius. Were he transported to our own time, I cannot imagine that he would find this policy sufficient.

As Deal W. Hudson has recently pointed out, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" has some serious flaws. But it does provide a valuable teaching that addresses our Faustian bargain:

As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong [emphasis mine]; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths (14).

Looking across the Catholic political landscape, it seems that we have far more Catholics who are in danger of being -- or have been already -- transformed, than we have Catholics who are making any headway in transforming politics.
So where are the Catholics in politics? The teaching of the Church and of our bishops instructs us to take our faith as our starting point and build our politics around that. Instead, we choose our politics and then see how we can shoehorn it into our faith. We find ourselves having to explain away the conflict between the tenets of the Faith and our political allegiances in order to defend our Faustian bargain.
Let me repeat that message from the Bishops: "When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths (14)."

So how might we get engaged? Here's a few thoughts.

First, for Catholic Democrats, whoever you voted for, go and join (i.e. send some Membership Due$) Democrats for Life of America. Work to support the 95-10 Initiative and the Pregnant Women Support Act. Read Angelo Matera on the need to open a second front in the American Pro-Life movement and Mark Stricherz on how the party that fought for the little guy came to such an abominable position on the littlest guys. Get on the horn to elected pro-life democrats and thank them for their support, and encourage them to be less timid and more forthright in advocating their views. Reach out to moderate Democrats who in all likelihood haven't ever given abortion much thought beyond sloganeering. They've come to their position out of ignorance and laziness, and are ripe for conversion on the issue.

I'm thinking in particular of someone like Patrick Murphy, whose district includes most of Bucks County and part of NE Philly. Mr. Murphy is an Archbishop Ryan grad, weekly Mass-goer, and was president of the St. Thomas More Society in law school. And he's a congressional co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act. I can't imagine though that this was any more than a pro-forma, "oh yeah, I'm pro-choice, I'll sponsor that." sort of action. He ran for congress out of deep conviction on ending the war in Iraq and working for economic justice, and it seems clear to me that he just simply takes for granted the pro-choice position as being consistent with the rest. Pray for him, e-mail, write and phone him until you know each of his staffers by name, send him things like Serrin Foster's talk: Women Deserve Better than Abortion or other things in a similar "out of the box" vein that are more likely to get a hearing and harder to dismiss. He is certainly reachable, we just have to show him we're serious. I'd put his colleague on the other side of Philly's suburbs, Cardinal O'Hara grad Joe Sestak, in the same category. I really think a wide swath of moderate Democrats can be moved toward a pro-life position with a combination of intellectual engagement and credible threats to not vote for them if they don't change or significantly improve their positions. The second part is critical, if you're not willing to ultimately withold your vote on principle despite substantial agreement on other issues, you won't see a lot of change among particular politicians or the party leadership. But let a couple incumbents lose, and you'll see others come around and the leadership recruit Pro-Life dems to run in the future. This has already happened in a several districts in the south in 06 and 08.

The Republican party of course also desperately needs transformation on life issues. In the aftermath of the big electoral defeat there are some party members trying mightily to recast the party in the Guliani mold, going to bat for every jot and tittle of libertine economics and Wilsonian internationalism, while throwing social conservatives under the bus. Dale Price rather humorously calls this the "Godbotherer heave-ho Project", but the results of a successful effort would be far from funny. My first suggestion to prevent this from happening would be to improve the delivery of the message, without at all watering down our commitments. Angelo Matera makes that point in advocating a Pro-life movement within the Democratic Party, but I think it applies in spades for the Republicans:

Right now the Catholic “culture of life” strategy has been to ally with Bible Christians, who have a visceral and simple attraction to life and family issues.

They are an important ally in the culture war.

But their approach is limited, often relying on harsh language about eternal damnation that fails to distinguish the sinner from the sin. They aren’t good at articulating the ethical reasoning behind the moral law, which is based on love and human dignity.

Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body is one example of how the Church has developed new insights that go far beyond “dos” and “don’ts” to reveal the beauty and dignity of marriage. This is missing from most current debates.

I mean no disrespect to Evangelical friends, but I think this is in very broad strokes an accurate observation. What can be done to get this started? Sending legislators copies of Alcorn's Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguements and Kreeft's Unaborted Socrates would be great. Those books are very readable for someone without a philosophical background, and give strong, carefully reasoned answers on why abortion is wrong and why that should be recognized in law. Borrowing liberally from the message and style of Feminists for Life and their Women Deserve Better campaign would also help to short circuit the stereotype of pro-lifers as women-hating misogynists. It's also an electorally superior message. Pro-life politicians face a skeptical, unsympathetic media that will pounce on anything that sounds irrational or angry. Educating politicians to deliver a sound and compassionate message is critical to the viability of social conservatism within the party.

Secondly, significant efforts must be made to challenge socially liberal republicans in primaries. There seems to be very little of this that gets any traction. How Arlen Specter fought off Pat Toomey for the PA Senate nomination in 2004 is a mystery to me. I heard it argued in the subsequent general election (by none other than Sen. Rick Santorum, I think) that pro-lifers, depsite the presence of a pro-life third party candidate, should vote for pro-choice republican Specter over pro-choice democrat Hoeffel because that will keep the Republican majority in the senate, and that will ultimately help the pro-life cause. Talk about selling your birthright for a mess of potage! That's pretty far out on a very thin branch don't you think? The advice given above to the Democrats above has to apply here: work to change positions of those in your party, but if they don't you have to decline to support them with your vote. No wonder the Republicans take pro-lifers for granted. If Pro-life votes help elect the Arlen Specters and Mike Castles of the world, well, something is seriously wrong.

For the rest of us (or for the folks in the above categories who get discouraged trying to transform their own party) there is the big task of funding and creating a viable third party alternative that will truly promote Catholic values. Here's Fr. Johansen again:
And then what? Some of my fellow Catholics have decided that the best option is to vote third-party. Steve Skojec explains:

We've heard a lot of talk this election cycle (and the one before it . . . and the one before that . . .) about stopping a great evil by voting for a lesser one. And yet, the only certain outcome of constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is the perpetuation of evil.

The problem is that third-party candidates have little to no chance of being elected in national races. Those who do vote third-party are frequently accused of "throwing away" their vote.

But this need not be the case. If sufficient numbers of Catholics decide to opt-out of electoral politics as currently played and organized themselves, wouldn't they begin to exercise greater political clout? That is how politics works, after all.

What if Catholic Democrats, tired of having to choose between social policy and defending the right to life, said, "We're going to withhold our votes until the leadership takes our life-issue concerns seriously. When the national party is ready to countenance a legislative initiative that will meaningfully restrict the abortion license, we'll give you our support"?

And what if Catholic Republicans said, "For 30 years you have taken our support for granted on life issues. Unless you seriously reign in foreign adventurism and reject the Guantanamo-and-rendition assaults on human rights, we will withhold our support"? Eventually, political necessity would force them to pay attention (or if they didn't, we'd at least have our integrity). But as long as we are willing to sell our principles for a mess of political pottage, we will continue to be weak and ineffectual.

Catholics make up some 25 percent of the population, but we exercise an influence far smaller than our numbers. We have been manipulated and divided by partisan political hacks: Whenever someone raises the point of the primacy of life issues in making political decisions, he is automatically considered by those on the Left to be shilling for Republicans. Whenever someone makes an argument for protecting those who are injured by the rough-and-tumble of the free market, he is automatically dismissed as a tool of the Democrats. Surely we can do better as disciples of Christ.

Will any Catholics step forward to lead us beyond the constraints of the two-party game? Whether it means a third party, or making our power felt within our existing parties by changing the rules of the game, something must be done. If we are to fulfill our call to sanctify the world, we must engage in politics in light of the gospel, and not by the categories of those more concerned with elections than the Kingdom.
So here's the deal, whether it's working to transform the existing parties or creating a third party alternative, we all must be doing something to make the Culture of Life message more viable in the political arena. We've come out from the voting booth. Do we stay tied hand and foot, in effect dead until it's time to go back in and vote again? Hell, no.

St. Thomas More, patron of politicians, Pray for Us.
St. Ambrose, who confronted the Emporer, Pray for Us.
Mary, Mother of the Unborn, Pray for Us.

Part III ... on moving from Political involvement to broader work to change the culture, still to come.


John M├ędaille said...

Excellent. It is now time for some real soul-searching. The truth is that the pro-life agenda doesn't even play among Republicans. In the reddest of the Red States, South Dakota, even mild restrictions on abortion went down to defeat by an 11% margin. According to a Fox News poll, only 5% of the electorate, and only 9% of Repbulicans, rate abortion as an important issue.

We have to ask, "What went wrong?"

KBrian said...

Thanks John. Indeed we do have to ask what went wrong, and it will take a lot of work on a lot of fronts to make it right.

Btw, I've read and enjoyed "The Vocation of Business". It's a timely and deeply needed book. Thanks for writing it.