Zach at Civics Geeks criticized Policraticus’ recent powerful post explaining why he feels he cannot vote for McCain or Obama, specifically for implying that he will abstain from voting in this election. I’m not sure Policraticus actually says he will abstain, just that he will not vote for either of the two major candidates, but that’s beside the point. Zach says he understands why Catholics would feel that they cannot vote for either candidate, but insists that abstaining is a dangerous option. Not only must Catholics vote, they must vote for John McCain because “[t]his is the last good chance we have to make changes to our law so that it can protect innocent human life from being killed.”
Zach’s insistence is based, in part, on Obama’s apparent statement that the “first thing” he will do as president is push through the Freedom of Choice Act. Zach cites Cardinal Rigali’s statement for Respect Life Sunday, which says of the FOCA:
We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot tolerate an even greater loss of innocent human lives. We cannot subject more women and men to the post-abortion grief and suffering that our counselors and priests encounter daily in Project Rachel programs across America.
Thus Zach concludes:
What can the good Cardinal be telling us, then? It cannot be that we must abstain from voting, which would certainly constitute allowing the FOCA to happen. It also cannot mean voting for Barack Obama, who will be the key proponent of this legislation. This statement cannot be read as anything but an implicit denunciation of the Democratic candidate for President.
I think it is important to see this statement for what it is: a statement on particular policies and the need to oppose policies that threaten human life. But the Respect Life Sunday statement is not a voter’s guide, in terms of suggesting which candidates to vote for. When Rigali says “We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot tolerate an even greater loss of innocent human lives,” he is simply saying just that: we cannot allow the FOCA to happen. He is not commenting on which candidate to vote for, nor is he insisting that Catholics must vote.
Rigali is absolutely right about the FOCA. Of course we should not allow it to happen. But I don’t think preventing it is a matter of one simple vote. Either way one votes, the FOCA could or could not be passed, independent of who wins. Should McCain win, it is entirely conceivable that the “maverick” could sign the FOCA into law should it pass.
It is also conceivable that Obama, should he win, could end up opposing the FOCA. Unbelievable? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s only possible through the power of prayer. But this should not strike Zach as an outlandish fantasy, for this is precisely what he is holding out for when it comes to McCain’s open support of embryonic stem cell research:
It is true that McCain supports a non-negotiable moral evil: embryonic stem cell research. This should give us great pause. We need to pray McCain has a change of heart.
The point — and we should know this by now — is that campaign promises mean nothing. And Zach knows this, or else he would not hold out hope that McCain will have a “change of heart” on stem cell research.
I believe Zach’s two-fold insistence that Catholics must vote and that they must vote for McCain is based on the ongoing phenomenon in american politics which reduces politics to voting. The fact is, those who wish to abstain from voting in this election are not “allowing the FOCA to happen.” One could obviously abstain from voting and fight against the FOCA in other ways. One could even vote for Obama and massively throw one’s personal effort into working against the FOCA. Beyond voting, Catholics could engage in direct action and commit acts of civil disobedience among other methods. Should the FOCA pass, they could engage in massive, organized tax resistance.
Of course the candidates matter. Of course their policies and promises matter. Of course who we vote for — if we choose to vote — matters. But we simply must not fall for the lie that there are easy answers, let alone that one vote is going to make *the* difference. As Phillip Berrigan used to say, if voting could change anything, it would be illegal.And while there are no easy answers on who to vote for, whether to vote at all, or whether it even makes a difference, I remain convinced of two things that we Catholics simply must recover in our ecclesial life. First, we cannot place our ecclesial commitment to the dignity of all human life in the straightjackets that the Republicans and Democrats want to put them in. We do not have to choose whether unborn children, victims of war, or death row inmates are the priority. Second, we Catholics need to get a better sense of the Church as enacting its own politics, a political community able to engage in various forms of direct action and not only a group of people who attempt to “discern” the “right way” to vote once every four years. Voting is one form of political action, but it is hardly the only form, and it might even be the least important form. As the anarchist collective Crimethinc (who I disagree with on a number of issues) puts it in a pamphlet (PDF) on voting vs. direct action:
Ultimately, there’s no reason the strategies of voting and direct action can’t both be applied together. One does not cancel the other out. The problem is that so many people think of voting as their primary way of exerting political and social power that a disproportionate amount of everyone’s time and energy is spent deliberating and debating about it while other opportunities to make change go to waste. For months and months preceding every election, everyone argues about the voting issue, what candidates to vote for or whether to vote at all, when voting itself takes less than an hour. Vote or don’t, but get on with it! Remember how many other ways you can make your voice heard.
This being an election year, we hear constantly about the options available to us as voters, and almost nothing about our other opportunities to play a decisive role in our society. What we need is a campaign to emphasize the possibilities more direct means of action and community involvement have to offer. These need not be seen as in contradiction with voting. We can spend an hour voting once a year, and the other three hundred sixty four days and twenty three hours acting directly!
I agree with Crimethinc that we should “vote or don’t, but get on with it.” Soon the ritual will be over, and no matter who wins, the fight against the culture of death will continue. If McCain wins this election, you Republicans will have little time to celebrate. Soon, you’ll have to shut the hell up and put your Catholic money where your mouth is and oppose his bloodthirsty, warmaking libido and his stance on stem cell research. As Rigali says, “We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot tolerate an even greater loss of innocent human lives.” And you Democrats, if Obama wins, you too will have to shut the hell up and get ready to oppose the FOCA. “We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot tolerate an even greater loss of innocent human lives.”
Ultimately, electoral politics cannot be the primary way Catholics, in response to the Gospel, speak and act in defense of human life. Whoever wins this unprecedented joke of an election, the Church must get serious and stand up for life through direct action, all the year round. We can’t continue the game of prioritization that american politics would like us to play, a game that means death for certain members of the human family. Let us not deceive ourselves. When — not if, but when — the election results are not pleasing to us, and they better not be, we must enact our own politics of life and resistance against the business-as-usual politics of death that are to come.
Perhaps abstaining is “dangerous” as Zach says. Voting certainly seems to be dangerous in today’s ecclesial climate, as tempers flare hotter and hotter the closer we get to November 2nd. But the most dangerous, I think, is the tendency to think voting is everything, and that the state’s political games are the “last chance” we have to cooperate with the Reign of God.