Misguided voters’ guide

Misguided voters’ guide January 12, 2015

Our U.S. Catholic bishops periodically issue a voters’ guide; most recently in the form of a 36-page booklet, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Its next edition is scheduled for Fall 2015—in time for the presidential campaign. In light of themes stressed by Pope Francis the U.S. bishops will edit the guide to give more prominence to the “option for the poor and vulnerable.”

As long as editing is in process, I make this suggestion: Drop the project. No one is waiting to read what bishops think about electoral politics. Citizens who carry their Catholicism into the voting booth already know how they will determine their candidates. Further, bishops’ credibility is unfortunately so low these days that their effective witness will be restored only by humble service, not public statements.

There is also some evidence that young adults become further disaffected from the church when bishops and clergy wade into politics. One’s general ideology or politics (liberal or conservative) seems to drive one’s attraction to or neglect of regular worship, write sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace (Simon & Schuster, 2010). The evidence, at least tentatively, says religious formation does not per se determine political temperament; political disposition drives religious formation.

Now for step two in Putnam and Campbell’s argument. Religious leaders who assert themselves in public are perceived as conservative. Young adults put bishops in the conservative category—even though the bishops sometimes advocate for so-called liberal policies like immigration reform. Young adults are not in the main conservative, which to them also means intolerant. Thus, they are turned off by religious leaders who get political. “Mixing God and Caesar is bad for both” religion and politics, Putnam and Campbell conclude.

The bishops, of course, will ignore my suggestion. Their guidance to voters, as “Forming Consciences” says, is not just another opinion. As “the Church’s teachers,” the bishops feel obliged to speak regardless of the reception. Besides, the bureaucratic wheel is in motion and a revised voters’ guide must appear.

OK, here’s another suggestion: Quit telling Catholics to vote for individual candidates based on their positions as they affect “human life and dignity as well as issues of justice and peace.” The bishops want voters “to see beyond party politics…and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation.”

We have an adage in my Chicago neighborhood: “Punch the ticket.” It means, vote the party’s slate of candidates. In Catholicism this is called the principle of subsidiarity. The idea is that a middle-range of smaller institutions, including precincts, can buffer individual families from the mega-forces of business and the State. These institutions have been in decline since about 1960. (See again Robert Putnam’s research.) Parishes, ethnic clubs, unions, school associations and the like are nowadays nearly powerless to help ordinary families with health care, legal troubles, job assistance, child rearing issues and the like. Meanwhile the mega-institutions grow more unaccountable and the culture grows increasingly individualistic.

One result is relegation of political parties to event planners, called upon once every four years to throw a convention in one or another city. Candidates count on their party for very little and if elected are accountable only to themselves and the donors who gave specifically to their campaign. Legislation moves slowly, if at all, because legislative leaders have no clout on so-called party members. Ideologues emerge and command disproportionate power because they do not depend on any party’s machine. In telling Catholics to vote for individuals our bishops are further eroding the milieu of mediating structures that were once so promoted by and beneficial to U.S. Catholicism.

The bishops don’t want to say “punch the ticket” because they rightly object to those Democratic candidates (and some Republicans) who favor unrestricted access to abortion and because they object to Republicans who, contrary to Catholic values, support the death penalty, oppose labor unions, impeded immigration reform and more.

The laity need support and guidance as they make decisions in their province of citizenship. A voters’ guide is the wrong tool. For starters our bishops might volunteer to be election judges come November 2016. It would be humble witness to those who enter the polling station.

This post originally appeared at the Catholic Labor Network.

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