Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Predicament

My Vote, an Apologia, and a Plea of sorts

I can't wait for this election to be over. This is sort of a rehash of a post I already got rid of before…

I'm voting for Barack Obama next Tuesday.

Tonight I'm meeting some old friends for dinner and a trivia competition for charity. I know how the conversation is going to go, and I know they'll be shocked and disappointed over my decision. In a way, I'm dreading having to go, because I'll be taking quite a bit of heat over it.

The Sunday morning before last, my wife and I had a huge fight over this election. Colossal. Thunderous. Epic. Legendary.

I've voted for the GOP ticket in every presidential election since 1984, but for reasons that I have documented here extensively, after a serious and arduous examination of my conscience, I am going back to my Democratic home this time. Anne is going with McCain. She's convinced that any new taxes are going to wind up on the middle class somehow, as they always seem to do, and the abortion issue is really heating up the Catholic web and a lot of households like ours, I'm sure.

It makes me wonder why I continue to blog. I can't even convince my own wife and my 12-year old son to see things my way. I don't have much better luck on blogs either.

I guess what frustrates me is the lack of personal and internal struggle I see out there. There's a lot of talk about people following their consciences, even informed consciences, but when I look at the level of polarization out there, it tends to fall along traditionally political partisan lines in a predictable fashion. A handful of high profile bishops have come out and basically told people how they must vote. The argument seems to be, "Sure, you have a conscience, but if your conscience if fully informed, you'll obey us." I get the impression that some of these bishops have the notion that the loss of credibility they suffered as a result of the sexual abuse scandal is far behind them, and it is by no means the case. Once again, in tin-eared fashion, they squander their moral authority with high-handedness.

On the one hand, I see those who are comfortably on the right telling others that they must vote in accord with a single issue, yet I have the feeling that most are not wrestling themselves with the social justice issues. They’re just fine, thanks very much, with the rest of the Republican platform.

On the other hand, I see those who are comfortably on the left feeling as if the bishops and centuries of Church teaching on the life issues can be ignored or simply set aside if they conflict with political and cultural views already held. I ask my progressive friends here (and you truly are wonderful and valued friends to me), do you truly wrestle with these things? Is it hard? Is it difficult?

In the runup to this election, things are getting irritable and tense. One thing I think we Catholics and other people of faith need to ask ourselves, myself included most certainly, is this…

Is our faith informed and shaped by our politics or is our politics shaped and informed by our faith? There are certainly things to be cautious about with the latter, but the former is certainly never a good thing.

One of the best articles I’ve seen on this was by J. Peter Nixon on the dotCommonweal blog - Feedback from the Ecclesia Discens - It sort of sums up how I feel. His post in full:

I’ve been reading and reflecting on a number of the public statements made by bishops about the upcoming election. While some of this writing rises to genuine eloquence at times, much of it comes across as pro-forma: “Hello, election time is upon us, there are many important issues, abortion is the most important, and while I’m not telling you how to vote, you should take this very, very seriously. Goodbye and good luck.”

With all due respect to the ecclesia docens, I need more than this.

The problem is that I–like a lot of people I know–am genuinely angry about the direction my country has been heading in for the past eight years. I’m angry about an unjust war fought on false pretenses that has cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. I’m angry about my own government detaining people indefinitely without trial, establishing secret prisons overseas, and using torture. I’m angry about the firing of federal prosecutors who refused to become tools of a partisan political agenda. I’m angry about tax policy that has disproportionately rewarded the wealthy while blowing a hole in the federal budget at a time when we are fighting not one but two wars. I’m angry about the incompetence that characterized the federal government’s response to Katrina. I’m angry about how the current administration has bungled virtually ever major foreign policy challenge it has faced, from Iraq to dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea to the relationship with Russia.

I want these people gone. I want them and everyone who supported them–including their current candidate for president–exiled into the political wilderness for the next 40 years where they can dine on locusts and re-learn some fundamental lessons about governing a country. In my world at least, this level of incompetence and ideological blindness gets you fired.

And I’m not even going to talk about Sarah Palin.

If all you can say in the face of all this is “well, these aren’t intrinsic evils,” then you’ve lost me. I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would walk into that voting booth and vote as if none of this had happened. It would feel grossly irresponsible.

I can imagine somebody saying to me “Pete, I hear you. I’m angry at these things too. Really angry. I’m frustrated at the choices the system gives us. But I can’t break faith with the unborn, I just can’t. They have no voice. They need ours.”

It’s an argument that continues to ricochet around my brain, because I’m angry about this too. I’m angry that so many in my own party can get passionate about children dying violently in Detroit or Darfur, but want to change the subject when we talk of children dying violently in the womb. I’m angry that so many Catholic elected officials have sacrificed the unborn on the altar of their political ambition and then presume to instruct us on Church teaching. I’m angry that an overwhelming Democratic victory in 11 days could well lead to a rollback of the few legislative protections for the unborn that currently exist.

It’s because of these facts that I can imagine a situation in which the argument I outlined above would convince me to simply walk away from the voting booth in disgust. But the argument would have to come from someone with a degree of credibility, someone capable of outrage over things that should outrage us, not merely as Catholics but as citizens. It’s certainly not going to come from those who have spent the last eight years making excuses for the current administration.

The best thing I’ve read on the election so far this year was an essay in America written by theologian Fr. Brian Bransfield, the incoming executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat on Evangelization and Catechesis. Reflecting on a passage of Faithful Citizenship that has received a great deal of attention, Bransfield writes:

The application of conscience is often difficult: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” (No. 35). It should be exceedingly rare that a person discerns, after continued guidance, “grave moral reasons” to vote for a candidate who holds an unacceptable position. Evidence of “grave moral reasons” to vote for such a candidate must be overwhelming. To resort to such a measure means that the voting booth itself becomes an agony, reflective of society in no small way, and is left moist with the tears of one who could otherwise find no way through.
Bransfield’s understanding of the “agony” of the voting booth is what I find missing from the other statements on the election that I have read. He seems to understand how truly difficult and even soul-rending this decision-making process can be. He is able to enter imaginatively into that situation and offer counsel that connects with the individual’s struggle to understand the truth. That is what good teaching does. We need more of it.


Liam said...

Hi Jeff,

I saw the other version of this post before it disappeared. Sorry to see you going through the dark night on this, and I really admire your willingness to look long and hard at a tough decision.

Good post.

Mike McG... said...


I totally resonate with your words as well as those of Peter Nixon. I must admit to feeling deeply estranged, however. It's like we're the Lone Rangers, aliens in a binary world. Please accept the full measure of my affirmation and admiration for your deeply principled grappling with this topic, bro.

This has to be all the more difficult because I'm sure you feel Ann's pain. How exquisite the hurt when others *seem* to abandon a core principle, especially when it is deeply unpopular and widely derided. I pray that you can reach out to each other during this painful period. (On the bedstand, awaiting attention, is Sittser's "Loving Across Our Differences.")

Here are my thoughts on this same topic, posted at dotCommonweal under today's "Catholic Voter, One More Time" thread:

"As threads about abortion at dotCommonweal become ever more predictable, I find myself estranged from both of the dominant worldviews.

"One constellation holds that legal proscription of abortion is absolutely of the highest priority, that hedging on this matter cannot be tolerated, and that anyone who isn’t fully on board is in serious conflict with the tradition’s core principles. The other constellation holds that legal proscription of abortion is a diversion at best and perhaps wrongheaded, that a plurality of views on this matter deserve equal consideration, and that anyone who believes to the contrary is seriously out of touch.

"A plain reading of these threads suggest that advocates of each position loathe advocates of the other position. Neither side consistently displays either curiosity or tolerance for the opposite view. Both sides regularly impugn the motives of others…driving those others to ever more extreme and caustic commentary.

"Let’s stipulate that the contempt is mutual. As a progressive Catholic and Obama supporter, however, I hold my tribe to a higher standard. We, after all, are those who proclaim the importance of tolerance and inclusivity. Is it really that hard to imagine how we would *feel* if the zeitgeist were steamrolling a cherished belief? Isn’t it possible to resonate *both* with Kmeic *and* with those prolifers who fee abandoned and marginalized? Am I the only one around here that believes that there is a middle-range position (between unimpeded access and total prohibition) and middle-range importance (somewhere between litmus test and off the radar screen)? And if, in the last analysis, it is not possible to provide legal protection to the unborn, isn’t it incumbent upon us to at least say that that is really, really sad?

"Here’s an excerpt of a Peter Steinfels take on a similar cultural scene circa 2004:

'Fanaticism exists, of course, and stupidity, too. Wild claims and aggressive demands have been made in the name of moral values, often enough by figures competing for public attention. Latching upon these is an easy and tempting way to deaden the kind of empathy and imagination necessary to comprehend another perspective.

'A condescending incredulity offers a slightly more sophisticated way to derail any inquiry into the moral values issues. Just treat one’s own views as so established and self-evident that any questioning of them can only be a puzzling and pathological “backlash.” Are there really still people out there opposed to abortion rights? How incomprehensible!
'Suppose that these barriers to pursuing the question of moral values can be overcome. What then? The endgame should not be some expedient concession or cosmetic exercise to garner votes next time around. The endgame should be an honest discussion of the moral stances dividing Americans, each side (and there may be more than two) addressing the contending arguments at their best and not at their worst. It is not unthinkable that a few minds might be changed, and a great many people feel less alienated.'

New York Times, November 6, 2004

crystal said...


My grandfather was a democrat and my grandmother was a republican - around election time it was petty scary at their house, but they still loved each other and were married for over 50 years. You and Ann seem to love each other very much, so I think you'll be ok, which is not to say it won't be hairy sometimes.

do you truly wrestle with these things? Is it hard? Is it difficult?

Yes, I'm afraid to go look up what 12 wk fetuses look like. I don't pray about it. I worry I'm selling out not zygotes but proto-babies.

But I'm not voting for abortion, I'm voting for the choice to have one or to not have one, and I do think women have some rights to decide what happens to their own bodies, at least up to a point. And there is just no way that I could overlook all the bad stuff that goes with voting for a republican.

Garpu said...

I guess I'm justifying my vote that I'm not voting about abortion at all, at least not directly.

It's a fact that abortions went down when the economy was better. What's been done the past 8 years isn't working, so it's time for something else to be tried. That having been said, I don't know if my candidate has the answer or not, but it's a place to start from.

I also strongly feel that those who trump abortion over all other social justice issues (death penalty, unjust war, poverty) aren't pro-life. If they were, they'd care that people are starving and losing their homes. I've heard people who identify as "good Catholics" say that things like health care and adequate food aren't rights. Hello? We're talking things which are necessary for life. If we can't all agree that everyone deserves to eat, then I think they're as much a product of bad catechesis as the rest of us supposedly are.

cowboyangel said...

Another excellent post, Jeff. Sorry to hear about the differences between you and Anne. Abortion is such a powerful issue - I think both sides forget sometimes how deeply personal and gut-felt an issue it is. Reason and arguments rarely do much good, which is one of the reasons the battle never seems to end. Everyone spends all of their energy trying to convince the other side of something that is felt more than thought.

The only thing that is ever going to change the situation, it seems to me, is for people to learn to trust each other to a point where they can work together to mutually discover ways to deal with the issue that can satisfy both sides enough.

(And Obama is more like that, if you ask me. Someone who can hear the other side on the issue.)

I just posted an excerpt from an article on Chuck Hagel that I recommend. He was raised in Catholic schools and is very pro-life. He was also the Co-chair of McCain's presidential campaign in 2000, and they remain close friends. But he's pretty critical of McCain's current campaign, and he actually ends on a note that applies to your post:

“There was a political party in this country called the Know-Nothings,” he continued. “And we’re getting on the fringe of that, with these one-issue voters—pro-choice or pro-life. Important issue, I know that. But, my goodness. The world is blowing up everywhere, and I just don’t think that is a responsible way to see the world, on that one issue."

I used to wrestle terribly with the abortion issue and voting for people who were Pro-choice. But as important an issue as it is, I finally had to follow my heart, which was telling me that the world is a big place and there are many issues which are equally important. And, later, after talking to women about the issue more, I came to appreciate their need to feel control over their bodies. So, while I still think abortion is terrible, I don't feel comfortable telling women they have no choice. There's simply been too much bad history of keeping women down.

It seems much more important to me that you and Anne love each other and pray together and respect each other than whether or not you agree on politics.

As far as being concerned about what the bishops have to say . . . . My bishop helped cover up the pedophile scandal. I would wear it as a badge of honor to defy anything he told me to do. If I actually bothered to find out what he thought about anything.

But I'm afraid I've never had much respect for the hierarchy of ANY organized religion. I respect individual bishops and would listen carefully to them, but because of who they are, not because they're bishops. This is where I wouldn't be a good Catholic.

Jeff said...

Thanks Liam.

I think you were one of the few people who saw the post on the socialism theme. You might have thought about putting up a post of you own along those lines this week, too, from what I can see. What the heck is the deal with your troll anyway? Why does he have a thing for you, of all people?


Thanks for the support as always. All I ask from others (and from myself) who express a Catholic-oriented point of view is to take it most seriously. Anne and I are fine, and we are going to be fine, thanks. I looked at that Commonweal thread you mentioned, and Nancy D. was having none of it... Just dismissing it out of hand like a self-appointed inquisitor. Why is the web the way that it is? The vast majority of the Catholics I know from my own parish and elsewhere are very different, at least in speech, from the extreme elements that show up in the blogosphere. If I was someone interested in converting to Catholicsm from some other tradition, I think I'd be quite disconcerted by what I see out there in general. Steinfels is awesome (thanks for the quote and the reference), and I'm taking heart in the fact that guys like him and Peter Nixon are still around... Plus, in the time since I've been blogging, guys like Michael Sean Winters and Doug Kmiec are starting to speak up and make themselves heard. That's something to take hope from.


Sorry to hear about the fights growing up. My parents used to argue quite a bit, but it was seldom about politics. In that regard, they were very much on the same page. Now, when we used to go and visit my cousins, that was a different matter...

More than zygotes, Crys, most definitely. Thanks for expressing your thoughts on it. Thanks for the well wishes vis-a-vis Anne too. Sometimes big fights mean big make-ups. ;-D


I agree. I think you are right about the economic impact, most definitely, and as Nixon suggests, one has to look at the overall climate and tenor of the culture too. The only thing I'd add about indifference to the poor and the homeless is that it is just as likely to come from pro-choice folks of a small-government libertarian stripe (who can be found across both parties), if not more so.


A lot of people have been pointing out recently what they see as Obama's extreme position and voting record on the abortion issue. I guess what I'm banking on, along with a lot of other people, is the perception that he's a measured and reasonable person of first-class temperament
who is able to empathize with people of opposing views and to work hard to build consensus. A lot of prolife Democrats are going his way this time, and I hope they keep the pressure on him if he manages to win the office. If he wins, I hope he realizes that he owes them some consideration.

I'm looking forward to giving that Chuck Hagel interview a thorough read. Your faith history and journey sounds very interesting. I'd like to see you write more about your spiritual side sometime.

Garpu said...

I really do think if we can get everyone to sit down and talk, we'd find that there is a lot more common ground between the anti-abortion and pro-choice people than pundits would want us to believe. I think both can agree that they want other choices for women than abortion and more support for women in crisis. I think the anti-abortion people need to realize that not everyone wants to be a parent or be celibate, and the pro-choice people need to realize that the decision to continue a pregnancy is a valid choice.