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Doing Theology in an Election Year

I have always disliked politics.  Naturally, of course, the “political” is honorable in the traditional sense of the word…a well-organized society requires good women and men to run the affairs of state and country.  Taxes must be levied so people can be protected, roads built, schools and libraries erected.  The world as we know it is neatly divided up into chunks of soil, rock, and water allocated to various groups or individuals who interact at all kinds of complicated levels.  The USA owns (as much as one can) an oddly-shaped chunk of land in the midst of rather larger chunk of land which is, essentially, a big island called “North America” (the USA actually owns far more than this but not every little island has achieved statehood).

Of course this is rather silly…land owned by one county or another with completely arbitrary dividing lines.  History unfolds into history which can never offer real answers for boundary line disputes.  Why is the boundary ten feet in one direction or another?

But one cannot constantly be wondering why Mexico begins where it does and why the Canada-US border isn’t twenty feet to the north!  We accept the boundaries in which we live, and we trust the general political corpus to run with some efficiency and responsibility.  Politics can be sometimes inspirational and sometimes quite cruel, but it absolutely necessary for a well-functioning modern state.

Most years, politics and theology meet in the regular areas: abortion, immigration, health care, welfare, war, peace, you know the drill.  But in election years–especially presidential election years–it’s a whole new ball game.  Everything seems to be connected to politics, holding innuendos of who you might be voting for or what side of the line you stand on.  This year, economics, immigration, health care, and religious freedom discussions have held the limelight for a while–mostly because the politicians frame the debates around what people seem to want to hear.  Everyone wants to hear about the economy, so every single politician claims to be able to deliver more jobs, better business practices, etc.

This, of course, is why I can’t stand politics.  Essentially, it’s the same reason why I dislike the arbitrary but necessary nature of the Canada-US border.  There is no rhyme or reason why certain issues become super important one year and far less important the next.  Theologically, this is infuriating.  Some issues are simply more important than others.  Poverty, abortion, immigration, care for the poor and the sick, human rights, matters of war, prison treatment, foreign aid and involvement…all come to mind.

In this light, I appreciate the USCCB’s publication “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”  In particular, I appreciate the myriad of points the Bishops make for avoiding the popular issues and focusing on the moral choices that one must encounter every election year.  Near the end of Part I of the document (bullet 61 to be precise), one reads the following three lines, central to the bishops’ overall argument:

“In light of these principles and the blessings we share as part of a free and democratic nation, we bishops vigorously repeat our call for a renewed kind of politics:
1. Focused more on moral principles than on the latest polls
2. Focused more on the needs of the weak than on benefits for the strong
3. Focused more on the pursuit of the common good than on the demands of narrow interests”

I find these three points refreshing and vital to any Christ-centered approach to current politics.  I believe they are worth a few minutes of your time in contemplation, so lets break them apart one by one.

1: Moral principles are greater than latest polls.

Theological exposition:   First, how much are our principles influenced by current affairs?  Does “love your neighbor” go out the window when your neighbor is a proud democrat or republican?  I am reminded of the “Obama is the antichrist” emails that made their way to my inbox as a youth minister a few years ago.  Must we vilify people in the name of Christ?  How ridiculous this makes us look as Christians!

Second, are the latest popular issues actually the most important ones?  Yes, the poor are always with us, but how are they treated?  How are we treating immigrants?  How are we dealing with the pain and destruction of abortion?  Are we supporting military power and might without restraint?  Have we looked at our prison system lately?  So much time is spent on popular issues that rarely discussed issues like prison reform and ending the death penalty seem to fly out the window in every election.

2: Needs of the weak must outweigh the benefits of the strong.

Theological exposition:  This is a core Christian value, and should challenge us to be wary of any political venture that blatantly directs an entire country through the benefits of the strong/profitable/educated/wealthy/etc.  For example, I am discouraged when terms like “socialism” get branded as evil and capitalism becomes equivalent with a good Christian way of life.  Such a negative branding is directly related to our moral principles being shaped by the media instead of by research and prayer.  Socialism and capitalism being political theories, both have their Christian and un-Christian aspects: neither is perfect.  Nearly all modern societies are part-capitalist, part-socialist in that they allow businesses to grow in order to build a stable economy while simultaneously supporting the tangible rights and needs of every citizen in one way or another (other countries’ universal health care is often cited here, but things like food stamps and medicare would apply).

As Christians, the rights of the poor, weak and vulnerable are paramount.  Unborn children, abused women, the homeless, the immigrants, the poor, the incarcerated.  Even the guiltiest person is a person and must be cared for within a Christian theological mindset.  No one should ever be tortured or killed.  For example, we routinely use unmanned aerial vehicles to drop bombs and kill people in our recent wars.  I find this extremely difficult to justify in any theory of war, but I can nearly guarantee you it will not be discussed in this election year–simply because both parties unilaterally support these morally suspect instruments of war.

3: The common good must outweigh narrow interests.

Theological exposition: I am reminded of the 1% vs 99% excitement of a few months ago…a passing fad, of course, but a valuable study in misused statistics.  The 99%, in fact, represented the bourgeoisie of modern America, which is more like the middle 60%.  The top 20% are likely not going to argue against the 1% in hopes of getting there one day and the bottom 20% have been asking for help for quite some time, so the 99% argument seems like just more of the same to them–who cares who gets taxed?  We need help!

Does supporting the common good mean taxing the super-wealthy even more?  Not necessarily, but maybe.  What it means is being cautious.  Cautious of every candidate’s talking points, every line, every question answered.  Obama recently made a powerful move to stop deportation of certain immigrants–but does this hold theological weight or is it just a ploy to get the often-discussed “Hispanic vote”?  Being an executive mandate, the president next year or four years from now could simply reverse Obama’s ruling…so I am suspect.

To the same extent, I am always suspicious of candidate’s statements on being against abortion.  When  Republican-controlled and fully supposedly pro-life executive and legislative branches did not vote to end abortion or to redefine the beginning of life in the four years from 2003 to 2007, I am continually suspect.  What else can one ask for when one elects a majority of pro-life candidates?  Perhaps the answer to ending abortion is education, better adoption services and laws, and better care for the poor…thus making abortion a choice fewer and fewer people make.  Additionally, politicians who claim to be against abortion while condoning torture and the death penalty reek of moral ambiguity and bad theology.

 * * * * *

The US bishops lengthy voting assistance publication is not an easy-out to vote one political party or another.  It is a direct confirmation that theological discernment of complex moral and social issues should be difficult, slow, and arduous.  If a political party seems to align completely with your theological compass, your theological compass is pointing in the wrong direction.  National committee chairpersons are not pastors and neither the Republican nor Democratic platform is a sound theological document.

To think theologically in an election year is to force complexities in the midst of popular oversimplifications and to be overly generous and forgiving with opposing viewpoints.  To think theologically for Christians is to incarnate Christ in our actions and words, realizing that Jesus far preferred preaching, healing, praying, and serving to anything that we would consider political.  In the end, despite the semi-political actions that Jesus did, it was always about love, faith, and hope in God instead of the things of this world.  With politics being forcibly grounded in things of this world, let us not make the mistake of giving it more faith and hope than those things grounded in God.

About John Slattery

John is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Doing Theology in an Election Year

  1. This is a great post! I remember having a discussion about abortion several years ago and the person I was talking to said that the pro-life candidates would never *actually* make abortion illegal because if they did they’d lose all the people who disagree with just about every single other one of their positions, but vote solely on the abortion issue. (And I agree totally about your approach. I personally think the best way to end abortions is to make other options more viable, like you say, through education, health care services, adoption processes, assistance for those with low incomes, etc.)

    And, this is golden: “If a political party seems to align completely with your theological compass, your theological compass is pointing in the wrong direction.”

    Posted by Elissa Cutter | June 23, 2012, 11:56 pm
    • Thanks for the comment, Elissa! The abortion issue is definitely one of the most difficult to tackle, and unfortunately causes so much strife and bitterness between people of differing viewpoints on how to end the practice. Oh, and that last line…I think I found it referring to myself through so many years of my life up till now. I’ve only started to break free from the 2-party system recently, but I hope I’ll gain some clarity of thought as the years progress. :)

      Posted by John Slattery | June 24, 2012, 9:49 am

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