I was recently discussing politics with a friend in Washington, DC. She is a faithful Catholic and involved in high-level things in Washington. Someone who knows some things.
But when it came to the upcoming presidential election, she said she had trouble caring. Apart from appointing Supreme Court justices, she said, the presidents don’t really do anything. “I don’t see what difference it makes.” Democrat or Republican, and which one, they all end up more or less the same.
Now, this is not a web page of political commentary, and I have no intention of delving into particular issues or records or positions. But I think my friend’s question, “What difference does it make?” can help us think about the connections between faith and politics.
These connections point both ways. On the one hand, our faith can help us think about political candidates. On the other hand, our involvement in politics is an important expression of our faith. Faith helps politics and politics helps our faith. Politics is part of Catholic spirituality.
Here’s the central insight of this post: politics is about culture. When Bill Clinton was running for president, there was a saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That is, people don’t really care about all the other little arguments: what they care about is the economy. Well, for the Catholic, we have to say, “It’s the culture, stupid.” It’s always about culture.
Without wading in too deep, I think some of our candidates illustrate the point. One party (I’m going to talk about the other one, too!) is committed to abortion as a basic human right. There’s lots to say about the marriage debate, but for us as Catholics the point is simply this: that party is also committed to saying there’s nothing special about the relation between one man and one woman that has traditionally been called marriage. That party, furthermore, refuses to recognize the right of the Church – of the Little Sisters of the Poor! what a remarkable choice – to exercise its charitable functions while maintaining its beliefs about right and wrong.
Now, there are legitimate questions about how much economic difference these debate make in the long run. But the bigger point is, what kind of a culture are we creating? The President is a figurehead, a sign of what we believe as a country. Indeed, our laws themselves are a kind of figurehead. They have practical consequences – but before that, even more important, they indicate our values as a country. They both express and, by that very expression, shape our culture. To be a country – a culture, a civilization – that shrugs its shoulders at the family, religious liberty, the right to life: all of these things shape who we are.
Now, my friend would acknowledge all of this, and would not vote for candidates who hold those positions. But there are other problems in the other party.
Two major candidates in that party brag about their willingness to kill innocent people in the Middle East. We can debate terrorist policy, ISIS, Iran, Iraq, and all the rest. But one of the candidates was recently asked in a debate about his plan to “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern cities. Carpet bombing means indiscriminate, not just shooting terrorists but bombing all the people who live near them. Traditionally, it is precisely an act of terrorism: make the country capitulate by terrorizing them. He embraced the term.
Another candidate was asked about his plan to kill the wives and children of terrorists. He too embraced that plan. He said if they’re going to fight dirty, we must too. We must become like them.
Both candidates embrace torture. One of them quibbles about the legal definition, apparently concerned more with whether its legally allowed than whether it’s right and good.
The question is: what does that say about our culture – and what does it do to our culture, if we elect someone with such positions to be the figurehead of our nation? It might not “make any difference” in terms of whether we beat the terrorists (or it might) – but that’s not the main question. The deeper question is what happens to our culture when we embrace targeting innocent civilians as a governmental priority.
Maybe they wouldn’t even follow through on these promises – but to elect someone who makes those promises – as major priorities – is to destroy our culture. Maybe we as Catholics can’t sway the election – but we can at least voice our opposition.
Standing with the popes and the bishops, I would suggest (more controversially, perhaps) that the way we treat our immigrants has similar effects.
Who are we as a nation? What do we aspire to? This is the deeper importance of politics. These are the questions our faith helps us answers – and the questions our faith demands that we involve ourselves in.
What kind of culture do you think the various candidates are promoting?