During the 2004 presidential election between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, the famous Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre penned a brief article arguing that the best vote for Catholics in November was no vote. “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither,” MacIntyre wrote.
The question is posed every four years and is particularly pressing in a race as polemical and divisive as the present one. How, as Catholics, should we vote?
The Church has no “political doctrines” in the narrowest sense of the term. A genuinely Christian polity can exist as a democracy or monarchy, with one economic system or another, etc.—provided only that it be pro-life.
In American political discourse, being pro-life is basically reduced to being anti-abortion.
Granted, this is an essential aspect of the Catholic social/political ethic. But the understanding of human dignity which makes abortion intrinsically evil is about far more than this one moral question. A genuinely pro-life ethic involves taking steps not just to prevent abortions, but to provide families the healthcare in whose absence so many mothers feel inclined to choose abortion. It involves facilitating adoptions and providing aid to families who struggle to raise their children by their own resources. It involves the preferential option for the poor. It involves a living wage for every working family. It involves environmental justice.
When we gaze into the abyss of American politics, we see that this pro-life vision is an impossible dream.
As MacIntyre writes, “Try to promote the pro-life case that we have described within the Democratic Party and you will at best go unheard and at worst be shouted down. Try to advance the case for economic justice as we have described it within the Republican Party and you will be laughed out of court. Above all, insist, as we are doing, that these two cases are inseparable, that each requires the other as its complement, and you will be met with blank incomprehension.”
Catholics, of course, are not beholden to the logic that no vote is the best vote. What we are beholden to is the pro-life ethic which both parties find incomprehensible at best, and reprehensible at worst. The question is how we ought to participate, if we are inclined to participate, in a system that presents two intolerable alternatives.
This November, many faithful Catholics will vote to reelect President Donald Trump, while others will vote for Joe Biden. A well-formed conscience, I am convinced, can come to either conclusion. One can imagine a circumstance in which the “correct” vote was clear— say if the election were a mere referendum on the legality of abortion—but we know that this is not how our elections work.
Wherever there is good, there is evil; wherever there is evil, there is good. And it is always impossible to tell how much good and how much evil might come from electing one man over the other.
What must be unequivocally rejected are the following kinds of claims: “One cannot be a
Christian and vote for X.” “Our faith demands we vote for X.” “All Christians must support X.”
These claims not only say that Christians can make a home for themselves within American politics, but that this home already exists and is simply awaiting our arrival.
However, all these destinations have actually been constructed in opposition to the sole source of peace and justice which they supposedly seek. Are we really supposed to think that our faith demands certain participation in that which is hostile to it?
Such rhetoric bypasses the most important thing for Catholics to remember as we cast our votes in November. Every vote is a compromise, a concession to a system, to an entire way of viewing the world, which is fundamentally opposed to the Catholic one.
The message that Catholics need to hear, and the message that Catholics need to give, is that there is no salvation in any sense of word within our political machinations.
It makes the faith smaller than the state when we pretend that Christian faith can make itself comfortable within American politics, such that we must vote for one candidate over the other, despite the fact that those candidates cannot even imagine a truly Catholic, pro-life society. Our faith cannot neatly fit into a political system that is fundamentally hostile to it.
So how should Catholics vote? Catholics should vote with the consciousness that they are strangers in a strange land, resident aliens in a nation which, as long as it denies the sole source of its liberation, has already damned itself.