American political campaigns have never been for the squeamish. With the sole exceptions of George Washington’s two uncontested elections, every presidential campaign has seen its share of vulgarity, skullduggery and personal disparagement.
Those who imagine that “going negative” is the invention of today’s polls and focus groups haven’t read very much about the rhetorical character of the senior Adams-Jefferson battle of 1800, the younger Adams-Jackson contest of 1824 or the Blaine-Cleveland fight of 1884, not to mention the dubious goings-on in Illinois and Texas in 1960 or in Florida in 2000.
American presidential politics is a contact sport, and while we may wish it were not so — while we may wish that JFK and Barry Goldwater had set a new pattern by their plan, aborted by the Kennedy assassination, to rent a plane together and fly around the country, holding something akin to the Lincoln-Douglas debates — what we’ve experienced these past months is likely what we’ll have for the foreseeable future.
But just because electioneering increasingly resembles a reality show, voters are not absolved from treating the electoral franchise as something rather different than casting a vote on American Idol.
In the Catholic understanding of these things, politics, for all its tawdriness, still engages questions of right and wrong, good and bad, the noble and the base. Political judgment is prudential judgment; but prudence is a virtue, a habit of the mind and heart that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “disposes a person to discern the good and choose the correct means to accomplish it” (1806).
Prudence “guides the judgment of conscience” and helps us “overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.”
For the vast majority of American citizens, exercising prudential judgment in politics is not a matter of framing and executing public policy, but of voting. Voting, in other words, is an exercise in moral judgment. Which is to say that serious Christians, for whom love of the Lord Jesus and fidelity to his Kingdom measure all our other loves and loyalties, vote with their brains, not with their emotions.
Morally serious voters understand that casting a ballot is not an exercise in nostalgia and that gratitude to FDR for giving grandpa a job in the Civilian Conservation Corps or fond memories of the Eisenhower years cannot be determinative of one’s moral judgment about the American future, and those who would lead us into it, in 2012.
Morally serious voters understand that the character of political parties changes over time and that voting for the Democrats or the Republicans because “that’s what we’ve always done” is outsourcing one’s moral judgments to others.
Morally serious citizens recognize that voting a straight party line is an abrogation of moral responsibility because the judgment one makes on a party’s candidate for, say, president, cannot be applied willy-nilly to that party’s candidate in House or Senate races.
Morally serious Catholics recognize that no one party in contemporary America fully embodies Catholic social teaching; but alert Catholics will also take notice when a party holds Catholic social teaching — including the Church’s teaching on such fundamental issues as the inalienable right to life and the nature of marriage — in contempt.
In this particular season of decision, all adherents of biblical religion will pay close attention to the religious-liberty concerns raised by the U.S. bishops over the past year and will weigh their votes in light of a candidate’s commitment to religious freedom in full.
Voting is an exercise in moral judgment about the immediate future that must take into account the medium- and long-term future. Voters who think only of themselves and do not take into account what kind of country their children and grandchildren will inherit are being politically shortsighted and morally obtuse.
Voting is not simply a privilege; it is a noble privilege because it asks each of us to bring our best judgment to bear on matters of grave consequence.
The voting booth isn’t the confessional. But like the confessional, it should be entered after serious moral reflection and prayer.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.