WASHINGTON — For faithful Catholics who in good conscience cannot cast a ballot for either GOP nominee Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton, there are several third-party choices — though no clear alternative.

“Catholics are often as politically confused, and as partisan, as the rest of the electorate. But faithful Catholics who attend Mass regularly tend to take their political obligations more seriously, too, and they work harder to align their ballot with their beliefs and make sure their conscience rests easy with their candidates. In 2016, this has proved difficult with the two majority-party nominees,” said Chad Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America and author of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History.

In this election, there are two leading alternative candidates for president: Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. Another possibility is Independent conservative Evan McMullin, a latecomer to the race with little name recognition.

Neither of the two leading third-party candidates is an obvious choice for Catholic voters, according to Mark Gray, a pollster and researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

“Ideologically, it’s hard to make the case that Catholics would be attracted to a Libertarian candidate. Compare ‘Faithful Citizenship’ to the Libertarian ‘platform’ and you don’t get much overlap. You might think a Green candidate would be attractive, given Pope Francis’ focus on the environment. But then again, look at the full details of the ‘platform,’ and there are contrasts,” Gray said. “I always think of the American Catholic voter as being somewhat ‘homeless’ at election time. There is never really a candidate or party that is closely aligned with ‘Faithful Citizenship.’” (Faithful Citizenship is the U.S. bishops’ conference’s equivalent of a voters’ guide.)

 

Still Largely Unknown

Although both Johnson and Stein — both of whom also ran in 2012 — are polling far better than their final previous performances, both remain still largely unknown to a broad swath of the American public.

Johnson is a businessman who rode a wave of Republican anti-government sentiment into office as New Mexico governor in 1994. During his two terms in office, he earned a reputation for aggressive use of his veto powers, nixing more than 750 bills. He cut taxes 14 times, all the while balancing the budget with a billion-dollar surplus by the time he left office in 2003, according to his campaign.

Since then, he has remained active in politics. He ended his 2012 Libertarian run for president with nearly 1% of the vote. Before announcing his second run, he was CEO of Cannabis Sativa Inc., which sells medical marijuana. An avid runner, biker and climber, Johnson has summited the highest mountains on all seven continents, including Everest.

As a Libertarian, he is running on a platform of small-government fiscal conservatism, social liberalism and a non-interventionist foreign policy. His running mate is Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor.

Stein is a now-retired Harvard physician who entered politics in the 1990s as an environmental activist in the campaign against coal-plant pollution in Massachusetts. She expanded her political activism into campaign finance reform after seeing the influence industry lobbyists and donors had on the political process, according to her official campaign biography.

In 2002, she mounted her first run for elective office as the Green-Rainbow Party nominee for governor in Massachusetts. She subsequently ran for several other state offices — including a second try at governor in 2010 — under that party’s banner.

In 2012, as a presidential contender, she netted about 0.3% of the vote nationally. Her current campaign platform calls for combating climate change by completely converting to renewable energy sources by 2030, a move that she says will create 20 million jobs. Stein also supports a single-payer health-care reform, publicly funded higher education, a $15 minimum wage and curtailing free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA. Her running mate is Ajamu Baraka, a human-rights activist.

The third candidate, Evan McMullin, announced his run as an Independent in early August. McMullin holds to conventionally conservative positions on taxes and spending, most social issues and foreign policy. McMullin is a former CIA agent and Goldman Sachs employee who most recently served as the policy director for the House Republican Conference. McMullin, who is Mormon, was a missionary to Brazil and also worked for a U.N. agency, resettling refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

In a letter declaring his Independent campaign, McMullin described both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as “fundamentally unfit” for office. His message mainly seems to be aimed at Republican voters who refuse to support the billionaire real-estate mogul, whom McMullin has called “a real threat to our Republic.” McMullin has yet to formally name a running mate.

 

Positions on Abortion, Marriage and Religious Liberty

On the three issues that should be of highest priority to Catholic voters in this election — abortion, marriage and religious liberty — McMullin is probably the safest bet, said Paul Kengor, a political scientist at Grove City College and author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.

“McMullin is clearly the best, Stein is the clearly the worst, and Johnson is somewhere in between,” Kengor said.

McMullin is unabashedly pro-life. In an Aug. 16 interview with The Christian Post, he said he would appoint judges who share his views on that issue and adhere to an original interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. He has emphasized the importance of religious-liberty protections.

But, when it comes to same-sex “marriage,” McMullin said that he believes it is time for conservatives to “move on,” according to an Aug. 11 report on LifeSiteNews.

Pecknold views McMullin as a “growing concern” because his stance on marriage redefinition contradicts his preference for originalist judges. Even so, Kengor says McMullin is still the better choice of the three alternatives to the Democratic and Republican nominees. “I guess I’d have to say that McMullin isn’t perfect on all of these issues for orthodox Catholics, but he still strikes me as the strongest among the third-party options,” Kengor said.

Stein, meanwhile, is pro-abortion rights and pro-same-sex “marriage” and has said she does not support retaining religious-freedom protections for business owners who deny services or goods to homosexual couples. For faithful Catholic voters, she is “out,” Kengor said.

 

Johnson’s Ambiguity and Ambivalence

Johnson has also staked out a similar position as Stein’s on the question of religious freedom and is also a supporter of same-sex “marriage.” On the other hand, Johnson has indicated that he would appoint the kinds of U.S. Supreme Court nominees that would be sympathetic to the concerns of social conservatives: those that base their decisions on the “original intent” of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, according to a July 29 report in The Daily Caller. (That same report indicated that his running mate, Weld, apparently had a more liberal approach to judicial issues.)

When it comes to abortion, Johnson seems to waver between ambivalence and ambiguity. His campaign website describes his position as follows: “On a personal level, Gary Johnson believes in the sanctity of the life of the unborn. As governor, he supported efforts to ban late-term abortions. However, Johnson recognizes that the right of a woman to choose is the law of the land, and has been for several decades. That right must be respected, and, despite his personal aversion to abortion, he believes that such a very personal and individual decision is best left to women and families, not the government.”

When he ran in 2012, he said Roe v. Wade should be overturned as a matter of constitutional law and the decision on abortion should be left to the states. But, in an interview with the Washington Examiner this summer, he said that Planned Parenthood v. Casey — a critical 1992 Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed Roe — should be allowed to stand. (The Casey decision specifically guarantees the right to abortion up to “the viability of the fetus,” Johnson noted.)

A spokesman for Johnson did not respond to a request for clarification on his views on abortion and constitutional law.

Said Pecknold, “Gary Johnson supports things such as abortion and legalized drugs and doesn’t support things like religious liberty. This should raise grave doubts for serious Catholics.”

 

Below the Debates Threshold

Johnson is currently polling at an average of 8.1% nationwide, and Stein is at 2.7%, according to RealClearPolitics.com, a site that tracks and amalgamates the rests of the more credible national polls. That left Clinton with a narrow lead of 42.7% and Trump at 40.3% on Sept. 25.

Johnson has been trying to hit the 15% mark, which would earn him a much-coveted spot in the presidential debates, according to the rules set by the Presidential Debate Commission. Both Johnson and Stein challenged the 15% rule in a lawsuit, but a federal judge quashed it at the end of August.

Stein appears to be peeling off supporters from Clinton. Johnson is expected to pick up some disaffected Republicans, but he is also taking some Clinton supporters. A report published in July on FiveThirtyEight, an independent site that tracks data and trends in politics, said Johnson was hurting both candidates.

“Johnson looks especially likely to peel votes from Clinton and Trump because he will probably achieve ballot access in all 50 states, which is unusual for a non-major-party candidate,” the report states. 

When Johnston and Stein are excluded from the picture, Clinton’s lead widened slightly to 45.8% against 43.4% for Trump in RealClearPolitics polling averages.

Additional Options

For Catholics still unsatisfied with these options, there are yet others. Pecknold pointed to two smaller third-party options. “The Constitution Party and the Solidarity Party both have acceptable platforms for faithful Catholics who can vote for their candidates,” Pecknold said.

The Constitution Party, whose goal, according to its website, is “to limit the federal government to its delegated, enumerated, constitutional functions,” is running a presidential candidate, Darrell Castle, a Memphis-based attorney. The party website indicates that his name will appear on about half of the ballots in November. The party’s platform calls for a return to constitutional governance, which includes pro-life and pro-traditional-marriage positions.

The American Solidarity Party is more explicit about its Christian roots. It has a platform that is pro-life and also calls for “the necessity of social justice, responsibility for the environment, and hopes for the possibility of a peaceful world.”

Its presidential candidate is Mike Maturen, an auto salesman and professional magician who has written a Catholic devotional. As of this writing, the party was still working to gain ballot access — or, failing that, at least recognition as an official write-in option — in a number of states. Maturen will appear on the ballot in at least one state: Colorado, which is one of the swing states in the election. 

There is yet one final option: writing in another candidate. Kengor said that’s what he plans to do, choosing from among the field of other Republican candidates who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination. (As of the time he was interviewed for this article, he had yet to decide on which one.)

 

The Obligation to Participate

Although the reins of government are likely to remain in the hands of the two majority parties, that shouldn’t stop conscience-driven Catholics from picking a third party or independent candidate, according to Pecknold.

“Catholics have a moral obligation to participate in the common good, and one important way we do this is by making moral decisions about those parties and candidates who will do the most good, and avoid the most evil, especially when it comes to protecting marriage, the unborn, the family and religious liberty,” he said. 

“In brief, Catholics need not stay home on Nov. 8, but neither should they feel that they must choose a ‘lesser evil’ if they do believe there is one,” Pecknold said. “It is always better to follow the light of conscience that is informed by faith, and so voting for a third party is less about casting a deciding vote and more about doing the right thing.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.