The level of distaste for both major parties’ presidential candidates is at an historic high. In the midst of this discontent, the traces of two distorted approaches to voting have become clear.
One approach is to avoid voting altogether because of a dissatisfaction with the presidential candidates and an understandable (but incorrect) perception that all politicians are crooks, along with an attitude that voting doesn’t make much of a difference anyway.
The other extreme overstates the importance of voting, turning a weighty responsibility into a pseudo-sacrament, as though the establishment of the kingdom of God depended on picking the right candidate. Those with this mindset can easily fall into the trap of “putting their trust in princes,” leading to unrealistic expectations of a candidate’s capacity to do good and self-imposed blindness to his or her flaws.
The proper approach to voting is somewhere in between these extremes. It treats voting with the same measured perspective with which we are to consider other forms of political participation in a pluralistic, liberal democracy: as a prudent, practical engagement with an imperfect system for the sake of the common good.
A duty of charity
In their 2016 update of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops remind Catholics that “responsible citizenship is a virtue.” While political participation can and should take many forms, exercising the right to vote in a representative democracy is a privileged duty. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says it is “morally obligatory” (2240).
Why such strong language? The church teaches that we, as laypeople, are compelled by an evangelical mandate of charity to work for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. One form of this work includes advocating for policies that foster human dignity and the common good, and electing representatives who will prioritize these values.
Voting, though an imperfect system, is an important tool we can use to help shape the contours of our political landscape. Politics will not, nor does it aim to (properly understood), bring about the Kingdom, and voting will never put perfect candidates in office (because who is perfect?).
But if done in an informed and principled manner, your vote can be used to protect innocent human life and promote the conditions for all to flourish — or at least mitigate the political damage that can be done.
An imperfect system
The obligation to exercise one’s right to vote does not mean we are required to vote in every race or for only those candidates likely to win. “Faithful Citizenship” informs us that one “can take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate” if all candidates promote intrinsic evils. Sometimes the candidates are so flawed that it can be near impossible to reasonably discern who is the least-worst option.
But such a decision should not be undertaken lightly, and should only come after serious discernment and study. We should not be so naïve as to always expect perfect candidates with the right position on every issue or without any personal flaws, and then avoid voting generally because no one meets our exacting standards.
Even when one cannot in good conscience justify a vote in a particular race, we should remember that the ballot is full of important elections. Disgust with the presidential election by itself is not a good reason to stay home on Nov. 8.
We are called to be faithful citizens within an imperfect system, prudently using our vote to bring about a limited good as best we can. As an unknown church father wrote regarding the civic responsibilities of Christians, “So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.”
Jonathan Liedl is the communications manager of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota. This is the first of three “Faith in the Public Arena” columns focusing on November’s elections.