We find ourselves just under one year away from the official 2020 Election Day in America. Contemplating it from this vantage point, in the light of what seems to be in front of us, one searches for a reason to be hopeful. A statement of Saint John Paul II comes to mind from an address he gave in 2003 to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps, addressing the unfortunate reality of war: “War is always a defeat for humanity!” The question before us seems again to be: will the next election, especially for the United States Presidency, be a defeat for humanity?
Of Wars and Elections
Consider briefly the basis of this comparison. Does the Church acknowledge that war is sometimes necessary in our fallen world? Yes of course. Is it always accurate to say, with the late Pope, that war always bruises and scars the face of humanity, even when justified? Yes. Wars present real dilemmas to nations, leaders, soldiers, citizens about the difficult ethical questions of whether or not, and how, to wage them. It seems no matter which direction one leans, humanity is going to suffer for waging war; it also seems clear there is sometimes no avoiding it.
Are elections necessary? Yes, based on our current mode of governance in the West. Are they inevitably bruising defeats for humanity in their manner of being conducted? In a fallen world, even the most Christian election scenario is still going to leave a taint and do its share of damage. Do elections present real dilemmas of hard choices for nations, leaders, and citizens? In a fallen world, yes.
That being said, elections do not have to be defeats for humanity in the same way that war is. There ought to be enough of a broad-based, Christian-inspired cultural consensus on the meaning of personhood, on the nature of a just society, and on the proper role of government that an election isn’t an occasion for a civil war. Similarly, there ought to be a large, critical mass of citizens who are well-schooled in civility, ethics, the art of governance, and the practice of right judgement so that an election is not a brawl. Similarly, there ought to be at least a handful of qualified leaders to choose from who are good examples of integrity, as well as compromise, so that elections do not inevitably result in the selection of dysfunctional leaders. Indeed it is true that the creation of such a favorable atmosphere takes genuine dedication, labor, and sacrifice on the part of a whole nation that rests firmly on the principles of Divine Revelation. While not easy, such a setting is not out of the realm of the possible, even in a fallen world.
The Unavoidable Dilemma of Defeat
Election 2020 finds us miles and miles away from the essential ingredients listed above that are required to avoid a defeat for humanity. Our electoral moment is not unlike staring an inevitable war in the face, realizing we have no choice but to fight in it, facing impossible choices along the way, and knowing when it is all over, we are all just going to lose.
When it comes to the Democratic Party platform and its current main front runners for presidential office, it is impossible to ignore their increasingly strident stance against traditional Christian values and worldview. One is aware that, barring a miracle, should a Democrat become president, it will bring systematic and organized hostility to the Christian community in America. The message of the Gospel, with its specific implications for how we are to properly understand the nature of men, women, gender, marriage, children, and families, along with its mandate to publicly shape the fabric of society in accord with these truths, is directly at odds with the stated agendas of the modern Democratic Party in America. These are truths that are at the very core of what it means to be a human and to live in society. A Democratic victory in 2020 leaves humanity defeated, if they put into practice the message on which they are campaigning.
When it comes to the Republican Party, certain elements of the party platform are, on the surface, less overtly hostile to the same principles of human life noted above. However, the agenda of the party as it is often articulated does not offer a systematic defense of the above principles either. There are powerful segments of the Republican establishment that appear to subject what should be non-negotiable principles of life and human dignity to the more powerful forces of simple economics.
The above would be true whether President Trump is again the Republican nominee, or if he is not. As of today, odds are that he will be the nominee. In which case, his re-election will also be a defeat for humanity, based simply on the objective standards of good and decent behavior. It is impossible to deny that his manner of expressing himself, and his style of public example (legal questions aside) are a disgrace, especially for the leader of our nation. As a nation we need to be able to freely admit this is an objective fact. His ongoing occupation of the Oval Office, simply in virtue of his disposition, barring a miracle, is a defeat for civil social discourse.
So, we are facing yet another election year when the choices we have in front of us are not really choices at all. What a defeat for humanity indeed.
Such defeats lead to the uncomfortable realities of Christians becoming very strident defenders of one side or another, which tends to happen when one’s defense is knowingly weak, and when one has no real options, leading to a decline of civility and reason all around. It’s not unlike a war zone.
Engaging the Election 2020 Dilemma with Grace: Some Points
What does one do? Perhaps one sits out the election entirely, like a conscientious objector sits out a war. If that is where one’s conscience sincerely leads them, it is understandable. However, such a stance has its own problematic implications and effects, and such a person has to wrestle with the fact that everyone else is getting his or her hands dirty. Totally “clean” living from the taint of the culture, even corrupt ones, is something of a luxury in a fallen world such as ours.
Assuming an inevitable engagement with the American two party system as it currently exists, some principles and behaviors are critical on the part of men and women of faith.
Everyone needs to begin by acknowledging that no good Christian can defend either of the two major party choices in this election without some type of qualifier or lament. Just like no one should be excited about wars, even the necessary ones, no one should be overjoyed at their vote in the 2020 Presidential Election. The note of lament is important as a way to tone-down the frequently rough rhetoric in our discourse, it is intellectually honest about the objective problems with each side, and it is a spiritual opening to receive God’s grace that needs to move us, personally and collectively, to a better cultural reality than the one we currently have.
Secondly, it is very important to be very well informed of accurate Catholic teaching on the major questions of our cultural moment. I will grant that it is not easy to know which voices in the Church to trust on these matters. Nonetheless, our traditional teachings, most especially on the areas of personhood, are consistently clear throughout the ages which makes them easily identifiable.
Additionally, it is important to be passionate advocates for specific issues and ideas, rather than for parties and platforms. A faithful Christian and Catholic is likely going to find themselves very passionate about positions, or policies advocated by each major party. Such a parceled approach leads to more critical and nuanced thinking about complex issues, and it allows one to have to weigh more effectively the moral dilemma posed by two unappealing options, as one weighs the issues carefully.
Cultural Transformation Is The Goal. Prayer is the First Step
Being passionate about issues as they are informed by the light of Divine Revelation eventually alters the public discourse away from the status quo two party scenario that drives so much of the debate today. What must replace this are re-shaped parties, re-shaped platforms, and re-shaped candidates who are more accurate reflections of the full breadth of the Gospel.
At the core, if our elections are to be something better than repeated defeats for humanity, then each of us needs to seriously commit ourselves to praying for our nation, for our parties, for our candidates, and for a conversion of heart. We all need to give ourselves the freedom to think outside the broken boxes of the current electoral reality, going in search of new alignments around issues that will produce authentically Christian options for governance. We need to share with others around us a re-imagined vision of what our political landscape can look like so that, more and more, it becomes concrete reality rather than a mere mental theory.
Elections do not have to be defeats for humanity. Yet, without all the serious personal and cultural conversion that is required by the Gospel, our elections will only bring defeats, rather than victories.
Off to war we go in 2020, and it will be brutal. God is eager to teach us lessons from our defeats, and if we do learn from them, in accord with his grace, then there is always hope for 2024.