The Perils of Religious Voting

I stumbled across an interesting set of directives to Catholic voters entitled A Brief Catechism for Catholic Voters. It’s written by a Catholic clergyman with a PhD and it’s posted on a website that looks pretty darned Catholic, so I’ll take it as a fair expression of conservative Catholic thinking on this tricky issue of church and state. Mormons, too, like to mix religion with their politics, but sometimes we see our own difficulties more clearly by viewing someone else’s. So here are some highlights (quotes in italics, my comments afterwards) from the fourteen numbered paragraphs in the article.

3. If a political candidate supported abortion, or any other moral evil, such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, for that matter, it would not be morally permissible for you to vote for that person. This is because, in voting for such a person, you would become an accomplice in the moral evil at issue. No, voting for a pro-abortion candidate is not morally equivalent to choosing or assisting with an abortion. If it were, then so would a lot of things be too: fixing the car of a pro-abortion person, selling a house to a pro-abortion person, coaching their kids in Little League, even just saying “Good morning” as opposed to “One day you will burn in hell” or some similar benediction could be “assisting.” Making abortion a controlling litmus test for voting debases voting and undermines the polity.

7. A candidate for office who says that he is personally opposed to abortion but actually votes in favor of it is either fooling himself or trying to fool you. . . . If you vote for such a candidate, you would be an accomplice in advancing the moral evil of abortion. Therefore, it is not morally permissible to vote for such a candidate for office. This attempts to deny Catholic politicians the possibility of separating their political sense of duty from their personal sense of religious obligation. Didn’t Catholics figure this out with Kennedy in 1960? He said (in no uncertain terms) that as President he wouldn’t take orders from the Vatican–would he have been elected if he had said the contrary? We expect politicians to represent all voters and act with an eye to the diverse views of their constituents and the public good, not simply enact their own personal moral agenda.

In paragraph 10, the author opines that if the choice is between two (or several) candidates who are all pro-abortion, one need not withhold one’s vote, but should instead vote for the candidate who “would do the least moral harm.” That seems like a better and more general principle to follow in every case: vote for the guy who will do the least (moral) harm. In paragraph 14, the author holds out that knowingly voting for a pro-abortion candidate is a mortal sin (in Catholic theology, a sin which kills the spiritual life of the soul and deprives a person of salvation, unless he repents). All this Catholic angst over voting is a reminder of how authoritarian and how thoroughly opposed to political liberalism was Catholicism in the 19th century. Echoes persist.

So are there any pitfalls here that LDS leaders and voters can avoid? I’ll note that LDS leaders have consistently worked hard to avoid endorsing specific candidates or getting embroiled in political disputes. Yet, it feels like the Church is becoming more politicized recently. The times they are a-changing. What think ye?


  1. > Inasmuch as abortion was
    > constitutionalized by Court
    > declaration, your argument seems
    > disingenuous–all the Christians,
    > Jews, and Muslims in the US could
    > vote against abortion and it would
    > still be protected.

    Your argument is not very convincing. Assume all the Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the U.S. voted for strongly anti-abortion candidates after 1973 (when Roe v. Wade was decided.)

    What would have been the chances that a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution would have received 2/3 of the vote in House and Senate, and been ratified by 3/4 of the states? Pretty good, I’d say.

    But we don’t even need an Amendment. Bork would have been on the Supreme Court instead of Kennedy. Souter would probably not have been nominated, and Ginsburg and Breyer definitely would not have. Roe v. Wade would have been overturned long ago.

    Note that I’m not advocating any position here; I’m just pointing out that your analysis is flawed, since you assume Supreme Court decisions cannot be overturned by the actions of voters. They can, given large enough majorities of voters over a long enough time.

  2. dave: ‘real’ politics is as you describe it. however, i’m not so sure that single issue voting isn’t a better ‘politics’ than the real one that requires the sacrifice of millions of babies. now, Mormon theology doesn’t necessarily see abortion as murder; but…

    I guess I haven’t seen anyone actually try to rebut the idea that ‘the problem’ you are addressing is minor compared to the lost lives that would have been saved if Catholics would vote with their theology re: abortion, etc.

    i’ll concede this could cut both ways re: abortion, stem cell, war, death penalty & euthenasia.

    frankly: i think the world would be a better place/I’d rather deal with ‘single issue’ politics a la Israel’s current splintered proportional voting form of government. lives saved over ‘liberal’ diversity…

  3. Eric,
    Good point. I’m not sure that an amendment would have happened, but, as you point out, it’s at least conceivable.

    I guess what I consider the more important point is that single-issue voting is a lot pricklier than it seems, at least to me.

    I’ve been thinking about hypothetical politicians, and can’t come up with any all-good-except-pro-abortion (because I doubt Mother Theresa or the prophet is pro-abortion). If I have to follow the author’s position, in a race between David Duke (whom I dislike and disagree with) and John McCain (whom I like a lot), if Duke were anti-abortion and McCain were pro-abortion (neither of which I know, so I’m assigning them convenient positions for my hypo), I couldn’t take into account Duke’s extremism and racism, nor McCain’s moderation and good sense. Which hurts my analysis. I may not like abortion–I may see it, individually, as the worst possible policy–but I’m not sure it, alone, outweighs every other potential policy out there. In this case, I think the harm to religion and racial relations would be vastly worse than someone who doesn’t campaign hard to end legal abortion. But if I’m so focused on one thing, I can’t balance the other relevant factors.

    For what that’s worth.

  4. Former NY Gov. Mario Cuomo spoke about being a believing Catholic and a politician in a speech to Notre Dame in 1984. When I heard him talk about the speech, he says he had several Bishops look at it, and they all assured him (despite his claim that it’s not a theological speech) that it was accurate. He references the same sort of debate in the Catholic Church 20 years ago, with a claim made that practicing Catholics couldn’t vote for people who supported abortion. I haven’t read all of the speech, but it’s worth taking a look at, and it’s worth considering, I believe, as we think about how our LDS beliefs can interact with our public voting and beliefs (just in case you don’t want to read the article, Gov. Cuomo is a Democrat and doesn’t believe in outlawing contraception or abortion).

    You can read his speech here.

  5. I just wonder how long I’ll have to wait until it’s announced that voting for the Bush regime again would end up making the voter an accomplice in advancing the moral evil of war and/or aggression.

    I don’t suppose I should hold my breath.

  6. Lyle,
    Inasmuch as abortion was constitutionalized by Court declaration, your argument seems disingenuous–all the Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the US could vote against abortion and it would still be protected. Whether Court mandate is a good thing is a separate question, not so relevant to this thread, I think.

    Neither Gov. Cuomo, nor anybody else, I think, would advise against voting according to your religious beliefs. Religious beliefs are an essential part of how we who are religious make our decisions. My problem is when someone tells me _what_ my religious beliefs are and how to vote them, which seems to be what this website Dave found does. It reminds me of Utah politicians, after the Tribune ran an article with a member of the Seventy (Elder Jensen? I can’t remember–it’s been a long time) where he said you could be a good member and a Democrat, came out and said you absolutely couldn’t. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes we have to make choices between two imperfect solutions. I think the danger of single-issue voting is that, by so doing, we fail to recognize the real, actual choice we’re making, letting our default be the person who opposes abortion/opposes SSM/favors universal health care/etc. Not that any of these issues is inherently bad, but what else does the person we’re voting for based on one issue support?

  7. Lyle, actually religion being “just as important and valid” as any other factor is a broad and general approach that sounds a lot like the general standard hinted at in the article: vote for the candidate who will do the least (moral) harm. No one is saying religion can’t be a factor that people take into account.

    I think the problem comes when people, parties, or churches push single-issue politics. The single issue is generally held out as the most important thing in the world, so important that no compromise is even conceivable and (of course) no critical discussion of the sacred cow is tolerated either. Single-issue, no-compromise politics is the antithesis of “real politics,” which thrives on a willingness to recognize the legitimacy of diverse interests and viewpoints, and pursue attainable social goals through compromise.

  8. Hellmut Lotz says:

    Mark is right. There is more to the gospel than abortion. Especially when the Pope was so explicitly against this war.

    The timing of the marriage endorsement and the scheduling of the debate on the Senate floor appeared to be coordinated. The church operates at some level more in terms of “faith-promoting” rumors.” It is therefore not necessary to endorse candidates explicitly. Remember the story of President Benson to whom the statement was attributed that he could not understand how any Mormon could be a Democrat? I have never seen a source for this statement. But it is also true that Benson never denied it, even though this story spread through the entire church and was even reported in foreign language print media. I also remember being an exchange student in Eastern Nevada in 1980. All Mormons talked about was busing though there was not a single African American living in that school district. Another “faith-promoting” rumor was the story of a white bride who was challenged three times by her sealer before she broke down and admitted a distant black ancestor. Those kind of stories are much more revealing than the endorsements of the PR types.
    The by-elections in Kentucky and South Dakota have demonstrated that the Bushies are in trouble, that includes conservative, rural, anti-establishment parts of the country. The church has been holding Bush’s stirup when it came to changing the debate from the war to cultural issues. De facto, many Mormons will interpret it as an endorsement of Bush.

  9. Matt Evans says:

    Most of the comments thus far do not appreciate the depth of Catholocism’s condemnation of abortion. The Catholic church teaches that abortion is *murder* — a murder which is perpetrated against members of a narrow class of human beings.

    If the Supreme Court held that the state could not prosecute one million annual murders of another narrow class of human beings, African-Americans, for example, I think most of the commenters would instantly advocate single-issue voting, and understand why the other differences distinguishing American politicians are gnats by comparison.

  10. Kristine says:

    My problem with single-issue voting on abortion is that I don’t think it is or can be a single issue. If you save all those unborn babies, you inevitably create a huge number of policy problems. This country is already incredibly inhospitable to children: we don’t provide them with decent housing, nutrition, healthcare, or education, and it seems crazy to me to ignore all of those issues in order to assure the birth of millions more children into such a hostile environment. When I see a pro-life candidate who also includes as a major part of her/his agenda making sure that no American child will go hungry, doubling U.S. teachers’ salaries, and providing universally excellent early childhood care, I’ll become a pro-life voter. In short, I’d like to be able to vote for pro-child candidates, rather than anti-abortion candidates.

  11. Obviously, abortion is a topic that many people have very strong feelings on–just the kind of issue that seduces people into becoming single-issue voters. I won’t make this an abortion thread–Matt’s veiled reference to slavery reminds us that slavery, too, as a single issue, dominated voting by citizens and legislators from the South for two generations. Which cautions us that some single issues perhaps merit extreme attention.

    On the other hand, consider animal rights and environmental issues, which have become single issues for a small slice of the electorate. I think Communism was something like a single issue for some conservative voters during the first half of the Cold War.

    What do the backers of these single issues share in common? Generally, an overly simplified, good-guys-versus-bad-guys view of politics that substitutes demonizing anyone who doesn’t share the narrow view of the single-issue party for a more mature political approach to public policy. How could anyone not be shocked and galvanized by the the annual slaughter of millions of defenseless animals just to make better cosmetics or fancier pharmaceuticals for fat, greedy capitalists? How can the literally inestimable threat of global warming not overshadow any other possible issue on the political agenda? How can any red-blooded American not be deeply concerned about the national threat posed by runaway salary inflation in baseball, an American institution as deeply ingrained as Mom and apple pie? It’s easier to get a sense of the hype when you listen to someone else’s issue.

  12. of course, there is always the unpopular possibility that if Catholics/Mormons followed this type of advice…

    Abortion would still be illegal
    & millions of spirits would have begun their mortal probation…

    Of course, y’all know that I’m biased in favor of religion being _just as_ important & valid a factor in voting/candidates as any other.

  13. Hellmut Lotz says:

    Politics is the art of the possible. We need to decide which issues are the most urgent. In light of a missmanaged war, torture and sodomy in our name, a ballooning federal deficit, escalating health care and education costs, social issues should not distract us from the welfare of our children.

    Those who doubt that the American republic is on the line during our life time, may want to read Kevin Phillips’ book “Wealth and Democracy.” Phillips was the campaign strategist of Nixon who predicted the rise of Ronald Reagan in “The Emerging Republican Majority” during the early seventies. His research is meticulous and his analysis incisive.

  14. Hellmut Lotz says:

    Sam makes a good point. Adolf Hitler would be a real life case of an evil person who opposed abortion. Hitler did not drink, did not smoke and did not whore. He was charming and treated his subordinates, secretaries and drivers, exceptionally well. It takes more than a check list to determine evil.

    The military leader of the German resistance, Field Marshall v. Witzleben refused to cooperate with the German intelligence commander in Belgium (against Hitler) because the intelligence officer had an extramarital affair.

    Another interesting case is French politics during the Dreyfus Affair. Eventually the anti-semitic caballe undermined the republican order, almost briniging Bourbon, Orleans, and Napoleonic monarchists to power. Republicans of all stripes had to accept the leadership of the socialists to preserve the constitution against reactionary catholics, the military, and racists. (If you don’t know about the Dreyfus Affair you may want to google Emile Zola’s famous J’accuse. I promise it is worth your while. You will find one of the most important and poetic pieces of political oratory. The best, next to Lincoln . . .).

  15. Sorry–just to clarify: even though I haven’t been creative enough to take this past abortion, I don’t mean for my argument to be just abortion. I think the same applies for single-issue voting about war or welfare or federalism or whatever a person’s favorite topic is (for me, abortion is a non-issue politically, because I don’t see it being changed in the near future; I personally have other pet topics). No government spend all of it’s time on one thing, and I think to be valuable voters, we have to at least evaluate other issues.

    And now I’m late to church.

  16. Steve,
    Even if it’s not representative of Catholic theology, it presents a vocal and present force in current US Catholicism, forcing Catholics to decide what weight to give certain policies in voting and as public officials. Certainly, the Catholics have more big-name Democrats than we do, and so seem to have more experience reconciling their theological opposition to, e.g., birth control and abortion, with a party affiliation that supports such things.

    Which makes the Catholic analogy valuable to us as liberal LDS; how can I justify supporting politicians who support abortion with the fact that I’m a believing Mormon who personally thinks abortion is a horrible thing? The LDS church has the same vocal segment (think Meridian and plenty of posters elsewhere in the Bloggernacle) who, I think, would insist that such support was fundamentally incompatible with my beliefs and religion, and I think they’re wrong. But it’s interesting to see how other believing groups have worked through the tension, and what conclusions they’ve come to (and how parts of that group, like ours, still tries to claim the authority of the Church in support of their political beliefs).

  17. Thanks for the support, Sam. I figured some people would find the comparison interesting. I haven’t read the Cuomo speech yet, but it’s not surprising that he (a high-profile Catholic politician) has wrestled with this issue himself. I imagine Justice Scalia has made comments somewhere, too.

    I’m leery of any argument that starts out, “We believe . . .” and ends up with “therefore, we must vote for . . .” I see “the morality of voting” or of public policy or of foreign relations as much more complicated and elusive than the analogy to simple personal morality suggests or justifies.

  18. To what extent can we really take this to be representative of Catholic theology? I admit I’m no expert…

  19. Yeah, as others have mentioned, it seems like voting has a lot more to do with what moral issues you place your emphasis on far more than it does your overall religion.

    If your focus is on gay marriage, abortion, etc., then you’ll probably be voting a more conservative line. If your morals emphasize pacifism, social programs and benefits for the poor, etc., then you’ll most likely be voting a more liberal line. It does seem like Mormons and non-Mormons alike could find plenty of justification in their religious teachings to vote for either candidate or party.

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