When I was in college, I worked on a couple of political campaigns. I had thought about getting involved in politics and was excited to work one summer as a grunt for a local candidate knocking on doors, writing postcards, and making cold calls. Sorry if you are one of the unfortunate individuals whose dinner I interrupted!
I worked with a number of young men and women who, like me, were enamored with political action. I have great memories of rainy afternoons talking about various political issues on which we had passionate views. While we were all being paid (barely!) to help one particular candidate get elected, we still had various disagreements about what issues were most important and why. It was a stimulating environment that helped this then 21-year-old kid hone and defend his political views.
I am a long way from this intense political involvement of my college years. But each of us, no matter our stage in life over 18, has a political responsibility for our nation. This involvement includes the responsibility to be actively engaged in the discussions and decisions about the best people to lead and the policies to be enacted for our local community, our state, and our country. We exercise this responsibility most acutely during election season. So, how can we best engage in this civic duty as joyful missionary disciples?
First, remember that your political identity is not the core of who you are. While the rhetoric around elections is often intentionally all-encompassing, as Catholics we have a deeper identity beyond whether we are Republican, Democrat, independent, or something else. Our identity is being a disciple of Jesus.
This can often feel like a less-than-satisfying answer in an environment that seems to demand total political allegiance. It should come as no surprise when we do not feel completely at home in any political party. As is often the case, the virtue of political engagement is the middle between two extremes. On one hand, we need to avoid too much engagement that we become defined by our political identity. On the other hand, we cannot simply “check out” because the process is too messy or nasty.
One way we can check this balance is by asking ourselves some questions: Are we spending more time watching TV news than we are praying or reading Scripture? When our faith and our political party are in tension, which one do we attempt to change? These questions are not meant to make us feel judged, but to help us reorient our lives to make Jesus the Lord of our lives.
Second, our Catholic faith must impact how we vote. Voting is a moral act. It is a value-based decision about the best person or the best course of action for our community, our state, or country. Voting is an exercise of our consciences, and therefore it has a serious moral impact. It is imperative for a disciple of Jesus to take this responsibility seriously because our elections have profound consequences.
Rarely does the Church tell us precisely how we should vote in a specific instance. Because it is an act of the conscience, we have the responsibility to be properly informed about the candidates and issues. But we also need to be properly formed by the Gospel. Part of this formation is understanding what the most important issues are. To this end, we have come to understand the preeminence of the protection of the right to life for the unborn in our society. I’ve written before why this issue has priority over other issues.
Because of this issue’s importance, the bishops of Michigan, led by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, are encouraging and inviting all Catholics and all men and women of goodwill to reject Proposal 3 in this election. There is a wealth of information about the more effective ways we can support women and children in our state rather than altering our constitution to allow unrestricted abortion until the time of birth.
Finally, while we know that the stakes can be high for our elections, we need to remember that politics necessarily involves compromise. We live in a diverse society with competing definitions of what is good for society. As Catholics, we know that fidelity to the Gospel does not restrict human freedom or human flourishing, but it enhances these goods. Jesus shows us most fully our human nature. Therefore, we can advocate that the goods we promote are in accord with the goods of a free society.
But politics always has to take into account what is possible. Sometimes working for the good requires incremental steps to success. Too frequently in our time, our political engagement is relegated to echo chambers where we talk to ourselves about the problem with “them” — those allied with opposing parties or issues. But political engagement for Catholics should draw us outside of ourselves to meet the “other.”
Meeting the political “other” means that we are willing to engage in good-faith conversations with people who disagree with us. It means that we are unafraid to be in dialogue with people who hold different sets of views and values, while being careful not to compromise what we believe and hold true. It really means that we are willing to talk to (not at) another person and listen to them. There are plenty of people who are not engaging in good-faith conversations — people who want to waste our time or suck our energy. These people can often be found on social media. But there are plenty of people who are open to hearing what we believe and are willing to share what they believe in a respectful way.
As we engage in politics as Catholics, we must remember that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12). Those who disagree with us are not “the enemy” but our brothers and sisters, our potential friends and allies. Demonization poisons real Christian engagement. Some people might hear this as minimizing the differences, as downplaying the importance of these issues. But we can understand the real stakes in issues like Proposal 3 without giving into a spirit of animosity towards those who disagree with us.
You may not be as excited for election season as I was in college. But if we joyfully engage with others (even those who disagree with us), if we allow our Christian formation to shape our moral choices as voters, and if we remember our primary identity in Christ, we can be joyful missionary disciples as voters.
Fr. Stephen Pullis is director of graduate pastoral formation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He formerly served as director of the Archdiocese of Detroit's Department of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship.