When I got off the train from work the other day, there were
a couple of people sitting at a card table registering voters for the upcoming
election. I had to fight a sudden urge
to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction.
Ten years ago, I would have been those people behind the
card table. At this time in 1996, I was in
doing GOTV work for the state AFL-CIO. I
spent two weeks eating cold pizza and doughnuts and telephoning as many union
members as I could
Politics was something I learned literally at my mother’s
knee. One of my earliest memories is my
mother taking me to an envelope stuffing session at a campaign office. The day I turned 18, she slapped a voter
registration card into my hand and said “fill this out.” I eventually followed in her footsteps, and
from 1988 through 2000, I dutifully volunteered for (or was assigned to) a campaign
every two years. For most of that
period, I lived in Washington,
DC, where we followed poll
results the way that baseball fans follow box scores.
So what happened? There was no single cause. The deepening of my faith in my 20s led me to
feel a greater tension between some positions taken by my political
party—positions that at one time I had shared—and those of my Church. But I felt no attraction to the opposition
either. I began to feel a sense of
political homelessness that many Catholics seem to share today.
But it wasn’t only that I had changed my mind on a few
As Lemony Snicket might say, this is not a story with a
things. I was also growing increasingly
disenchanted with the way that politics was being practiced, and at my role in
enabling that. Two decades of advocacy
for a variety of causes and candidates had turned me into a person who cared
more about winning than the truth. I
found myself writing talking points I no longer believed in and finding ways to
discount evidence that didn’t fit my preconceived worldview. I’d become an ideologue and after a campaign
where I was depressed after my candidate won,
I realized that it was time to get out.
happy ending. I’ve become so cynical and
suspicious of advocates for causes and candidates that sometimes I’m paralyzed
with indecision. I tend to assume that I’m
not getting the whole truth, and all too often I can find evidence to back that
up. Even when I see candidates and
elected officials embracing the things I believe in, I tend to grimace. I am certainly not recommending this as a
moral stance; it’s an emotional cul de
sac in which I seem to be caught.
In their statement Faithful Citizenship, the U.S.
bishops argue that participation in the political process is a “moral
obligation.” This may be true, but there
are moral dangers here too. You can get
so caught up with a cause, a candidate, or a party that you start shaving small
bits off the truth and sanding down the sharp edges of the Gospel.
In an election where issues of great moral
import—abortion, war, torture, poverty, marriage—are at stake, it may seem absurd
to suggest that there is something more important than who wins this November
or how these issues are dealt with in the months to come. But there is.
First and foremost, we need to be faithful and we need to be
truthful. We need to preach the fullness
of the Gospel, even if—perhaps especially if—it embarrasses our comrades and
gives comfort to our opponents. We need
to remain committed to the search for truth, even if the truth we discover
undermines our arguments. We need to
trust enough in eternal victory to risk temporal defeat.