Faithful, informed Catholics in the United States are, in the words of John Carr, “politically homeless.” Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Catholic social teaching and the American political landscape can see this.
In recent years, Catholic teaching has been in favor of religious liberty, Palestinian statehood, subsidiarity for local solutions to problems, solidarity with the poor and marginalized around the world, the rights of immigrants, increased environmental protections, the dignity of laborers to organize into unions, expanded access to health insurance and Medicaid, the welfare of refugees, and the abolition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, Catholic teaching has been opposed to abortion, assisted suicide, the death penalty, the Iraq war, same-sex marriage, and forcing employers to offer insurance plans that cover contraception.
The lists could go on, as indeed they do in the bishops’ document, Faithful Citizenship. But with just the issues above, it’s plain to see that Catholic moral reasoning does not map on to the current American political grid. What then should Catholics do? What should be the final thought of the undecided American Catholic voter, behind the sacred veil of the voting booth?
Some Catholics react to their complicated political instincts by isolating one issue about which to make an electoral decision. At the national level, we find many “single-issue voters” on the topic of abortion. As a fundamental matter of life and death, one of the non-negotiables of Catholic moral teaching, it makes sense why many Catholics highlight abortion as a way to clear a path toward a conscience-protecting vote. But there are other non-negotiables in Faithful Citizenship too, such as torture and racism. And some Catholics also believe that recent uses of American military power, especially targeted killings through drone strikes or accidental bombings of allies, have crossed the line of non-negotiable moral teaching about the dignity of human life and the protection of noncombatants during war.
Concerning abortion, the current presidential election does not offer voters a moral distinction. Neither major party has put forward an acceptable candidate from the perspective of Catholic teaching—not Clinton, for obvious reasons, and not Trump because his position is unknowable, even to himself. His commentary on the issue is more vacillating and impenetrable than that of any other public figure, capped off last spring when he held five different positions on abortion over the course of three days.
On other central issues, the moral distinction between candidates and parties is also fuzzy. Religious liberty, for example, refers to conscience protections for hospital employees or private employers that contract with health insurance providers. But religious liberty also means defending the fundamental right of churches to exercise the sacraments and works of charity with undocumented immigrants. (These were the top two issues addressed by the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.) In addition, religious liberty must also mean the right of minority religions to build houses of worship and move about without fear of profiling by law enforcement or unlawful search and seizure.
What then should I ask myself in that voting booth? What examination of conscience honors Catholic teaching and the realities of American power? I first ask myself not what are the most important issues to me, but what are the most important issues of a particular election to a particular office. Second, I determine whether a particular issue is realistically within a particular candidate’s sphere of influence. Then, if still undecided, I have one ultimate question that always works.
The main issues of this presidential election season are, in no particular order: the economy, and whether or how to resolve its inequities; racist violence and concomitant social tensions; the plight of migrants; religious liberty in conflict with civil rights; and the ever-present question of how American military power is used or not.
But not all of these are within a president’s sphere of influence to the same degree. For example, the current conflicts of religious liberty with civil rights—whether those relating to same-sex marriage or the rights of minority religions—are going to be worked out over years and decades through our judicial system. A president’s power to affect these decisions is several degrees removed: the process of judicial openings, legislative approval, the emergence of relevant cases, and the final decisions are almost entirely outside a president’s sphere of influence, especially on just a four-year time table.
On the other hand, the issue of American military power is arguably the one most central to the presidency. The decisions about whether to use military power (jus ad bellum) and the manner in which to use it (jus in bello) are foundationally constitutive of the office. Should our military intervene in a foreign conflict? To what degree and in what ways are drone strikes morally acceptable? What is the appropriate response to the saber-rattling of a foreign dictator? What counts as torture, and is it ever justifiable?
Most presidential candidates will never have faced any of these decisions, and so the voter’s decision relies on limited evidence and the crucial assessment of temperament. And though Faithful Citizenship does say that voters should “take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue,” critics in these pages are correct to note that the bishops offer little guidance in assessing “the qualities of temperament and character that we should demand of our political leaders.” Very often “we need to choose between candidates, not between issues.”
The topic of presidential temperament leads to my ultimate question in the voting booth. Every four years, if I’m standing there waffling between imperfect choices, I ask myself a simple question: Which one do I trust with nuclear weapons?
It’s the ultimate question in two senses, being both the last one I ask myself and the one that, at any moment, could decide the ultimate fate of humanity. It’s perennially relevant and absolutely at the center of any president’s sphere of influence. According to nuclear security expert Bruce Blair, the American presidency “has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy. With a single phone call, the commander in chief has virtually unlimited power to rain down nuclear weapons on any adversarial regime and country at any time.”
In other words, any president of the United States has unilateral agency to arrogate to himself or herself the power to destroy the world—a power that should belong to God and God alone. Whom do you trust to have the power of God and not use it?